Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.

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neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

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As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”

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A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!

 

 

 

*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.

AWP ahead

I have been looking at my bookshelves with a certain apprehensive dismay.

They are…overfull. Here’s part of the shelving where I keep poetry collections. I can’t fit any more in without some “weeding.”

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And then there are the other bookshelves, five or six of them, that are also becoming piled high with wonderful and interesting texts.

Now, this would not necessarily constitute a problem. I love books. I refer to many of them often, and I re-read some of them, and I lend some out to friends. A few of the books are even slightly valuable, as the majority of them are out of print.

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The reason I am thinking about the bookshelf issue is that in a month, I am heading to Washington, D.C. for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. I have missed the past few conferences because they were held in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and the like; I cannot take that much time off work nor easily pay for the airfare. But D.C. is not far away! I am not presenting this year, but I will be attending.

The Bookfair, though–it is a haven for book lovers who are fond of hard-to-find literature, small-press poetry and fiction, little journals and big anthologies, teaching texts, new authors. I know I will return home laden with books.

Where will I put them? Is it time to prepare for additions by donating a few of the current volumes? Should I just purchase more bookshelves? Well, I guess I will solve that problem later. For now, I eagerly await the conference.

Untranslatable

Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.

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We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.

 

Revisiting

Read more poems, I advised myself. At first, I thought I might scout around for some writers whose work I am unfamiliar with–writers new (say, Ocean Vuong) and less new (say, Alberta Turner). I have the week off from university work, however, and am lazing about at home…no trips to the library.

I do have my own library, though, much of which consists of poetry collections and much of which I have not read in some time. I chose Audre Lorde off the shelf–her 1986 book Our Dead behind Us. Lorde’s work was pivotal to my early interest in writing poems; I encountered her in a Women’s Literature Studies class in 1978 and was deeply moved by her poems of rage and political awareness, the sensuousness of her imagery.

I chose to re-read some late Plath and one of Adam Zagajewski‘s books, Canvas. What I’m hoping is that some of these re-reads will connect me to areas in poetry I have not explored much recently. Also, I will expand into the works of writers whose poetry I’m less familiar with.

Not to mention the recent work of friends-in-poetry, whom I have let down by not buying their books (yet…I will get to it). So many excellent and thought-provoking writers out there, many of whom I know personally or have at very least met in person and connected via social media platforms. I hope to purchase some of those books at this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., and thus to keep to my commitment to read more poetry.

Meanwhile, I turn the pages and rediscover “old friends” and their voices, stories, moods. That is a pleasant task, and a fruitful and useful one.

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Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

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There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

Shift

This past weekend, I decided it was time to submit to some changes in the way I have been submitting.

Submitting manuscripts, that is.

I have sent out a full-length collection of poetry, my second manuscript of over 60 poems, for three or four years now and the time has come to re-assess. On the spur of the moment Saturday I sent out a chapbook-length collection of poems in a completely different vein, on another topic.

Sometimes, a writer just needs to shake things up, shift direction–whether she wants to or not. It is far too easy to get comfortable in a routine (in this case, easy to send the same manuscript file through various online submission portals, at regular intervals depending upon motivation and spare time). Submittable has become the most common software portal for submissions in the poetry world; but I recall vividly the days when I had to print everything out and photocopy the manuscript, then send it by postal mail to each prospective publisher.

So everything shifts, and we adjust.

Alas, The Red Queen Hypothesis and other poems has had no takers. Maybe I need to tear the manuscript apart, rearrange and update it. Maybe the poems just are not as strong as I thought they were, even though more than half of them have been published individually; maybe there is simply no audience for that particular collection of poetry.

I do not consider this giving up on the collection or on the poems in it. I merely aim to make transition, to move along to something a little different for awhile. Wake myself up to the work I have been composing more recently, concentrate on those pieces instead.

Submit to change, and make the best of that change, and allow the change to change the writer. I think I learned that in my MFA program at Goddard.  🙂

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