Medical Life

The book that I am about to introduce arose out of one of those innocuous moments during a nondescript social gathering I was attending–an opening at an art gallery, actually–, when I offered an innocent observation that unexpectedly elicited a disproportionate, clamorous response. I probably should have known better, since this sort of thing used to catch me unawares when I was a graduate student in a neuroscience laboratory. The group of us in the lab were studying the role of a particular neuropeptide in different animal behaviors. We’d be sitting at lunch in the Blue Wall Cafe discussing the penis-licking response of male rats prior to intercourse, or the lordosis position of the females and how hard it was to identify the moment of penetration, and we’d abruptly realize that the room had gone quiet, and that the wait staff were treating us like scum.

Same thing in principle at that art gallery. I had meant to be supportive of a friend who was going through a divorce, when I happened to mention a detail or two about a man who had carnal relations with one of his farm animals. I didn’t mean anything by it, really, but for some time afterward I was asked by colleagues, with friendly but obvious disbelief, whether I have actually, really known a farmer who had sex with his cows. One person went so far as to question how the act could be done at all.

To address the last issue first, it was done–while the poor creature was secured by its head in its milking stanchion–by standing behind it on a milking stool. I have further, procedural details, too, like what to do about securing its tail, but under the heading “Way Too Much Information” I will keep such instruction to myself for now. You can ask about it later, if you want to.

To address the first question–whether I have ever known such a gentleman as I am describing–will necessarily introduce descriptions about what a neuropsychologist does all day. Or at least, what this neuropsychologist did while practicing at a large tertiary care Medical Center in New England: he, which is to say I saw a notable range of people–children, adults and elders–with neurological insult of one sort or another. This particular farmer was one of my patients, and had a frontal dementia that was wildly disregulating his behaviors. It was a fatal, degenerative disease–and from just about any position of empathy you can think of, his end couldn’t come soon enough.

As you might imagine, I also saw a large number of absolutely horrified family members, relations who were beside themselves with terror, anxiety and shame. And grief. Because this was not the man they had always known–not the father, not the husband, not the friend. And there was no telling what he might do next.

So I have many stories, and buried among them are probably the elements of why I couldn’t keep doing this anymore. Pretty much every day was a revelation, nothing I ever did was boring.

Let me tell you about my day.

 

Where’s the world in World Book Night?

I would offer Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, or Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. If we were to chose a book of poetry, rather than prose, I would vote for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General or maybe Here and/or Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska. (You know, I’m finding it harder to choose just one book of poetry than just one book of prose.)

A year of reading the world

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Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though…

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The End of the World

A dear friend of mine from Holland has a son who, during his latency years, unexpectedly developed a seizure disorder. One evening years ago, after riding yet again in the ambulance to the hospital emergency room, his dazed son in his arms, he blurted out a Dutch proverb: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” The context added particular weight to the emotional vision. I had come along afterward bringing extra clothing, mainly pajamas and underwear for the hospital stay, and at the moment it seemed possible to me that, given the proverb, no one in that family would be happy ever again.

It was a sobering thought, and it put me on alert. I had children too, younger than my friend’s, but they had their vulnerabilities as well–they had desires, and the frustrations to desire. So I hunted around for things to do, clearing a path, smoothing the way toward their futures. My daughter discovered early on that she wanted to play the piano—not a violin, not a keyboard, but a piano. So,well, okay, that was easy enough: we found her a piano.

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I mean, seriously, I couldn’t even get the instrument out of the truck before she was all over it.

My son, for his part, basically needed room, an exit from the strictures of developed social play into the boundlessness of an unconstructed world.

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From the beginning he has pulled me outdoors, enticed me out from behind my desk and onto frozen dog sleds, into kayaks floating among whales in the Pacific Ocean, on treks in arid Southwestern mountains photographing petroglyphs–and then he has gone to places where I could not follow, so that his safety did not depend on me, but on another father–this one Kenyan, who sat outside his cloth tent at night with a wooden club to whack any marauding hyena that came too close. The lions, apparently, were no problem.

I have wanted to risk all this personal detail here in order to bring each of us, in our minds, personally, onto a certain pathway that leads in the end to M.B. McLatchey’s new book, The Lame God. It’s a book that pretty much requires a personal response from us, because the core of its themes centers around a person: 16-year-old Molly Bish. It is possible that some of you may have heard of her, insofar as her plight unfolded for months in the national news. In fact, it is entirely possible that a few of you may actually have known her, the real Molly Bish—maybe as a high school student, maybe as a neighbor— before in June, 2000, she was abducted from her lifeguard tower at Comins Pond in Warren, MA, and subsequently raped, tortured and then murdered.

Whether McLatchey herself knew Molly is unclear: she does not disclose what, exactly, her relationship to Molly Bish and her family has been. But she does reveal that she has, at a minimum, spoken with the mother, Maggie Bish, to obtain permission to write explicitly about Molly, and about the attending horrors that ensued after she was found to be missing. McLatchey writes in her Introduction “This book is offered in memory of Molly Bish and in homage to her mother, Maggie Bish, who encouraged me to ‘keep talking about this; keep writing.’” McLatchey adds that “The story that this book tells is true. No names have been changed to protect the innocent—the innocent have already seen the face of evil, smelled its breath, learned its customs.”

This is a unique introduction to the poetry. We as readers are explicitly denied the usual aesthetic distances from the events depicted in the stories because the events are not fictionalized. McLatchey’s artistry here is working with brute facts—among which is the troubling recognition that the perpetrator, whoever he is, has not been apprehended. The man is still at large out there. Accordingly, there is no sense of justice in the book, no comfort derived from cosmic symmetries, no vengeance exacted, no eye taken for an eye, no recourse. Just horror.

 

THE RAPE OF CHRYSSIPUS

She came home bone by bone. First her shin bone, then her skull. In the end, 26 of Molly’s bones came home to us.        –Mother of 16-year-old Molly Bish

For the rape of Chryssipus, King Laius suffered.
The gods saw what he took–
a young boy’s chance

to play in the Nemean Games, to make his offerings
to Zeus, to win his wreath
of wild celery leaves, advance

the Greek way: piety, honor, and strength. He raided
their heaven, not just a small boy’s frame.
Their justice

was what Laius came to dread: a son that would take
his mother to bed,
a champion of the gods, an Oedipus.

We called on the same gods on your behalf, asked
for their twisted best:
disease like a Chimera to eat

your Laius piece by piece; a Harpie, who might wrap
her tongue around his neck
and play his game of breathing

and not-breathing that he made you play.
Medusa’s curse in stone–and a Golden Ram
to put you back together bone by bone.

 

The quotation alone is hair-raising—though with that said, I am struck by the poet’s lack of overt drama in the poetry that follows. On the one hand we have the sensational, flat enumeration of the number of bones that were, over time, returned one-by one to the grieving mother—and with the manner of that return left unstated. How would you do it? Did they come in a box? Labeled with an evidence tag? Did a policeman ring the doorbell, and hand over her skull? What kind of protocol could even be possible here?

However, before we step out into that emotional darkness, we hear the poet’s measured voice avoiding hysteria by invoking a classical myth, and with it organizing a parallel narrative of divine retribution to help her metabolize her raw feeling. Because contemporary explanations just feel petty, just lame excuses offering a simplistic cause-and-effect model to rationalize the behavior—something like ‘bad parenting creates bad boys’, or these days maybe it is a defective neuron causing the problem. Bullshit. It takes the scale of mythology to begin to convey  the    goliath male evil that descended upon Molly.

The poet’s task is, essentially, to figure out how to express the full weight of the violation without screaming. It is a delicate matter. Often in the book McLatchey combines classical figures with traditional poetic forms to allow us perspective with which to view the scope of violence, and the depth of the insult to Molly and her family. In Little Fits, for instance, the poet composes a sequence of Petrarchan sonnets to organize her thoughts and feelings, and to secure a mental space in which to arrive at insight, emotional clarity, and decision. The formal restraints allow the emotional matter to be pitched very high, but without ever sounding bathetic. And look at the graceful formal movement in this sonnet:

 

CATHARSIS

A portly man on TV says he’s eating jelly donuts
since his doctor recommended more fruit. My head
tucked beneath your chin, I feel you grin. A welcome joke—
what Aristotle called catharsis: the comedy channel in bed.

A piecemeal purging meant to clear our minds, a chance
to graft, like patchwork, the wreckage of our lives
onto a campy figure, cheer for him; love him for dancing
when the gods single him out, pile on the twisted trials.

As if—for a few moments—we are watching someone else’s
life unfold. Pizza and beer, you my armchair, tucked in our sheets.
As if—for a few moments—we have climbed up from some well
to lounge on sun-baked stone, take in the Dionysian Mysteries:

lore of the vine—seasons, grapes, wine. Nothing ever truly dying.
And us, tender initiates, laughing so hard we’re crying.

 

Fortunately for the book—possibly for the poet herself—McLatchey moves from her contemplation of the brutish facts of murder, and toward a reprieve, toward a respite that acknowledges other continuities besides those of abiding anguish. Here we find an intimate pair coupled, which is to say, linked in their common association that, for the moment, includes humor and catharsis. Here we are offered an image of mutual purpose, and shared pleasures, as well as their doubled purgation expelling together the poisonous, unacceptable affects.

The purgation signals an emotional transition out of trauma and into sorrow, and to a generalized sense of both vulnerability and promise. The transition is an essential point of the poet’s vision. She discloses that she, too, has children—two sons, we are told—and she has to wonder what she has let herself in for. Having children is a sort of biological vote for continuities, a tacit endorsement of future, continued participation in the social morass. Like it or not, she as a parent is compelled to be party to a world that has its disgusting matters, its truly fearful possibilities, against which she tries to civilize brute desires, and ward off threats to naked innocence. But there is only so much she can do.

 

Always in the distance
burnt brown combines sweeping up
spools of wheat. My sons sleep
in the back seat—the younger one
bowed over; the other up straight
like a sun-drenched sheaf.

Up ahead, one sheer pool after another
that the heat lays down. Day stars
(the older one calls them) spring up
from the pools and usher us on,
then flicker and steam.
A Dakota we’ve never seen…

I reach back to wake the older one:
solicitude, or a favoritism
that I had thought might pass.
Or a reckoning of our lives
that comes when the light slants
like this, as if we are looking through

more than window glass. I pat
his leg to comfort him, or to bless him,
or to brush some divination off.
But he is already looking out….

from Joseph Dreams Two Dreams   

 

There is only so much any of us can do, and who knows if it is ever enough?

 

POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me that an interesting mirror image to McLatchey’s book —or at least to the events composing the detonating first cause of the book—is a poem found in Frank Bidart’s first poetry collection, Golden State. I’m thinking of Herbert White, which is the first of Bidart’s poetic attempts to inhabit the psyche of various historical persons—Vaslav Nijinsky, for example, the anorectic Ellen West—and convey through them his own matching torments. Herbert White is, or was, a convicted murderer, child molester, and necrophiliac. Bidart’s poem, with its monstrosity, can be read as a companion piece to McLatchey’s traumatic abhorrence. I have written about Herbert White elsewhere: http://www.bradcrenshaw.com/sin-body-frank-bidarts-human-bondage

 

I Want To Say Something About Pumpkins

Because it’s about that time of year again: I have trays of soil that I have seeded with various kinds of vegetable, summer promises–one of which is pumpkins. There are other things I grow, of course, like the basil and tomatoes I love for the aroma they broadcast into the air around the garden. But I love pumpkins for their magical, transformational energy. I never see a pumpkin on the ground, one of my big ones, without thinking about enchanting it into a coach. I swear, one of these days I’ll do it. To have my giant pumpkin vines dashing out of the garden plot onto the lawn, and down toward the street, is to be invited to a foot race. I want to sprint alongside of them.

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Maria Hummel, in her book House and Fire, has a poem that captures something of the hyperbole of pumpkins–something of that need, once you have really looked at pumpkins, to invent legends about them.

A Thousand Faces

In the creation myths of pumpkin,
bellies grew first, billowing out
before the light, the sea and flowers.

And the bellies commanded the void:
let there be hollows in this darkness
and arches hung with pulp as soft

as the inside of a cheek; let there
be a cathedral for seeds, a favorite
purse in the garden’s green closet.

So the pumpkins grew into portly
multitudes that try not to trumpet
their superiority, each laden

with irreplaceable burdens,
each shape original and derivative,
the plump bulge of matrons,

taut barrels of elderly generals–
and what of that color? Is there
a wish in this world that can blush

as beautifully as the pumpkin?
Gold for secrecy, red for richness
and blessing, a yam paint

mixed with the flush on a girl’s
face the first night she realizes
how to possess her body, then

darkened by rain, autumn, waiting.
The love affairs of pumpkins
are always long, full of slow kisses

and vacations postponed
in favor of staying on the mound,
savoring some peace and quiet

for once, this fragile forever.
In the lame stories of pumpkin
heroes, the bravest line up at dawn

to be carved and shattered for the glory
of harvest, but the waning garden
refuses to cheer for them, or perhaps–

like the sea and its waves, or a mother
watching her sons ride away–it merely
calls too softly for them to hear:

Come back, let me open
for you again, you are mine,
you would never break inside me.
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I couldn’t resist this, it’s one of my favorite pictures: a small, mystical life amid the pile of other lives with their orange glow. The little girl pictured here is now 28 years old, and has grown exquisitely into herself. But the photo reminds me of other of Maria Hummel’s poems. She will break your heart, and then heal it again, with her poems about her very ill infant son. For example:

Strawberries

Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.

As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.

I read you books on dinosaurs,
their lost hungers, fallen bones.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.

I once loved words, their
fat red flesh, their roar and moan.
Today your arm eats strawberries

and what it tastes can never
be named or held or known.
The tubes go in, thin and clear,

sewing your skin to poles and air.
I once loved a meadow,
its clear little stream, lying there
on my arms, eating strawberries.

Her poem is a villanelle, which she brings off without visible effort. I have to keep going back to re-read it to see how she does it. The formal repetitions and cascading refrains remind me of the kinds of repetitions you find in early children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss, or maybe Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice–though here that reminiscence brings little joy, but instead conveys a wistful longing for an innocence neither she nor her son are allowed. Here the form, with its fragile order, must contain all sorrows, and bind the chaos of all fears. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to live through.

 

 

 

 

Precious Mirror

The poet and artist, Gary Young, was one of the panelists in our recent AWP presentation in Seattle. He has created a PowerPoint presentation illustrating aspects of his translation from the Kanji of Kobun Chino Otogawa–who is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the spiritual guru of the late Steve Jobs. The esteem lavished in Japan upon Otogawa is founded, as you might imagine, less on commercial or media-driven hype, than upon his character as a monk and teacher.

White Pine Press is publishing Gary’s book of translations, along with Otogawa’s kanji.

Precious Mirror – Gary Young

Freedom in Translation: Finding Ourselves a New Poetics

At the recent AWP Conference in Seattle, which convened at the end of February, I moderated a panel on translation as an emblem of poetic freedoms. What follows is the text of my introduction.

I. Our presentation today focuses on two essential concepts:

1. That the act itself of translation chooses among various aspects of sequential cognitive resources—some linguistic, many that are not (What these resources are I will defer for the moment). The crucial feature within translation is its insistence upon a pluralism of linguistic aims.

2.  That the act of translation re-imagines and redefines the mechanisms by which language works: what language is, what are its aspects and features, what are its resources.

II. The first activity will be engaged by my three colleagues–Gary Young, Stephen Haven and James Brasfield– as they each in turn discuss specific features of their work in translating into contemporary American English the poetic works existing in three distinctly non-Western-European languages: Japanese, Chinese, and Ukrainian.

III. My task here is to engage in that second activity: I want to introduce a basis for re-conceiving a poetics that can reflect the range of creative possibilities available to the imagination—because current versions of postmodern poetics constitute a remarkably inappropriate reductivism.

As I’m sure we all know, the core of this poetics inhabits the troubled relationship between the sign and the signified. Its intellectual pedigree runs in generations from Saussure and Nietzsche, to Heidegger, to Derrida and Foucault, and subsequently into the current metamodernists and antihumanists.

The architecture of the argument is benignly simple:

a. Words have no essential relation to their referent. 

b. Rather, meaning is merely a social consensus. 

c. Therefore meaning represents the play of power and money by which social consensus is reached.

d. Ergo, language is the exercise of power, wielded by the wordsmith, to repress other similar exercises.

This entire house of logical cards derives upon that initial proposition: that language is a collection of nouns looking for their referents.

From the point of view of neuroscience, this proposition is untenable for many reasons, but we can start with its entire lack of empirical foundation. What is described by post-modern theorists does not represent the phenomenon they purport to explain. Saussure is the linguistic basis to which the philosophers point for justification, but Saussure was not fluent in, nor ever had even heard a native speaker using, the Indo-European languages from which he derived his theories of linguistics—from which in turn he then generalized to all languages. Accordingly, his conclusions amount to a sophisticated provincialism that, in my belief, has been persuasive largely because it has bolstered the provincialism of Continental and North American theorists.

Postmodern linguistic theory does not survive the translation to non-European languages. For instance, as Steve Haven will be explaining, any given sign in Chinese changes meaning according to which one of the four formal tones of voice in which it is spoken. Chinese does not limit itself to signs and signifieds, but introduces tonal aspects into its linguistic usage—which have remained unconsidered in postmodern theoretical formulations.

I want to propose a different intellectual practice–which will conserve the expectation that a poetics will be based upon features of our language, but that will define those features according to empirical observation and structured inquiry into the phenomena in question. I am, in other words, going to dip into neuroscience to provide an alternative study of the nature of language. *Accordingly, I will start with three observations about language, from the point of view of empirical science:

 a. language is sequential: phoneme follows phoneme, word follows word, sentence follows sentence, paragraph follows paragraph;

 b. it is also patterned:–its features have regular, definable arrangements, which we can group into rules;

c. it is temporal  (It took me 28 seconds to say the words in that sentence.)

These sequential features are not limited to language, but in fact represent a primary inductive category according to which the brain makes cognitive sense of the environment at large. The world is chock full of sequential patterns—the regular and coherent occurrences of sounds, objects, and events to which the brain is sensitive. Some of these are linguistic, but many are not.

a. For instance, laughter is one of the set of complex, nonlinguistic vocalizations that nonetheless communicates a wide range of messages with different meanings. 

b. We likewise find music meaningful,—which also is a structured sequential event–though it, too, is non-linguistic. 

c. Many of us also find meaning in the sensuous sequences of dance–or (to pursue the world of motor movements further) even learning to swing a tennis racket. Dances, procedures for hitting a tennis ball, a golf ball, etc, are each a meaningful set of steps with which motor patterns are engaged. Along these lines we should likewise acknowledge that we walk and run, which are themselves brain-mediated sequential practices…which are non-linguistic. 

d. Finally, we also keep track of time itself, which by definition is sequential—on a daily basis, as well as over prolonged years of developmental, biological time (i.e. circadian, developmental) and worldly time.

What science finds is that there is an interplay among these various neurological sequences. Language is not separate from the rest of cognition, but uses the same underlying neurological mechanisms as other non-linguistic sequential tasks. For instance, aphasic patients are commonly apraxic as well—meaning they are impaired in the production of novel sequential hand and arm movements. Further, the converse is also true: among aphasic patients, the work done to improve non-linguistic motor skills can contribute to improvements in syntax.

So let me conclude here. The translator, having assumed there can be no perfect copy of the original meaning,  is thereby compelled to re-conceive & revalue linguistic resources other than simply matching referents–what the words purportedly mean. The translator is free to look to the interplay among whatever expressive sequences seem called for–whether linguistic (such as hunting for appropriate words), or nonlinguistic, such as establishing a prosody, or working out an appropriate pace of the voice, or introducing tonal features such as sarcasm, or sometimes even environmental noises (The French, for instance,  translate the sound of a barking dog as Woooah Woooah). There is an immensity of sequential sounds, symbols, facial expressions., and physical gestures to sample. The task of the translator thereby opens the inquiry to a range of poetic expression that escapes repressive theory, and finds its limits—insofar as there are any—within the play of imagination itself.

Links to further thoughts and entertainments:

http://www.bradcrenshaw.com/language-isnt-what-you-think