Sarah Caulfield's words dig beneath our flesh and go straight to the bone in her collection of poetry, SPINE (2017). Caulfield’s first book beautifully weaves together powerful images of blood and bone, plus themes of religion, chronic illness, and guilt, pulling on the reader's heartstrings and commanding empathy. The repeated themes make it clear that these topics are very important to Caulfield, and are ones often swept under the rug instead of spoken about in society.
The collection was titled after it was pointed out to Caulfield that “spine” is the most used word throughout the entire work. The spine is the center of the body, and when it hurts, it becomes hard to operate under the expectations of society. Similarly, the spine plays a focal role in the collection, as Caulfield reinforces within her poem “To the Girl I Was” when she writes, “My spine is made of beach glass. It will withstand.” Caulfield’s spine is strong, readers will agree, after reading through her collection and understanding the narrator’s struggles.
Throughout the collection, Caulfield emphasizes the theme of her toxic relationship with Catholicism. Growing up Catholic isn’t easy when you disagree with many teachings of the faith. We all may have heard of the term “Catholic guilt,” but not all of us have experienced it first hand like Caulfield's narrator.
In SPINE's “Lapsed," Caulfield writes, “my body is a catholic / a series of transgressions and punishments / the hole in my ribcage echoing with the ave maria / st sebastian the creak in my bones / st bernadette the ache / st jude the blood on my tongue. / i spit it up and say / forgive me. / I am better than this.” Both the book and its narrator are heavily influenced by faith, woven within each from a very young age. Catholic guilt works in strange ways, it seems, causing people who practice the religion to feel guilt for certain “sins” that most of us wouldn’t think twice about. For example, also in “Lapsed,” Caulfield writes, “it has been two years since my last confession / since i swooned with holy visions bursting faint-white behind my eyes / and when i called, no one answered.” Many people feel that mistakes are human and that we should forgive ourselves for them. Many people never even thinking about confessing our sins. Caulfield's narrator, however, does.
Caulfield explores confession in her poem “Ten Hail Marys’ Worth," as she writes, “Dear Mother, / Forgive me, for I have sinned. / I was born to it, you see: I even lied at my First Confession. / I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, so I made something up. / I can’t remember what. I can remember the guilt. / That’s religion for you; it really is what you have failed to do.” She starts the poem written like the familiar Catholic saying before confession, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” The narrator describes for us the guilt of not being able to recall what sins they had committed. Imagine living under the pressure of constantly having to admit your wrong doings to a stranger, even when you felt that you have done nothing wrong. As a child of the faith, I can confirm that saying you haven’t sinned is never enough. They will tell you that you aren’t being honest with them, with yourself, and most importantly, with God. According to the Catholic faith, there is always more that you could be doing to seek forgiveness from Him. Caulfield's narrator has lost track.
Is it damaging to grow up feeling shame for things that most people would consider normal? In Caulfield’s “To the Girl I Was," she suggests it may be: “And I am not a prophet, I am not a messiah, I am a Catholic not a martyr: I am a rebel without a cause, James Dean railing at the catechism because anger is safer than admitting I don’t want to believe in a God who let us down like this.” It’s hard to feel as though you’re fighting against your entire faith, your entire way of being. Which must be why in “Chosen One," Caulfield writes, “When they open your mouth, let them put the wafer down.” It’s easier to swallow our guilt than to address it, and it’s easier not to talk about growing up in an environment that is traumatizing instead of nurturing. Caulfield doesn't shy away from those topics that we don’t speak about out loud.
Caulfield tackles another hot-button, silenced topic in her collection: chronic illness. Throughout the collection, it is apparent that the narrator is in a constant state of pain. It's a unique experience and scary journey to be diagnosed or live with a chronic illness, one that most people can't understand without experiencing it themselves.. Caulfield’s, “Chosen One," describes the pain and isolation that the narrator feels due to their chronic illness: “It’s gonna take you by surprise, kid, / carve you out a new spine and tell you you’re lucky / as your bones groan over the weight of living / and your eyes burn like it’s the third day in hell.” Caulfield is not just teaching, but begging her readers through her poetry to feel empathy for people whose situations we can't possibly fully understand.
Every single day is a struggle for people suffering from invisible illnesses. Their bodies are constantly attacking themselves, making them ache here and burn there. Imagine how it must affect a one's mind and spirit to live every day feeling as though your body is a traitor - that the one thing that is supposed to work for you is actually working against you. Picture their personal calendars, how every other day is a trip to a different doctor’s office. We live in a world where seeing is believing.
But just because some things can’t be seen doesn’t mean they don't exist.
Consider the endless months of testing they must undergo, as mentioned in Caulfield’s poem “Chosen One,” in which she writes, “Despair is the snick of needles probing at the bruising of your eyes, / the trickle of papery sweat against your back as you lay down for this one / last god and pray to be healed.” How traumatizing it must be to go through dozens of painful, violating tests only for the doctor to smile and tell you that your body is fine.
Many chronically ill people are told that their symptoms are all in their head, that the pain they’re feeling isn’t real. In Caulfield’s “Chosen One” they are told, “So shut your mouth and smile, / learn the taste and chant of it could be worse. / It’s not that severe. At least it’s not — / Cleave your suffering into manageable portions and eat in small bites.” People weigh in with their opinions and say what emotions the chronically ill are and aren't allowed to feel even though they never asked. They are made to feel guilty for being sick even though it’s not their fault. Sounds familiar, does it not? The Catholic guilt and the chronically ill guilt go hand-in-hand for Caulfield's narrator.
Overall, perhaps Caulfield's collection is saying we must support those who are not like us. It's not okay to tell someone to look on the bright side - that will not heal them. Don't tell someone that they could have things worse - it will not ease the carrying of their cross. Through her poems, she prompts us to ask: why do we want to make the already-suffering feel alone, like they don't even matter, in an already scary enough world?