By Judith Barrington
I come to the thrilling idea of narrative medicine as first a poet and second a patient. My first poetry book was published in 1985 and my fifth (a “New and Selected”) will come out next spring from Salmon Publishing. In between, there have been chapbooks, collaborations with artists and musicians, and poems that will never be published but provoked a good round of laughter at someone’s birthday.
I have always been dedicated to the study of prosody (the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry) a subject that will never run out of surprises and new insights. One crucial piece of my learning was the strong connection between the rhythms of language (in poetry the rhythms of poetic lines and stanzas) and the sounds of language (vowels, consonants and words), and the body from which those rhythms and sounds emerge. Although I took very few classes in poetry or poetics, I was very fortunate in that my first teacher used a text book that is so amusing and smart that I still use it in my own workshops, although my copy is almost entirely held together with sticky tape. *
Why not buy a new copy? you may ask. Well, there is a good reason that I keep the first edition: a chapter called “Gold in the Ore: the sounds of English” is illustrated by drawings of what we must do with our bodies, particularly our mouths and throats, to produce various vowels and consonants. My two favorite are “Man saying ‘Ugh!’” and “Woman saying ‘Sn—!’” If you try saying these sounds yourself, and slightly exaggerate them, you will see immediately how essential your body structure is to their production. Sadly newer editions of the book omitted these splendid illustrations.
The rhythms of language that we manipulate into pleasing poetry, are not rhythms that exist solely among the words of poems and songs. The fine poet, Alfred Corn, in his book aptly titled The Poem’s Heartbeat, says that the word rhythm comes from the Greek meaning “measured motion.” To hear it, the ear must hear a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals. For many reasons human beings find this experience pleasurable and deeply engaging. Why? he asks. Well, because this regular recurrence is found in contexts that may be fundamental to forming our consciousness: an infant develops hearing before it is born and of course s/he hears the mother’s heartbeat—a regularly recurring sequence. Add to that the steady rhythm of the mother’s walk, experienced as a physical sensation of rocking to and fro. At birth there comes the addition of a new rhythm: the intake and exhalation of breath, which is crucial to the structural form of a poem (where to break the lines, for example). Later there are all kinds of visual rhythms: night and day; a flight of steps from one level to another; repeating patterns on textiles or wallpaper; phases of the moon.
For a poet, musical success arises from the tension between regularity and irregularity, monotony and variety. As Corn says, ”The play of regular against irregular rhythm is one of the most important expressive resources available to a poet.”
As I became a poet, I found myself writing out of the rhythms my body had acquired through personal experiences. There was roller skating, swimming and sex, to name just three. Horses, too, gave me plenty of rhythmic lines and body sensations that emerged from memory onto the page. As an example, I offer this poem: “Why Young Girls Like to Ride Bareback.” *
You grasp a clump of mane in your left hand,
spring up and fall across her back;
then, pulling on the wiry black hair
which cuts into your palm and fourth finger,
haul yourself up till your right leg
swings across the plump cheek of her hindquarters.
Now you hold her, warm and alive, between your thighs.
In summer, wearing shorts, you feel the dander
of her coat, glossy and dusty at the same time,
greasing up the insides of your calves,
and as she walks, each of your knees in turn
feels the muscle bulge out behind her shoulder.
Trotting’s a matter of balance. You bounce around
unable to enter her motion as you will when the trot
breaks and she finally waltzes from two to three time.
Nothing to be done at the trot but to grab again that mane
that feels, though you don’t yet know it, like pubic hair,
and straddle her jolting spine with your seat bones
knowing that when the canter comes, you will suddenly
merge—you and that great, that powerful friend:
she, bunching up behind, rocking across the fulcrum,
exploding forward on to the leading leg, and you
digging your seat down into the sway of her back,
your whole body singing: we are one, we are one, we are one.
My physical being entered into most of my poems, including the genetic disease I was diagnosed with in my middle years (Charcot Marie Tooth disease). A poem titled “Neuro-Muscular” speculates on the possibility that I inherited the gene from my mother and ends with some lines that recall another rhythmic activity that she and I shared— serving in a game of tennis:
I toss the ball, drop my racket behind
my shoulder and swing high overhead.
My aces defy the frayed threads of nerves
and garbled messages caught in cobwebs.
At night my mother and I are both champions.”
Three years ago, after a subdural hematoma, I had surgery and extensive rehabilitation to regain mobility, speech, and cognitive abilities. My body acquired new rhythms, particularly through physical therapy and a new gait for walking. Poems continue to emerge from this changed and aging body, which has also opened itself to consider the sticky issue of mortality. Writing from the body, a poet cannot avoid an awareness of the direction and final destination of that body’s journey through time.
The great Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, pointed out that it is difficult for some cultures to speak and write about death (although our culture has seemed to be grappling better with it these past few years.) “The word death,” writes Paz, “is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
However hurt or worn out we are, we cannot truly love life unless we acknowledge the approach of death speaking eloquently through our bodies and thus through our poems.
* Western Wind: an introduction to poetry by John Frederick Nims
* Published in Horses and the Human Soul by Judith Barrington
(Storyline Press, 2004)
For more about the author please visit: www.judithbarrington.com