Body of Diminishing Motion

Body of Diminishing Motion


This collection of poems and memoir is the second title from Laurel Books, CavanKerry’s Literature of Illness imprint which features poetry and prose that explores the many poignant issues associated with confronting serious physical and/or psychological illness. Sidney speaks to the author’s experiences living with multiple sclerosis for four decades, as well as her personal legacy as the daughter of a strong-willed Holocaust survivor. Body of Diminishing Motion will speak to anyone who has been touched by illness and refused to succumb to its power.

Published by CavanKerry Press.

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Critical Reception

“What a wonderful book this is! The telling in prose and poems of the body's suffering—for years, her courage, the labor of her healing—not ever the cure she understands/her determination to live in family, to live with others, to travel, to live alone in the hard work of independence and the poems that don't omit the world's pain, that healing that must be done outside her own body.”
- Grace Paley

“Joan Sidney's book brings us firmly and vividly inside a life, into the web of relations that make up a self and a world: the matrix of family through which we understand the gifts and depredations of history and the fate of the body. And she brings us, most startlingly, into the experience of illness, inviting the reader to know something of what it is to feel oneself as a ‘body of diminishing motion.’ At the heart of this book's poems and prose is a long, heroic struggle to resist the erasures of MS, to contend with the tolls disease takes upon the body, the heart and the will. Readers will be grateful for the frank, direct voice of Sidney's work, its level gaze. She does literature's old work: to introduce us, intimately and warmly, to how it feels to live in a particular skin, in a specific set of circumstances. Her poems and prose both struggle against that skin and situation and seek ways to celebrate them. ‘What would it be like,’ she asks, ‘to love the life we live?’”
- Mark Doty

Sample Poems

Malka at Ninety

In Yiddish, your name means queen.
“Too hard to go to the beauty parlor,”
you have let your crown go
from gold to silver for the first time
since 1945, when after twenty-five months
you emerged from hiding.

Until you and Uncle Munio emigrated
and moved in across the street,
my parents refused to speak Polish.
“You’re Jews, not Poles,”
the government told them.
I hated those rough, guttural
sounds I couldn’t understand.
I wanted, like you, to belong
to both worlds: Flatbush,
where Coney Island and the Brooklyn Dodgers
were a nickel’s subway ride away;
and the shetl, where Zisl played his violin
in the street below your steps.

How did you survive
those twenty-five months, in a cellar
below the cellar of a house? Thirty-five
Jews in a space designed for twelve.
How did you breathe without a single inhalation
of fresh air? Endure without a second of sunlight?
What did you eat when the rats
stole your stockpiled flour, barley, kasha?

Late Sunday afternoons on East 2nd Street,
you’d bribe me with your fox-head stoles
to behave, letting me find them in your bedroom drawer.
We’d pretend your evergreen bedspread was the forest
where they stalked. After dinner, you’d pile
my plate with rogeloch, and thumb-print
cookies filled with strawberry jam, powdered
sugar sprinkled on top.

Today I sit in your living room of twenty-five years,
on the twelfth floor, Miami Beach.
How many years since you touched
your oven? These days I bake
your honey cake, laced with whiskey
and walnuts. Laila, your Jamaican caretaker,
brews tea. Her name means night.
She blares “Days of Our Lives”
as we try to talk.
“Starosc nie radosc,” at the elevator door
you whisper. “Old age is no pleasure.”


In this marriage of water and air
always she is the beginner

teaching her hands and arms
to push away the water, to raise

her head, to breathe. Though
she swims her laps, butterflying

up and back, trying to kick loose
her leg muscles, the hamstrings

spasm, then left foot crosses right,
forces her to invent a one-legged

way to swim. No more can she
hoist her body out of the pool, or

climb the metal stairs. Instead
she sits in the hydraulic chair, waits

for someone to flick the switch.
Immobile in air,

gravity reclaims her.
In the locker room, there’s

always a woman to pull up
her panties, stretch slacks, socks.

After years of early-bird swims
they know each other’s bodies.

Wrinkling skin, diminishing limbs.
Nothing holds them back.


At eleven years old my daughter reads me
the rules, insists we play poker
on the Oriental rug, closing both doors
for privacy. In the first deal two aces

crowd my king. I bid five, she passes,
throws out two tens. I win. Not like the first time.
Next-door in Flatbush, two sisters taught me
strip poker. With each deal they giggled, waiting

for me to show them more. We sat in a circle.
Tossed clothes in the center. A pile of shoes,
socks, hankies, barrettes began to take
the shape of girls. First to unbuckle

my belt, I slid off my woolen skirt, stretched
the turtleneck over my ears. The room
was cold. Like tonight, winter, my hair
has turned the color of coal dust and frost

laced across their windows above the cellar door.
My daughter huddles deep into her cards, her lips
parting to blow wisps of black out of her eyes.
I see myself in that other room, the radiator

coughing steam. No window quilts, no thermal panes.
I shiver, hug my shoulders with crossed hands,
down to my cotton panties, my first bra.
In their skirts and sweaters they stare. Their eyes

make me hot and cold at the same time. My cards
can’t win: no flush, no triplets. They watch
my fingers unhook the bra. They stare at my secret
tiny breasts, nipples like sentries in the cold.

I hate their eyes, their laugh, their warm clothes.
Two against one and I can’t stop. Nor can I win.
Not with the cards they deal me, not in
their room. I am naked in my panties

when their mother opens the door. She tells me
to get dressed, to go home, a memory that still
makes me cross my arms and hug my shoulders.
I hear the furnace hum below us in the basement,

my husband and sons gallop the stairs
outside my door. For these few moments
we sit warm and safe inside our house.
My daughter deals me another hand.

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