Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jessica Penner is a Poet

Jessica Penner is a sunny person. She and I sat together for over an hour-and-a-half, talking about life, health, the insurance industry, traveling, writing, making a living. She laughed a lot and made me laugh.

There isn't enough time in a news feature to tell more than a snippet of Jessica's story. As a very small child she was diagnosed with Ollier's Disease, which meant that her childhood was filled with what sounds like a succession of brutal surgeries. Jessica, being Jessica, speaks of these surgeries in positive terms, saying they kept her out of a wheelchair.

As a college student she began having seizures, which lead to the discovery of an enormous brain tumor.  Jessica, being Jessica, is quick to point out it was a non-malignant brain tumor. The story of her battle with her insurance company to get the needed treatment is what's reported in the "One Person's Voice" I put together for WMRA's Morning Edition. A longer version is available on the web.

 But enough about illness. Jessica Penner has a day job that pays the rent; a night job as a poet. Here, for your reading pleasure, are a couple of her poems.

OCTOBER 6, 1981

The day Anwar Sadat was assassinated
my parents drove east, toward a city I'd never seen.
We'd passed the empty fields curving west,
the tractors standing idle, cold.
My daddy, thinner then, was at the wheel
of our silver-fish car.
Mommy was knitting, the sun glowing
through her hair.
And there I was in the back, alone
on the cracked red seat,
fake leather that burned your skin
when you hopped in after swimming.
We skimmed the surface of faint hills,
glassed ponds, a twisted tree, alone in emptiness.
Cows with misted eyes huddled in the early chill.
I sat waiting to be hurtled into the arms of men
in the towers of that city;
men who would fool me with their benign khakis and ties,
only to wear cold white white white gowns
as I was arranged in a green bed without socks.

Before the day of The Towers,
I stepped from a plane into Cairo,
where gleaming white-uniformed men pointed rifles--
not at me, but the crowds before me
who twisted and swelled
like the fields we'd slipped through so easily,
as if the world of knives would solve our souls,
could carve me a freed forever body.
As though my father's expert trolling
of his silver could straighten the tree on the hill.
The sun rose in the east,
a backlight to a single minaret,
cloaked in the smog and sweat of 17 million.
The river glided through her basin,
echoing the tilted voices of me
calling me to pray.
Calling me to bow.
Strangely, I felt at home.


Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.
              from "The Wellfleet Whale" by Stanley Kunitz

There are those who would say Blue Mountains climb
so low because they are strident with youth
rather than age. I tended to believe
this contradiction as we crossed the soft
valleys that lay like a covered child.
We whispered a conversation within
hearing of the never-young-nor-old man
driving the darkness, pushing in the night,
away from faint lights to the brighter orb--
this Poet, whose frail voice managed to sound
through the wind of those snuffle-shoulders.
You slipped your hand snug under my neck that
slid in cold that solidified words spun
far too carefully divine to speak of.
Life-anointed, your hand cradled my head,
drew mantles against my too-muscled death;
ranges of Mountains beat with youth not age.

We stroked through the lake beside Bethesda,
like the night we rolled through dim neighborhoods,
searching for the home-face of a Poet
whose whale lay upon the sand, gasping breath,
as if the struggle might make the difference.
Your hair was muffled rather than shone by the lopsided streetlights that hid numbers
of discovery from our steadfast gaze.
A crowd of ancient houses stood upon
ground willing to hold the Poet's birth-place--
but there was no shrine to state his glory,
no proof that he ever drew a whale's breath
in a city I would curse if your face
had not pricked radiation's hold on skin
that loosened hair upon pillows like chaff.
We stroked through the lake beside an angel
who healed with a beat of wings light as stone.


  1. Thank you, Jessica, for your story. I think fondly of the poetry class we took together - high on EMU's hill. And thank you, Martha, for making space for Jessica's story.

  2. Ah! Great stuff, Jessica. It's not the newly cold weather that's given me goosebumps just now.

    Thank you very much for your story, too. The acts of insurance companies are, yes, mind-boggling as you generously characterize them, but they are also enraging. The fact of the first coverage denial, despite your application being signed off on by every expert in the field, is horrifying. One has got to wonder if the reviewers didn't hope that nature would decide the outcome of your health before your appeal got through -- your appeal that they couldn't have but known at the outset would have to be successful. In so many cases, and thankfully not yours, time has got to be of the essence. TALK ABOUT DEATH PANELS. They are the insurance companies. I simply don't understand how this country can want to entrust the health of its citizenry to big, faceless corporations.

  3. I work alongside Jessica every day, but I never knew her amazing story or what a great poet she is. Very inspiring! And she truly has a very sunny, upbeat personality.

    I too have been denied medical coverage for what appeared to be emergency, life-threatening brain and blood-clot issues. Precisely because we have a free-market health-care system, I was able to appeal and negotiate my way through both urgent medical scenarios. Sure, it took many tears and time I wasn't sure I had to live. But I think perhaps I wouldn't be alive today if the very same decisions had been in the hands of the enormous, faceless monster of government bureaucracy.

  4. Anon -- In a single payer system government would be the only funder, but it would not make decisions about your medical care. DOCTORS would do that. I don't know about the proposed public option at issue now for the U.S's health care system, but one thing is for certain: people wishing to deal with private sector insurance companies would be permitted to do so. The public option would only provide a much needed "choice" for the tens of millions of people in this country who cannot otherwise afford health care and who, when faced with a life-threatening disease, have no one with whom to negotiate health care options.

  5. Martha, thank you for providing a place for Jessica to tell her story. I have been praying for many years that her upbeat narrative would be shared with the wider world.

    Jessica's Mom