Language Isn’t What You Think

PART I

     When you think about it, the evolution of language is a compelling topic for literary folks, and ought to be required study for literary critics. People have an innate capacity for language. The neurological center—what we might by analogy call the cellular “processor”—lies in an organized nucleus of cells in that part of the brain right behind your left ear. Language is not a town-made capacity: it is hard-wired in, as are the other senses, such as eyesight, for example. Our vision has evolved to detect a useful, finite spectrum of electromagnetic radiation emanating from the outside world. Using eyesight, we can detect important things out there: I can see the prey I want to kill and eat, notice the vegetable world from which to select edibles, ogle the other members of my species with whom I long to mate. 

     There are those of us human beings, of course, who have preferred to mate with other species than our own. The example of shepherds lying with their sheep is Biblical in scope, and I myself have known a particular farmer who would have sex with one of his cows. The give-away was the animal hair and fecal matter spread all down the front of his overalls. And as I recall, Governor Winship in the Plymouth Colony hung one of the original pilgrims for having sex with a turkey. They also hung the turkey, which is sadly, grimly humorous. Those first pilgrims meant business.

     With all this acknowledged, no one would say that the interspecies sex was a consequence of poor eyesight. They could see what they were doing, make selective choices among alternative beings in the world—because their capacity for vision referred to a material world existing outside of their mental activity. 

     You can maybe imagine language acting in a similar way. Spear in hand, you and your companion are out hunting for a wooly mammoth to kill, when the guy beside you abruptly yells ‘Run!” or something similar. In this way language might be immediately useful, multiplying the scope of the other senses, which have also evolved to respond to environmental events. The immediate assumption might be that the language has expressed the need for intelligent, discriminant behavior, quickly executed in the material world, in response to changing material conditions. It wouldn’t do, for instance, to run toward the source of threat—and in fact, if your companion took the necessary time to do the thing rightly, he might yell “Run from the charging mammoth directly to our right.”

     The immediate assumption might be that the eyesight detected something in the environment to which the imperative linguistic product referred—and referred as well to the speed of the approach, to the direction from which it was advancing, and perhaps even to the intended mayhem that the advance suggested.

     Those philosophically minded hunters for whom language did not refer to any referent, for whom no real ‘signified’ existed behind the ‘sign’, might prefer to deconstruct the etymology of the verb ‘run’, to quibble with the definition of ‘mammoth,’ or to be concerned about the inaccuracy of the word “right.’ However, that misconcept of language would carry its own sad correction, and our brainy hunter would not live to reproduce either with his own species, or with any other preferred choice.

     These days, those philosophically minded hunters roam through many university literature departments—where they are also about to become extinct, I fear. But that is the subject of another conversation.

PART II

    “ If I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again.”

      I have already asked you to imagine yourself as a neolithic hunter roaming around, spear in hand,  and using language to negotiate dangers originating in the natural, unconstructed world. This time I’d like to imagine something a bit more probable: that we are contemporary neuroscientists. As such, we can acknowledge our incredulity at post-modern language theory—because we are starting with a different concept of evidence, and indeed with a different conceptual pedigree entirely. As scientists we are looking at the neurological bases of behavior, the source of which is an organ—the brain—that has evolved over immensities of time, in response to uncountable numbers of environmental interactions, so that its capacities are determined according to its fit in its material niche. There are other niches, but we do not fit in them: for instance, we cannot breathe too good under water, we cannot eat bamboo for any length of time and survive, we cannot in arid places go for months without water. It is up to other animals to fill those niches.

     We inhabit the niche we are designed to inhabit—which makes good tautological sense.  I have more to say about this topic, but because I am at heart a shy and modest person, and so do not want to flash my naked, unseemly nerdism, I have provided links to brief lectures: one regarding the neurological areas in the brain responsible for language (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFGmCRc0njk); the other regarding a neuroanatomical area that coordinates our mental and physiological rhythms—called circadian rhythms—with the cyclical presence and absence of sunlight (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43E6Q7a8X68).

     What these links will do is provide some evidence—as well as further links to the world of other related evidence—that I am not just making this shit up. The entire worldwide community of neuroscientists believes from vast experimental evidence that, down to the most intimate neurophysiological degree—down into our very cells—, we are tied to events in the natural world around us. And language, as a neurologically wired capacity, is a feature of that linkage. As thinking, speaking human beings, we are as totally synched to the events in the natural world as our iPhones, Droids and iPads are synched to our computers.

     Post Modernism has a briefer pedigree: perhaps if we stretch things we can extend it back to Kant and his belief that the noumenon cannot be understood, but we might all feel more confident with a less ambitious lineage extending from Nietzsche through Husserl and Heidegger into Levinas, Barthes and Derrida, then forward to the current intellectual heirs. This is a Continental heritage, and works most persuasively with Continental languages. The way in which Kanji, for instance,  purports to refer to its signified clearly works on principles that are not well-characterized by Western examples. 

     But even with the continental tongues, the referent to which a sign points is not commonly in question. If, for instance, I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again. Some of you might even catch the intentional allusion to Keats. Further, if we were honest among ourselves, we would recognize that the books and articles Derrida has written were published with the particular intent to communicate his ideas, regarding which he worked with discernible effort to convey accurately. If you happened to attend one of his lectures at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught in his later years (and from which, I blush to confess, I graduated) you could have enjoyed his personal, extended, elegant use of language as it was classically conceived—and even ask in interrogative sentences what he meant by the ‘trace’ that language unearths.

Part III

     “In which Postmodern Despair is Vanquished, and We Can Return to our Universities and Teach Poetry.”

     My point—my purpose in making my previous observations is this: there is a disconnection between language as it is now philosophically conceived in postmodern discourse, and language as it is commonly used—even among the philosophers themselves. When Derrida and the murmuration of his followers reduce meaning solely to the relationship inhering between the sign and the signified—the noun and its referent—-they are omitting the vast majority of linguistic functions. Accordingly, they have imported a reductivist platform that is being made to stand for the whole, immense range of expressive uses. Just to pick one immediate literary example, when Marc Anthony at Caesar’s funeral keeps repeating his observation, “And sure, Brutus is an honorable man,” the meaning of that phrase—understood by all who hear it—has nothing to do with the literal referent. 

     The unpublished intention, implicit in the sign/signified postulation, is to introduce an unacknowledged axiom: that the true purpose of language is to reveal the ontologically real. The postmodern formulation tacitly asserts that language is not conceived for quotidian uses (“While you’re out, will you bring me home a portabello sandwich from the Black Sheep deli?”) or for poetical, non-referential pleasures (“The world is blue like an orange.”). The essential, defining purpose of language is as a tool for the contemplative mind to extract the unknowable “ding an sich” —in the performance of which, as we are told over and over, language fails.

     Well, now, that purported failure logically follows only if we accept the reductive proposition that, first, language is merely a matter of nouns and referents, and that, second, its essential purpose lies in its philosophical discourse. However, we are not constrained, either by logic or by common usage, to accept either proposition. Shakespeare (see Marc Anthony above) along with just about every body else in the world has already discovered and published other useful propositions for language. Here, for instance, is one such provocative idea:  

From 1991 until sometime in 2000, this image/symbol is the name of the rock star ‘formerly known as Prince’. As such, it seems to me to turn postmodernism inside out, in that we have a sign connected to its signified without the medium of language at all. 

     To choose another instance, here is one of Charlie Chaplin’s famous opinions on the matter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_du8fjUN0Kg

For Chaplin, language appears to be an expressive act—extended sequentially through time—that necessarily involves gesture, facial expression and tone of voice—all of which transcends the literal vocabulary, which in this particular instance is comprised of faux Italian*.

    Of course, the ambiguity of language might in fact not be a function of all languages, but merely a feature of the Continental ones. For example, here is just a little of the mathematical language describing the physical reality of the twenty-six dimensional flat spacetime: 

I admit that this is not a language that I find especially pertinent to how I live, but I do believe that this is the best language to be used by those men and women—those physicists—who are truly, successfully capturing the nature of the noumenon: the absolute physics of the universe.

     If we do not commonly find among physicists the despair so often present in postmodernism, we also fail to locate individual differences in their mathematical language that will allow for particular people to identify themselves. Math is a universal language. It is better able to control its meanings, but at the expense of human definition, for which French, German, English—indeed virtually every other language is far better suited, even though that individuation necessarily introduces ambiguities. What I mean when I articulate a thought is not always reliably grasped in its full import by my partner in conversation. My differences introduce ambiguity into expression. I am other than you are, and what I mean—the shades of purpose I convey, the tenor of my voice, the pacing I choose—is individually mine. 

     It is exactly this individuality against which philosophy has protested. And it is this protest that I, in my turn, would want to revalue. I am far from equating linguistic ambiguity with the despair of failed significance that we find everywhere lamented in postmodernism. I would argue instead that ambiguity—precisely because it prevents material control and the successful exercise of power—is a joyous escape from convention, the delight in play, the opportunity for humor, the wonder of the unexpected, the nature of hope.

Know what I mean?

*Here is the text of Chaplin’s Song:

 Se bella giu satore
Je notre so cafore
Je notre si cavore
Je la tu la ti la twah

La spinash o la bouchon
Cigaretto Portabello
Si rakish spaghaletto
Ti la tu la ti la twah

Senora pilasina
Voulez-vous le taximeter?
Le zionta su la seata
Tu la tu la tu la wa

Sa montia si n’amora
La sontia so gravora
La zontcha con sora
Je la possa ti la twah

Je notre so lamina
Je notre so cosina
Je le se tro savita
Je la tossa vi la twah

Se motra so la sonta
Chi vossa l’otra volta
Li zoscha si catonta
Tra la la la la la la

How the Widow Velma Learned to Dance

I must apologize for all the tarps
and cans of paint I’ve strewn around the room
while painting Velma’s ceiling to improve
the vista from her bed of suffering,
where she’s lain, prostrate and staring upward,
since they carted Alfred in. I watched
her barking, I surprised myself by noting,
Velma with her white hair barking
as they carted Alfred in, dead
as meat. She levitated purely out
of anguish, bumping like a zeppelin
about the room, and up the stairwell before
our sense of peril was aroused, and she
nearly had transcended to the attic when
I finally caught her by the weights
of human nature. That was close.  Afterwards,
dressed in her bed things, she rode the unbridled
horse of hysterics. The spectacle has all but killed
the little shell of Evelyn, the eldest daughter,
who arranged the sweet peas in a vase,
and weeps beneath the rainy constellations
of her feelings. She isn’t being very
photogenic, and genuinely cringes
at her mother’s hydrophobias.
Ho, but Velma often battered Alfred’s
sentiments: Fat boy! she had yelled
in Evelyn’s hearing, and then denied him roasted
apples as he liked them most. Oh,
she bellowed, holding Evelyn by the cuff,
Oh she thought his love lubricious, physical
as it was, and for years refused
to touch his dick

                             My guess is Evelyn never
will forget the dreadful revelations
gibbered in her ear, and on the whole
remembers more about the funeral
than she wants–especially the bloat
man himself exposing what is mortal
in his box. Pray for a huge pity
on this woman, on us all, whose fantasies
and tricks of mind proved morbid as her father’s
body–which we viewed at last, to my
surprise, before the pageant minister,
robed in shreds and patches, bespoke himself,
closed the coffin lid, and sealed my friend
apart inside a distant and inhospitable
land. I wasn’t ready. In a lifetime
when the ozone layer is penetrated
by a mother’s can of hairspray, I’m humbled
by the victory of causes and
their preposterous effects, chased by lunacies
and wonders, in which I place all hope. The ceremony
grated harshly to its end, and then
we scattered from the graveside, green and drowned,
into the civil streets of the remaining
world, leaving Alfred to be stuffed
discreetly, and behind our backs into
a dirty hole. No one stayed to see
it closed, or watch the tanagers among
the starry bushes. Troupials were blowing
airs into the emptiness blue
as ink, and Elam could be overheard
to sing his sea chanteys, Sarah could
be humming something typically obscure,
but reminiscent of the fiddler birds
remembered from her youth. To hear them sing
like this across the gross diameter
of our experience, theirs and mine,
reminds me of psychotic processes,
or the ecstasies and revels of
medieval saints, friars summoning
through the gorgeous armories of prayer
their own seraphic messages from heaven.
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d maybe
stand a chance of pressuring important
messages from someone big, but otherwise
I’m used to the illumination from
the massive, dazzling static of the pulsars,
binary suns, and singularities
exploding overhead. In this century,
a body’s gotten cynical about
the salesmen seeing aliens, or postal
workers answering command hallucinations.

So the evolution of my jealousy
has seemed occult and melancholy, my brain
has held by night, in unknown places, an
ungodly envy of the Raleigh Baptist
women on the church committee who
communed in Velma’s parlor with their layer
cakes, and minced meat pies, to tranquilize
the seething widow with ancestral empathies,
at a time when I was drawing breath in pain,
but trying to be manly. Evelyn catered
to them sweetly from the hoard of pastries,
and each was growing sleepy at the moment
Velma hitched her afghan up, and ventured
into memory to ramble on
regarding Alfred’s manic appetite
for minced meat pie. Sisters, she had started,
and recalled incendiary chickens,
the cremated harrows and plows that happened when
the barn combusted, and there was Alfred, famed
among his neighbors as he extricated
their Barbary mare and foal, leading both
into the archetypal fields of sugar
beets.

           A minute later she lamented
her inner life, stuffed with history,
its revelations awful, the wind in it cold–
but that was after she remembered Alfred
in the ballroom, in the middle of
the rhapsody, had whisked the linen table
cloth from off a vacant table, and laid
it like a cape across her naked shoulders,
damp from the preceding waltz. There
she sat amid the sore-footed dancers at
the Peabody Hotel, no less, the shoeblacks
grinning in the halls.

                                    Forty years
of marriage passed before we had to gather
as a family for Alfred’s funeral,
with Evelyn pointing out the goldfish half
the size of boulders, Calypso blooms like dualisms,
and other universals of the Elams’
garden. We tried to keep our chatter to
a minimum.  New mothers washed
their boobs and red nipples: Keep an eye
on the toddlers, they called to husbands sitting
under the perpetual umbrellas,
sipping beers. Baseball featured the
St. Louis Cardinals losing to L.A.,
and all the kids had trooped into the kitchen
where, as usual, Sarah was bending
spoons with her telepathy: it was
a moving spectacle, and kept the children
out of mischief in the darker parts
of Elam’s woods, in which the lion plants
might eat them. It could haven gotten ugly, and turned
the public off. But our precipitation
there had been to bury Alfred, and
to smother Velma with our Southern over-
compensated love. You surely are
a comfort, Velma told the few of us
to bring her pomegranates, mow her lawn,
and Uncle Eddie Seymour–one of our
dear ethnic Catholics, along with Uncle
Anton–mornings in the shower said
novenas for her better health. Even
the gangsters of the family were reigning
in their hyperactive noise, and trying
to be tender,

                       but nothing of our physic
worked. Help. We had to be a little
smarter than we were. Eventually
we left the suffocating flowers, and
dispersed for home, nursing gingerly
our aching tennis elbows, and soothing our
pubescent sons and daughters, who developed
crushes on their cousins, and were then
bereft and humid in the separate backs
of each of our departing cars. What
had we accomplished? A unity of errors.
Velma’s grief, like solar heating, was still
in infancy. Alfred had been newly
and forever plowed beneath the Judas
trees when we reentered our abiding
cities, stepped off planes, and in walking
to the baggage claims admitted we
were irritated by the Krishna beggars
and the other vegetarians
displayed at airports. We assumed routines,
returned to copulations on our water
beds, how momentarily angelic,
and meant to be. We pulled the drapes. Incense
flamed in ashtrays,

                               and afterwards at malls
the charlatans had tossed us caramels
as some promotion–and so again
our metamorphosis into consumers
had us deftly waddling after sales,
and our way of life had fallen into
days of golf, and nights of agonizing
on our backswings with their unintended
circles. Velma, on the other hand,
remained depressed, and deviled by the malice
of her history. The contradictions
made no sense to her, for instance, once
when she was lost among the parlous streets
of Memphis, cabined in her huge Dodge,
and then a neatly groomed, a beautifully,
uh, rouged and tailored–in short a gorgeous
pederast kindly showed her home.
Travel seemed to be for liberals,
or other widows better suited to
it. She commuted in between the supermarkets,
armed with coupons, and on the loose among
her former incarnations as a cook
when she was young, and when her mother was
tubercular. The angers that had famished
Alfred’s appetites originated
in the sloughs of childhood as she stood
on top of orange crates to reach the stove,
and turn the rabbit quarters over with
a wooden spatula. And now, as then,
she gathered all her skillets, and attacked
the human drives for comfort, food and drink
by searing fatty meats, lubricating
everything with bacon grease, and acting
altogether like she never heard
the word cholesterol. Sunday brunch
became a terror to the delicate,
clogging the metabolism so
that afterwards, for days, my colon was
inflamed. Alfred was a bigger man,
however, and would have busted through the finicky
adjustments I required on Velma’s noxious
paradise: her mustang green grape
pie inside a milken crust was all
I’d touch, plus chicken, plus grits and pig’s feet. It
was clear to me, or should have been, the way
the flight of our desire was not between
our pleasures and their remedies, but
from hope to hope. I’ve been a slow learner.
One of Elam’s hopes was sighting whales
when he was on his polar expedition,
but it failed in its anticipated
greatness. One of ours turned out to be
that Velma journey to the Holy Lands
with Mrs. Usdan. Even I applauded
that. Like Solomon, let her be rich
in points of view, great in diction–haimisha,
a beauty if I’ve ever seen one, her hair
like a flock of goats.

                                  But she only
got as far as Nova Scotia where
she haunted fishing villages, and at
a minimum was drenched in all the rain.
She never did recuperate. When people
speak of it, they have to deal with Velma’s
losses, which are real. Once the brains
went out of Alfred, she never could recoup
the difference, never could recover,
never marry any of her ancient
suitors, who came replete with condominiums,
two physicians each who could not heal,
and simply chests of medicines.

                                                      And yet,
and by degrees, she stopped apologizing
for vitality. Several years
enwheeled around before I heard the joggers
trot aerobically across the lawns
as Velma roused the street at 6 a.m.
the stereo, to which she pirouetted
in her self-expression, deceived herself
in waltzing joyously at doctor’s orders:
to improve her heart, increase her circulation,
Dr. Rosen effectively prescribed
the studio at Fred Astaire’s Emporium
of Dancing, where Velma celebrated for
a fee the measured steps of tangos, danced
the sacred rumba, and participated
in the group emotions of a set of friends,
who, eventually, would take or leave
her. Each of us must love a special form
of violence. Velma found that dancing
was a multiplicity of social
fun, and soon discovered further that
the end of competition was in winning.
She has a cabinet packed in loving cups
she garnered at the national cotillions
held for ballroom dancers. I was at
the one in Memphis, watching Velma come
in second best because she rushed her entrance,
having gotten caught in traffic. Having
thought of strong language, and indicating
the dang weather, she nosed her Dodge through acid
rain that strangulated the mid-South,
not to mention Memphis, where it washed
the bridges out, polluted aquifers,
and mildewed everything that didn’t move:
closets full of linen, expensive winter
furs, shag carpets. Aquatic plants
were rooting in the living rooms, suspended
from the draperies, and catfish centralized
in kitchens, gluing luminescent eggs
in clutches to the bottom rungs of chairs.
It was one of our most famous hurricanes
for damage, calling forth the nation’s soldiers,
who resurrected barges sunk by the
deluge and scattered through suburbia–
bodies in the flower beds, and pools
of oil that oozed into the ritzy bedrooms,
where they emanated a prehistoric
stench. Velma scraped the killer mushrooms
from her walls before she dressed, and floated
to the Peabody Hotel, arriving
as the concierge conveyed the celebrated
ducks out of the lobby pond and fountain,
and in single file escorted them
through coteries of dazzling blondes in diamonds,
veered around bohemians, and cliques
of movie critics, then negotiated
plutocrats puffing on cigars
before he finally commandeered the elevator
to the basement, where they roost. Velma
paid them no attention as she trotted
every bit like Ginger Rogers to
the ballroom. It’s the end of speeches, the contest
will begin. Hurry. On the podium,
the maestro waved, and instruments combusted,
honest men huffed on saxophones
and trumpeters cut loose, but the truly
hyperbolic notes ballooned above
the tubas, while the treble violins
were sawing at their scores, the cellists waiting
for an entrance into music that
compelled the dancers to commence their risky
flapping, their whirling on the floor like Turkish
houris. They appeared and disappeared
as the ephemerae they are, infernal
beauties stomping toward the asymptotes
to strut in front of judges, each of whom
was buttoned in a tux, and stunned by the
insomnia of love. Velma hoofed
it with her gigolo–and it wasn’t
anybody’s business if she did–
and everywhere the elderly women with rubious
cheeks exuded their enthusiasm–
I said, were enthusiastic as
they sashayed, inspired by venery and sweet
cooperation. No one’s heart is ever
broken, though I find unspeakably
I have the urge to break them. I’m not the man
I was. And though there were no saxophones
and tubas, no treble violins precisely
as I saw them in the case of Velma’s
grief, still I wouldn’t either want
to say it didn’t happen just this way,
nor claim that, even if you wanted to,
you couldn’t see what looked like frolic in
the ballroom, or detect the signs of transport
in the many detours of exaggerated
waltzes–played by friends of mine beyond
all reason, and on toy horns and winds
in which suspend the deaths of Velma, me
and them

The Lyric Narrative

This afternoon, Thursday the 9th of February, at 3:00pm, I  was to participate on a panel entitled The Lyric Narrative. If you see this post in time, and happen to be at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Washington D.C., you may jog over the Marquis Salon 7 & 8 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and attend the presentation. I am myself unable to attend, having succumbed to the flu, so I have remained in New England under the blanketing fury of a blizzard. Here is the Introduction I would have presented, if I could be there:

A Brief Apology for Narrative

It’s a simple truth that contemporary poetry is devoted to the personal lyric—one test of which might be to find a book of narrative poetry among the hundreds and hundreds of lyric volumes downstairs in the Book Fair. There won’t be many—because the personal lyric is what we have all been taught in our workshops to write: poems comprised by a momentary personal revelation, an individual truth spoken by a sole voice usually taken to be the voice of the poet. What is revealed can vary, the language of the revelation may differ from poet to poet, but that revelation nevertheless occurs to a private speaker inhabiting an individual moment.

But this poetics ignores a multitude of subjects that simply do not lend themselves to momentary expression. Important subjects that command our attention in other daily contexts. The present battles at Standing Rock, to choose just one example, cannot be fully appreciated unless the history of conflict and genocide of native American peoples is acknowledged. Here we again have armed white people invading the sacred territory of indigenous populations. More than one person is involved, and multiple events are elaborated over time. In short, the scope of this conflict is much larger than a personal response to it: the tragedies are not there for personal edification or the poet’s moral improvement. The complexities require narrative sequences to connect the parts, and to recognize characters other than the one lyric point of view

With this said by way of introduction, each of our panelists has written poetry that blends poetic intimacy and public discourse. The panelists each write about that interplay: how lesbian partnership invokes both private feeling and public comment, for instance, or how the public shame of political internment mixes with personal trauma. Such topics require extended emotional scope. Our five poets each have imagined hybrid solutions in long sustained poetic sequences. Two have written book-length chronicles; others write extended prose poems. Together the poets will discuss how they build sustained forms, and will read from their work to illustrate the shape of their thought.

In The Wild

img_2261

Part I

The speed with which medical conventions can domesticate the most outlandish requests, or re-frame even grotesquely violent behaviors, is an under-appreciated marvel of modern social life. In virtually every other setting—for instance, at your workplace—, it remains inappropriate for me to approach you, hand you a Dixie cup, and request that you fill it with your excrement. Work conventions rightly disallow this behavior, which would appear out of place, out of bounds, and downright weird.

However, if I approached you in my hospital office, handed you a paper cup with a wooden spatula, and there asked you to fill it with a stool sample, the request would be rendered perfectly normal because the conventions in that setting make it okay to require unacceptable things of you. In the right context, one of my colleagues might insert his finger into your anus, peer wisely into your vagina, thread a camera up into your colon to take pictures–or even cut you open from your collarbone to your pubic mound, slice out your heart, and put it in an ice chest. Only temporarily, mind you, because the promise is that someone will put it back when the time comes.

Although hospitals do their best to disguise the fact by building routinized, institutional facades (look at the architecture of the hospital pictured with this article), they are nonetheless the wildest places I can think of—far crazier than prisons, science laboratories, or military compounds, though they may share aspects of each of these establishments. Hospitals are the licensed institutions in which we hide the uncanny things of the world, chiefly by erecting conventions that suspend our incredulity. Hospitals assert the commonplace, affirm routines, profess the customary, declare humane incentives: just mundane practice going on in here, another ordinary day of saving lives, move along, nothing to look at. And in fact, you will not be allowed to look behind the closed doors.

But let me tell you, if at some point in your life, you discover that you need to be frightened–that you want to challenge your complacencies in ways you do not control beforehand–then hospitals are where you want to be. Nowhere else have I routinely touched people, circumstances, fates that otherwise I never would have imagined.

I never would have thought, for example, if left on my own—never thought to step behind the Senator showing me and my friends around the White House, and try to give him a bear hug. I am just too inhibited that way, and I don’t like Republicans. But Andrew, an adolescent high school student from one of the blue New England states, was comfortable with open displays of good feeling, and felt obliged to make a public declaration of his patriotism by embracing the natty senator addressing the New England Debate Club.

Naturally, Andrew called down upon himself the hordes of Secret Servicemen positioned throughout the building. The event I am writing about happened years ago at this point, well before 911, but even then the Secret Servicemen didn’t take chances–and given the initial urgency, it is to their credit that they pretty quickly recognized this was not a criminal assault, there were no bombs involved, and that everybody was safe, after a fashion. They had no idea what was really going on, but their expertise was with threats and violence, which they were trained to recognize when they saw them, and Andrew’s behaviors fit neither category.

For one thing, he was pretty disorganized in his attempt–not hesitant so much as uncoordinated in a weird way. He was also spouting a sort of ‘word salad’ that might have been mistaken at first for an unknown foreign language–except recognizable, though misused, words in English were mixed in. He wasn’t hard to deter from his intended purpose, the teacher-chaperones intervened with the government men, and eventually one of them took him back to his hotel room.

By report, he seemed to improve over the course of the afternoon, though his parents were called nonetheless, and arrangements were made to whisk him back home–in the course of which, however, he suffered another, more severe and persisting disturbance to his language production and his mental organization. He never made it home per se, but was taken directly to my Medical Center and admitted through the ER, where he was taken for a CAT scan. He had an aneurism in his left middle cerebral artery, which had begun to leak, causing disturbances in his language and motor control over parts of his right bodily extremities.

If he had been 75 years old, I think the symptoms would have been recognized more quickly than his were, because mid-adolescence is not typically an age at which to develop strokes. Though no one said anything, my sense at the time was that the adults around him all were assuming he had been taking some recreational drug, and his goofiness was the result. In truth, he would have been better off if he had simply been wasted on something fun, the effects of which were temporary. But instead of merely needing de-tox, he was awaiting brain surgery to clip the artery.

I was enlisted to evaluate him to establish a portrait of his current level of cognitive performance, which would provide a baseline for his post-surgical therapies. Accordingly, I visited over two afternoons as arrangements were made for his surgery. There were the formal portions of the evaluation, which mapped out memory, attention span, visual-spatial organization, executive planning, and of course his linguistic functioning, which looked pretty decent even with the aneurism. There were also the informal parts of our interaction that let him tell me, off and on, that he liked political science, that he was an only child, and that his favorite band was Tool or Nirvana, depending. I preferred Alice in Chains to either one of them–which no way could he believe, man, because Cobain was such a great guitarist, and the best writer. And besides, Courtney Love was hot.

This could be a fun job. For two days we definitely had the best music going on the floor.

Part II

Other days, on other units, were less musical. On Thursdays we had neuropathology rounds at 7 a.m. in a group of inter-connecting rooms in the basement sub-floor near the morgue. There the neurosurgeons, the radiologists and the neuropsychologists (i.e. me and two others) would assemble among the pathologists to engage in Brain Cuttings: an instructive event during which the brains of persons who had died would be sliced in coronal sections to allow the group of us to examine the gross pathologies, before the sections would be given to other pathologists in other rooms to stain and photograph. Often there would be two or sometimes three brains trussed up in a vat of formalin, where they had been immersed in order to solidify and preserve them for the cutting.

In themselves, brains are remarkably fragile–which is the reason they each float in the cerebrospinal fluid inside each of our respective skulls. Suspended in that salty fluid, they weigh about one fifty-sixth of what they would on land, so to speak. The brain’s own weight would be lethal otherwise; it would collapse fatally on itself simply by the pull of gravity, squashing the life out. So it is a delicate thing to remove the brain from the braincase, and slide it into the fixative that will solidify it enough to allow manipulation. It takes a sensitive and dexterous hand–governed by the attentive mind of a sociopath. Here we’d be standing by this large butcher’s block, on which the pathologist would set the brain he just fished out of the formalin tank, and in the adjoining room, separated by a kind of shower curtain, we could hear the whirr of the diamond saw as the other pathologist was cutting off the top of a recently-deceased-person’s head. It took some getting used to. Hannibal Lecter might have trained in a place like this.

There were two pathologists: a male and female team. The man–call him Dr. Taft–always chose to cut the brains; the woman–call her Dr. Adler–had the knack of extricating the slippery cerebral mass from its protective layers of skin, bone and meninges without brutalizing it, and getting it into the formalin with minimal damage. I don’t know if she ever knew whose forehead it was into which she pressed that whirling saw blade, but the rest of us had to know. Otherwise we could not relate whatever pathologies we saw in the fixed brains to the particular medical histories that proved so fatal to our patients. That meant that each brain, which was labeled by the kind of tag you might find dangling on an appliance in Sears, could be connected to a clinical history, which one of us would read to the group while Dr. Taft prepared to start cutting slices.

You cannot believe some of the stories. One brain I remember looked as if it had been shot with a spray of ice. This had been a young pregnant woman who, some time during her third trimester, had been engaged in love-making with her husband. Given the size of her huge gravid womb, the couple had chosen to have oral sex. Unbeknown to either of them, as the poor guy was going down on his wife, his excited heavy breathing was introducing air into her vagina, up the birth canal, through the dilating cervix, and into the placenta, where it was absorbed through the immense plexus of blood vessels there. Their sexual excitement, in other words, fed multiple air bubbles into her blood stream, which abruptly killed her when her pumping heart shot all those emboli into her brain. She never knew what hit her.

You can imagine what it must have been like. For one second or so he thought he had brought his wife to climax, only to realize that, no, something was stunningly wrong. By the time he had called 911, she was already dead, and by the time the EMT’s arrived, they had lost the baby too. The group of us stood there in numbed silence, not making eye contact, and waiting just to get the session over with.

I never went to neuropathology rounds without preparing for them. The fundamental premise was, of course, that someone had died–which, naturally enough, occurs with some frequency in hospitals. But it nonetheless required a sort of steeliness, a resolve to take it all on, to walk into that room and slice up someone’s brain. It wasn’t for everyone. We strolled down unadorned corridors toward restricted rooms where, like it or not, our Thursday exercises assumed religious proportions. After all, our rituals required human sacrifice. With the permission of the deceased, whose organs we were using, we called up the gods of science, and retrieved truths as we found them in the literal world of the dead. We had mortality itself on the cutting block, and took the opportunity to dissect the accidents of disease and infirmity, tease out vital membranes, and prepare as best we could against the onslaughts waiting for every last one of us.

These were perilous ceremonies, requiring perhaps a sort of ancient Mayan sensibility. Mercy wasn’t in it. Dr. Taft accidentally inflicted a vicious wound in his hand with the knife he was using to transect one of those brains, and though he survived the resulting systemic infection, it was a very near thing. He was ill for a prolonged time, and he wound up losing some of the function in that hand.

My own changes came some months before Taft’s injury, and had a different provenance all together. As we gathered around the ceremonial block that Thursday, and as Taft prepared to make his first cut at the frontal pole of a male brain, I heard someone–one of the interns, probably–begin reading the clinical history of the specimen we were about to study: The patient was a 17-year-old adolescent male named Andrew, the voice intoned,  a neurosurgery patient with an aneurism, who post-surgically bled out in the recovery room. Oh man. Oh man. I could see the extensive, black irregular pool of blood that had guttered into the left parietal lobe, the left anterior temporal lobe. I didn’t want to see the rest of the ugly stuff in the lateral ventricles, once Taft cut back to them.

I was looking instead for the place where Andrew kept Kurt Cobain’s music, the place where he knew the words to Lithium, Aneurysm, Heart-Shaped Box–the secret area where he stored his version of Nirvana. Everyone would have, if they had known him.

What Did You Think?

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Current events lately have vividly published the persistence of human violence against other human beings, which in turn has raised conversations everywhere around me in my particular circle of friends regarding issues of social justice and free will. You might be engaging in them yourself in response to Trump’s latest transgression, or the last atrocity in Orlando, or in remembrance of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the most recent instance of a collegiate man drugging a woman to rape her in peace. Take your pick: there are ample occasions to goad you toward thoughtful formulations of behavior.

Among my friendly conversations, the question arises whether these aggressions are necessary. Do people who want to hurt other people have any real choice in the matter, or are they compelled to aggress against others by deterministic forces–by environmental conditions and pressures, let’s say, or by genetic, hard-wired proclivities? Social violence is clearly both frequent and widespread enough to prompt outcries for just legal responses and political solutions. However, behavioral formulations are compelling not merely to political consciousness, but also to science itself with its outright investment in material causation. The aim in science, of whatever category, is to think preferentially about what determinism means: how one material entity effects another created thing: how atoms conglomerate to cause material substances, for instance, how gravity sticks us to our places, and so on. If any given person is determined to behave in a certain way–perhaps especially, though not exclusively, if the behavior is violent–, then we may want to understand the mechanisms responsible for the outburst.

Recently there have been a couple of articles in the scientific news that have introduced uncertainty into the accepted model of causative instrumentation. Historically the primary axiom has been that no effect can be created without a cause—which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable axiom to believe in. A material effect must be determined by a material cause. If something can be created without a cause, then we are in realms other than science–religion, for instance, or the paranormal, in which scientists would be admitting to the efficacy of ghosts haunting the world, miracles arising out of nowhere, and magic affecting the substrate of reality. Gandalf could be real, Harry Potter is roaming somewhere in London, and the Loch Ness Monster is still eating Scotsmen.

The trouble is, at no level has causality been determined, even as the degree of analysis sharpens, and so thus far there are no solutions to be had. Science keeps telling us that it really should be simple: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that sort of thing. It seems an easy matter to conclude that I throw a brick because the mechanical action of my arm is caused by thoughts, ideas and emotions directing me to throw it. The arm must be caused to throw, or it won’t move. Or, to be more provocative, if someone goes into a family planning clinic in Colorado to shoot the doctors, he must have motivations and ideas that caused his behavior. He is not a computer that can be taken over and controlled from without–like aliens directing his actions using bluetooth devices from their starship. (Of course, he might presumably be psychotic, but even then science would still say that the lack of reason is caused by material malfunctions among the dopaminergic neurons—but that is another conversation).

Hence brain functioning is itself laid out for exploration. The presumption is that brains are biological mechanisms that operate along recognized mechanistic principles. Thoughts arise within our minds according to functions that can be assayed: vision is intact, recognition of consensual reality is intact, and the aims of the behavior are programmed by cultural heritage, using language as its primary means of indoctrination. The programming must act upon the material substrate–we learn things–in the same way that programming a computer must act on the electrical components inside it. In examining the brain, we analyze its functions into its causative units. The mechanistic features of brain function derive from the neuronal components: a neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter, which crosses a synaptic gap to bathe receptors on another neuron, which absorbs the flow of ions that— according to the electrical charge of the ions—then potentiates either an excited neuronal discharge, or an inhibition to excitation. The neuron is turned on or off.

Pursuing the analysis further, we have to descend another level into the neuron itself, because its functional mechanisms must be characterized too. If we want to influence brain activity, we have to know how to influence the neurons that purportedly create it. This is the basis, for instance, of the proliferation of psychoactive medications: SSRI’s to alter mood, neuroleptics to alter psychotic disturbances, anti-seizure meds to decrease kindling, neuronal hormonal function to influence sex and appetite, mood stabilizers, major sedatives, and so on.

So how do neurons manufacture their neurochemicals? How transport them? How create energy to fuel their activities? This is the level of scientific inquiry into cause and effect addressed by those articles to which I alluded above, the links to which I give here:

a. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/26/youre-powered-by-quantum-mechanics-biology

b. http://secondnexus.com/technology-and-innovation/physicists-demonstrate-how-time-can-seem-to-run-backward-and-the-future-can-affect-the-past/?ts_pid=2

In them we have research—pure, hard, materialistic research published within refereed journals—that is concluding there is no simplistic determinism of the nature that science presumes to be seeking.

This new research is revealing the hidden, underlying premise of all previous brain research, which was taking as its axiomatic model the theories of classical chemistry and physics. But suddenly those deterministic models are surmounted by the non-deterministic activities of quantum mechanics. The revelation of those articles is that the classical models no longer explain neuronal function—upon which brain activity depends. This is the same theoretic disagreement to be found between Einstein (who famously states the ‘God does not play dice with the universe’) and Niels Bohr, whose work in quantum theory discovered the indeterminacy at the essence of atomic activity. Chance is at the heart of the universe, not material control.

It appears, in other words, that determinism may be a matter of the level of inquiry. I can build a car engine that–when an air/fuel mixture is introduced into the cylinder at the correctly determined time–will cause an explosion, which in turn will cause a piston to move that is connected to a drive shaft that, in its turn, is connected to a wheel. All those material things and activities derive from a use of materials at the daily level of human visibility. We can’t ask too many questions about the actual nature of those events and materials, however. We just use them. If you do keep asking, causality fades away in the process of continued analysis. It’s the difference between mechanical engineering and theoretical physics.

If brains cannot be constrained by classically deterministic models, then we at least approach another conversation about freedom of thought, and the relation between brain activity and cultural education. We need new models of brain function and its relationship to behavior; these two articles, and the world of research they imply, are opening up a theoretical space in which such models can be imagined and researched. In particular, the possibility arises for a model that escapes the simple dualism between material being and spiritual ectoplasm–between science and religion, normal and paranormal, matter and mind.

There is some urgency for such a defining conversation, given the brutalities arising daily within an interconnected world of faults and problems. There is no persuasive materialist explanation that proves, for instance, that a person is physically determined to take an automatic weapon and preferentially train it on other people—let’s say (because I think the stakes are very high here) people of color worshipping in a church, people who also happened to befriend the appalling man in their Bible study class before he pulled out his handgun. Dylann Roof was not constrained to act as he did. There was no locus of control originating outside of his own volition: no chemical imbalance, no cultural programming, no poverty, no ignorance, no aliens directing him.

Nevertheless, he did shoot those people anyway, of his own choice and planning. He was personally accountable, and the possibility of individual freedom and responsibility are perhaps not terrible concepts to reconsider in general within our culture of proliferating virtual realities and fantasy escapes. People–and the governments they populate–can do better.

 

 

The California Prose Poem

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This Saturday, April 2nd, I participated in a panel on the prose poem that was hosted at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Los Angeles. Accompanying me were three other poets, each of whom also write prose poems. Moving from the left of the photograph to the right, they are: Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, and Christine Kitano. The format was to have each of us explain why we write in this poetic form, and then read a handful of our poems to illustrate our various perspectives and philosophies. What followed was a discussion with the audience, during the course of which this photograph was taken: candid and live-action. I read from my book, My Gargantuan Desire. The text of my introductory remarks is as follows:

Apologia: Why Write Prose Poems?

I think of poetry as first a voice, an utterance that is temporal, sequential and dramatic. It is also inherently rhythmic and composed quite literally of sounds: rhyme, assonance, consonance are integral to the voice. Before they were ever written down, poems have existed for millennia as oral traditions in the fabulous Homeric epics, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the religious stories of the Navaho, and on and on the list goes. For the convenience of preservation these voices can be codified by the tools of our notation: the alphabet, marks of punctuation, even line breaks. But I do not think of poetry as essentially a visual thing, anymore than I would grant the score of Bach’s cantatas the primacy of place over, for instance, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing them. Languages like music are auditory, and they too like poetry have existed for whole eras before written forms were created to represent them.
I know there are languages that are not auditory–American Sign Language for one–but I am not composing poems in them. And let me admit I have nothing truly against the written word–I’m actually glad to have the alphabet. But I don’t choose to accentuate its visual presence over the auditory being of language, and so I present my poems as prose: the invisible format. I have conceived of my poems here in my first book as spoken aloud to someone dear to me. It could be you. I have also composed these poems as formal Shakespearean sonnets, after which I then dissolved the lines into their basic sentences. As I‘ve said before, the rhythms and aural characteristics of language are integral. Visually breaking the flow of speech into lines is not. As prose, I am presenting poems with the metrical and auditory sophistication of the sonnet but embedded within the sinuous poetry of personal utterance.

 

The Next Big Thing

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What is the title of your book?

Genealogies

Where did the idea come from for the book?

First, growing up in Southern California, among the Spanish Missions (at San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo), I began to wonder where all the indigenous peoples were–for whose conversion these missions were built.

Second, I wrote a lyric poem entitled The Husbandman, in which a gentleman was genetically sequencing animals out of plants: brains in garden rows like cabbages, cranes opening their wings out of pink aquatic plants. That sort of thing. And I felt like I had more to say about the subject.

Genealogies is the marriage of these two impulses.

What genre does your book fall under?

It depends on how you want to approach it. Formally,  the poem is a Romance, the essential element of which is adventure: a sequential and processional narrative involving human characters who have extraordinary abilities, which they exercise in extraordinary circumstances.

In contemporary terms, think of the X-Men and their heroic battles. Historically, think of Noah in the Old Testament.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since the poem is an adventure tale, there are multiple characters involved:

John Elam:  Dustin Hoffman in The Little Big Man.
Sarah:  Roseanne Supernault in Into the West.
Alfred Ison:  Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective.
Velma Ison: the imperial Helen Mirren in The Queen
Evelyn Weatherly:  Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.
Osgood Weatherly:  Glenn Ford in Is Paris Burning?
Nate Weatherly: Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (minus the scissors)
Mae Pinson:  Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal.
Bartlett Smith:  James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The chronicle involves a Native American woman who, having fallen through a bad patch of time, lands in Berkeley in 1968, where she learns that her people and many, many other indigenous New World inhabitants were exterminated by then, and resolves to return to her own era and enlist the aid of a ship-wrecked English adventurer to assassinate Cortez before he succeeds in his decimating conquest–failing in which, the two of them return to Florida and travel through time in the usual sequential way, discovering in the quotidian process that they have been immortalized in body if not soul, and therefore that they cannot escape history. It’s sad, man.

Who has published your book?

The book is published by Greenhouse Review Press. Copies can be found on Amazon, and at your local independent bookseller.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your book?

Longer than usual, I think, for a book. I had to research the needs of sea-going explorers, and so embraced ocean kayaking–which took a lot out of me. Also, to commit to the project, I needed tattoos: 

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What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The best examples are (in this order): Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Books IX-XI in The Odyssey; The Parliament of Fowles; Jonah.

What else might pique our interest?

Tattoos don’t hurt so much, really. Many of you probably knew that already, but I was gratified.