Listening to the Unsayable, Part 2

The following is the second guest blog entry from the October 2015 weekend, Listening to the Unsayable. The weekend was organized by Karen Earle, with the goal of “examin[ing] the complexity of the movement out of silence toward symbolization in our work with clients and in our work as writers.” Below, Elizabeth Trawick, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Birmingham, Alabama and long-time New Directions participant, reports on her experience two of the weekend speakers.

From Elizabeth:

In my eight years of New Direction’s participation, I have learned so much, certainly enough to write up a meeting. I am a psychoanalyst. I know what I think of the presentations, generally stimulating, informative. Especially because I have not published, Gail’s request for a volunteer blogger was really an opportunity. Time I showed appreciation for all I have taken from this program and learn more at the same time!  Add to that, the topic for the weekend, “Listening to the Unsayable,” and I am in my psychoanalytic heaven of hearing what leaps from the unconscious into life, of understanding how to transform that which springs into symbolized thought rather than raw emotional states, actions, somatizations.

Annie Rogers

Annie Rogers

Perfect.  And, I would have a ‘co-blogger,’ Mary Carpenter to share the weekend.  Without thinking much of who the speakers would be, we divided the weekend. She got Saturday; I got Friday and two speakers: Annie Rogers and Deborah Blessing. Blessing, a long-time New Directions participant, I know. But who is this Annie Rogers, the opening speaker of the weekend? I open the readings that are on the website before each meeting and, frankly, I am appalled. Rogers is a Lacanian.  Not just references to Lacan but copies of his writings. What have I done? I do not do Lacan. I am conservative. I live with Freud, Klein, Bion, some Meltzer. Signifiers tantalize then befuddle me with their promise of meaning that always seems beyond my intellectual capacity. Oh, holy shit, not Lacan, but I have volunteered.

Going through the circulated papers, I find hope. Annie Rogers sent us a piece of her own writing, “Ghosts of the Ineluctable: Psychosis and the Enigma of Language,” a title that is daunting to me, a clinician, not an academic. This paper, however, is a deeply personal account of Rogers’ experience of severe psychosis in her adolescence, an account of that time and her life following psychoanalysis.  In her Saturday morning presentation, I found that the frank truths  from this paper continued into her talk and my ‘holy shit’ of disgust was transformed to a ‘holy shit’ of awe. A person who has lived in psychosis with symptoms as severe as hearing voices, convictions that various beings inhabited her body, loss of ability to speak, keep track of time, suicide attempt; a person with symptoms severe enough to require hospitalizations; a person who through psychoanalysis and language became able to consider this experience and then speak it. To me, this is simply awesome.

Annie Rogers wrote, “I use this experience from the depths to consider how language transformations create ghosts of the Real that are, in fact, truths from psychosis.”  Her voice of respect for what we call psychosis (that may in fact be the deepest of realities) filled her talk and filtered into the discussion.  I am reminded that many years ago, forty actually, as a resident in psychiatry, we thought about the meanings of psychotic experience.  What was a person saying, when she yelled, “Get out of my face?”  or claimed I was the devil come to taunt?  I mourn the loss of that level of consideration, gone now to check lists and deadening medications.  Though I still do not understand Lacan, I sigh with relief that truly serious thought can greet this realm of being. And, I say, “Hurrah to New Directions” for reminding me of that.

ND October 2015-1040025 (1)

Incandescent Alphabet

In her talk, Annie Rogers presented material from her new book, Incandescent Alphabet, a study of art made by psychotic persons which she travelled the world to see and study.  Slides of this art gave us a pathway through the psychotic experience and mode of representation. Here, I am not going to try to write what she said. I do not understand it well enough to write accurately, but I am stimulated to read this book and to consider anew a level of experience that is so often pushed away from my rational mind.

Often when I hear someone whose knowledge is so far from mine, I feel stupid.  Not with Annie Rogers. Her serious, personal communication came across as a humble struggle to use language as “a symbolic system, a metaphor that assigns the subject a place inside the social order.” Led by  this attitude, we engaged in an exhilarating discussion that continued the struggle to voice what is often left speechless. We roamed from art in institutions to the current culture of re-sculpturing the body with tattoos, surgery, and gender reassignment, to relations to higher powers and autism.

Links to the writing experience came forth with comments that as writers, we are often trying to say the unsayable and write without knowing what we are saying. Rogers suggested that we try “to write into a space where the next thing that comes baffles you and you write into that.” Asked about how she works, Rogers said that it depends on her pocket of time. Small pocket and she edits. A larger piece of time and she sets up a desk, a table, lays out items that inspire her, walks around, finds a dream space, writes, scratches out. She keeps a sketch book.  “If a line knocks on me, I write it,” and she draws it too. And, finally, she has come to love revision.

Deborah Blessing

Deborah Blessing

From this morning, we moved to an afternoon talk by Deborah Blessing, a long-time, quiet presence in the New Directions community. It was indeed good for me to hear the voice that goes with that presence. In her presentation, “Howling at the Moon,” Blessing linked the eerie experience of hearing wolves howl to the experience of  patients who seem impervious to contact, as if they are howling at a non-responsive moon, a lone wolf looking for a pack. Such patients may have language to describe intellectual pre-occupations but are troubled by the ‘unsayable,‘ indeed, the unknowable. Through deep listening to her own experience, Blessing can find room to hold the persecutory sense of a void of unreachable distance to another often experienced by such patients, a sense of another who can’t be reached that seems to emerge from an early experience of not reaching one’s objects.

Most impressive about this presentation was the way in which Deborah Blessing contains the experience of alienation communicated by such patients, resisting the urge to herself become either alienated or a source of alienation.  All the skill that we think of as ‘containing’ was amply presented. She then carried the experience with her without knowing what she carried or, perhaps that she carried it, until the hearing a resonant sound from the wilderness– the wolves howling.  It seemed her unconscious had continued processing, waiting for what Bion might call  ‘the selected fact’  that pulled pieces together. Clink, the arch stone was in place.

Blessing’s presentation was of patients who seemed more organized than those presented by Rogers. This appearance of organization came from the ability of Blessings patients to use language, even while such verbal communications were not interactive. Blessing experienced them more like deposits made into her. Reflecting on this kind of verbal interaction,  it seems to me that Blessing could be considered as a canvas, patients’ words as brush strokes leaving marks just as the artists left marks of their unconscious on canvas or in clay. These verbal brush strokes found a human canvas in the form of a therapist skilled enough to ‘hold the frame’ and later consider them.

Perhaps Deborah Blessing’s skill grows in part from her ample experience in infant observation. She studied at the Tavistock in London and continues to work with infant observation in Washington. It seems that this training has formed a base for her deep respect for non-verbal communication and for her understanding of the way in which listening to her innerness gives life to to the patient’s innerness.

Again, a lively discussion after Blessing’s talk.  Her  presentation resonated with experience of therapists in the room.  Those of us who have struggled to sit with eerie feelings, to find words for them, to move through our barriers to hear, welcomed this paper.  More language for our world.

Before I close my first blog, I have to thank Karen Earle, a poet and psychotherapist, who organized this weekend.  In this world of evaluations, she definitely gets a ten for meeting the goal for the weekend that she expressed in her introduction, to organize a weekend to focus on

…the language of the deep image poets, language that seems to leap unbidden from somewhere – leaps which the poet Robert Bly describes as “psychic leaps,” donated to the poem by the imagination. This type of language always excites me – whether I come across it in poetry that I’m reading, whether it’s given to me as I am trying to write, or whether it arises in the therapy room inviting me to listen more deeply.

Karen Earle

Karen Earle

The Steering Committee

The Steering Committee

Thank you, Karen.  Thank you, Bob Winer and the Steering Committee.  Thank you all who work to give new directions to our minds.

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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