Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.



The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.



Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.


So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!


I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀


Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain






Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.


Interpretation & finesse

A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because I didn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!

It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.

That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!


Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.

That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.

Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.

Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).

I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.




Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.



I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.


I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!


As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.



Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?


© 2012 Ann E. Michael