H.E. Fisher’s Sterile Field

In Sickness and in Health: A Review of H.E. Fisher’s Sterile Field by Charlie Lewis

I was already about two cups of coffee into the day when I began reading Sterile Field, H.E. Fisher’s new collection from Free Lines Press. Wired and ready, I sat down, expecting to carefully dissect the book for meaning. I had five different highlighters at the ready, but by the time I’d finished the first poem, I knew I wouldn’t be working on this book; rather it would be working on me. By the time I finished the sixth poem, I was holding back tears in the holiday café. 

Sterile Field is a call to anybody who has a proximity to illness. Devastating and beautiful, it recognizes the loneliness, isolation, and fear caused not only by an ailing loved one, but also an ailing planet. Touching on personal experience, theoretical situations, and the ethical questions that underlie our medical interactions, Fisher complicates our relationship with sickness and health.

Fisher’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Hopper, and Pithead Chapel, among other publications and anthologies She received the 2019 Stark Poetry Prize at City College of New York and is the author of the the chapbook, Jane Almost Always Smiles. Fisher has been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize.. She's the editor of (Re) An Ideas Journal. Visit Issue 16 of Miracle Monocle to read the poet’s work in this journal. 

Pulling from her experience with the sickness of her husband and family, Fisher generates poems that show the complicated, emotionally complex positions that one occupies as wife, mother, and caretaker. In one particular poem, “The Children,” Fisher expresses the overwhelming weight these identities are to bear. She tries to hide her children from the reality of her husband’s ailment, but eventually reveals: “I didn’t want to do this anymore. I meant stay. I meant care.” Fisher brings all three of her identities to the fore in this poem, which ends with her daughter asking if she still loves her father. The two of them then go to the hospital again the next day. As Fisher shows, the job of a caretaker never ends; in some ways, it becomes intertwined: mother-caretaker, caretaker-wife.

What I admire most about Sterile Field is its honesty. It recognizes the hardship of sleepless nights spent making sure everything is in working condition, keeping up with an intense pill regimen, and the risks of experimental treatment. In each respective situation, Fisher shows the reality of the medical world as brutal. Specifically, she dedicates quite a few poems to questioning the ethics of contemporary medical practices. In a more explicit way, the poem “Organ Donor’s Consent,” surveys the multifaceted relationship of consent in regards to anatomical donations. The question of “Who gave consent? The warden? Were his body’s rights for sale?” is recurrent. In an earlier poem, “Consent,” an organ donor is revealed as having died during incarceration. How much of his consent could be considered un-coerced? Did it even exist at all? This is the query that Fisher proposes about the obscured nature of consent within the medical community. As a reader, I was left asking my own question: how sterile is the medical field if it acts exploitatively towards its benefactors?

Though they might seem only tentatively related to the main theme of illness on the surface, poems about nature tie rather seamlessly into the overall message of Sterile Field. Typically dealing with the environmental implications of pollution, Fisher makes clear the tether that exists between our health and the health of our environment. Her poem, “Wildflowers,” expresses this relationship prodigiously. It discusses a young boy and his mother, who live in a town that suffers from natural disfigurement due to factories dumping their waste into the local river. This same river is used for the town’s drinking water. In the eyes of Fisher, the abuse of nature is an abuse of our bodies. It seems to be a vicious cycle, constantly enabling the degradation of the affected communities.

The personal experience that Fisher brings to the table is emotionally charged, but the artful way that she deals with the subject matter truly distinguishes her work. Some pieces are more experimental, complicating traditional styles and including intermittent medical terminology. These pieces often are my favorites: they operate in an interesting space between the personal and the clinical. The one that comes to mind as demonstrative of this mode is “As Directed.” Detailing a positively monstrous regimen of pills and medical routines, Fisher opens up a window into the world of illness that is intuitive, on behalf of the reader. The entire message is communicated so effectively—simply by showing the unobstructed truth behind fighting sickness. As I previously mentioned, this is one of the exemplary characteristics of Fisher’s writing: candidness.

At turns heartbreaking and therapeutic, Fisher has written a meditative, systemically curious work which makes the reader feel less isolated in the face of illness. The most resounding message I can express about Sterile Field is that I'm thankful for it, and that it will have a special place on my bookshelf.

CHARLIE LEWIS is a verse editor of Miracle Monocle.