By Lucille Lang Day
As a poet and the former director of a health museum, I look for poems that incorporate science in fresh and evocative ways. In her 2011 book The Horizontal Poet, Jan Steckel does just that, giving us the human body in all its fragility and glory—its passions, its strength and beauty, its pains and illnesses, its certain end in death.
The Horizontal Poet won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award for the category of "bisexual nonfiction." It is a collection of poetry, but according to the review on the Lambda Literary website, Steckel's work is highly autobiographical, with the Bay Area writer detailing her "relationships with women and men, thorny health problems suffered by patients as well as herself," among other social and personal issues.
A retired pediatrician, Steckel is unflinchingly accurate, whether describing an erotic scene or vascular surgery.
The book begins with a love poem, “The History of Our Love,” in which she imagines herself and her lover as two skeletons:
the click and rattle
of your metacarpals dragging over
my fibula and tibia,
would drive us to ever-increasing
In “Nightkeeper,” she describes pain as an invisible dragon that bites a woman
from creamy small of back
to hip to groin, buttock, back of plump thigh,
knee, calf, ankle, heel, delectable toe.
In “Wake,” we see—through portraits painted by his lover—a man who has died:
From one painting to the next,
his cheeks grew fuller,
his skin rosier, his lips redder,
his eyes happier.
These poems are much more than scientific renderings of the body: They are stories about people loving, aging, getting sick, being born, and dying, and they are compassionately and eloquently told.
- The Horizontal Poet by Jan Steckel (Zeitgeist Press, 2011).
- "‘The Horizontal Poet’ by Jan Steckel," review by Sheela Lambert, Lambda Literary, December 21, 2011.
- Three photos (foot, hand, and skull) from Anatomically Labelled X-Ray images (1920), courtesy of the Public Domain Review and California Digital Library.
Lucille Lang Day is the author of eight poetry collections and chapbooks, most recently The Curvature of Blue (Cervena Barva Press, 2009).
Her first poetry collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chain Letter, and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story (Heyday, 2012).
Her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in many magazines, including Talking Writing (Lucille Lang Day: Two Poems). She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, writer Richard Levine.