Anni Liu's "On Injury"
Thoughts on injury and collective awareness.
For most of the movie, I had been aware of my need to urinate but even more aware of the entire row of people’s laps I’d have to crab-leg across to do so, so I stayed in my seat, putting other people’s imagined discomfort ahead of my own bodily functions, but I also didn’t want to miss any portion of the movie that I was so eager to see, which was turning out to be a good one despite the fact that I had managed to hurt my wrist right before, while sporting with friends, knowing only the vaguest things about stopping the white ball when it came in my direction with, of all things, my forearms, and the wrist was swollen hot and bright pink (anyone else might have stopped playing until several more hours’ worth of instructional YouTube videos had been viewed), which meant it would throb every so often—like when I shifted in my seat to get a clearer view—and kept me from holding hands with Y, which we often do when we watch movies, an act that helps someone like me with an overactive imagination to stay rooted to this life in this body, so when the movie was over and the lights went up, I rushed downstairs to the bathroom and, having relieved myself, came back to find everyone dispersing into the cold evening (I love that feeling of emerging from a theater and into the now-dark day, as if what we’d seen made it so), and we said our farewells to the friends who’d sat beside us for the last two hours and with whom we now shared the lives of those depicted on-screen: the light on the actors’ faces from the porch as they looked up into their night sky empty of the fireworks they could hear but not see, the crunch in their mouths of korokke, deep-fried to perfection, the final wrenching separation of the ad hoc but very real family, after which Y and I walked back to the car and I said something I didn’t quite mean like how sad and then tears that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding were there, hot on my face, reminding me how strange weeping can be, how one injury becomes connected with others and in our bodies can be metabolized then released together, how witnessing fictive pain can activate our own dormant sensitivities—and now, two weeks later, the bruise I knew was there from the ball hitting my wrist has finally surfaced from the deeper tissue, as if it will eventually float up and through my skin into the air. from Border Vista (Persea Books, 2022)
I came across this poem in Anni Liu’s first book, Border Vista, recently, and, though it looks like an essay, it reads all at once — as a single sentence! — like a whole treatise on feeling and breath and and connectedness and life. It feels, in other words, like a poem, so I figured — well, it’s a poem. If you want to read a more exact formatting of this work, which substack makes difficult to format as it is written, you can read a version of it online at The Cincinnati Review, where you can see the way Liu plays with indentation and spacing.
So much of this poem today feels so acute to me. For the better part of the last four to five weeks, I’ve been struggling with some on-and-off running-related injuries. I am coming up on the two year anniversary of a fairly serious knee surgery that put my ability to run — an ability that I hold dear and with now-great gratitude — in jeopardy. A little over six months ago, after half-a-year of not running and another half-a-year of re-learning how to run again, and with more grace, I started training to qualify for the Boston Marathon for the first time since my surgery. I’ve run the Boston Marathon four times; it’s a special extended moment for me. To be frank: I love everything about it — the downhill start, the silence between towns in the early miles of the race, the dense groups of runners who make up, in their footfalls, a larger symphony of breath and breakage and flight. There is a brief spell of road right before Natick where the course threads the needle of a lake and everything stills for a long, gorgeous moment of effort and its seeming-opposite.
Though training was going well up through the end of last year, and though I was beginning to feel like an older version of a younger self, I had to stop just before my qualifying marathon due to some unforeseen pain — first in my quad and then in my calf. It’s the kind of thing I would’ve run through years ago, as a college athlete and then as a post-collegiate athlete trying to stay competitive, but now I feel more aware, more willing to give myself the grace needed to recover. And I’ve needed that grace recently, because my recovery from this seemingly-little injury has taken more time than I thought it would need.
It’s both a little thing, this injury, and a not-so-little-thing, which is maybe why I find myself gravitating toward today’s work by Anni Liu, with the wrist injury that “would throb every so often.” I don’t really feel my current injury until I do, maybe descending a staircase or squatting a bit to pick up something dropped, and then the pain is a kind of reminder that something is happening or has happened to my body, that it’s a little more fragile than remembered, that it always is.
In another one of her poems, Liu writes:
...loneliness is just an ongoing Relationship with time.
I think the same lines apply when you swap out the word loneliness with injury. I think it is true that the experience of injury offers its own ongoing relationship with time. We navigate our injuries daily as time moves, with or without us — ongoing, ever-flowing.
Liu enacts this brilliantly in today’s poem through the choice of using a single, expansive sentence full of asides, parentheticals, explanations, and tangents. It’s a sentence that illustrates how rich and beautiful and anxious and unexpected and difficult a life can be. All of that is contained, at least for me, in the opening chunk of prose:
I had been aware of my need to urinate but even more aware of the entire row of people’s laps I’d have to crab-leg across to do so, so I stayed in my seat, putting other people’s imagined discomfort ahead of my own bodily functions
There’s something so aptly described about our utter humanness in these lines — the way that, sometimes, being acutely aware both of yourself and of your relation to others makes you at once — somewhat paradoxically — incapable of anything. I think of how that phrase — other people’s imagined discomfort — is such a true reason for both action and inaction. As someone who lives so deeply in their own mind, I often find myself imagining the discomfort of others, imagining the feelings of others, imagining so much of others without spanning the gap between my imagination and their reality, without voicing my curiosity or my wonder or my anything else. And so I remain in my seat: silent and unmoving. I call myself aware. I think myself aware. But I often sit in that awareness without reaching out — somewhere beyond my body or my mind.
Each of Liu’s passages of prose in this long poem contain moments of detail and self-awareness that feel so beautiful simply for being named. I’m thinking of this moment, later, when Liu writes that her speaker’s wrist:
would throb every so often—like when I shifted in my seat to get a clearer view—and kept me from holding hands with Y, which we often do when we watch movies, an act that helps someone like me with an overactive imagination to stay rooted to this life in this body
This was the point at which this poem became a transcendent thing for me — something illuminating. This brief passage made me realize something that I’ve wanted to articulate about the frustration of injury but haven’t been able to. It’s this simple idea that any injury — no matter how seemingly small — has consequences for how we live our lives. But it’s more than that, right? It’s about the fact that our lives — each of them, yours and mine — are these deeply complex things, filled with infinitely ordinary and yet deeply powerful rituals and movements and gestures that allow us to live as who we are in this world. And injury — the frustration of it, the throb of it, the reminder of it — throws us out of our ordinariness, our hand-holding, our breath, our tip-toeing, our anything that helps us be more fully who we are. And yet, and yet, and yet — we are always injured, aren’t we? If it’s not one thing, it’s another. If it’s not the foot, it’s the wrist. If it’s not the wrist, it’s the skin, the tissue, an organ. If it’s not anything else, it is the heart. It is often the heart.
And it’s the heart I think of when I read this poem’s end, particularly this passage:
I said something I didn’t quite mean like how sad and then tears that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding were there, hot on my face, reminding me how strange weeping can be, how one injury becomes connected with others and in our bodies can be metabolized then released together
I often feel like injury is such a personal thing, something intimate, hardly shared. But here, Liu writes of how one injury becomes connected with others and in our bodies can be metabolized then released together. There’s something gorgeously sensitive about this. Something holistic, borne out of collective imagination. And the way it is rendered, at the end point of a long sentence peppered with commas and conjunctions — well, it shows you that such connection is possible, because Liu made it so. Words — like bodies, like people — bounded and reflected and expanded off of one another, and, instead of ending the words with something as abrupt as a period, Liu allowed them to take up space, to connect. Liu allowed them — through this poem — to find one another. And so the throbbing of the wrist met the characters of the movie met the friends outside met the tears on the face, and something happened — some kind of gentleness, some kind of giving-oneself-over.
This moment, and today’s poem as a whole, reminds me of two passages from books I think I’ve mentioned before in this newsletter. The first is from Richard Powers’s The Overstory:
We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.
And then this, from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World:
Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves…Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible.
Tsing’s passage reminds me that precarity — our state of being insecure, fragile, sometimes even inconsistent, unknown, injured, and anxious — must be one of the constant conditions of our human existence, simply by virtue of living within the limited aspects of our bodies and our minds. And Powers’s writing reminds me that other aspects of our world are, perhaps, more fully aware of their own state of precarity than we are, which means that they center practices of community and solidarity. But what’s difficult about this world is the fact that we often create conditions of precarity that didn’t exist prior to our making them. We create conditions of economic insecurity, health insecurity, resource insecurity. And we force precarious lives to live within precarious means. “We are stuck,” Tsing writes in her book, “with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination.” We are stuck, yes, and many people are stuck worse than others.
Anniversaries, as my therapist told me the other day, can be strange days. And as I approach the two year anniversary of a surgery that made me dreadfully anxious but, ultimately, was successful, I think I find myself wondering a lot about injury — its constancy, and the grace needed (both from myself and from others) to live with it. As I read today’s poem, I couldn’t help but think of the months after my surgery, and how, when I was finally able to leave my apartment, I had to walk with a cane. For weeks, I did this, going to school to teach my classes with a cane, taking my time moving down the subway’s stairs, becoming more fully aware of the ways in which our world is built not in acknowledgment of precarity, but rather out of a belief in the opposite of precarity. Immortality, perhaps. Certainly a kind of invincibility.
I remember that. I remember how the world made it harder for me to move even when it was hard enough for me to move on my own. And it’s not as if I don’t remember care. I do remember care. I remember the care of strangers, someone holding up traffic so I could cross the street. But what I remember most acutely was how quickly it switched, how, when I no longer needed the cane, I no longer received the care of others. And it’s true — I didn’t need it as much. But I was still hurting. As you probably are now, in some way big or small. And it sounds trite, perhaps, to say that we should attempt to acknowledge each other’s individual hurts and pains and bruises and fractures, especially when such injuries do not seem visible. But we should acknowledge these things, shouldn’t we? Yes. We hurt, sometimes. Maybe we hurt often. I don’t think we often collectively think of what Liu writes about in this poem. We are connected; our injuries don’t just have to be these intimately personal things. But they become personal, and certainly shameful, and often hidden, and many times untreated in a world that pretends they do not exist — a world that makes injury seem like an exception to our existence rather than a norm.
So yes, I’m thinking of that final image in today’s poem. The speaker’s bruise floating up and out of the skin — into the air. It’s that same air we breathe, isn’t it? So it must be full of our bruises, our hurts, the small injuries, the big fractures. We often center our fragility and precarity in moments when it feels as if we should, as if it is some kind of necessary, though infrequent, ceremony to say we are not as immortal as some think we are. And then we look away from this seemingly-lesser part of our ourselves. This weakness, we say. This limitation. But we should center our fragility always. Not because we should expect to hurt each other, but because we should expect to care about each other. This care is our connection. Everything else is just noise.
As I mentioned the past few weeks, I was grateful to have an essay come out in Longreads not long ago — about fragility, presentness, anxiety, and love. Give it a read if you’d like!
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