Archives for November 2015

October 2015 Weekend – Listening to the Unsayable

I was unable to attend the October New Directions weekend. I’m pleased and grateful that two New Directions participants, Mary Carpenter and Elizabeth Trawick agreed to work as guest bloggers for this weekend.

What follows is Mary’s entry about Shelley Rockwell’s talk, “Finding the Unsayable through Poetics.” Mary is a freelance writer based in Washington DC, and the author of two young adult books Rescued by a Cow and a Squeeze, a biography of Temple Grandin,and Lost and Found in the Mississippi Sound: Eli and the Dolphins of Hurricane Katrina. To learn more about Mary, visit her website (and definitely read her books).

Dr. Shelley Rockwell

Dr. Shelley Rockwell

Shelley Rockwell, PhD, training and supervising psychoanalyst with the Contemporary Freudian Society, Washington D.C.

One of the more enlivening features of the guest talks at New Directions is the time reserved for discussions with the speaker following each talk. Responses to the talk given by Dr. Shelley Rockwell, PhD, psychoanalyst with the DC Contemporary Freudian Society, titled “Finding the Unsayable Through Poetics” demonstrated this. “I’ve never heard such a beautiful anti-psychoanalytic paper,” one New Directions audience member said. After the appreciative laughter subsided, the respondent continued, “You were able to tell us all the news at each poem.” The audience understood his point, that analysts usually say very little and never say “all.” He added: “At the end, you pulled it all together by saying, ‘This is treatment.’  I was so blown away. I have no idea how you did it. You probably don’t either.”  People laughed again, and that was the tenor of most audience responses: engagement with the subject matter and a deep appreciation of how Dr. Rockwell crafted her talk.

By Saturday afternoon of a New Directions weekend, participants can be dragging, but Dr. Rockwell’s talk combined beautiful recitations of poetry with incisive statements about the writing and functions of poetry, keeping the audience alert and appreciative.  She began by reading excerpts from three poems, weaving in her own explications along with historical background on the poets and their relationships to war and death.  The talk was completed when she tied these elements to the poetics of doing psychoanalysis. Anticipating the respondent above, Dr. Rockwell pointed out that each poem has an “anti-poetry element,” a chant or repetitive phrase that appears to have no meaning, not unlike a patient’s repetitive reporting of the stories of their experiences. Patients’ repetitions risk becoming tedious to the analyst unless, as one does with repetitions in poetry, each iteration can be examined and appreciated by listening for the slightest change or variation in word choice, tone of voice, or selection of detail, so that in fact these differences provide rich and important clues from the analysand each time the story is repeated.

Federico García Lorca

Of the three poems, perhaps the most fully presented in Dr. Rockwell’s talk was “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” by Federico Garcia Lorca, written in 1934 after the death of his friend Ignacio Sanchez Mejias in a bull fight and as Spain was heading toward its civil war two years later.  The poem begins with the phrase “five in the afternoon” repeated 17 times just in the short excerpt she read, with each repetition usually separated by only one line of poetry about something related to the death, until the final iteration where the language changes to “Exactly at five o’clock in the afternoon,” the time that the poet’s friend died of gangrene after being gored in “a thigh with a desolate [bull’s] horn.”  Dr. Rockwell called this repetition the “drumbeat of reality, almost unbearable…also soothing, almost incantatory.  The chant is support for the mourning.”  She explained that the poem “develops the arc of mourning” so that in the end the bereaved poet finally finds the love and connection he has to his friend.

With each repetition of the phrase “five in the afternoon,” the quality of the voice changes slightly, the tone shifts slightly.  “At what point does it become sadistic, aggressive?” Dr. Rockwell asked, pointing out how the sentences between each repeated phrase alternate between reality and non-reality, sustaining a connection almost to denial, but then returning. In an analytic session, she pointed out, the patient’s talk is oral and uncrafted – not poetry – but the analyst must respond with imagination, which becomes empathy.  “We take what the patient is saying, we can listen like a poet, with a poet’s ears…the analyst must have an imagination, but must first have the facts.” When one audience member asked, “How do you accompany the patient, how do you find the metaphor to help that patient?” Rockwell said: “You struggle to find the language.”

In answer to a question about “anti-poetry,” Dr. Rockwell referred to another of the three poems, “I’m Explaining a Few Things” by Pablo Neruda, saying that by the end Neruda becomes a journalist but “he can’t escape being a poet, and we can’t escape this either: it takes hold of us.” New Directions co-chair Dr. Bob Winer, referred again to the line “tell you all the news,” pointing out how doing that is almost impossible, how the patient in treatment has just one point of view; on the other hand, we can’t talk about anything important, such as the holocaust, from just one point of view.  “That would diminish the meaning,” Dr. Winer said.

Audience discussion with Dr. Rockwell

Since the response to this presentation was the most appreciative I’d ever experienced at New Directions, I wondered if it had something to do with the appeal of the poetry, along with Dr. Rockwell’s efforts to bring out the beauty and the pain while also helping us explicate the technical effects of the repetition – all of which extended beyond issues of analysis to all of us as humans.  At the same time, her talk went straight to the non-poetic issue of the potential for tedium of therapeutic sessions, which, for those of us who are not therapists and those of us who have ourselves been therapeutic patients, will always be a source of curiosity.

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