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Undetectable by Kim Goldberg
reviewed by Howard Breen

Kim Goldberg
Pig Squash Press


“…my body sheds virus like the forest sheds dead limbs in a storm,”   

While there is a lot of excellent must-read Canadian literature, there is little known for being simultaneously written while commandeering a deeply personal conquest over a lifelong enemy. 

The award-winning poet and author Kim Goldberg can always be counted on by her readers to be entertained by a literary surprise or two. But none would have guessed that her seventh book was a Faustian-bartered 84 day deal with a corporate interest she would normally rail against to fortuitously end a half century of hepalogic torment – for freedom.
To her credit, this uber-contemporary poet imparts boundless contemporary relevance to the struggle of millions battling the blood-borne viral affliction Hepatitis C, offering them unbridled hope for a cure whilst masterfully deploying and introducing us to the literary form known as haibun, best exemplified by Goldberg’s reverence for the work of Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. Without map or compass, but diarizing in alternating prose-cum-haiku-verse, Goldberg traverses between her physical and psychic journey over a three month clinical trial for a new drug (Harvoni with sticker-shock of $1,200 a pill per day), yet never descending into the maudlin or didactic in spite of the gravitational pull of her reality which has been fraught in a cirrhotic orbit.

To the contrary, she enlivens and breadcrumbs her liver disease ordeal for us to follow with the edginess of war correspondent reportage, interspersed with grounded Jungian wellness-holism, or peppered with the focussed eye of an ornithologist or other trained observer, repeatedly end-spiked with a poignantly packed haiku but always infused with the voice of the brazen boomer hepper warrior inciting insurgence both political and literary. 

every word
a seed seeking
soft earth

In turns, Goldberg is our gifted spirit guide as her travels take us on innumerable pleasantly unexpected excursions which include stops in places like Tangiers, wishing to drown a soothsayer in the Kasbah, to laments for long gone humpbacks haunting a Salish Sea lagoon site of a former whaling station to witnessing a lynching by Governor James Douglas of a pair of indigenous men to equally insightful reflections on an Earth doppelganger known as Kepler 452-b.

Unpacked, Undetectable is a unique interactive mix of mind-body-meld narrative and haiku, evocatively posted like interpretative park signage with pill bottle life and limb instructions glued on. Together, Goldberg richly inherits the élan vital of Bashō. Each day page entry takes imaginative flight in the most stunning and vulnerably colourful manner akin to the plumage of bufflehead, guillemot, kingfisher, grebe and towhee, ‘cannonballs on wings,’ that are among the poet’s most favoured companions, as she cautiously yet fastidiously hikes off and records her daily ‘pounding rush of cellular evacuation.’

Though there are many wistful moments, murky and dangerous youthful needlestick settings, heartfelt crys, starkly candid familial and other sharings from the deepest recesses, and the body’s ever-present pharmaceutic home invasion of hemolytic contraindications are what sear the scopophiliac read, yet Goldberg never breaks — but rather breaks free. 

Like a gripping live thriller-drama that dares to both provoke and entertain Undetectable seesaws and oscillates through the yo-yo-yin-yang of game-changing cathartic life moments.  As consensual peeping voyeurs we experience the pharma-phobic Goldberg experience her moment of transmission, decades of illness secrecy, and finally her cure, rebirth and incarnation as poet-survivor.

Both poet and the reader muse: What role did the affliction ultimately play on being alone, single, child-free, solitary and self-employed?

what happens
to a tapestry when you remove
the weft?

The answer is clear: once tested, detected, treated and if lucky to be cured by the miracle drug, the chains are removed, and one can again be exclusively co-infected with life’s limitless wonders.

While most can’t use poetry to heal, Goldberg demonstrates that by thoughtfully shedding a debilitating curse, and finally ‘purging the drug that purged the virus’ we are not small and we are not powerless to create. We can re-create ourselves, find all that is undetectable, lost, or unseen along the way, and relish the palpability of our ability to chelate, create and free ourselves.

Goldberg should be on everyone’s short-list for accomplished iconic poetry honouring the best ambrosially vulnerable self-portraits in prosemetric verse. What makes her book-length poem particularly compelling is how it unintentionally makes a persuasively weighty case for expanding the poet-in-residence program from legislatures, town libraries and schools to hospitals, ‘To all those still waiting,’ as Goldberg so generously dedicates the Undetectable.

Pharmaceutical economics be damned, let’s pray Undetectable becomes the shareholder gateway drug for demanding ‘curing the incurable,’ uncoupling corporate profits from conscience for the estimated 170 million still suffering, and the 1.4 million preventable deaths annually that might have been cured by Harvoni.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate Kim Goldberg’s personal cure, her colossal gift to us, and break out the champagne.

Howard Breen is an environmental and social justice activist-writer living in Victoria, British Columbia.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.