Excerpt: ‘Writing the Vanishing Body’, by Paul Dalla Rosa


As I look at my reflection that is both my reflection and yet somewhat different from what my reflection used to be, an inch missing from my jawline, the width of my nose widened by only a millimetre, I ask myself: am I in pain, or rather, I am in pain but am I in less pain than I was before?

This is a difficult question. I may be in less pain but I am also doing less. I do not have to work, at least for the moment—at least Centrelink recognises orthopaedic surgery though not the condition for which it was undertaken. The Pilates I do I do by myself and is probably not actually Pilates but more similar to hatha yoga, in which you kiss your fingertips and spend a lot of time with your eyes shut, your body lying still on the floor. Even so, I am still in pain.

I’ve been watching episodes of Bewitched. Bodies vanish, transform, fly.

I’ve been watching episodes of Bewitched. Bodies vanish, transform, fly. I watch as I make breakfast, as I wash the dishes I’ve dirtied during breakfast, while I do afternoon Pilates, while I eat ice cream directly after afternoon Pilates, and while I do my exercises, opening and shutting my jaw, slowly licking my tongue across my front teeth, turning my head to the left and then the right.

I’m thinking about coming back to university. Yet I’m hesitant. I want to come back and be well, be engaged, be involved. Over the years I’ve read so many of that very specific breed of novel, the campus novel: The Marriage Plot, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Secret History. Novels in which strangers meet at parties, faculty dramas abound and protagonists grapple with cultural theory. I know this sort of experience isn’t just fictional. I’ve read Susan Sontag’s diaries, all of them, including those of her early twenties when her entries were filled with quotes from Marx and Hegel, trysts with fellow students, and arthouse films. My supervisor wrote a book that describes the days of his dissertation, when he moved to Melbourne, lived in share housing, edited a literary journal and spent incredible amounts of money on fine cuisine. The book describes what he calls his “salad days,” days before full adulthood when he didn’t need savings and his nights were filled with communal cooking and trips abroad.

I will never fully join the world of the well.

My memories of university exist side-by-side with memories of me lying face down on massage tables, my back being kneaded or needled, at home joined to heat packs, ice packs, and the wires of eBay-bought TENS machines. Test after test involving blood, radioactive dyes and the violent sounds of Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines. My classes are dimly remembered but I recall, again and again, trying and failing to meditate on peak-hour trains.

I’ve had two of three planned surgeries and though my symptoms have improved they have not left. I am beginning to realise that perhaps I will never have salad days of my own. I will never fully join the world of the well. I want to understand the ill body, not anatomically or biochemically, but how culture perceives it, how we convey it, how we read it and how I might write it.

Cixous writes that women must return to the body, that they “must write about women and bring women to writing… [that] woman must put herself into the text—as into the work and into history—by her own movement.” This is how I, as chronically ill, feel about writing my own body. Though Cixous admits there is “no general woman, no one typical women,” in my eyes no one is or can be “typically ill.” They are linked by experiences, they are the subjects of mass silence, their bodies are the site of systematic repression, and these very same bodies are what link them all.

I watch Bewitched, aware that I cannot wiggle my nose.

At the moment there are three deep slits beneath my upper lip that run all the way from my teeth to high behind my nose. Blood seeps from them but doesn’t gather in my mouth; it drips down the back of my throat, postnasal, congealed, almost black. I don’t have feeling in my upper teeth or gums so when I’m brushing them it feels like brushing something disconnected from me, like polishing cutlery or brushing excavated fossilised bone. I watch Bewitched, aware that I cannot wiggle my nose.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #29. Get your copy here.

Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer living in Melbourne. His work has appeared previously in The Lifted Brow, Hello Mr., and Voiceworks.