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White Swan, Black Swan: Poetry in an Analytical Hour
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Molly Peacock’s poem “The Nurse Tree” appears in the February 2016 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
As William Butler Yeats revised his sonnet about a girl fighting off a giant swan, he added “A sudden blow” to the beginning, following those three words with a colon. When I received a call from my psychoanalyst’s colleague saying that she had suffered a debilitating stroke and heard the phrase, “She will never practice again,” I thought, A sudden blow: Quite mistakenly on that Sunday in March three years ago, I assumed that nothing would follow the stroke’s wrenching colon, and my beloved analyst would die.
Colon comes from the Greek kolon, meaning limb. The rest of Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” is written as a branch off the huge tree of those three words. Instead of dying: my analyst valiantly maneuvered hand over hand toward a limb off the main trunk of her years.
How is it out there on that limb? At 80, this intrepid woman is very much alive. Picture her on a great horizontal bough with a small table easel and Cottman watercolors, Arche papers, plus the uninterrupted hours we all long to have for our life projects. No, she no longer practices. Yes, she depends on a daily attendant. Yes, beyond all, she’s unburied a talent from her youth and is using it as a lens to view a life, and live: she is painting. Still lifes, still life!
Making art can help a Leda of an advanced age fend off the equivalent of a late-life swan. To use Yeats’s finale, my analyst, put on a “new knowledge” and a “new power” after “the indifferent beak” of what I can only call fate “let her drop.” Not everyone instantly connects their analyst’s crisis with literary swan imagery, but I began seeing her, first in psychotherapy, then in psychoanalysis, just as I became serious about being a poet. Poetry and psychoanalysis “like a May fete” became inextricable, a double helix “wound in ribbons round the pole” of a developing self. Those last quoted phrases are from James Merrill’s poem, “The Black Swan,” almost an apposing poem (not opposing exactly) to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” Merrill names the black swan, “the Enchanter.” It appears to a child who has been accustomed to the white Cygnus and has never had the shock (and transformation) of seeing the Enchanter’s dark vision before.
Poetry has often been called the Art of Naming. My analyst asked me to use her name if I ever wrote about her, and now I will: Joan Workman Stein, Radcliffe, Class of 1954. Smith College School of Social Work, CSW. Psychoanalytic training at The Postgraduate Center for Mental Health (now The Postgraduate Psychoanalytic Society and Institute), New York City. Diagnosis can also be thought of as an Art of Naming. Joan Stein’s particular variety of stroke is called an AVM, arteriovenous malformation. AVMs are formed in the womb. They lie in wait to happen. The time bomb in her head had simply waited more than eight decades to go off.
I worked with her for almost four of those decades—thirty-eight years. Not continuously! In steps and bits and fits and starts. With several intense periods of time, several years each, of hard attention. And with more time since, in check-ins, and some difficult work as I’ve aged, too. Radical change led me into therapy, and the process of free association in analysis allowed my poetry to thrive. Now radical change provides an end to analysis. But in poetry one can leap. One can abandon chronology. One can sail over the terrible rupture a stroke has made in two lives.
Merrill ends his poem with the child’s voice, “I love the black swan.” Me, too. I mean I love my therapist, my analyst, my … don’t ask me what this woman is to me now in our post-analytic, post-stroke relationship (part mother-daughter, part older-younger sisters, part friends?). And I also love the black swan of poetry. Analysis stops. But analysis of poems goes on.
And her painting goes on. I take almost boundless consolation from this.
About fifteen years ago she let me discover something about her. She confided a story that let me know that she, who worked so brilliantly (do we all think our analysts are brilliant?) to help me stake a claim as a poet, to publish, to take my ambition seriously, had been defeated by “an excoriating critique” (her words) or, in a phrase from Yeats’s sonnet about that big white bird, “the brute blood of the air.” So, the equivalent of a no-good-very-bad-terrible review had thwarted her. She said that she showed visual talent very early in her hometown of Providence, RI, and when she reached high school just after World War II, her father, a lawyer, and her mother, a housewife, saw to it that their gifted daughter joined a group of adult painters who hired models and gathered as a group to paint together. With the zesty intuition of early talent, she at times instructed those oldsters. Then, nearing the end of high school, she suffered what may have been her first blow: her father died. After this crisis, a neighbor saw to it that the bright, talented, high-achieving sixteen-year-old girl applied and was accepted at Radcliffe. It was as a Harvard freshman that Joan stopped painting, wounded by that “excoriating critique” from her painting professor, a Bauhaus abstractionist. She was so young, “so caught up” as Yeats says (in a totally different, much more dramatic context of a mythic rape), that she was “mastered” by the professor’s dismissal, a father-figure’s rejection that woke the dense, terrible loss of her own father, especially because the abstractionist’s critique was about her figurative work: portraits of her Dad. In poetry lingo, you could call the artwork of the nascent painter “confessional.”
As someone who is interested in poetry, psychoanalysis, and plants, I sometimes think of delayed and rescuing growth botanically. Every plant has nodes of growth that never spring into action—unless the plant is stressed, say, by lopping off its growing tip. Then side growth begins. Those hidden nodes begin to bud. The critique lopped off Joan’s growing tip, so to speak, and she didn’t pick up a brush for twenty-three years. Two decades from one humiliation! The sensitivity to criticism astounds. But she was only seventeen. Devastated by the death of a parent. Haven’t we all been thwarted by a negative remark that lodges in the breast? This occurred in 1951 (a dozen years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique). Joan swerved into declaring a psychology major, sped up her requirements and graduated a year early—to marry. After that marriage, then two sons, then a divorce, then a move to New York City to follow her career as a therapist, she began to take studio classes again.
The fascinating fact about free association is that however far we stray from the so-called course, the flight of association always leads back to the pond—in swan terms. How lucky for the double helix of poetry and analysis that swans both fly and swim. Think of Yeats’s mythic white Cygnus Zeus flapping ferociously in the air, and Merrill’s calm black Cygnus atratus sailing on the lake. Merrill’s poem begins as a word painting, “Black on flat water past jonquil lawns, / Riding, the black swan…” He seems almost to be drawing, and he uses that very same verb when he writes that the black swan “draws” its wake. Though Yeats ends his poem of the mythic white swan with a thundering question (“Did she put on his knowledge with his power/As the huge indifferent beak let her drop?), Merrill’s swan’s neck actually embodies a question mark. When Merrill says its black neck is “not unlike a question mark,” those two negatives pose a distant perspective on the image, “not unlike” a psychoanalytic perspective. But where to find answers? Certainly not in analysis! Certainly not in poetry. In these rich activities clear answers vaporize and ambiguity reigns. Yet there are rules. How in poetry do these arenas with both rules and ambiguity coexist? Perhaps as they do in play.
Dutch philosopher and cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s charming thesis in his book Homo Ludens (now a key text in computer game theory) is that human beings are more defined by play than by thinking. His book contains a lively chapter called “Poetry as Play,” which I took thoroughly to heart as I began seriously writing poetry. A sonnet is a playground! (Even something as vast as civilization and as extreme as a girl raped by a god-in-disguise-as-a-swan—how big is a swan penis, anyway?—can become a playground: boundaried, with rules.) “All poetry is born of play:” Huizinga writes, and using that ever-ready colon that will provide a limb from his thesis goes on to say,
the sacred play of worship, the festive play of courtship, the martial play of contest, the disputatious play of braggadocio, mockery and invective, the nimble play of wit and readiness.
The black swan’s lake is like a playing ground, boundaried. But Yeats’s white swan flies far from its watery habitat, its playground, and in “the air,” out of bounds, swoops up the girl. That mythic swan is anything but playful, but in Merrill’s lyric the black swan calls the child to a place “where every paradox means wonder.”
During college my family troubles (my father’s alcoholism and violence, the atmosphere of anger and suggestion of potential incestuous rape in our household—always threatened, always less than his acting on it, as if Yeats’s swan beating in the distance never actually descended on Leda but continually threatened to) were kept at bay. But as I faced graduation, my “vague fingers” pushed against the future, as a girl’s against the threatened “breast” of a swan. In an outwardly similar pattern to Joan’s (though I didn’t know this for decades) I, too, married early, but my first marriage was brief. It lasted only six years, and I think of us as two kids keeping house in a treetop. We were finding ourselves, making a transition from being children to being adults.
Now just before I married, my mother, who constantly repeated the maxim “People never change,” had changed radically. She had up and divorced my father, freeing herself from being “caught in his bill,” to appropriate Yeats’s phrase. Concurrently my sister, who had always been wild (I was the “good” girl, she the “bad”), had changed horrifyingly to a new life among men, addicts far more dangerous than our helplessly alcoholic father. Suddenly my mother was living below the poverty line. My sister was living among the discarded syringes behind the candy counter of the Fillmore East. The atmosphere was like the sestet of Yeats’s sonnet of Leda, the mother of Helen who indirectly started the Trojan War, “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” Now, as in the poem, safety had been “broken” and burned. Meanwhile Joan Stein had raised her family and was commuting to finish her social work degree at Smith College.
My husband’s and my longings for an inner recognition began to dissipate our treetop “illusion” (to use a word from the James Merrill poem), where all we wanted was domestic security. Merrill follows “illusion:” with a wrenching colon, the same kind of opening Yeats uses to capture his readers. The limb off the tree of that sentence is: “the black swan knows how to break/Through expectation, beak/Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image.” Images began to surface that I couldn’t ignore; I had to write them down. The changes produced by these emerging poems and by my husband’s decision to leave graduate school and to go out in the world to do something practical provoked chaos. Merrill’s black swan creates “A private chaos in its wake”—but that chaos is just what yields the “splendor” that calls to the child. I wasn’t ready for “splendor.” As our marriage broke up, as my sister developed a hard-core heroin habit, as my mother had so little money that she had to move into a back room in her friend’s house, and as my father lay blacked out on a couch in his retirement beach cottage, I woke from fragmented dreams of the patterns of smashed windshield glass and knew I needed help.
Desperation and luck led me to Joan, a person born in Providence, who had gotten that social work degree from Smith and had opened a practice in the upstate New York college-and-factory town where her husband taught in the English Department and where I, too, lived. Many people find their therapists through their own coincidences of disorder and providence.
A sense of fate intruded after the sudden blow of Joan’s stroke: at first her colleague felt she could die. “It was the biggest brain bleed they’d ever seen at the Lenox Hill Hospital Emergency Room,” the colleague told me. I was convinced I would never see her again. Yet I kept track of her progress with a dear friend of mine, another poet who was also her patient. My friend, much more connected in medical circles than I, felt Joan would recover. “She swallowed a glass of water!” my friend said. (If a person can swallow, a certain level of brain function—and life—is clearly evident.) But I felt I had to prepare for the worst.
Instead, what happened three months later I wasn’t in the least prepared for: a telephone call. Though Joan had suffered such a memory blast that she hardly remembered the whole middle of her life, she remembered the deep past. I was a part of that past, one of her first patients. Fragments of her voice came through on my voicemail: “I. Can’t. Be. Your. Psycho…therapist. Any. More.” But the rest of the message was a clear sentence, rich and warm and full of the central personality I knew and instantly recognized: “I miss you hugely.” She had called from New York, where she has lived ever since she divorced and took psychoanalytic training, and where I also lived for twenty-five years, continuing to see her after my own divorce and detour to graduate school, and on through my very happy second marriage and bi-national commute to Canada.
I missed her “hugely,” too, and boarded the all-night Megabus from Toronto to New York City. It arrived at Port Authority at 6:30 in the morning of July 31, 2012. Eleven hours on the bus can give a person plenty of time to compare two poems about swans. “Leda and the Swan” seems thoroughly about adulthood (at least from the point of view of Zeus-the-swan perpetrating his desire on the girl, not to mention the Trojan War that always in my mind conjures up the brand of condoms popular when I was first married). But “The Black Swan” is about childhood. Though I had begun psychotherapy in a halfway state between childhood and adulthood, it is the thoroughly adult poem by Yeats that resounds through the crisis that led me to Joan’s office. But now, very much an adult (I am sixty-eight), the black swan resonates more for me. It is, as Merrill says,
A thing in its self, equivocal, foreknown,
and later, a transformation of time:
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, time’s damage;
To less than a black plume, time’s grief.
Yes, I am thoroughly familiar with states “like pain,” but for many years I have felt “transformed in time” by “time’s damage.” Now the tumult of my past feels “less than a black plume.” My parents are both long dead. My first husband has passed into the next world. My sister died two decades ago. I am happily settled in a twenty-three year second marriage where, even as we approach seventy, flexibility seems possible.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrow’s lost secret center
I arrived in a thrilled and anxious state, expecting to see Joan ravaged. Instead, she looked shockingly nearly the same, shockingly much more whole than I imagined. Yet all the boundaries had reconfigured. We sat down; I on the same couch I had lain and cried on, and she in her chair. The first thing she did was to bring me all the cards I had written her since her stroke. She wished she could write back. She apologized for speaking in fragments. “Oh, I feel so stupid!” and in fits and starts told me the story of her stroke. It occurred in a painting class. One moment she was painting at the 92nd St Y, then the next moment she was on the floor. Her life was rescued in a painting studio, a place similar to the scene of the “excoriating” demerits!
Within minutes of our reunion we picked up the unadorned directness of our former, therapeutic conversations. “Would you rather be dead?” I asked her. “No,” she answered. “I check myself for signs of depression all the time.” That’s the therapist talking. But then I heard a new tone of voice, and a new assertion. “Since I can paint, I want to live.” A phrase from the Merrill poem returned. “By the gentlest turning of its neck” a creative urge inside her, an old stopped talent, a capacity for art, came to “Transform, in time, time’s damage.”
Suddenly, in losing her career she regained her art.
Back to that painting studio at Harvard. It turns out that the professor who delivered the near-fatal-to-talent critique had an analyst! A woman analyst—the mother figure ultima. It was she who helped him put his life back together after World War II. The war had been devastating for the professor, a Jew who had fled from Europe to New York, who then enlisted in the US Army, returned to serve in Europe, saw the devastation of the Holocaust he escaped, and afterwards settled back in New York, deeply distressed. He described himself as “particularly low and unenterprising,” in an interview for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. Part of his sympathetic analyst’s help was a contact she gave him at Sarah Lawrence College. (From there he sprang to Harvard.) In the same interview he remembers that “she literally challenged me into doing it—‘If you want to ever get well again you’ve got to do something.’”
At seventeen Joan intuited this advice. She did something, stalking from the studio to the Psych department.
“Do you know how many rejections you receive and have to endure?” Joan asked me once early in our analysis. Her swan’s neck of a question reached over my shoulder as I lay on the beige couch, a paisley pillow under my head, a square of Turkish carpet under my feet. Defensively I said, “Oh, it’s not as much as an actor has to take auditioning.” It took me quite a while to recognize how many blows I was receiving when my poems were rejected from literary magazines. I had managed to numb myself. But I have since felt those literary rejections as personally as actors must feel their pressures. Auditioning is horrible. And submitting something to a publisher is horrible. The very verb “submit” means blows may happen. Yet with auditions and submissions comes hope. Yeats’s swan with its “dark webs” becomes, with hope, Merrill’s “enchanter.” So I did submit, easily. For when a blow came, there was always Joan.
I never questioned her intense interest in my readings, my publications, my agent (unusual for a poet, but I also wrote prose), my editors, my literary volunteer work, and the poems that were beginning to appear on the New York City subways and buses that I was partially responsible for. I did not realize then that her question about enduring rejections had a profound personal history for her. Around the time Joan posed her query about rejection, she was occasionally hanging her watercolors on her walls. Needless to say, I noticed them, and many discussions ensued. I was happy that she made art—more understanding of ME!—and very uncomfortable that she hung it on her walls—more demands that I see her, when all I wanted was for her to see me. For those of you who have not had psychotherapeutic relationships long enough to realize that the attention-craving little bundle of energy that is you, you, you with all its fiery demands, watery wishes, earthy dreams, and airy desires propels your interactions forward, let me say that you have no idea just how infantilized you can become. And how spectacularly worthwhile it is to have a place to express it. If we ever meet in person and you observe or feel the personal warmth I can show, genuinely, as I turn my attention to you, know that poise and ease are possible because I have stomped around demanding and virtually throwing things and being furious and utterly childish in the office (which is also her living room) of Joan Workman Stein. And this is the background tapestry of taking rejection.
But Joan herself was inhibited from engaging in the very artistic process she encouraged me to pursue. She heard the critique from her professor, turned on her heel, and let twenty years go by before she picked up a brush again. How an artist can stop making art for decades seems the deepest sort of self-insult to me. And yet this is the very tenderest place where she helped me. Helped me profoundly.
To return to that botanical metaphor, her professor’s remarks (and who knows whether they were really “excoriating” or not?—we only know that a seventeen-year-old, in mourning for her father, heard them that way) lopped off her growing point. Let’s not forget those nodes on a plant’s stem, though, ever ready to spring into action, sending out new leaves. But we don’t grow on schedule. Like plants, people have growing seasons. People’s seasons are lots longer than plants, though—say, decades.
When Joan left the light of the studio in 1951 (the light that in some studios can flood the room like a bath), when she lay down her brush (or did she throw it, perhaps in the direction of her professor?), she did it to protect her youthful and rebellious heart. (And the word art resolutely resides inside heart.) The studio itself had become the obstacle. And she had to think wide around it. The instinct for art dove beneath the perfume of oil paint, leaving the excitement of the nostrils for a different kind of recollection. Her father’s image was still before her.
When the defeat in the class undermined her will, repeating the sudden blow of her father’s death, his very image had been affronted. She had failed to memorialize him. She had not been able to put the curves of life in his face.
As I mourn the loss of Joan the analyst while celebrating the emergence of Joan the painter, I am glad for our slow ambles to a coffee shop even as I silently rail against our lunches at a place so similar to the one I used to visit by myself to repair after our sessions. In the times when I reel with the disjunctions and contradictions of change that echo those that drove me into her care in the first place, I have to turn to another swan poem, “Invective Against Swans,” Wallace Stevens’s response to all the Victorian poets writing about swans, in which, of course, he never utters the word “swan.” Eleanor Cook states in A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens that the swan in the “Invective” refers to “a bird emblematic of an old and stale perspective.” Perhaps it is time to abandon my old and stale perspective of my analyst as an analyst. Time for her to paint. Time for me to try to write poems from a new and fresh line of sight. But I love the old way. I eat the stale crust of an analytical hour during the hour of our lunch and am desolate. Then I shake it off and ride the elevator with her upstairs to the twenty-first floor to that apartment I used to know so well. As I hold the door for her, I am so adult I barely recognize myself. But I have to. Only thirteen years younger than she, I, too, am old.
Rolling back to childhood for a moment: Merrill says that “A private chaos warbling in” the black swan’s “wake” “calls the child.” A “chaos” of responses has called me into a huge confusion. Merrill likens this to “a fourth dimension.” I still feel this turmoil, not exactly the same as what called me to her office in the first place, but still, a bookend to it. Yet the end to analysis does not mean an end to analyzing poetry—or writing within the dimensions of a 45-minute session.
When I hear Joan struggle to find the right word, defeated by pronouns, calling the burly, bearded doorman in her building “she,” this resonates against the essential problem of the contemporary lyric: the claiming of the perspective of an “I.” Now she must claim the perspective of an “eye.” Making a life involves claiming a pronoun, but making a new life might just involve claiming an image. Joan’s difficulty in locating crucial words reminds me of two more lines in “The Black Swan.” “And the swan song it sings/Is the huge silence of the swan.”
And what is the silent significance of Joan’s swan song? It is the capacity for image: the rapid interplay between a furious white and a calm black cygnus. If these images were a flipbook, the swans would fan back and forth, two dimensions becoming a third … a fourth.
Recognition. Repetition. Poetry depends on repetition. Merrill repeats the word “swan” eight times in thirty-five lines, roughly every four lines. Hypnotic and chaotic, repetition in poetry leads to realization, the thrumming of an idea into bloom.
Growth. Blossoming in silence. The still life. The nature mort. A lyric poem stills a moment in its ready urge to be. She is seeing. And the objects she has kept for decades in her presence (and in our presence, her patients), the gray pots and jars marked with blue that I once, in a rage, threatened to break all of, but also thanks to the process of analysis didn’t once rise off the couch and actually do, are now the anchors for the chrysanthemums that she and her attendant walk down to the corner of 72nd and West End Avenue to buy. They bring them back so Joan can paint them. In many ways she is painting that idea of growth that plants give us, the side growth that is activated when the top, the main growing tip, is severed.
Her living room, that space where the peculiar transaction between two human beings that is psychoanalysis used to occur, is no longer designated for that purpose (though the couch is still there). Now it has been transformed into a painter’s studio, and the walls host a changing exhibit of the watercolors of Joan Stein. Beyond the colon: a limb off a former life and an engagement with a talent once thwarted. The movement to the other side is always.
Always the black swan moves on the lake. Always
The moment comes to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always.
We seem to be moving back and forth across the lake, “if” as Merrill says, “the lake is life.”
Tags: James Merrill, Leda and the Swan, Molly Peacock, Poetry guest blogger, The Black Swan, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, February 8th, 2016 by Molly Peacock.