At sundown

The disintegrating physical and mental situation of an elderly best-beloved recently has led me back (after a brief pause) to readings in neurology and consciousness. It has also led me to reflect on the tasks memory accomplishes for us and how the need to tell a story seems to reside deep in whatever “makes us human.” Many poems, perhaps most of them, are “inspired” by memories and a need to tell. So I will indulge myself by giving a narration here, and perhaps poems will follow later.

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The best-beloved has been in and out of hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and so-called independent living placement and appears to have developed a very common but not-commonly-talked-about cognitive disarray, or hospital-induced delirium, that medical personnel call “sundowning” when it occurs in Alzheimer’s patients. But my patient does not have Alzheimer’s disease. Her meshing of realities must have been triggered by something else, but the possible factors are many. We may never figure out what it was that pitched her into delusion and lack of compassion, turning her into a person we barely know.

She took good care of her body. At 90, her physical self is in better shape than many people 20 years her junior. Her brain–and hence, her mind–has not stayed as healthy as the rest of her. Several small strokes deep in her brain began to alter not just her gait but her personal focus. Long years of hearing loss no doubt altered how her brain processes input. The reading I have been doing (most recently Carr’s The Shallows, Sacks’ On the Move, and Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza) indicates that the human brain is “plastic” but not necessarily “elastic.” It can modify in response to damage or training, but that does not mean it will spring back to the way it was before. In extreme old age, the process of adaptation slows. The brain becomes less resilient. For reasons no one really understands–a host of possible culprits includes hormones, glutamates, serotonin production, medicines, genetic predispositions, and environmental factors among others (a perfect storm…)–persons who have been sharp and cogent may suddenly experience delusions, often leading to paranoia, confusion, loss of affect, lack of social filters, violent and contrary behavior.

And we ask, “What happened to the soul I love?”

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If we believe in souls, we have faith that somewhere under the changeling is the best-beloved. In flashes, she may return to us. If we believe that the brain is the person, the transition from best-beloved to aggressive complainer is harder to accept. Damasio seems to believe the brain is the person. I find it hard to agree with him fully, though I have been learning a lot about neurology in the process.

Metaphors or analogies for the situation seldom seem, to me, quite to capture the wrenching feeling I have when encountering sundowning. The idea of disintegration seems inappropriate in this case, because she recalls who we are and her mind is not collapsing so much as morphing in unaccountable ways. Threads unraveling? No, not really; the metaphor of a quilt coming undone, maybe, or an intricately-woven tapestry shredded apart–but that’s far too simplistic.

Think of the mind: it encompasses the brain with its regions for motor, somatosensory, auditory, and visual processing; the body, which takes in those physically-produced inputs; memories; thoughts; feelings, which are thoughts spurred by emotions; and a host of complex inter-relationships we cannot even begin to map. Somewhere in all of this is the person, the “self.” At least, as far as we have so far been able to speculate (though not everyone agrees; see my post on Hofstadter & Parfit. Parfit suggests personal identity is an invalid construct).

Perhaps an environmental analogy would suffice, being complex enough for comparison. She is the planet Earth, aging and adaptable, but not endlessly adaptable; her healthy balance has been thrown off by things she may not have had any control over. In whole regions, she becomes inhospitable. Poisoned. Dry. Hot. Overrun with invasives. She seems not to like us anymore, but that is not what’s going on at all. In fact, she’s dying.

Maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far. But in difficult times, one reaches far. There is hope she may recover at least some of her Self, and in the meantime, we have stories in which she plays a role. Mnemosyne–awaken in the consciousness of those who know her. Telling the stories is a step toward letting go.

 

Diversity of form

“Diversity” is a buzz word among educational institutions these days, and I sometimes get a bit tired of hearing it. Diversity as a buzz word becomes like a dead metaphor; we stop thinking about what it means.

Yet when I am reading about biology or evolution, “diversity” flowers into meaning again.253142_2101392498695_2412222_n

Also, after the reading I recently gave, a thoughtful member of the audience remarked upon how literal and concrete the poems in my first book are–especially compared with some of the more speculative and abstract poems I read in response to the “questioning” theme.

Has my writing become less concrete over the years, I wondered. The response is yes and no. In some respects, my poems convey specific and concrete images and actually-possible events, but a mixing tends to occur between & among the lines. Even in that first book: it is, in fact, about building a house. (Concrete was involved!) As I composed the poems that make up the book, however, I realized how metaphorical the whole idea of house, home, hearth, shelter is. Think of the imagery of a house and ingrained, almost mythical connotations arise. The window. The door. The key. The roof. The rooms (stanza means “room” –even the poem offers shelter).

So back to diversity–there is, in the world of poetry and poetics, diversity of form, just as in biology. There are “set forms” such as the sonnet, which turns out not to be quite as “set” as might be expected (see this entry at The Academy of American Poets and this one by Rachel Richardson at the Poetry Foundation). I love diversity of form and have experimented throughout my life with different strategies of written expression, sometimes sound-based or rhythm-based or image-based or codified by the “rules.” I have also broken the rules just for fun, often to good effect. Free verse, metrical verse, alliteration, allusions, puns…I love them all.

The downside of such play, if this can be considered a downside, is that winging it the way I do–as to formal approaches–means that my collected work does not fit a style. I wonder if that is why my second full-length collection languishes unpublished. It’s entirely possible that the poems in The Red Queen Hypothesis are not very good poems. Critical feedback has suggested that isn’t the problem, though (whew!). The problem may be diversity! Publishers, like most human beings, love to categorize. What does not nestle into categories becomes the odd duck.

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odd duck

The reason I chose these poems for this collection, however, has much to do with varieties. The poems deal with the abstract and the biological, the cosmological and the everyday. They stem from a notion that life evolves continuously, making each object and being individual as part of an ever-changing, meshing, chaotic and– paradoxically, but of course!–unified universe. Uni (one). Verse (a pun). The underpinning of The Red Queen Hypothesis is diversity, though that may not be its theme.

So I am not planning to revise the already-much-revised collection; I’ll just persist in sending it out to publishers while hope springs eternal. In the meantime, I have been pondering where the next set of poems is headed. Possibly along the edges. It will be interesting to find out.

Doubt

The prompt of questioning, and recent reading on ethics, have led me to pose for myself a framework for poems that walk between the abstract (ideas, values, philosophies) and the more concrete, pragmatic phenomena in my life (ethics, gardens, weeds, human beings). I find myself thinking again about edges, about fringes, hedgerows, the between-spaces.

That happens to be where doubt arises, too–when we feel in-between, on the edge, and in all likelihood, uncertain.

Fanny Howe, excerpt from “Doubt”

While a whole change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of the surrounding words.

Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.

While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon either culturally or spiritually conceived and why everyone doesn’t kill everyone else, including themselves, since they can— poets act out the problem with their words.*

Acting out problems and doubts in words. Yes, that directive works for poetry as I understand it. Theater, a related art, allows an acting out of conflicts employing a method that keeps us from killing ourselves and each other. The same may be said for any art; perhaps even our development of a philosophy of aesthetics offers the possibility of acting out.

And there is always room for doubt, as doubt has a way of making room in us and among us. The alteration of a single word–from you to them, from proper to prosper, from hie to high: in student writing, these are generally spelling errors; in the work of a thoughtful poet, they may signal a change in viewpoint, a pun that twists the initial intention, a turn in the poem’s story or rhetoric, a region of ambiguity. Howe wrestles with doubt and celebrates it:

“Doubt is what allows a single gesture to have a heart.”

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Edges. The meadow’s just beyond.

Any single gesture. The prayer hands, the bow, the outstretched arm, the Mona Lisa’s smile, the inked line, the poem.

The trapeze artist who walks along a genuine edge, balanced.

Doubt may live deep in the center of everything, but it is hidden there. Along the fringe of things, where the meadow and the forest meet, doubts are much more visible and less harmful.

What we learn along the edge we can take with us into the deeps: our doubts and ambiguities go with us, a kind of enrichment we might learn to accept instead of resent, if we are poets. The troubled state of mind persists, but “the occasional eruption of happiness” keeps the balanced hovering possible.

That eruption of happiness? I am familiar with it. Sometimes, when I’m working on a poem, I feel like a kite in an inconstant wind.

~

 

*Howe, Fanny.  Gone : Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 

The ethicist & the healer

The “Morbid Book Group” recently read John Lantos’ book on ethical issues in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), The Lazarus Case. As one of our members is a pediatric physician, one is a NICU nurse, another a hospital social worker, and another a former obstetrics nurse–we had quite a bit at stake when discussing this book, and quite a few different perspectives. Add to the mix my armchair-philosopher and educator point of view and all the questions a non-medical person has to ask to clarify the issues, and we spent the evening in lively and often challenging discussion.

Lantos tells his readers that medical ethics questions are not really answerable. They depend too much on cases, contexts, and–whether we like it or not–economic situations. An example: Until third-party payer systems are dismantled or significantly changed, confirms the doctor in our book group, NICUs will continue to be profit centers in addition to places where terrifyingly premature babies are saved, or not saved, not so much by technology as by individual circumstance over which doctors and nurses have less control than the parents of these neonatal patients may think.

The NICU nurse told us that Lantos’ book made her question her vocation. One of his observations is that NICUs have become the profit-hub of many hospitals in the USA; then, he asks tough ethical questions about “viability” and “pain and suffering.” The nurse says she sees these babies suffering and feels that too often, the suffering is prolonged when the baby is clearly unlikely to survive–prolonged because the parents cannot let go and the technology promises miracles that only occasionally occur. The doctor in our group gave us her point of view, which many of us found a bit too “scientific”–but that’s how doctors are trained, as she reminded us, while acknowledging heartily that doctors need more real-life experience in compassion, listening, and psychology than they receive in med school or as interns.

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These are the sorts of circumstances that lead us to philosophy. Lantos writes: “Moral reflection begins with a particular type of suffering,” when we are faced not with abstract ethical dilemmas but genuine, frightening, life-altering situations. Lantos argues that doctors must not be “passive vessels” dispensing adrenaline, oxygen, delivering technology to a human being whose individuality the physician may not even notice in those crucial moments. He does not deny that there is value in the dissociated emergency response protocol, when the doctor’s training takes over and pulls the person acting away from emotion.

There is a “but,” however. Lantos says there are times when the healer is the medicine, when trust in the doctor, and the doctor’s willingness to take time to listen to the  patient, can “create a moral framework for dealing with the limitations of being human, of getting sick, suffering, weakening, dying,” when it is understood that the patient might die while under the healer’s compassionate care, and there need be no blame.

How do we get our society there?

“We make changes in medicine the way we make changes anywhere,” says our book-group doctor. “All of you are asking me very hard questions. I don’t have answers to all of them, and you may not agree with my answers or my rationale. And that’s great! Medicine needs to be challenged. There is no way for the medical industry–and it is an industry–to grow in a more positive way if patients and their families, ethicists, and even the damned lawyers remind us that behind the technology is always, always, a singular human being…it ain’t just a science. It’s an art.”

Doctors do need to be educated in the humanities, we agreed, and to spend more time learning about culture and psychology through experiences that develop compassion. Patients need to learn to ask more specifically for that kind of response, and to let hospital administrators understand how often it is lacking. Most of all, we need not to shy from asking the Hard Questions, those life-and-death ethics questions. Not for the sake of answers, but for the sake of discourse and understanding.

If you want a breezy article about how to go about the process of talking about what we fear and wonder at, here’s an article from HuffPost. A reply to Lantos’ critique of NICUs from Jonathan Muraskas and Kayhan Parsi is here.

 

 

 

 

Valuable to know

One of the philosophy faculty members at my college perennially assigns an end-of-term paper in which the freshman student must defend whether (or not) a philosophical principle, view, or argument “is valuable to know.” He has a list of possibilities, such as “Is Descartes’ concept of the body-mind problem valuable to know?” and “Is Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence valuable to know?”

The students wrestle mightily with these essays, although the professor’s question does not in itself constitute a major philosophical argument; even when we disagree with something, we may still feel it is valuable to know. The students do not always recognize that they have to make and defend only the view that knowledge is valuable. They tend, instead, to re-argue the philosopher’s claims…which confuses them, but also works to help them learn what those claims are and how they operate as arguments.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Socrates. This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here.

Philosophy, the art of thinking about thinking, by its very nature creates confusion on the path toward greater understanding. Or anyway, that should be the intention. What I like about this assignment (which I often see when I am tutoring) is the way young people come to terms with the material while they are in the process of composing the paper.

Here is how the tutoring sessions tend to go: I look at the first paragraph for context and clarity. Then I look at the claim and help the student clear up any grammar or mechanical errors. Then the student writes about what, for example, Aristotle’s claims about moral and intellectual virtue are. Usually this section comprises two rather vaguely-worded general paragraphs presenting claims by the philosopher, paraphrased in freshman-student sentences, and two short paragraphs presenting opposing views come next.

Here is where grammar and rhetoric are friends. I read each sentence, and I tell the student what he or she is saying in the sentence–based on how well the student can write or proofread, what the sentence says and what the student meant to say may be rather distant partners. So we work on that. As we plow through the paragraphs, the student gets a chance to re-think his or her arguments about and understanding of the philosophical questions at stake in the essay. Sometimes, I can almost see the lightbulb of comprehension beginning to glow in the student’s mind.

It really demonstrates what I tell my students all the time: Writing helps thinking! And so does discussion. In my office, for half an hour, the student gets a sounding board for his or her own ideas and then writes them down. Not all of my students get terrific grades, but it fascinates me to watch them in the process of coming to understand that pretty much anything can be valuable to know.

 

 

 

Questioning

Next week, on May 5th, I’ll be the featured poet for the River Poets of Bloomsburg, PA (info here and here). Bloomsburg is situated along the Susquehanna River, and the region will be beautiful in early May.

Linda Dietrichson, the MC for this event, has posed a theme for the poet (me) to consider when choosing poems to read and to follow up in a Q&A with the audience. The theme is “Questioning.” At first, I read the word as questing–the mythic journey toward some remotely-attainable goal. But question’s etymology offers a varying perspective:

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Quest (n): early 14c., “a search for something.”

This searching comes to Westerners mostly via chivalry’s poems and Arthurian legends, derived from “Old French queste ‘search, quest, chase, hunt, pursuit; inquest, inquiry’ (12c., Modern French quête), properly ‘the act of seeking,’ and directly from Medieval Latin questa ‘search, inquiry,'” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Question, the noun, derives from “Latin quaestionem (nominative quaestio) ‘a seeking, a questioning, inquiry, examining, judicial investigation,’… early 13c., ‘philosophical or theological problem'” with even a suggestion of interrogation (or torture!).*

These definitions overlap in some areas; but the word-basis does differ in the Latin. The act of seeking tends to connote search for an object–a physical search for a physical something–whereas inquiry and examination (yes, even torture) suggest that the “question” has a rhetorical object: the abstract or metaphysical aim (never an answer!) that’s more contentious and usually more ambiguous.

Questioning offers interrogation toward the unknowable, and that is poetry’s territory.

So this is where I begin next Thursday evening’s reading: with the unknowable. Who knows where we’ll go from there?

~~

 

*(see the site Online Etymology Dictionary for further brief origins–or any OED).

Poetry Month & Simic’s prose

I have read and enjoyed a great deal of Charles Simic‘s poetry over the years. How did I miss his prose?

I just picked up The Life of Images (2015) and find myself delighted indeed. This book makes a wonderful read for National Poetry Month, despite its subtitle “Selected Prose,” because so many of the pieces in this collection are about poetry or act as prose poems–a form Simic is well-known for.

Every other paragraph or so I find myself wanting to write down a glorious sentence, or a quote I should share with my poetry students, or a concise description that fits perfectly, such as Simic’s observation about Buster Keaton‘s persona in his silent movies: “Bedeviled by endless obstacles, Buster is your average slow-thinking fellow, seeking a hidden logic in an illogical world.”

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Being of a philosophical bent myself, I was thrilled to read and then re-read “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” with its foundation of Heidegger and Simic’s sly and humorous references to Hegel, Schroedinger, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman and others. That essay is really a series of prose poems that resemble philosophical puzzles and paradoxes.

His essays here often focus on visual art, as well. Movies, paintings, photographs. The image as metaphor.

“The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors, even Language, who is their Lord and master.” Ah, yes. One of many paradoxes surrounding the practice and theory of poetry:

“Everything would be simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot…It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants me to go.”

“Metaphor is a part of the not-knowing aspect of art, and yet I’m firmly convinced that it is the supreme way of searching for truth.”

~

The usual progression of spring unfurls and blossoms around me, a bounty of images, thank goodness, and Simic has me mulling over my metaphors again.