Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thinking It Through

Back in grad school, my fabulous instructor’s stipend meant I got to live in a basement room right on the campus for $200.00, utilities included. Of course, I kept the windows closed for two years, due to the fact that sizable wolf spiders would congregate on the inside of the screens if they were open. The shower had rough rock walls and the drain was a hole in the concrete floor. The steps down to my room were very steep (being right underneath another set of stairs), and one day, when it had been raining outside, I leaned back in my customary way as I went down, and my feet went out from underneath me. I remember my head hitting the back of the stairs and I wound up sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, as the cleaning lady stared at me curiously. She asked if I was alright, I said something garbled, and then I apparently passed out, and fell back, hitting my head again on the concrete floor, and had a small seizure. Later there was an ambulance and x-rays and an EEG, and nothing appeared to be amiss, but my physician did pause at one point, and say something sympathetic (but not comforting) about the ramifications of head injuries for “knowledge workers” like ourselves. This I found to be the scariest part of the whole incident, though there appear to have been no after-effects nor any damage. (I couldn’t multiply more than two digit numbers in my head before, and I still can’t.) So heart attacks don’t nearly frighten me as much as strokes and the like.

So I have to say that I wasn’t sure how to react to Diane Ackerman’s introduction to her husband Paul West’s piece about suffering brain damage and the resultant aphasia.

The first section, “Fleet,” has some of the recursive daffiness of poetry (“One way of trying extra hard is to imagine one dimension of the universe coated in either black velvet or a blue that no one has reported outside the province of Baffinland”), and one senses a lot of syntactical navigation through neural back alleys throughout (“It was a matter of looking always on the bright side, until you were looking no longer; in this way, unless you were singularly unfortunate, you always had something to admire.”). Cerebral trauma has been on my mind recently, having just watched Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s, The Lookout, a modest thriller about a brain-damaged ex-hockey star and a bank heist, and I am still haunted by Floyd Skloot’s essay. “Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain” (published in Best American Essays 2000), and its painstaking reproduction of the mental gymnastics involved in just cooking something.

Apparently, there is a Crippled Poetics, as well as debate about whether “autism poetry” is being co-opted by non-autistic poets. Of course, one of the possible side effects of identifying the functionality of the mechanisms of language with poetic/personal identity is the disabling of critique, though in West’s case, any linguistic functionality itself is a vindication of the brain and its plasticity. Yet, as always, when it comes to the page, all bets are off. As a medium, printed matter has its own laws of physics, and while there are wormholes between form and content, signifier and signified, ultimately a text only has recourse to its own First Principles.

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