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The Psychiatrist as Poet

Inspired by Myles K. Blank's fugue published in Vancouver, B.C.: Broca's Publishing House, 1993
and Crysta Casey's Heart Clinic published in Seattle: Bellowing Ark Press, 1993

by Esther Altshul Helfgott

Bart by Margaret Puckett
"Bart" by Margaret Puckett

I have a friend named Crysta. She writes poems. She reads them. No, she chants them. And as she chants, her body sways -- back and forth, back and forth -- holding the audience still. The sound of her voice -- a monotone -- stories a life lived in corridors, on stretchers, in rooms filled with strangers. Hospital people -- nurses, doctors, attendants -- doing their jobs.

If not for location, one of the doctors could be Vancouver, B.C. psychiatrist/poet, Myles K. Blank, author of fugue. Crysta does not know Myles (she lives in a different city), but these two have met anyway -- on the page. I wish they could meet elsewhere. At a poetry reading, say. Any place that treats words specially, as each of these poets do.

Myles K. Blank writes about people in exile, in extremity, where Crysta lives. In “the mirror,” Blank dreams about a woman on a stretcher. He is on the late shift “wandering through a field of sheets.” He stops, sees a woman:
      she has scars she is hurt
      emaciated white face
      slender lips
      i kiss her cheeks
      want to lie down on the stretcher
      and take her place

But Myles cannot take Crysta's place. I have seen her self-inflicted scars, the cigarette burns. I have listened to her read. I have waited while she writes about the woman-girl in line for the stretcher, her home away from home. I have read the poems, her book, Heart Clinic, dedicated to her doctor.

Still, these poets are in each other's lives. In Casey's poem, “Restraint:”
      Doctors, nurses and social workers
      emerge magically from journal articles,
      hospital forms and diplomas on walls,
      surround the stretcher. My own
      doctor is there, his hand pressing
      my shoulder firmly like my father
      when I was a child. I do
      not fight though my body is
      stiff, rigid. I lie
      its length. They lock
      a leather strap on each leg,
      around the waist, each wrist.
      In the dark alley, I was surrounded
      by gang members. I didn't scream
      as they pressed my ankles and wrists
      to the paved, damp street.
      My doctor is talking to me.
      He says, “This is not rape --
      the restraints are hugging you
      close to my chest to keep you
      a part of this world.”

Doctor and patient are on the same ward. Experience separates them, but it also brings them together.

Perhaps Blank wants to experience his patient's helplessness because he needs to acknowledge the child within himself, the child who, in relation to parents, feels forever in extremis. In Blank's “untitled memory:”
      leaves a remnant
      of shaving cream
      shuts the mirrored cabinet
      baby nibbles on
      a hard biscuit
      lovers spread
      a blanket over grass
      a female shape
      breasts belly hips
      i am always alone
      on the other side

fugue is a good title for Blank's poems. Reading them one feels the poet inhabiting a trance-like state. Whether his “beer's gone flat in the bedroom” while watching a lover's “nipple line rising under the sheets,” as in “jazzrock poem;” whether he is walking “through a bus shack like a ghost” or “finding a sleeping child dreaming of another hurt,” as in “the ashless sky,” the poet's mind is always in flight: he is looking for images, metaphors, similes to hold the language down.

The poet dreams between then and now. And between now and now, as in “through a shop window” when “no land comes to mind:”
      this piece of concrete
      under me
      where a car rushes by
      with my life inside
      like a hostage
      And between the
      future and then,
      as in “perspective 2” when:
      i am old
      looking back
      at strands of hair
      falling over your face...

All the while Blank is in close emotional proximity to his patients and to people in his past, he allows situations and events he encounters on his way to and from work to touch him, as well. Physician or not, he is a working-class poet immersed in the sounds of men and women living ordinary lives. He places himself beside them. As in “bus stop” when a woman:
      gets off the bus
      to a slew of reporters
      clicking their pens
      a rope
      around her neck
      is it the children?. . .
      she wonders, as the cameras snap.

Walking home from work late at night, Blank writes, in “Pitch:”

      you lie across the island
      heels on the road
      phone-booth window
      crashing chime
      of the street-man
      cold on the pavement

Is this poet different from other night-people? He writes:

      they're all exactly as crazy as you
      midnight dies and this was born
      anyone who walks the street's a whore

      smile's a grimace
      love makes a scene
      cold a.m. opium
      sweet concrete

The next day, Blank is back at the hospital. Writing. In “asylum,” he tells a patient:

      if you sing from the slopes
      of your widow's peak
      after midnight
      climb in the tub
      afternoons fully clothed
      shriek at old blood
      as it silently runs
      down your legs
      unbutton the shirt
      of the deaf man
      and take him to bed
      I won't turn away
      won't reach
      for the needle again

The Dictionary of Psychology defines “fugue” thus: Fugue: From the Latin for flight, a psychiatric disability the defining feature of which is a sudden and unexpected leaving of home with the person assuming a new identity elsewhere. During the fugue there is no recollection of the earlier life and after recovery amnesia for events during it. Often called psychogenic fugue to distinguish it from other syndromes that have similar symptoms but are caused by known organic dysfunctions.

Is there a point at which the psychiatrist, feeling so much the patient's pain, becomes Poet via necessity? Might he not otherwise forget to tell the similarities between the rest of humanity's pain and his own? Might he not rather run away, repress feelings of closeness toward others, entirely?

Or would he prefer to transform feelings into thought and word as Crysta does, use the poem as a receptacle of grief, thereby, releasing the fugue-self to clarity, however relative?

In order to escape those elements of parental and social authority that inhibit the artist's ability to re-create the self on the page, the writer/poet flees home for exile. The poem is a place of exile, a place to create the self anew; and as a poet, Myles K. Blank enters that place just as the poet Crysta Casey does. For a time, the poet/psychiatrist/patient exists in the fugue-like state; yet, each chooses release from it. The release is in the writing, of course. Even more, it is in the public sharing of the writing.

When accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said that language is a seat of responsibility. The page is a place to discover the self in relation to words; it is also a place to develop a sense of obligation to others. Blank's poems exhibit this sense of obligation. So do Casey's. I hope you will read them. Patient, mental-health worker, or both, you will find a part of yourself there.


Other Works cited in this Review:
Casey, Crysta. Heart Clinic. Seattle: Bellowing Ark Press, 1993.
Morrison, Toni. The Nobel Lecture in Literature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Reber, Arthur S. Dictionary of Psychology. London: Penguin, 1985.

Originally published in The Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1994

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a Seattle writer and teacher. She edits The Psychoanalytic Experience: Analysands Speak, an anthology of voices written from the client's perspective. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington where she wrote a thesis on the politics and poetry of Holocaust poet, Irena Klepfisz. Esther's work has appeared in numerous in-print and on-line journals, including The Dakota House Journal, Mentress Moon, The Baltimore Jewish Times, Poets West, The American Psychoanalyst and The Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Review. She is the author of The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices (Kota Press, 1999), a play about homelessness and schizophrenia. Since the September 11th bombings, Esther created and has been editing the e-journal September11, 2001: a journal on the writer's role in society. Contributors are invited to answer the question: What is the writer's responsibility to self and society? You can contact Ms. Altshul Helfgott at eahelfgott@attbi.com



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