David Peak Has a Conversation with Keith Nathan Brown
Keith Nathan Brown is one of my favorite writers.
His writing is playful but intense, exploratory but precise. Whether he’s skewing form, “The Tongue,” or using chunks of language to capture nothing less than an immensity, “Insomnia of the Soil,” he is almost always profound in an intimate way—and often very funny. He’s an original in the rarest sense, meaning that his pieces are often instantly recognizable as having been penned by Keith Nathan Brown, yet remaining distinct from one another in the ways that really matter: in tone, in form, in subject.
Keith’s new collection, Embodied: A Psycho-Soma in Poetry and Prose, was just released by Sententia Books. I believe it is a book well worth your time, whatever your taste in literature. It takes a special kind of book to leave you hungry after finishing its last page, to leave you questioning the things you hold as absolutes. That’s how I felt after reading Embodied.
Luckily, Keith was nice enough to patiently sift through my emails over the course of a few weeks, and attempt to help me make sense of it all.
David: The characters in Embodied seem spun by two realities: the metaphysical and the physical. It’s as if the logic of these two worlds form four-dimensional puzzle-boxes. And the result is a profound confusion. Or, as you write, “The sphere did not recognize this nucleus as a part of itself. But something foreign.” The task becomes solving one’s existence, finding the solution, following cues. I’m thinking of the narrator in “Human-Based Surfactants,” who, while fighting with his significant other, is literally told what to say by his therapist. Or this quote from “Sine of Communion:” “I analyzes things until nothing makes sense anymore and everything looks strange like an equation I has to solve…”
Sometimes I feel as if being alive is just a daily struggle to “figure it out”—whatever “it” might be.
Do you think there is an answer to be found?
Keith: Twelve years ago around this time, my then-girlfriend and I watched the movie Mindwalk. We were lounging on the bed and half-way through the movie she fell asleep. It was a bit boring. But in the final scenes one of the characters repeats, with a sense of transrational recognition, the phrase, “Life feels itself. Life feels itself.” As the credits started to roll, I got up, went into the bathroom, perched in the bathtub and started to sob uncontrollably. Good times. My girlfriend walked in, put her hand on my shoulder and asked what was wrong. All I could say was, “What does it all mean?”
Our relationship, incidentally, didn’t last much long after, but what I’m trying to say is that your sentiment strikes close to home.
Though I am fairly lobotomized at thirty three, my 20’s were generally characterized by an elation-despair dipole spinning on a Trying-To-Figure-It-Out-axis. Sometimes bathed in luminous being, sometimes dangling over the mouth of the abyss, in some cases a fine line between self-discovery and self-destruction. I am one of those cases. Answers accumulate yet questions ever unspool, each answer adds a term to the approximation (understanding) of an infinite series (existence) approaching some indefinable limit (nature of reality). In the end, the daily struggle to solve one’s existence morphs as easily into the daily astonishment that one exists at all. Which do we focus on: the vastness of Being or the vastness of the abyss? Both are undeniable. If life is the question, perhaps its unanswerability is what makes it so sacred?
David: I was sitting on the stoop of a building once, when I was younger than I am now, and an ant crawled over my bare foot. Something about seeing that ant crawling over my foot, identifying it as an ant, a black ant, and feeling its tiny little legs all moving together to carry its tiny little body over the surface of my skin, it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Yet I don’t think I could ever possibly explain why. It would be a struggle to not sound totally insane.
You used the word “sacred,” and I think that’s very interesting. It’s an interesting choice of words. To me, a word like that denotes religion. A devotion to something, faith in something. But religion, or religious belief, is a system of rules, codes.
So much of the power of your writing comes from characters grappling with what you refer to as “the vastness of the abyss.” It’s this profound confusion I mentioned earlier. I think that self-discovery inevitably leads to self-destruction, that the act of learning is essentially a humiliation. But in your piece, “The Choir Behind the Cornea,” you write that, “The element of meaning. It burned bright inside all of us.”
There’s something very beautiful about those two sentences. What do you mean by “the element of meaning?” Is it something that can be proven? Or is it something else?
Keith: The fact of the matter is, though my worldview is generally an atheistic one, I am by nature in some way a religious person. I do not believe in God, an afterlife, the soul or reincarnation, but I have had religious experiences, so to speak, akin to intimations of formless presence and at other times of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans variety. The latter sometimes within an existential context, in which the tremendum aspect equates to the abyss and the fascinans aspect to being. The profound confusion that you alluded to abides to this day, something I constantly grapple with, but so too abides the formless radiance of Being, side by side.
Sacred then, in whatever sense of the word, as something profound that cannot be reduced to an explanation. As powerful and mysterious as a single black ant crawling over your skin.
Meaning, as you’ve rightly pin-pointed, is one of the obsessions of Embodied—we can turn to that of course, but what are those moments such as you’ve described, and which haunt my own experience as well, when an unexpected stimuli strikes an inexplicable chord that makes one tremble for no reason at all or equally resonate as though one’s whole being has been struck like a massive bell? Where do they come from? What do they signify, if anything? How do we communicate them? Like classical physics, language is an adequate model at the level of everyday phenomena, but in the wave-particle realm of bathtub-sobbing and ant-crawling-immensity, the model begins to break down. Yet, the irony is that language itself has the capacity to catalyze such moments. The “alchemy of the word” always appears within reach but eludes my grasp. Who knows what precise arrangement of unexpected stimuli will suffice.
David: I’m glad you brought up physics in relation to language. There’s an incredible amount of what I would call, for lack of a better term, “scientific” language employed throughout the stories in Embodied. Along with the aforementioned equations, you use illustrations, charts, graphs, lists of ingredients, definitions, and diagnostics. It’s the language of measurables, of that which is quantifiable. As a writer, does this sort of language—do these devices—help you with the process of discovery? Do you read scientific texts or mathematical materials for inspiration?
Keith: The scientific terminology and paraphernalia are habits of thought, leftovers from my studies in college, primarily physics. The aura of hidden meaning that surrounds an esoteric text or field of knowledge has always held sway over my imagination, as though with just the right key you could unlock a door to a whole other world. That feeling of discovery is certainly one of the desired effects I strive for in my writing, and I suspect that in some ways the scientific language functions as a device by which to reproduce the epistemological setting in which that sense of discovery has often occurred in my own life.
David: I was intrigued by the term “Body-Mind.” Can you attempt to explain what that means?
Keith: Body-mind is a Buddhist term whose exact meaning I no longer remember but which generally stands in contrast to Cartesian mind-body dualism. I re-appropriated the term for the poem “Body-mind as Biosphere” as an evocation of the human being as a self-regulating environment diverse with phenomenological ecosystems. Body-mind, within the poem’s context, might then be understood as a terrestrial and stimulospheric system capable of supporting inner life, i.e. sensations, emotions, thoughts.
Sometimes, by virtue of all life on Earth being composed of earth matter, I experience myself as a clump of earth wandering upon itself in a state of amnesia. Other times, I experience myself as a self-aware microcosm: “I” might feel happy or sad, but “Keith” is the psychoterrestrial environment within which flocks of happiness smile across the sky and herds of sadness plow tracks of depression.
David: Let’s talk about what psychology means to you. It’s definitely one of the major through-lines of Embodied, as much a point of reference for how your characters perceive the world around them as it is a burden, an overwhelming notion that the things they are saying and thinking are wrong somehow.
In an email you sent me before we started this interview, you referred to “a desire to explore instances of non-ordinary awareness and/or frameworks of perspective” through your writing. Can you expand on this?
Keith: Who is the I who does the things I do? I eat. I sleep. I write. Am I merely a contingency of environmental and biological and cultural forces beyond my control? If so, why call me Keith? Might as well call me Bob, a generic placeholder, an existential constant in a cold equation. But if the I is other than a mold, more than an impression of internal and external forces, then who am I? That is the dilemma of the sphere (of “Non-[ID]entity Crisis”) that you alluded to in your first question, and is the primary focus of Part III of Embodied. Or, from wikipedia: “Psyche (psychology), a concept of intangible self.”
Non-ordinary awareness (meditation, dream-states, intoxication, illness both mental and physical, peak states, hallucinations, visions, etc.) offers modes of access to different (sometimes unwanted) regions of the psyche. Actively exploring these regions can lead to shifts in perspective. Shifts in perspective can momentarily enable one to step outside of oneself and see the framework within which the ordinary self operates, the habits and routines and cognitive patterns and core beliefs. When the framework is challenged, so too is the stable sense of self. Who am I? has been a constant question in my life.
Your statement, “an overwhelming notion that the things they are saying and thinking are wrong somehow,” surprised me initially. But the extent to which that is true most likely coincides with the extent to which my own cognitive patterns have bled onto the page. Shifts in my headspace can occur quite frequently—due to faulty wiring—and so I have grown vigilant, never trusting what I am thinking or feeling or experiencing at any one moment. As a result, a sense of disconnect or estrangement is not uncommon, a psychological struggle to bridge the divide between myself and my environment or between myself and others. Estrangement, as a source of discovery and humor, and disconnect, as a source of pain and confusion, find their way into much of my writing.
David: I like that. I like thinking of estrangement as “discovery and humor, and disconnect, as a source of pain and confusion…” There’s a line in one of your stories about how “all mirrors are in fact windows.” And then I think of a line in a later story: “Our bodies determine the world for us. … An atmosphere of strange discovery in which the world is constantly awash.” A forever-tumble toward a greater understanding. But the strain remains. Always the strain.
The characters in your stories rarely seem to arrive at any sort of relief, or like safe zones. They’re in entirely different zones, sometimes cordoned off from others, sometimes just zoned out mentally. This, to me, is part of the burden of having a body—the “psycho soma” of the book’s subtitle—zones of feeling.
Does that make sense?
Keith: The “forever-tumble toward a greater understanding,” most definitely, and “Always the strain,” absolutely. A static understanding is akin to taxidermy, stuffing the world with straw to make it plump with artificial life. Everything is under scrutiny, as you say, no “safe zone,” only notes toward a permanent inquiry.
For me, much of the burden of the body is its prison-like quality, which has several aspects, one of which certainly is zones of incommunicable feeling. Such a zone might then be seen as a public form of solitary confinement, alone in the crowd, the painful disconnect. And yet, somehow there is intersubjectivity… Somehow separate beings make contact in a confused communion of mouth-music and mind-ripples on a speck of dust floating in a cosmic vacuum. Such is the experience of the protagonist in “Sine of Communion,” who, precisely in being estranged and “cordoned off from others,” is able to observe from a distance the interaction of others, and so discover, “In Sound is felt the preverbal sensation of ‘U’ as ‘I’. Being touched by this mystery is what makes ‘Us’ possible.”
And so that is the flipside of the burden of the body-as-prison. The flipside being “an atmosphere of strange discovery,” as you noted, the discovery element of the body-as-portal, not only in terms of the mystery of intersubjectivity, but in terms of revealing a world, being in the world, given the opportunity of raw experience itself, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, “perception not so much as sensation but as revelation.” In that sense, every being is a private sun illuminating the life-world to the extent of its own sense capacities.