A Life Interrupted: Living with Brain Injury by Louise Mathewson

In my review of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, I did not mention that one character has a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This character’s journey — close to death, close to never waking up, close to being unable to live a life resembling the one they dreamed of — really stuck with me. Thus, when the owner of Pearlsong Press noted that an Louise Mathewson wanted to do a Meet the Writer feature on my blog, and that she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, I couldn’t resist getting Mathewson’s poetry collection, A Life Interrupted: Life With Brain Injury, in which she writes about the experience: what happened to cause the TBI, the direct aftermath, and life in recovery and growth.

Mathewson writes her way around and around the events associated with her TBI. There isn’t one poem about the car crash, for instance, but many. Mathewson’s choice to “worry” at themes captures the struggle to find words after a TBI and mirrors the way people who experience trauma may talk about it over and over. Here is an example of what happened in the crash:

My head hit hard
brain bounced inside my skull
blood vessels sheared
lobes bruised
neurons stretched
beyond capacity,
safety in the world destroyed.
The old me
put to rest.

The imagery of her old self stood out to me. It’s not that Mathewson’s former self is dead and buried, but resting. The careful choice of diction changed the meaning of the poem, giving it an interesting perspective on what it means to wake up a “different person.” Again, Mathewson tackles the idea of resting herself (maybe her identity?) in the poem “Thank You,” a title from which she builds each stanza:

for the injury to my left side, the happy side of my brain
so I could address the dark night in my soul 
the light for a while

Other poems, like “I Didn’t Know,” add in the title in the stanza, instead of assuming it carries to the beginning of each stanza, with great effect. The result is almost prayer like, meditation on a theme. Mathewson writes about the disconnect between a person with a TBI and others:

I didn’t know
I made no sense when I talked
wondered why people left
when I wasn’t finished talking

Although we all have a basic desire to communicate our needs, a TBI can prevent the injured person from expressing themselves in a way that makes sense to others, and Mathewson’s clean, simple style of poetry effectively captures what that disconnect is like.

Overall, I enjoyed A Life Interrupted: Living With Brain Injury not only for the poems’ attention to form, diction, and imagery, but because it helped me better see into the life of someone with a disability who came out the other side different — and that’s okay. I started mulling on how I would approach a drastic change in my life, and it wasn’t too hard to imagine. Hasn’t covid disrupted everyone’s lives? And I once read on Twitter that the only people who adapted very poorly to the pandemic were folks who were not used to being told no, who were not asked to adjust pre-pandemic, who expected what they wanted to come without feet dragging. Louise Mathewson’s collection was the right book at the right time.

26 comments

  1. Yes, I have this one! Poetry expresses so well what regular prose and memoir need way more words and pages to do. This author does a good job of making us ‘see’ what TBI is like.

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this collection, too, Linda. I felt like I was living within this author as I read her poetry, like I really “got” it. I have a feature with Mathewson coming up, so I’m excited to share more about her with other readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! This sounds like a very moving and enlightening collection. It’s frightening to think about how easily a life that seems ordinary can be turned completely upside down, but hearing from someone who’s experienced it definitely makes it easier to understand the experience. The line about not knowing she made no sense when she talked really speaks to me in particular- it’s a good reminder that people do not necessarily experience things the same way, even in a shared encounter. It’s so important to listen to and consider perspectives we haven’t personally lived with.

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    • This poetry collection helped center me and the way I think when I work in the library. You meet all kinds of folks who are not really experiencing the same reality as the majority of people when you work in a library. So, for instance, you may work with people who have dementia, are deaf, have processing disorders, etc. A lot of my anger when people seem “odd” is because I expect them to behave like x, y, z and forget that what seems normal to me may not even be on their radar. I have to regroup, rethink, and exercise some patience!

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  3. I think you hit the nail on the head with the people who had the hardest time with Covid were people who weren’t used to being told no. They are flabbergasted that anyone could possibly tell them no. It’s a bizarre head space.

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    • I was so flabbergasted until someone pointed that out on Twitter, and it absolutely changed the way I thought about everyone I encountered. I also think it’s part of the reason the pandemic divided us even more politically; you can see the people who aren’t used to being told no.

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  4. The idea of TBI took me to my father who had a stroke and lived another 18 months conscious but with little control of his body and almost none of his speech. How must that feel? Other than distressing, which he certainly was.

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    • I’m not sure what the difference is between a stroke and a traumatic brain injury, other than they both affect the brain. I mentioned in another comment how reading this collection helped me center and think about how I treat patrons at the library, who may look, from the outside, like a totally “normal” person but may be struggling with something in their brain: dementia, autism, a learning disability, etc.

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  5. Lovely review, Melanie. I love how reading this has made you more aware of patron interactions at the library. We truly don’t know what another person is dealing with that might not be immediately visible. A good reminder, thanks.

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  6. I love that idea of the normal self ‘resting’. The prospect of getting a life-altering accident is terrifying, but the concept of ‘resting’ one’s normal self while healing is just so beautiful!

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  7. This sounds like a powerful and insightful collection of poems. I have a very close family member who has found comfort in writing poetry (and children’s stories) after a life-changing illness, and her words have given me insight into her experience.

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  8. This sounds really interesting. And I like how you tied it into the current pandemic and how we’re all being asked to adapt and what makes that easier for some than others. When we were first married, Peter was in a bad cycling accident and had a pretty serious concussion. He had some definite gaps in his memory at the beginning and although he made a full recovery, I’ll never forget the feeling of wondering if my husband had changed irrevocably.

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  9. I’m not a big poetry reader, but this collection sounds really interesting. It’s difficult to go through the trauma that Mathewson went through and I always love the idea of turning something horrible into something beautiful like poetry.

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    • I don’t read a lot of poetry either. I have in the last couple of years, but I’m very careful to know the publisher’s aesthetic well. I read so much obscure, meaningless (to me) poetry in college despite there being a time in the U.S. when poetry really spoke to the working person, the activists, those sort of people.

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  10. Great review. I just went and added this to my TBR List on goodreads. 🙂
    It sounds really interesting. And you are so right about the people who aren’t used to being told “no” during the pandemic. This whole thing has really shined a light on how selfish and oblivious so many people are. It’s very surreal and horrifying how little empathy or concern for their community people are showing. So frustrating.

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    • I really liked how this collection will appeal to folks who may not like poetry. Most of my book blog friends do not read/review poetry, but it used to be that poetry, at least in the U.S., had a time when it was the method of art for the working person. I love stories about people seeing their coworker on the factory line with a collection of poetry in his/her back pocket.

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