The Psychiatrist as Poet
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Walking home from work late at night, Blank writes, in Pitch:
Is this poet different from other night-people? He writes:
The next day, Blank is back at the hospital. Writing. In asylum, he tells a patient:
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:
Originally published in The Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1994
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