Some poems have topics that defy the usual forms. Elisabeth Weiss chose to turn her nine-part poem about memory and mental illness into a hybrid triptych form titled, appropriately, “The Anna Fragments”. I think this is a fabulous example of letting the subject find its form. The poem becomes a sort of historical dialogue between medical records, public opinion, private experience, and public health policy that situates it in American time and place. The ideological undertones of mental health policy are touched in a way that doesn’t demand resolution.
Weiss explains how the poem found its shape:
'The Anna Fragments' began as a nine-part poem. It deals with how my grandmother’s life was shaped by her times. I added the preface as sidebar commentary and then added further definitions and explanations to enlarge and expand her story. The text resembles a page of the Talmud, which is how learned rabbis argued texts across centuries. Last summer at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, I completed the narrative by extending it to women in the following two generations. The combination of research, poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction mirrors Anna’s schizophrenic world, but I also hope it gives voice, in many different ways, to a woman who was silenced.
Permitting wikipedia entries to speak to journal entries and old medical archives adds a circularity to this poem, an appropriate motion in narratives that remain elusive and surreal. By noting which records are absent (for example, records for Anna don’t exist from 1931 to 1936), the poet erases as she describes and depicts.
I really appreciate this form as a vehicle for depicting the erasure of a medicalized body, and the ways in which medical institutions replace individual personhood when it comes to narrative. The questions about agency and existence are left open for us to mull. There’s more to learn from Weiss at her website.