October 30, 2007
At the end of October, Michael Braziller, Publisher of Persea Books, Karen Chase, Alicia Ostriker and I sat around a table to discuss “A Sense of Self: Poetry in Therapeutic Contexts” as part of the Poetry Program at Philoctetes.Karen Chase read from Land of Stone: Breaking Silence Through Poetry in which she asks “How does a silent, or silenced, person bear witness to what has caused them to shut up?” Her book answers with the poems she and Ben wrote together during his time as a patient at Rosedale, a psychiatric hospital outside of New York City, and with the story of Ben and Karen and the supervising psychiatrist, Dennis, the three “drawn into the work because of hard old personal stories that touched on each others’.” She chronicles and documents the risk and collaboration—”We improvised our lines one to the other, never knowing where it would lead”—and acknowledges poetry as the alchemist. It is a powerful story of finding a voice with the writing of poetry at the crux of the matter, attention and discipline opening out to unexpected possibilities.Alicia Ostriker’s “Mastectomy Poems” (The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998) are stunning. How had she found the words, the wherewithal for “Riddle: Post-Op”, its tone, and the gasp of the last lines? Or the wisdom and daring of “Mastectomy” written for her surgeon, in which are these:I liked your freckled face, your honestyThat first visit, when I saidWhat’s my odds on this biopsy And you didn’t mince words,One out of four it’s cancer.The degree on your wall shrugged slightly.Your cold window on AmsterdamHad seen everything, bums and operas.A breast surgeon minces something otherThan language.That’s why I picked you to cut me.Was I succulent? Was I juicy?Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed mein pleated paper like a candied fruit……seriousAbout your line of workScooped up the risk in the ductsScooped up the ductsDug out the blubber,Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.Eliminated the odds, nipped outThose almost insignificant cells that mightor might not have lain dormant forever.She prefaced her reading from the “Mastectomy Poems” with “The Exchange,” a haunting waking dream poem in which a persona much different from that she typically claimed appears, and closed the evening with comments on Emily Dickinson’s allowing any emotion.In writing and reading, poetry permits and demands.Poetry dares the flip side, the thing submerged.It allows the stationary; it insists on moving on.The podcast of this discussion is available on YouTube.