Madness in the Mouth: Poetry of and against Pathology

 Image Source: Penguin Books

Image Source: Penguin Books

     Poetry has always been linked to madness. Think of the oracle at Delphi inducing hallucination to speak the truth of the gods. Mind-altering vapors aside, poetry, at its core, subjects language to greater pressure than other forms of communication, interrupting conventional patterns of speech and radically opening itself to the stimulus of the outside world. As society developed a diagnostic vocabulary to link these traits with categories of insanity, it is no surprise that so many poets have been declared insane. Linguistic playfulness, the wild leap from impression to impression guided by sound and association, is seen as a symptom when it manifests off the page. Likewise, the raw display of powerful emotion has been and unfortunately remains unacceptable in many social circles. This week, we’re going to consider the ways that two contemporary poets have explicitly activated the association between verse and insanity, using their writing to challenge and disrupt regressive narratives of othering and exclusion.

     We’ll start with the work of sam sax (previously published in Washington Square Review Issue 36). In his 2017 debut, Madness, sax uses the history of mental health as raw material for a wide-ranging exploration of the self. In many ways, this collection is framed by erasure.  It opens with “NOMENCLATURE," an appendix of the 1952 DSM-I, listing a variety of psychological “disorders," many of which we would now recognize as out of date; throughout the collection, various erasures of this poem serve as section demarcations. Different words are created from the title, while the text of the various disorders gradually becomes lighter, until, by the final section of the book “N  ATURE," the page includes only the letterI” and the punctuation from the original list, tumbling down the page in an almost helical structure.

     This gesture of undoing a harmful history of medical practice is mirrored within the poems as well. In “The Surgeon," for example, sax contemplates a time before anatomical knowledge of the body in which “you might have cut/ open a dead man’s stomach/ & watched a mask of old horses/ come dancing out.” Similarly, a series of poems in the third section of the collection serve as meditations on and reinscriptions of topics ranging from syphilis to hysteria and conversion therapy. In “On Mass Hysteria,” sax considers the line between creativity and madness, ultimately questioning whether anyone can be considered sane. In response to a long legacy of medical disenfranchisement of queer and female bodies, a legacy in which the poet’s own ancestors played a part, sax is fearless in his dismantling of oppressive systems of diagnosis. As he writes in “Satyriasis," “keep giving lust/ an ugly name, i’ll keep making it sing.”

 Image Source: Persea Books

Image Source: Persea Books

     A different strategy for dealing poetically with the treatment of those deemed mad was undertaken by Molly McCully Brown in her debut, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Taking, as its subject matter, the now closed facility for its title, which brutally mistreated and forcibly sterilized its primarily female patients, this collection excavates history instead of erasing it. Brown writes, in persona, as patients in the hospital, and in so doing is able to shed light on the humanity of those deemed medically unworthy. In an ingenious formal invention, Brown includes italicized, indented stanzas in many of her poems dealing with epilepsy, emphasizing the beauty of the patients’ mind without normative judgments.

     As with sax, Brown’s poetry attains great urgency because of a deep, complicated emotional connection to her subject matter. She writes as someone who grew up in the shadow of this hospital, and, as a result, navigates a dual identification with the patients and the society that sequestered them. This manifests, in part, in a kind of lyric shame. As she attempts to preserve and elevate the interior lives of these forgotten women, she contends with the fear that her aesthetic intervention may be another kind of exploitation. One solution is the strong decision to include facsimiles of government documents authorizing forced sterilization alongside poems attempting to fathom the psychological impact this must have had on its victims. By not shying away from the horror of history, Brown is able to compose a deeply moving collection, one that turns the full power of lyric poetry to the humanization of marginalized subjects without letting us gloss over the inhumane medical treatment they endured.

 Image via the State of Virginia

Image via the State of Virginia

     Both of these collections serve as shining examples of a recent upsurge in poetry that actively contends with the violence inherent in labeling certain traits and behaviors pathological. They go beyond personal inquiry to grapple with the societal structures that create and control these diagnostic categories. As the most recent iteration of a long relationship between poetry and atypical psychology, writing like this does essential work in building empathy and counteracting received narratives of normality and health. Madness is transformed from affliction to lyric clarity. In a time when the truth has become so ideologically fraught, nothing could be more valuable.

Washington Square