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Journal, Day Two

By Richard Siken

The Ethics of the Taxonomy

There are so many things I’m not allowed to tell you. That’s another reason I’m a liar. And a poet. And very good at my job. I just finished a 20-hour shift. I do this twice a week. I’d tell you about it, if I could. You see I am, when on the clock—and often even other times—responsible for other people’s secrets. Other times. Other people. I’m not allowed to be specific. I work 20-hour shifts and when I’m done I cannot tell my friends what happened because it isn’t my story, even though I was there. I work in mental health, in a group home with developmentally disabled adults. My bio says I’m a social worker, which isn’t exactly true. I’m a Residential Counselor, or a Direct Care Provider, or a Psych Tech, if you prefer. I don’t have a Master’s degree in the Social Work.

We don’t say retarded or insane anymore. That’s old school. We say behavior treatment plan, seizure meds, teaching strategies, sleep chart, and even That is not how you get things offered. We usually say that last one when someone is trying to hit us. We also say Try to use language instead. We say that a lot. And it works, for the most part. No one likes to feel trapped, no one, but if you can’t see the options you can’t make a choice. And language helps. Sometimes people go to a place where few others go, places most people can’t get to, and then they get stuck there. For whatever reason, I can go to those places and guide the peeps back, if they want to come back. Sometimes they want to, sometimes they don’t. I use language to do it, to get them back. (How I get there I’ll address in another post.) Direct, clinical language, as well as the figurative. God bless figurative language; it’s a foothold, a ladder. So, my day: I spend hours helping people put language around it, whatever it is at the time, and then, even when it’s good work, useful work, even when it’s good language, I’m forbidden from talking about it to anyone else, which is a shame.

I have been asked if my job affects my poetry. I’m not allowed to answer that, not directly. Everything affects my poetry, every day something happens that changes me forever. I’m susceptible and plastic, thin-skinned and moody. Does my job affect me more than anything else? Probably not. Certainly I get no subject matter from my job, that would be inappropriate, but I do get ideas about language and illness and how they might be related. I would like to give you an example. It’s a betrayal if I do. There are, however, loopholes.

My mother is a therapist and my father is a lawyer. At the dinner table, no one would dare ask What did you do today, Darling? The subject was off limits. Confidentiality. Doctor/Patient. Attorney/Client. In one way, it made me feel like we were a family of secret agents, all on top secret missions, saving the world. In another way it just felt cold and shut-down. But we did what we could to get around it, we did what so many others have done: we used the hypothetical. Wouldn’t it be interesting if . . . What would you think about a woman who . . . Imagine you have just been arrested for . . .. A default language. The language of law and medicine, of judgment and mercy, of philosophy. Ordnance from the arsenal of poetry.

I’ve used the word taxonomy in the titles of today’s and yesterday’s posts. I could have said lexicon, or vocabulary, but there’s a connotation to taxonomy that seems important. I don’t think of nouns as an inventory of the world, I think of them as categories of things in relation to each other. Using the hypothetical, the figurative, the poetic, you get to retain the relations between the things while still keeping the secrets safe. I get to.

Suppose for a moment that you are folding laundry. Emma is crying because she always cries when anyone on television cries, even though she’s in her fifties, and Dora the Explorer is screaming “The superbabies are supercrying!” because they are, and Map is singing his stupid song about how he’s the map, he’s the map, and they have to get over Strawberry Mountain to get to the ice cream. Emma’s crying wakes Rosie, who is now angry and doesn’t have the language to express it. In fact, Rosie only has one verb. She doesn’t dance or sing or swim or cook. She wants. Yep, that’s all she does, wants, all day, every day. And she’s saying Rick, hey Rick, guess what, it’s my birthday, I want a hamburger, a cheeseburger, ketchup on my cheeseburger, small french fries, medium french fries, large french fries, ketchup on my french fries, a coke with ice, to the sky, a big one, frosty the snowman t-shirt, pork and beans, purple shoebox. What she means is, I want relief. Oh Rick, I want relief from this bad feeling and I only have this short list of nouns that may or may not help me, divert me. Emma has stopped crying, now she is laughing because the chocolate pop tarts have landed on the moon—which is actually kind of funny, if you’ve seen it—but Rosie thinks Emma is laughing at her, and Rosie’s starting to talk about herself in the third person What is she doing? What is Rosie doing? She’s cooing, she’s crying, she’s hitting staff . . . True, she hasn’t hit you yet, but she’s started to cry, and she’s coming towards you, and it isn’t her birthday, and she’s making fists, and this isn’t an unusual morning, and you’re getting ready to weave and dodge and help her practice using language to express herself, figure it out, fix it.

This might be your day, might be something like part of your day, if you were me.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006 by Richard Siken.