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The Factory that Never Stops: Mapping the Within

By Liam Bishop.

I.

Visiting from England, my girlfriend and I decided to bisect our two-week trip to New York by travelling up the coast to New Haven for a couple of nights. Before we were due to return to New York, we made sure to visit the Beinecke Library. In the exhibition, “Beyond Words”, dedicated to experimental and avant-garde poetry, I placed a pair of headphones over my ears,  and listened to the rambunctious gurgling of Henri Chopin’s digestive system.

For his friend William Burroughs, Chopin—a Frenchman who escaped from a forced labour camp in WWII—was an “inner space explorer.” After “La Digestion”, I listened to “Les Vibrisses” where Chopin placed a microphone in his nose to record the sounds generated in, and by, his nasal hair. And it was these “vast and musical frescoes” (as the Guardian described them) that were part of a repertoire of over one hundred “sound poems.” The microphone became a way of writing the language of his body, his body that was, as he stated, a “factory…it never stops.” I turned back to the exhibition brochure which was  prefaced with Chopin’s words:

So I judge a poem’s importance, if it is obviously as well conceived as possible, if it is also the most perfect, but above all if it was capable of joining together man and poet…of becoming flesh and blood movement and gesture, word and speech; if it knew beauty and started to sing, knew all the possibilities and contained them all (all that which in the end we call spirit) in order to be and remain, departed from out of the chaos, the last writing. Only then is it a poem…

Through Chopin and the exhibition, I saw how unstable the relationship between poetry and language can be, and how naive my understanding of how poets work with language really is. Granted, Chopin was working and caught up in a wider artistic and political movement linked with Dadaism, Lettrism and, by extension, Marxism yet, through a dialogue with his own body, Chopin was demonstrating how we associate poetry as a way of accessing a language that comes from “within” when we never really know what “within” entirely means.

Or at least I didn’t. But poetry does seem to have a more explicitly intimate relationship with the “within” than other arts. As Ben Lerner writes in The Hatred of Poetry (2016: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux/Fitzcarraldo), we are taught from a young age that we are all poets (look how when we inadvertently rhyme we respond with another rhyme: “you’re a poet, but you don’t know it” he reminds us), and that the ‘purest expression of feelings inside us’ comes through poetry. He then recounts a visit to the dentist that asserts several ‘assumptions’ of poetry that were also dispelled in me in the Beinecke. For Lerner, the poet, with a mirror inside his mouth, it was as though the dentist:

[was] searching for my innermost feelings…as he knocked the little mirror against my molars, was contemptuous of the idea that genuine poetry could exist from such an opening.

The dentist, the practitioner of the mouth, looking at the poet, the exponent of words, language. But this belies what Chopin was demonstrating to me because for so long I’d lazily thought that: 1) poetry is in some way the “truest” expression of “feelings”; 2) the expression of those feelings are formed somewhere “within” to eventually be voiced or spoken; and 3) the only way our feelings can be understood by another person is by “voicing” them or communicating them in language. As the academic Kiene Wurth said of Chopin[1],  by swallowing microphones it was a ‘way of finding how far the body can go in “speaking for itself” a proposition I’d never seen so literally and mesmerizingly enacted until then.

II.

I’m in Julian Turner’s Otley home where he works as a therapist and poet. “It’s a universal impulse wanting to be complete”, he says, “and I think the mind in particular, and the body as a whole too, has this sense of wanting to be complete”.

I was introduced to Turner’s work several years ago now, and wrote about his latest and fourth collection, Desolate Market, in 2018 (you can read my review here). He is a poet whose skill and composition of established metrical structures is underlain by a more complex relationship between language and meaning. In “Black Box”, a section of Turner’s Desolate Market (Carcanet), he writes about people who experienced or studied symptoms of schizophrenia which he uses to further explore the relationship of language as a carrier of meaning. He devotes one poem, “The Afterlife of the Air Loom (1919)”, to Victor Tausk, a psychoanalyst who devised a compelling theory about why a person might experience “dissociation” between their mind and body:

Tausk is a genius as far as I’m concerned. He was important to me because he basically says that the child’s mind interprets the body from alien things. So he says that the origins of the ideas of the influencing machine comes from the child’s belief that the body is an alien machine.

The “Influencing Machine” is a belief that there is a “machine” or the external thoughts of somebody else controlling the mind, or someone, as Tausk wrote in “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia[2]”, who “consider[s] the cause of all these alien or hostile sensations of physical or psychic change to be simply an external mental influence, suggestion, or telepathic power, emanating from enemies.”

“I think that’s completely right in the sense that the child’s trying to make sense of the chemical changes, the neurotransmitters coming from the body,” says Turner. Like a person that might be wondering what their inner sensations and feelings might mean, Turner’s poem doesn’t necessarily suggest that the body finds a way to “speak for itself” or communicate in a relatable language between mind and body. This is the first stanza:

When it had spun its thoughts and left for dead
The poor man in his cell of abscesses,
The ghost machine evolved, became a box
Of tricks, all micro-waves and mobile masts,
A soup of circuitry from which it wove
All of the dreams of man, the vital parts
A baby body cannot fathom out.

It’s almost as though the “influencing machine” becomes an existential anxiety for why somebody might not trust the source of their own thoughts. To return to Chopin, who wrote in “Why I am the Author of Sound Poetry” (1967) about how the “word” has “invaded every house[…]and permitted life to lie”, via Turner’s “ghost machine” we also have a mechanism which has a similarly invasive capacity to implant thought and language. But it’s not only the imagery that suggests there are “other” forces at work in Turner’s poem. Look at the dactyl that commences the stanza: that “spinning” is rhythmically commenced because by the time the “ghost machine” has “evolved” in the third line Turner is using a regular meter as though the machine has settled into its rhythm. So, when we come to that image of a “baby body” it is unified into a singular imagistic machine of  “micro-waves” and “mobile masts” but also a rhythmical one too; a space united and alienated by its language, rhythm and structure.

Indeed, this “ghost machine” might sound like Turner is invoking Koestler, and while he is interested in wholes and parts, the poet has more tools at his disposal than the philosopher. “A black Ur-box, it sits now on my desk,/ a panel on the front, a toggle, wires/ entering a sealed socket at the back”: these are the opening lines of the second stanza. You really hear Turner’s poem now, and it’s smoother than what we read as Turner chooses that slightly awkward construction in the first line, inserting the pronoun “it”, but allowing the line to conform to the pentameter. Why does Turner work to these metrics? Why is he appearing to choose sound over what we read? Well, writing in the fourth line “Thus the mind presents the body[.]”, with that formal ‘thus’ there’s a suggestion Turner is creating an image of a causal relationship between the systems and the mechanics of the body in which he is writing and, indeed, a logic inherent in the poem.

But the esoteric sound of “thus” suggests the idea of the body as a system of causality is an outdated one. For Tausk the sufferers of the influencing machine will report “buttons [being] pushed, leavers set in motion, cranks turned”,  and Turner extends this fallacy in his poem by creating the illusion of a causal relationship between his language and structure and, in turn, body and language. As Tausk tried to show, and as Turner will attest to, there are many reasons for somebody wanting to “leave” their own body, but how else could our body be operated by anybody else if its rules and logics weren’t causal? The irony reiterated by Turner is that like the body thus presented to the mind, the poem is not a sum of its mechanics, and is more like a conflict set in an illusion of coherence and logic.

“Making a bit of yourself so that bit of yourself can deal with the things that’s happening so the child is safe; everybody’s got the capacity for it  The mind’s working well when we hear voices, the making of parts of ourselves is one of the most fundamental acts of creation there is,” he says excitedly before somberly adding, “Some people don’t know what their edges are though, because they’ve been attacked and abused.”

There seems to be an echo of the cultural sentiment Lerner suggested that poetry, or at least creativity, is fundamentally human, but it’s also a question of where we situate our bodies, and what kind of environment allows for the expression of what is within and how this is cultivated by the people we share our lives with. Turner’s poem, “Mingulay”, shows how confusing it can be to understand our “within” in relation to the world:

Immense and black and close enough to touch,
Their bed-on-bed of metamorphic rock
Glistening black and veined and red feldspar,

The two hundred meter cliffs of Mingulay
Rise and fall with each swell of twenty foot
As we drift between the island and the stack[…]

Mingulay is a Scottish island and although the reader might not have been there, we wouldn’t necessarily contend with the description of the island as the poet approaches its rocks. Not only does Turner’s imagery correspond with the schematic representation of an island—as well as Scotland for that matter—as the unrhyming tercets continue (I’ve snipped the first line from the next passage), the approaching cliffs suddenly cause the speaker to look inwardly:

Right now they mirror the salt-cloud of the sky,
The breathing ocean and the boat’s paintwork

Lending us the anonymity of rock.
We tack out of the lee onto the high sea,
Heading for barra, tilting through 90 degrees.

We do not recognise ourselves ashore.

Despite snipping the final two lines of the last tercet, the closing line of the passage invokes us to question the relationship of the poet and the world, but also the relationship to what is within. The first person plural suggests a group of people on a boat, but not “recognizing ourselves” could also mean the many selves within we are sometimes unable to recognize. Now, the “metamorphic” rocks are the classification, but are also the poet’s capacity for recognizing the possibility of transformation in this world. Counterpointing this with the specific measurements— “twenty foot…90 degrees”—only goes further in implicating the distortion we experience of this world we thought was being described to us, a world that might now be more representative of what is within.

“It happened,” Turner says when I ask him about the inspiration for the poem, “But everyone experiences it.”

Experiences what I ask.

“Well, we might call it ‘sea-legs’, which goes to show how we recognize,  linguistically, these transitions, but they’re quite shocking; even for grown-ups.”

Could we say that Turner’s poem was given a voice by the experience being translated through his “sea-legs” rather than a more ‘rational’ recounting through the ordered language of the mind ? If there was ever evidence of how our bodies might be understood as a series of experiences bristling against one another it’s how Turner, and as most of us often do, use that colloquialism, grown-ups. It’s a word that indicates our past as a state of perpetual change, projecting into our adulthood future. And it refers to a physical state too: like a factory, it’s an indication that the body never stops.

III. 

“The symptom with the content that ‘thoughts are given to them’, the patients deduce from their belief that others know their thoughts,” writes Tausk, attributing this symptom to the stage in life, “When the child knows nothing through its own efforts, it obtains all knowledge from others how to make use of its limbs, language, its thoughts.” Like that “baby body” fathoming out the “vital parts” in Turner’s poem, we must also fathom out ourselves from others, and it’s not just a case of discerning the right language or appropriate words to speak about ourselves. Reading this, I’m sat at home. I know now that there is a language within myself spoken by parts of me that I introjected in childhood and that might not be the best representation of who I am now, but can still speak within me; whether I choose to “listen” to them is a different matter. But when Wurth writes of Chopin that he was “accessing different organizations ‘below’ or ‘before’ the dimension of organized speech”, it seemed he was using poetry as a way of accessing a “primitive” knowledge and language that suggests poetry is composed of a language distinct from the language of the mind and the self. Wurth then quotes the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy:

Buccality is more primitive than orality. Nothing has taken place yet; nothing has been spoken there yet. But an opening— unstable and mobile—forms at the instant of speaking. For the instant, one discerns nothing: ego does not mean anything, ego only opens this cavity. Every mouth is a shadow mouth, and the true mouth also opens onto this darkness, and as this darkness, so as to form its heart of hearts.

By the tissue—buccality— being more primitive than the mouth, Nancy manages to insinuate primitivism as an idea, not of regression, but inarticulateness and a place that doesn’t have a language of words. This is why I find myself so compelled to ask psychoanalyst-poets (am I looking for a poet or a therapist I wonder), because therapy, like poetry, tries to create a space where “buccality” finds a language and a space like psychoanalyst Susanne Lansman[3] describes:”…at its best when it’s a flowing of ideas in conversation, questions without answers, intriguing us so that desire is not killed off and the wish to know continues to develop.”  I asked her more about this idea of ‘flow’ in conjunction with her work as a poet.  “I have been looking at the idea of a poem as a therapeutic space recently”, she writes to me, “Psychoanalysis provides a space for consideration of the patient’s use of the analyst. This flexible situating and re-situating of the self/voice and its object/subject to have the potential to create a transformative effect in the reader/patient.”

One is reminded of Turner’s “Mingulay” and the way we try to find “mirrors” in other people, or just the world, to help us understand our inner world. “Flow” does not necessarily represent a smoothness, a linking and causation, instead it’s a sense of accessing a place that might be prior to speech, and a place of speaking for and from ourselves even when those selves appear multiple and conflicting. In Lansman’s extraordinary poem, “A photograph of something that isn’t there” (first published in Bedford Square Review, 2019), she is able to give a language to the interstitial spaces between words that exist within us:

That die before they are fully formed
.           Skin
                                      stretches
to look like      Anything:                    A brother

Never helped to undress

.            A mother                          Made from asymmetric layers

The poem continues (perhaps a distant relation to Apollinaire’s calligrammes, also on display at the Beinecke), finishing with the lines:

After               The first letter
.                                              Sounds get
.                                                                 Muddled

                                                            A demented sentence grows

Around a disordered space.

I never knew.

The language and form of the poem culminates in those final lines like a disordered space consciously ordered around an experience, whether that experience is repressed or pushed into the soma. And, like any repressed experience, it informs the experience of now. What is a preposition—here, “After”—if that preposition is dislodged or not representative of a linear moment in time? How can we be concerned with “after” when we haven’t processed what’s before it yet, and when the potentially traumatic experience distorts our understanding of time? The irony in the title with a “photograph”, suggests that a moment has been processed on the camera’s film without being fully developed.

When I ask Lansman about the structure of the poem, I tell her I feel like I’m intruding, probing experiences that are uncovered and haven’t yet emerged. She says:

I think that is right. The gaps and spaces in some of my poetry are spaces for experiences that haven’t been uncovered or felt enough, rather like the silences in the consultation room that can be filled with meaning: hostility, despair, or an entreaty to be with painful or shameful feelings.

How we “feel” those silences: we call silences “awkward” when we’re in meetings with colleagues we don’t know; we call silences “emotionally” painful when we’re with family members who don’t dare broach, or who might have broached hostile and despairing feelings. Yet, this idea of them being “felt enough” suggests their language hasn’t been communicated, and when we return to Chopin writing about how a poem’s importance can be judged by when it is “capable of joining together man and poet…of becoming flesh and blood movement and gesture, word and speech….” Lansman’s poem transmits, rather than speaks, about those silences that are filled with meaning, gives them a space and another language that the exhibition in the Beinecke attested to—beyond words.

“Words are not enough. There has to be experience,” Lansman writes in her final email as I ask about her poem. Words are all we’ve got sometimes I think, yet, as I think this, it’s a memory of being back in Turner’s home that comes to me. He’s showing me the room in which he works with his clients, and then he takes me downstairs into the cellar where he writes. Going down the two flights of stairs what I notice are the maps. They line the walls. Ordnance Surveys fill bookcases. Can we ‘map’ that inner world that connects or is connected by language? Or perhaps we should be thinking about language as anything that can be listened to, even if it means we have to swallow microphones.

NOTES:
[1] Wurth, Kiene. (2013). Speaking of Microsound: The Bodies of Henri Chopin. 193-211. 10.5422/fordham/9780823251384.003.0013.
[2]Tausk V, Feigenbaum D. On the origin of the “influencing machine” in schizophrenia. J Psychother Pract Res. 1992;1(2):184‐206.
[3]Susanne Lansman (2018) In Writing, by Adam Phillips, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 99:6, 1481-1485, DOI: 10.1080/00207578.2018.1471695

 

FEATURED POETS:
Julian Turner first collection Crossing the Outskirts (Anvil 2002) was a PBS recommendation and short-listed for the Forward best first collection prize. His second, Orphan Sites appeared in 2006 and his third, Planet-Struck was also a PBS recommendation. His 4th book Desolate Market was published summer 2018 by Carcanet. He is a writer and counsellor living and practicing in Otley, West Yorkshire.

Susanne Lansman is a practice based PhD candidate at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has been published in The Interpreter’s House, The Rialto and The Bedford Square anthology. She is also a psychoanalyst working in private practice in London.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, UK. His work has appeared on the Hong Kong Review of Books, Cleveland Review of Books, and Review 31. Visit his website to see more of his work: www.liamhbishop.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 28th, 2020.