Songs of Arthritis by John David Muth
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“Songs of Arthritis”
Kelsay Books, 2022
$17.00, 48 pages
In the poem “Commiserating” John David Muth tells the story of attending a physical therapy session in which two other men are present. One is there because he shattered his knee in a car accident. The other is there for herniated disks sustained from his construction job. The speaker is there for the arthritis in his shoulders and hips, possibly the result of age, possibly because of his height. “Maybe it was all the sex I was having.”
Both men laugh,
tell me I am full of shit.
I laugh, too,
and for a moment
we all forget our pain.
The theme of the poems in Songs of Arthritis is the aging body. With good humor, Muth describes the discomfort and the downright pain involved in getting older. For a moment, recognizing the universal truth of these observations, the reader forgets his or her own pains in the charming pictures Muth paints. Misery loves company, and, as the punchline goes, it “beats the alternative.”
The very cover of the book, the skeleton of an arthritic hand, fingers bent like claws, except for the middle finger, raised in defiance on an otherwise black background, clues the reader in on what to expect.
Many of the poems, recounting the indignities and aches of age, conclude with what amounts to a punchline. The poem, “Almost Fifty,” opens with reference to the arthritic pains in his shoulders, an invisible gargoyle that perches on him like the Old Man of the Sea, “runs its barbed tail / seductively along the creases of my groin.” Meanwhile, a health care commercial comes on the television, an insipid spokeswoman promising a life into the hundreds. You can almost hear the groan.
I tell her to go fuck herself.
I hope she takes my advice.
“Mid-Life Crisis” begins with an allusion to the clichéd response of the male to losing his youth: “I don’t need a red sports car / or a woman half my age.” What he wants is actually rather noble: “for the arrogant to be embarrassed / the corrupt to be exposed / the powerful to shoulder responsibility.” The reader raises a fist in Josh Hawley solidarity. He concludes the poem:
I wouldn’t mind being able
to read without glasses either.
In “Cortisone Hope,” the speaker is lying on his back at the clinic and a doctor inserts the needle into his shoulder. He closes his eyes and before long his body is free of pain. He is swept away into a paradisiacal fantasy.
The COVID pandemic has ended,
but not before killing
every political and religious extremist
and every bad driver
in the entire country.
His grandmother, who appears in several other arthritis poems (“Grandmom’s Fingers,” “An Unusual Souvenir,” “Marching to the Cossack’s Lair”), comes back to life, walking without a limp, and they walk along, conversing amiably.
I open my eyes,
ready to begin a brand new year
with a brand new perspective,
at least until the cortisone wears off.
Please pass the Tylenol and the cannabis gummies! “Highway Hallucination” is another fantasy that takes place while crawling home from work in rush hour traffic. He hits a pothole. “The driver’s side door falls off / taking my left arm with it.” His grandmother reappears and he confesses to her that he didn’t think the soreness and aches would start so soon. “We don’t get to choose our own pain,” she wisely tells him.
The characters in Muth’s poems are all vivid and human. Readers of Misanthropes Rarely Procreate will recognize his wife, Emily, and niece, Glenda. There are also Klaus, the physical therapist, the various “efficient” nurses and the annoying colleagues at work. Klaus, who figures into “Mengele Would Be Proud” and “Squats,” is a sadist henchman from a James Bond movie who delights in his clients’ suffering, the kind of guy who eats popcorn “while watching fifty-car pileup / on the New Jersey Turnpike.”
“I Need the Insurance” is another fantasy we’ve all experienced, bringing the insufferable boss down a peg or two. The speaker is sitting in a meeting, already in a bad mood from the rats trying “to burrow into my hip cartilage, / as I sit with my colleagues in a conference room” when the arrogant prick walks in to lay down the law.
I’d like to stagger over to this overpaid fool
grab him by his yellow tie
bang his head against the whiteboard
and tell him sitting at a desk 60 hours a week
for the last twenty years
working for assholes like him
is one reason I have arthritis.
But he knows he can’t do this, he must contain his rage or he’ll be fired, “and I need the medical insurance.”
Songs of Arthritis takes your mind off of your own problems, for a little while, at least, until you sit up from your chair and feel that wobbly knee, that flaming hip.