Esther Altshul Helfgott: Poems


Driving Home from Mother's House Sister Father's Skull  At Sixteen  Dream  The Old Woman  If I Could Stop the Words  At the Hospital  The Psychiatrist and the Poet Dear Pat

the psychiatrist and the poet

Inspired by the work of Myles K. Blank's "fugue" Vancouver, B.C.: Broca's Publishing House, 1993 and Crysta Casey's Heart Clinic, Seattle: Bellowing Ark Press, 1993.

I have a friend named Crysta. She writes poems. She reads them. No, she chants them. And as she chants, her body sways - back and forth - holding the audience/still. The sound of her voice - a monotone - stories a life lived in corridors, on stretchers, in rooms filled with strangers. Hospital people - nurses, doctors, attendants - doing their jobs.

If not for location, one of the doctors could be Vancouver, B.C. psychiatrist/poet, Myles K. Blank, author of fugue. Crysta does not know Myles (she lives in a different city); but these two have met anyway - on the page. I wish they could meet elsewhere. At a poetry reading, say. Any place that treats words specially, as each of these poets do.

Myles K. Blank writes about people in exile, in extremity, where Crysta lives. In "the mirror," Blank dreams about a woman on a stretcher. He is on the late shift " wandering through a field of sheets." He stops/sees a woman:

she has scars she is hurt
emaciated white face
slender lips
i kiss her cheeks
want to lie down on the stretcher
and take her place

But Myles cannot take Crysta's place. I have seen her self-inflicted scars, the cigarette burns. I have listened to her read. I have waited while she writes about the woman-girl in line for the stretcher, her home away from home. I have read the poems, her book, Heart Clinic, dedicated to her doctor. Still, these poets are in each other's lives. In Casey's poem, "Restraint"

Doctors, nurses and social workers
emerge magically from journal articles,
hospital forms and diplomas on walls,
surround the stretcher.
My own
doctor is there, his hand pressing
my shoulder firmly like my father
when I was a child. I do
not fight though my body is
stiff, rigid. I lie
its length. They lock
a leather strap on each leg,
around the waist, each wrist.
In the dark alley, I was surrounded
by gang members. I didn't scream
as they pressed my ankles and wrists
to the paved, damp street.
My doctor is talking to me.
He says, "This is not rape -
the restraints are hugging you
close to my chest to keep you
a part of this world."

Doctor and patient are on the same ward. Experience separates them, but it also brings them together. Perhaps Blank wants to experience his patient's helplessness because he needs to acknowledge the child within himself, the child who, in relation to parents, feels forever in extremis. In Blank's "untitled memory:"

leaves a remnant
of shaving cream
shuts the mirrored cabinet
baby nibbles on
a hard biscuit
lovers spread
a blanket over grass
...a female shape
breasts belly hips...
i am always alone
on the other side

"fugue" is a good title for Blank's poems. Reading them one feels the poet inhabiting a trance-like state. Whether his "beer's gone flat in the bedroom" while watching a lover's "nipple line rising under the sheets," as in "jazzrock poem;" whether he is walking "... through a bus shack/like a ghost," finding "a sleeping child/dreaming of another hurt," as in "the ashless sky," the poet's mind is always in flight: he is looking for images, metaphors, similes to hold the language down. The poet dreams between then and now. And between now and now, as in "through a shop window" when "no land/comes to mind:"

this piece of concrete
under me
where a car rushes by
with my life inside
like a hostage
And between the
future and then,
as in "perspective 2" when:
i am old
looking back
at strands of hair
falling over your face

All the while Blank is in close emotional proximity to his patients and to people in his past, he allows situations and events he encounters on his way to and from work to touch him, as well. Physician or not, he is a working-class poet immersed in the sounds of men and women living ordinary lives. He places himself beside them. As in "bus stop" when a woman:

gets off the bus
to a slew of reporters
clicking their pens
a rope
around her neck
is it the children?...
she wonders, as the cameras snap.

Walking home from work late at night, Blank writes, in "Pitch:"
you lie across the island
heels on the road

phone-booth window
crashing chime
of the street-man
cold on the pavement

Is this poet different from other night-people? He writes:

they're all exactly as crazy as you
midnight dies and this was born..
anyone who walks the street's a whore

smile's a grimace
love makes a scene
cold a.m. opium
sweet concrete

The next day, Blank is back at the hospital. Writing. In "asylum," he tells a patient:

if you sing from the slopes
of your widow's peak
after midnight
climb in the tub
afternoons fully clothed
shriek at old blood
as it silently runs
down your legs
unbutton the shirt
of the deaf man
and take him to bed
I won't turn away
won't reach
for the needle again

The Dictionary of Psychology defines "fugue" as such: Fugue: From the Latin for flight, a psychiatric disability the defining feature of which is a sudden and unexpected leaving of home with the person assuming a new identity elsewhere. During the fugue there is no recollection of the earlier life and after recovery amnesia for events during it. Often called psychogenic fugue to distinguish it from other syndromes that have similar symptoms but are caused by known organic dysfunctions.

Is there a point at which the psychiatrist, feeling so much the patient's pain, becomes Poet via necessity? Might he not otherwise forget to tell the similarities between the rest of humanity's pain and his own? Might he not rather run away, repress feelings of closeness toward others, entirely?

Or would he prefer to transform feelings into thought and word as Crysta does, use the poem as a receptacle of grief, thereby, releasing the fugue-self to clarity, however relative?

In order to escape those elements of parental and social authority that inhibit the artist's ability to re-create the self on the page, the writer/poet flees home for exile. The poem is a place of exile, a place to create the self anew; and as a poet, Myles K. Blank enters that place just as the poet, Crysta Casey, does. For a time, the poet/ psychiatrist/patient exists in the fugue-like state; yet, each chooses release from it. The release is in the writing, of course. Even more, it is in the public sharing of the writing.

When accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said that language is a seat of responsibility. The page is a place to discover the self in relation to words; it is also a place to develop a sense of obligation to others. Blank's poems exhibit this sense of obligation. So do Casey's. I hope you will read them. Patient, mental-health  worker, or both, you will find a part of yourself there.

Other Works cited in this Review:
Morrison, Toni. The Nobel Lecture in Literature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Reber, Arthur S. Dictionary of Psychology. London:Penguin, 1985.

Originally published under a different title in the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1994, (Vancouver B.C., Katalina Bartok, editor).

Driving Home from Mother's House Sister Father's Skull  At Sixteen  Dream  The Old Woman  If I Could Stop the Words  At the Hospital  The Psychiatrist and the Poet Dear Pat

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a poet and independent scholar working on a biography of Edith Buxbaum. She earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington with a thesis on the politics and poetry of Holocaust poet, Irena Klepfisz. Esther's poems and articles have appeared in numerous periodicals, and she is the author of The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices (Kota Press, 2000). In her work as a writing teacher, Esther helps poets and writers bring their authentic voices to the page. She can be reached at: 
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