An Engagement with Beth Steidle's The Static Herd

by Elise Douangmany

Beth Steidle, The Static Herd (Calamari, 2014)

In the field of medicine, in which doctors spend a significant portion of their lives dedicated to their specialization, the use of sophisticated terminology may suggest experience and expertise. This should, in some way, comfort their patients; however, it is just as likely to generate confusion and an estranged relationship. In Beth Steidle’s The Static Herd, the reader is immersed in the speaker’s mental turmoil as she experiences the excruciating progression of her father’s cancer treatment. Her struggle to come to terms with her father’s deteriorating health is both guided and contorted by medical terminology. In a poem titled “IMPRESSIONS,” Steidle notes the comparison of tumor size and fruit: “The hematoma was the size of an average lemon. Everyone comprehends this size. The size recalls the hands. […] The body left to bear its dark crop, a finite ripening.” While the comparison of the tumor to fruit allows the reader and speaker to visualize it, the patient is stripped of all human characteristics. Steidle even continues to relate the ripening of fruit to her father’s mortality. In “OPERATIVE NOTE” Steidle writes, “Like a field, he is irrigated copiously demonstrating how medical jargon has bluntly referred to her father as something far less than human, something that is also manipulated and handled as such. This idea reemerges in another poem of the same name: “Patient’s head pinned with a Mayfield. […] Hair removed with surgical clippers. Cleansing of the face. The neck rotated slightly to the right. The neck brought into a bit of an extension. Whereupon the view improves. Becomes panoramic”. Steidle incorporates the speaker’s thoughts, in a disorienting manner, into the medical notes in the form of natural references and metaphors in an effort to once again present her father as a human being. This contrast, a juxtaposition of science and humanity, evokes the question we ask ourselves in the face of death: are we simply collections of flesh and neurons that exist and expire, or are we something more?

Elise Douangmany is currently a first-year student at Boston University. In the rare moments that her head is not buried in a chemistry textbook, she is probably sleeping in or out exploring.