Reading Notes

Posted by @ 1:50 pm on June 18th, 2010

1. In grad school I took a wonderful course on the poetry (and lives) of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell taught by the poet Gail Mazur. I was fascinated, in particular, with Robert Lowell’s mental illness and how it affected his artistic life. Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth” is ostensibly about a cut cornea (“My whole eye was sunset red,” it begins), but in the end it’s about manic depression and how, duh, it tinges the way he sees the world:

No ease from the eye
of the sharp-shinned hawk in the birdbook there,
with reddish brown buffalo hair
on its shanks, one ascetic talon

clasping the abstract imperial sky.
It says:
an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth.

No ease for the boy at the keyhole,
his telescope,
when the women’s white bodies flashed
in the bathroom. Young, my eyes began to fail.

Nothing! No oil
for the eye, nothing to pour
on those waters or flames.
I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.

“I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” Such a simple line, but so right on. I’ve experienced it—I bet anyone who’s either suffered from mental illness or found themselves in a downward spiral has felt that way.

And speaking of turmoil, in “The Second Coming,” Yeats writes, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I recently read a book called The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness by Elyn R. Saks. It’s an illuminating and matter-of-fact chronicle of one woman’s life with schizophrenia. Amidst the anarchy of psychosis, Saks managed to get a Master’s in Classics from Oxford and a law degree from Yale, among other things.

Another good one: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who suffers from manic depression. Jamison also wrote a book about creativity and mental illness called Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which I haven’t read.

Any suggestions for other good memoirs of mental illness?

2. Finally read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I liked it, particularly No. 67, on the satin bowerbird collecting and arranging blue things, No. 56, on female saints, and certainly all that business about fucking is pretty sexy.

3. Speaking of sexy…

From Berryman’s Sonnets [1]:

Errors of order! Luck lies with the bone,
Who rushed (and rests) to meet your small mouth, risk
Your teeth irregular and passionate.

4. And not speaking of sexy, Jung on synchronicity:

On April 1, 1949, I made a note in the morning of an inscription containing a figure that was half man and half fish. There was fish for lunch. Somebody mentioned the custom of making an “April fish” of someone. In the afternoon, a former patient of mine, whom I had not seen for months, showed me some impressive pictures of fish. In the evening, I was shown a piece of embroidery with monsters and fishes in it. The next morning, I saw a former patient, who was visiting me for the first time in ten years. She had dreamed of a large fish the night before. A few months later, when I was using this series for a larger work and had just finished writing it down, I walked over to a sport by the lake in front of the house, when I had already been several times that morning. This time a fish a foot long lay on the sea-wall. Since no one else was present, I have no idea how the fish could have got there.

Jung calls these kinds of things meaningful coincidences. He uses probability and statistics to prove some point about causality versus coincidence that I do not fully grasp, but what’s interesting is that the fish becomes a symbol of some recursive concern on the part of the person experiencing its proliferation. That humans are hard-wired to seek out signs and symbols seems to be the point. Seeking out the divine or the explanation for invisible phenomena and making infinite and interwoven connections to the human experience.

Have you read Nabokov’s short story, “Signs and Symbols”?

Synchronicity seems to play out in writing in a powerful way. Again, is the impetus of the writer to seek connections? To create webs that bind us together?

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