Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Brancusi’s Egg January 16, 2013

I  am happy to announce the publication of my poetry chapbook, Brancusi’s Egg,  from Finishing Line Press.  The poems have been written slowly over many years, and written primarily for myself.  I am an accidental poet.  Until I began teaching creative writing as a healing modality to cancer patients and caregivers in 2001, I had written primarily fiction.

In 1995-6, a series of health and personal crises completely changed my world.  Those who have followed this blog know that I became bedridden and unable to read and write for two years, although a novel of mine had been a finalist for national award only several years earlier.  I had to learn to read and write all over again.  When I was strong enough to work part-time, I offered to teach creative writing to cancer patients and caregivers at our local outpatient cancer clinic.  Luckily, the director of the clinic was open-minded and agreed.  Thus began my privileged work with others who were undergoing or had undergone the same type of “night-sea” journey that I was undergoing.

The poems here are primarily the result of doing the exercises I assigned to my patients.  I had given up poetry long ago when a famous writer at a workshop I attended demolished my confidence as a poet.  It was only as private exercises that I could see my way back to writing poetry—not solely as literature, but as a cry of the heart.  I hope these poems reflect my ongoing attempts at both authenticity and art.  Here is one poem from the book, “Lumbar Puncture,” which was included as a commended poem in The Hippocrates Prize anthology, 2011 :

Lumbar Puncture

I laugh while they do the puncture,

keeping up a steady stream of one-liners:

“Whiskey is my preferred pain killer” and

“don’t worry, if it hurts, you’ll know–

The whole place will know.”

I’m good at entertaining.

Relax, the doctor says.

Chris, the nurse, has her hands on me.  They are warm.

I think of my dog at the vet’s, her eyes darting, frantic.

I am all animal, knees to chest.

The doctor counts my vertebrae.

I think of spare ribs, I think

of making a joke.

Chris shows me the four vials of spinal fluid.

Clear, like water,

but full of meaning some bio-magician will decipher,

predicting my future:

a gradual loss of muscle control,

wheelchairs, and being fed

like a child, or not—

just some anomaly in the brain,

this shadow, this lesion.

My husband reads an article, “The End of Physics?”

I glance at it, eyes glazing.

The world is full

of mysteries I do not understand.

I understand his passion,

but I don’t care

where the atoms are in the box.

Do you feel the energy?  my PT says, and

I do.  I feel the colors of my chakras;

sunlight makes sense to me,

dogs wrestling in it.

The part of my brain with the shadow on it

houses memory, language, emotions,

each function a Tarot card waiting to be turned.

Will I learn to understand physics without them?

St. Augustine had a dream.  In it a small boy

tried to empty the ocean into his bucket.

The dream, the saint said, was a metaphor

for trying to grasp God with our minds.

The world is full

of mysteries.

The world is full.

9-3-08

Capture-2

 

Inwardness November 15, 2012

Filed under: poetry,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:28 pm
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I awoke this morning to the shrill chiming of starlings, their chirps like knives sharpening–tinny, metallic, clanging.  I imagined their black beaks open, their tongues ululating in unison.  A siren started up, shrill too, gathering momentum, then faded.  The starlings  stopped suddenly then, as if a conductor had lowered a baton. The alarms ceased.  What followed was a luxurious quiet, peaceful and contented, pierced finally by the plaintive song of a single cardinal.

Last night, my daughter said on the phone that she felt like a “bad friend” when she didn’t post on someone’s Facebook page.  Two dear friends of hers have died tragically in the last four years, and “everyone” on their birthdays, posts about them.  She feels these losses deeply, but doesn’t always have words to express them.  “I prefer one-to-one communication,”  she said, and then, “time goes so quickly–I can’t believe how quickly it passes.”  It only gets worse, I told her.

I wonder about the need to be always on, always producing, always engaging, always communicating.  As I watch the hostas turn yellow and curl inward, the King Solomon’s seal return to the ground,  the oak leaves and acorns littering the ground, I think about how important it is to mark seasons, to know what season we are in our lives.  There are rhythms to our lives, times of engaging and times of retreating.  If  you are an artist of any sort, you have to respect those rhythms.  I think especially you have to respect fallow time, the dissolution of what worked and the openness to something new. Yet the culture at large has only one season, summer, and only one age, youth.  So there is always pressure to be on, to be producing, to be posting on Facebook, to be shrilly tweeting away.

I wonder how all our gadgets for communicating make that communication somehow thin and meaningless.  I think of letters I’ve saved over the years and still read, how I’ve labored over letters to send, feeling the importance of trying to frame the communication just so.  We don’t have time to experience our lives if we are always rushing to represent them, do we?  The sort of mass communication we’ve grown used to can also be a trap–we are curating our image, advertising it, not truly communicating.  Don’t get me wrong, I use all these things too; I just don’t want to be used by them.  I want to be clear about what is what.

It was interesting to read the poet Jack Gilbert’s obit in today’s New York Times  for these very reasons.  In today’s celebrity-driven world, here was a poet who eschewed publicity.  In 1962, for six months, he was famous, and this is what he had to say about it:

“I enjoyed those six months of being famous,” he recalled in the Paris Review interview. “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all the time — I liked the idea, but I didn’t invest much in it.”

Here is a poem from the obit, “Brief for the Defence.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

He may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m not sure if his singular voice could have achieved what it did in this poem if he’d been looking for twitter followers.

Maybe all of this is just a brief for my defence, for taking time off  to gather energy in like a root vegetable.

(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/books/jack-gilbert-a-poet-off-the-literary-grid-dies-at-87.html?_r=0)

By the way, our anthology of writings for and about cancer patients, A Communion of Sorts, is now available as an ebook for iPad or iPod.  http://store.blurb.com/ebooks/333382-a-communion-of-sorts  

 

Elegy May 17, 2011

Easter Sunday and I am in Iowa City, waiting for the shuttle to take me to Cedar Rapids.  The Examined Life Conference: Writing and the Art of Medicine has been three heady days of talks, poetry readings and rich exchanges, but now I am tired and ready to head home.  I watch the clouds in the blue sky drift above the swiftly flowing river.  Easter Sunday without hymns or eggs, without family and friends, feels odd.

The shuttle driver comes, a wizened elf with two hearing aids, and gamely grabs my overloaded suitcase.  He tells me Easter isn’t big at his house–one daughter, a stewardess, will be in Maui, the other is in Boston.  We pass a hawk standing on the curb, calmly scanning the road, and my elf remarks that he’s killed two of them who were eating his wife’s songbirds. That leads him to the story of the old Tom Turkey and his mate, the two of them standing in the middle of the highway.  “Yep, I passed them twice today. They’re  gone now,” he says, “not killed, just wised up and got out of the road.”

I ask him about his daughter in Boston, but he can’t hear me, which is fine, because I’m out of talk myself.  I gaze out the window as the miles of now gray clouds gather over the golden stubbled fields, the black, black earth, the greening hills.  We pass a creek, a silvery snail trail in a marshy field, stands of trees reaching bare branches to the sky.  A trio of blackbirds startle, exploding like scattershot.  I am silently marveling at the balm nature is, how these sights soothe me, when we come upon a strip mall of big box stores plunked down in the middle of empty farmland.  It looks incongruous and  arrogant  in the windswept landscape.  Then we are back into pure farmland, the patchwork fields unrolling like a Hockney painting–patches of green, black and gold.  A dilapidated red barn and farmhouse appear,  walls sagging, roof showing sky, sheltered by large trees.   My heart goes out to the abandoned place, a place that seems singular, built on a human scale, and I find myself imagining the life lived there.  I picture a rusted plow still in the barn, a pitchfork and spade, their wooden handles worn smooth with the farmer’s hand.  I imagine the interminable snow storms, the smell of wet wool and kerosene inside the house, cornbread baked in an iron skillet over a wood fire.  I tell myself not to romanticize it, to remember the children born dead on kitchen tables, the lack of resources, education, stimulation, and yet, still, I can’t help imagining a child walking through those woods, fishing in that clear stream, time stretched out for him like the field itself.

The night before, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by poet Robert Pinksy.  He called himself a crank, aware of our possibility of self-annihilation, the fact that we may leave our civilization to the cockroaches.  There was an elegiac feel to many of the poems, and he said he is aware more and more, not only of his physical and spiritual ancestors, but also of the ancestors of words.  Using Yiddish as an example, he said “We lose whole worlds when it dies.”   As an example, he cited aYiddish expression his grandmother used that meant literally, “Go away!” but meant, actually, “Come here!”  The intimacy, the humor, the play of feelings in one short expression, gone.  I thought of that as I passed the old farmhouse, thought of the words and worlds and experiences lost to us, those of my prairie ancestors, my Irish immigrant ancestors, all superseded by ever more current jargon, the often reductionist speech of the academy, of the various professions, or the vacuous shorthand of tweets and textings.

Pinsky in his poems, insists on the singularity of the made thing. He takes  something as simple as a shirt, examining the way it is crafted,  its “nearly invisible stitches” and from there imagining it being turned in a sweatshop by “Korean or Malaysians/Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break.”  He examines a cuff and imagines the Triangle Factory fire, then notices how the patterns  match perfectly “….like a strict rhyme/Or a major chord” and then his mind segues to the clan tartans “Invented by millowners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,/to control their savage Scottish workers…”  ( “Shirt). Language, for him, is a repository of living history; poetry, for him, is embodied breath.  “Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body, the body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air.”  (“Rhyme).*

An old man shoots a hawk that kills his wife’s songbirds.  A worn spade handle disintegrates in a barn, its owners’ descendants, oblivious,  shop for shirts made in sweatshops by people who place votive offerings to golden Buddhas.  It is the world; it is the world we weave with words.

Robert Pinksy, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York

 

 
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