Ahead of the release of Maps of Injury, her latest collection of poems, Chera Hammons spoke with editorial intern Kanika Lawton. Here, they discussed living with chronic illness, the relationship between memory and pain, our responsibility to each other and the creatures we share the earth with, as well as the importance of holding onto the unknown beauty of tomorrow.
Kanika Lawton: What are “maps of injury,” and what can they show us?
Chera Hammons: I hope that the poems in this collection are broad enough for readers to be reminded of and accept, in a healing way, their own versions of maps of injury, whatever they may be. But “maps of injury,” to me, are the physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that mark a body’s history, while also forming certain boundaries that had to be crossed in order for life to continue. In that way, they can show progress.
There are large chunks of my life I can’t remember because of my illness, and though I do remember some moments of intense happiness, most of what I can remember is accessible to me because it was frightening or sad enough to make an impression. I wish it weren’t that way, but I’ve read that it’s human nature; we remember the things that hurt us so that we can avoid them in the future. With the neurological issues inherent in Lyme disease, I forget a lot of information nearly as soon as I learn it. My attention span has gotten much, much shorter as time has passed. Because my memory is so bad, I sometimes can’t remember what happened at the beginning of a movie well enough to care about the end.
In “Black Horse I am Breaking,” near the end of the book, there’s a line about making each day “leave its own bruise.” I feel like the book is, in a way, an effort to remember and reclaim some of the occurrences that would usually be viewed as negative and use them, instead, as another way to mark passage. A way to keep moving ahead, to not get stuck.
KL: Maps of Injury is split into sections such as “Skin and Limb” and “Heart; Stomach.” How did you determine which poems belonged in each section?
CH: Arranging a manuscript is part of the poetry process I really enjoy. It’s sort of like a making a mixtape, but with more complexity and higher stakes. I also feel like most of my poems are stronger with their companions than they are alone.
I wanted to introduce the illness, which was the framework for the rest, early on. So I strove to put the diagnosis-type poems in the first half of the manuscript. And the second has the aftermath poems—the realizations and the consequences, and learning to live with them.
The horse poems go in chronological order, as far as the training process is concerned, ending with the horse’s first ride.
I always try to design my poetry collections to tell a story that has some kind of resolution. Some of the arrangement of the book was straightforward. For example, it’s obvious that the poem “Ribs” belongs in the section called Bone. I think anyone who looks will find clues in each poem for why it is where it is, though interested parties should know that, if a poem could fit into two sections but contributed more to the narrative arc in one section than another, that’s the one it went into.
KL: Jan Clausen writes that your words have a “faithfulness that feels devotional,” and I agree. Tell me more about your use of faith in this collection.
CH: I grew up in the thick of the Bible Belt, so of course the first thing that comes to mind with this question is the religious faith that is alluded to in this book, especially as it shows up in poems like “Calling In,” “Bible Belt,” “Youth Group,” “Shriven,” and “New Hay.”
I don’t think Jan Clausen (who is a wonderful person and writer—everyone should read her work!) was referring to religious faith, though. I think the “faithfulness that feels devotional” is a really lovely way of saying the poems look reverently and intensely at a very few, really important things. I am devoted to certain entities—my loved ones, my home, my horses—for which I’d do just about anything. I am glad that some of what could have come across as an abundance of fervor or even obsession on the speaker’s part was viewed with kindness and understanding, more in line with the root of the devotion itself, with how I do actually want to hold what I value.
KL: Throughout these poems animals die at the hands of humans, such as the deer and rabbits struck by passing cars. How did you weave their stories into a grander narrative on mortality?
CH: No matter what sort of life a person lives, it would be impossible to live one that was either all good or all bad. We are all going to do some damage, even if it’s inadvertent. We might as well come to terms with it and try to do our best anyway. The animals are put at risk unintentionally or through carelessness, not through active malice—the rabbits hit by cars, the livestock caught in fires, the horses abandoned during the floods. And where possible, people try to save them, even if doing so risks their own lives.
The bigger context of this is that we all have a responsibility to each other in life and in death. That we are to take whatever care we can to avoid causing damage, and to mitigate it when we see it.
I will admit, too, that I find it comforting that the same thing happens to all of us. Person or animal, we all experience the same phenomenon. Let us, for that reason and many others, be merciful.
KL: How did you thread different types of tragedies together, such as the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster? What was your composition process like?
CH: I was probably about halfway through writing the poems in the book before I realized quite what I was doing, that I was leaving markers throughout my own history based on some of the scars I had, but that I wasn’t thinking of that kind of trauma as negative, per se—It was simply a way to remember, to try to hold onto what I had experienced, and to try to plan ahead. I kept thinking, if my illness had been diagnosed earlier, who knows how my experience would have been different? Who knows what I might have been able to do? Or where I’d be? Whether I would have been happier than I am now, or perhaps not as happy?
I found that living with illness, especially early in the treatment process, made my world very small. If you’re in pain, it’s hard to focus on anything but your pain. But sometimes something would happen that cut through the fog unexpectedly, like the Germanwings disaster, and remind me that the world was bigger than what I saw around me every day. Had more people in it than those in my tiny circle. And those moments were of vital importance for so many reasons, not least because that they reminded me of the larger context of life, and both my significance and insignificance within it. How so many people are trying to help others, and so many are grieving; the comfort in knowing you aren’t the first person to arrive in a place; how important kindness is, because you never know what’s going on in another person’s life.
I was echoing my own experience through writing the wider disaster poems—the sudden and unpredictable jarring out of what I’d come to accept, like moving through trees into a clearing. They added a scope I felt was vital to what I wanted to accomplish with the book.
KL: You speak about living in a harsh environment where “everything is against us,” yet you do not leave. What does it mean to be tied to your home, even when it no longer feels like one?
CH: I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my home. I love the wide open sky, the fascinating plants and animals that have adapted to live here, the rainbow grasshoppers and pronghorns and horned lizards and yuccas. The harsh weather that scours the prairie, the way you can see for miles—I think those things give people who live in the Texas Panhandle qualities of practicality and tenacity. But I have never felt at all like I fit in here, just like I often don’t feel like I belong in my unwieldy body. I can love where I live, though, despite the imperfections. My home is what I know, what I have, and where I have invested my time and heart and energy. My relationship with it is as alive as my relationships with people I hold dear. If I wouldn’t abandon a person or an animal that I love, why would I abandon a place? There’s a Cavafy poem I’ve always appreciated called “The City” that says, “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. / This city will always pursue you.” This place will always be with me; I can’t change that.
Who’s to say I would feel at home anywhere, if not here? Doesn’t this place need people who care about it? In the words of the wise poet Maggie Smith, “[We] could make this place beautiful.”
KL: Can you speak about the horses that populate this book, especially the black colt?
CH: When I realized I was seriously ill, but I didn’t know the reason, I began to mark things off my “bucket list.” Besides writing a novel, riding a Friesian (those big black horses with feathered legs one always sees in movies), and holding a falcon, I had always wanted to break my own horse to ride. The kind local people who let me ride their Friesian mare also raised registered Tennessee Walking Horses. One of the horses I lingered over was a beautiful solid black yearling colt with an Alaska-shaped star and a forelock floating like a storm cloud above his eyes. He was sweet tempered and beautiful. I had always wanted a horse like him. When they said they were only asking a few hundred dollars for him, I nearly fainted. I had a decently paying job at the time, and though I was worried about being able to keep it, a few hundred dollars was something I could handle just then. I rode the colt’s sire before I bought the colt and as I felt his canter sweep underneath me I thought, If that colt turns out anything like this horse, he’ll be the nicest horse I’ve ever had.
I named the colt Rocket because he had a habit of launching himself straight into the air when he was playing. I spent every spare moment with him and was so careful with how I handled him. He had never been afraid of people and I never wanted him to learn that kind of fear. I wanted him to be my riding horse for a long, long time— however long I had, at least. But something always bothered me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d stay up for hours every night worrying about him in the dark pasture outside. The first thing I did every morning was check on him and make sure he was okay.
As training progressed, our relationship grew into one where we could have conversations. And I could tell Rocket to do something (“Go over there and pick up that tarp!”) and he’d do it, even though I had never taught him to do it. It was uncanny. I knew without a doubt that that he loved me.
I began riding him at two and a half and the breaking process, though I was nervous about it, was uneventful. He was one of those horses cowboys say are “born broke.” I only rode him for 10 or 15 minutes at a time at a walk, partly because that was all I could handle myself, and I didn’t want to push him, anyway. But even though he was wonderfully gentle, he felt so unsteady. Ever since I’d gotten him, I’d stand at the windows and watch him playing in the pasture and often saw him fall. He’d get right back up, but I was uneasy. He began to toss his head under saddle or to balk when I asked him to walk out. I knew he was a willing horse, so I never thought it was a behavioral issue. Something had to be wrong.
I had a chiropractor look at him and she said he had bone calcification in one shoulder and marked it as a grade one lameness. He had no back soreness, only soreness in his hips. “What would cause that?” I asked. “Learning to collect. Learning to carry himself,” she told me.
The taller Rocket got, the worse his symptoms got. At three, we started gaiting under saddle, and it was glorious. He gaited just like his sire. He was silky smooth and actually easy for me to ride. But he also started to tell me “no” when I asked him to do things. And there was obvious weakness in his back end. Sometimes his fetlock would knuckle under; it felt like he had stepped in a hole.
I had lots of people out to look at him, including his breeder, and everyone told me that it was just young horse weakness, young horse lack of balance—he’d grow out of it. I quit riding him until I could figure out what was going on. This was sad for us both; he loved working, and he got depressed when we stopped. But I didn’t want to work him if he was in pain.
Eventually a veterinarian came out and did a neurological exam based on a video I had sent. We ruled out EPM and eventually realized what he had must be mild Wobblers Syndrome, a calcification of the spine that causes pressure on the spinal column. He had been falling because he couldn’t feel his legs, and the taller he grew, the more pressure was placed on the spinal column. Geldings are predisposed to it, as are Tennessee Walkers, and horses with long necks, and horses with line breeding. He had all the risk factors; he never had a chance. The surgery would cost about what a new car would have and only provided a 50% chance of recovery, so it was out of the question. Rocket wasn’t generally in pain, though he was uncomfortable carrying weight, and he wouldn’t ever be safe to ride because he could fall on his rider.
My parents, who live a few miles south of me and have a soft, grassy, flat pasture (as opposed to our rocky, hilly one) agreed to take him in for me because I was worried about him hurting himself on the rocks at our place. We ended up having to lift his legs into the trailer with our hands and with ropes because he couldn’t judge how high to step up into it. He was patient and good, as he always had been. We took his best donkey friend to my parents’ with him so that he would have company. He and the donkey are both alive and well, though I haven’t gotten to see them much the last few months—I often feel too overwhelmed to make it there.
I can’t read that poem—the “Black Horse I am Breaking” poem—out loud because I wrote it after our first ride, it has such hope in it, and I know how it turned out. But that doesn’t invalidate the poem. You never know exactly what is going to happen when you try something new, something that matters to you. Everything has a risk attached to it. That something might fail is no reason not to try it. I would take this journey with Rocket again in a second. My time with him as my riding partner was brief but golden, made me feel more capable and less alone than I was used to feeling. He taught me some of the skills I’ll need again when I start breaking my formerly wild mustang mare to ride—she is a lovely creature, but unusually smart, sassy, bossy, and far less patient than Rocket was.
KL: Does your work reflect an attempt to hold onto hope in the face of uncertainty and pain?
CH: Oh, yes. I wrote the majority of this book frantically. I was having a lot of cardiac issues and didn’t know why, at first; I really believed I wouldn’t live to finish writing it. Besides that, my ability to think and make connections became less and less reliable. I remember telling one of my previous doctors, who kept telling me that the cause of my symptoms was depression, that I couldn’t think anymore, and the panic I felt when he laughed at me for saying that, as if it were a joke. As if it were normal. It was terrifying. I couldn’t orient myself to anything around me. When the brain fog eased occasionally for an hour or two I had to write as much as I could as quickly as I could, because I never knew when I’d be able to do so again.
Eventually I found out what was wrong and had to start living with the diagnosis, understanding what it meant. Some of the things in my past began to make sense. I had been sick for a long time, nearly as long as I could remember, but I had reached a point where I just couldn’t keep going anymore. My whole world seemed like it had fallen down around me, and I felt like I couldn’t control anything, that I was a burden to those I loved. I had to quit my job as a college instructor, which I had worked towards for a long time after years working in IT and accounting jobs, because I stopped being able to drive, and I was so exhausted, I couldn’t remember what I had said in class, or who people were, or even where I lived. I realized how bad it had gotten one day when I got home and passed out in my car in the garage. My husband Daniel found me when he came home. I couldn’t explain why I was there; I had just been so tired. Fortunately I had turned off the car before falling asleep. I didn’t remember it. Every day became such a struggle that, for a long time, I had to consciously find reasons to keep going. I kept a list of them. For a time, that list was only my husband, my parents, and my horses, and sometimes I still felt very distant from them.
I wrote this book for several reasons. The first couple are selfish ones, and they are:1. I write in order to understand my world and what happens in it. To process it. So writing helped me to understand what was happening; and 2. I didn’t trust my brain to keep holding memories or impressions, and I wanted to get some of them on paper. As I got a bit into it and found out that individual poems were being used by doctors in the Mayo Clinic and at medical school residences, I realized that the book could help other people going through the same thing I was to feel less alone, because illness can be so isolating. But really there are many of us, and our lives are meaningful and valuable, even if we have to step back for a while and take a breath. I also hoped it would build some understanding for people with illness like this by showing, albeit in a small, personal way, what living with illness is like.
I think sometimes of how often I have wanted to quit, how hard I have held onto what I could without sometimes even knowing why, and why I’m glad I am here. Beautiful unforeseeable things happen every day. I think that this struggle is one worth enduring.
KL: What do you mean by “let the dangerous world in,” and how can we do that?
CH: About a million things come to mind, but I think, for me, it means—Don’t disappear. Try to take up the right amount of space—neither too much nor too little. The right amount. Love fiercely, without holding back.
Chera Hammons is West Texas A&M University’s Writer-in-Residence. Her work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Foundry, The Penn Review, Ruminate, The Sun, The Texas Observer, and Tupelo Quarterly. She is a winner of the PEN Southwest Book Award. Maps of Injury is her fourth book of poetry. A novel is forthcoming through Torrey House Press.
Kanika Lawton holds a BA in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. She is the Editor-In-Chief of L’Éphémère Review, a 2018 Pink Door Fellow, and a 2020 BOAAT Writer’s Retreat Poetry Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Glass Poetry, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others.