The Representative of the Verse: On the Poet and Her Supposed Self (Part I)
It is a strange paradox of the writing life, of my writing life, that I am never realer to myself than on the page and yet never more mutable. My so-called voice is perhaps the realest aspect of my being, but what that voice has to say is always provisional.
What that voice has to say—I mean this, not in the noble sense of an urgent need to communicate, but in the sense of has on hand, like loose change jangled in a pocket. Even now, as I write this, what I have to say feels true enough, but experience has taught me that in a year, or a month, or a matter of hours, it will become a source of anxiety, embarrassment, or shame. In part, this is a function of a reversal in the relative “permanence” of online and print, the Internet having become, as Jonathan Lethem observed, “a place where remarks go to never die,” like young Ireneo in the Borges story, “Funes the Memorious”: insomniac with detail, doomed to forget nothing.
But the rest, I conclude, is personal. The child “Lisa,” a child whose very name was borrowed from an imaginary friend invented by her older sister, (i.e. a name derived from another’s intact imaginary), experienced her world pretty much exclusively through the other. This constitutional permeability was in evidence at least since the late-1980s, Piaget’s “preoperational stage,” AKA the dawn of symbolic consciousness. At this stage of development, the healthy child is imaginatively egocentric, whereas the child “Lisa” was, in effect, self-less.
I was a self-less kid, not so much out of a desire to escape myself, but in deference to the force and definition of the selves of others. My sister, my parents, friends and enemies on the playground—other people were so sure of their edges and opinions, their aversions and preferences, their notions of proper conduct. I sometimes pretended to have opinions and preferences to see if they’d stick, but mostly I ate what was set before me, along for the ride. It was easy, and no skin off my back, to float along in their gravity. A hunk of space debris. A minor moon.
It is clear to me now, that what I once mistook for the belated arrival of a real self—the pushy, voluble, trouble-making persona cultivated in high school—was merely a reaction to this early ontological insecurity. Cue the whiplash.
In the smoker’s huddle between periods, Freshman year, hearing the reports of last weekend’s LSD adventure, upstandingly sober myself, the narrator’s high suddenly jumped to me, and I was thrust into a state of total depersonalization. Am I in here? Who’s in here? What is consciousness, and who is “having” it? That disconcerting, dislocative, bad-trip prodromal state, where you narrate the sensory data but are ultimately not of it. Meat-spindles lift smoldering tobacco to lips, puff puff, nope nobody’s home—oh no!
It had happened before, fleetingly, for a few seconds, a minute or two at most. But on this occasion, I could not shake the feeling. I walked home with it, and went to sleep in it, and woke the next morning with dread to find that “I” was still in it. It went on for days. I worried I was losing my mind, and I was. A version of mind. Only, “I” was no longer certain who that version belonged to.
In this state, as with LSD, it is a mistake to look in a mirror. It is a mistake to appraise the putty arrangement of flesh and socket, facial dentate hinged on the void, an arbitrary assortment of features papering over the nothing from which the “I” was contrived, to speak aloud its arbitrary name (Lisa?), triggering a separation in the warp and weft of being, atom by atom unstitched, until the supposed-self is absorbed into the shower stall.
And it was at that age that Poetry found me. Capital P, the Neruda poem: there I was without a face / and it touched me.
Years later, a meditator friend of the “all sensual reality is an illusion” persuasion, suggested that I’d simply experienced the truth of my substance, indivisible from the All. Another friend, a clinician specializing in affective disorders, (who’d pulled a dozen stints in psychiatric hospitals himself), directed me to the prodrome, the aura that sometimes precedes acute psychosis.
Either way, it was in that state that I stumbled on a subtle medicine. Disintegration led me to the integrative power of poetry, which I’ve come to think of as a tuning fork for the corpus callosum, bridging left and right hemispheres of the brain. Bridging, as my friend, Dan Poppick says, the body and speech, i.e. music.
I’ve no inclination to make a public case for poetry, least of all by criteria of “use” or “relevance,” but I do sometimes make the case to myself. Or, more accurately: it’s fun for me to reflect on all the reasons I love poems, and this was one reason. You’ve no doubt heard some version of Pater’s line; all art aspires to the condition of music. It rings true, I surmise, because music is the art that most instantly transgresses the blood-brain barrier, entering the listener and affecting her whole organism—for better or worse, invited or unwelcome: a vinyl planet she herself set spinning on the turntable, or seeped in through the wall.
For those of us who do not play an instrument proficiently, who are not involved in the composition of music, and are not Lester Bangs, our experience of music is largely a felt process—not a thinking one. As many an indignant young man has discovered in the process of unveiling their latest political tract at the open mic: even when divvied up over twelve rhyming verses and accompanied by acoustic guitar, the cerebral and polemical do not typically translate to great music.
In poetry, this point is negotiable. Music leans to the right brain, the essay leans to the left, but poetry straddles the line, and can transfer its weight back and forth as it pleases.
A poem’s pulse, as it passes between my minds, is one aspect of the art most pleasing to me. But only recently, through an armchair study of the traumatized brain and my own course of EMDR, did it occur to me that poetry had healed me on this very basic level. I ingested the poem and the poem brought my brains together.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but in my private cosmology, my life as a poet began in that pulse of relation: I was unrecognizable, especially to myself—and it touched me. A faith healer.
I recently found a description of my unmasking experience in a little paperback memoir by the analyst (and weirdo-genius), R.D. Laing.
When did ‘I’ begin? When do ‘I’ end?
What am I? Am I?
These were the questions that most disturbed him as a boy of 12, shivering in his family hovel in Scotland, dreaming to one day live in a house with an indoor staircase! Imagine my astonishment when, a page later, I read the following:
What is my face now?
There are different kinds of ‘feelings’ in the
space where the mask was.
The more I concentrate on them the more porous
they become—they fade and dissolve into
finer and finer dust.
I thought I had a face.
I thought I had a face, but on closer inspection, turns out it was just dust, faint, without substance. And from that dust was raised the enviable poetics statement:
I don’t think I ever thought
I was the I that thinks its me
Compare this with Dickinson’s line:
When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse –it does not mean –me—but a supposed person.
All my life I’d gone around unrecognized, sometimes introducing myself to the same individual on four or five occasions. I assumed this meant I was beneath the regard of most people, utterly forgettable. Until a friend pushed an alternate theory.
“You’re always changing your hairdo,” she said. “You can look a lot different of ways.”
I didn’t believe her then, but I do now. Though my hair-style has stabilized over the years, I continue to stand at the intersection, looking a lot of different ways.
Writing anything at all I am doomed, sooner or later, to recognize what I’ve made as incomplete, if not an outright lie—but this does not keep me from making grand, indefensible pronouncements. Like the child, I guess. To see what sticks. I say, therefore, when poetry aspires to its own conditions it provides the most suitable music for the mysteries of human consciousness. Home of the unstable “I,” the capacious soul longing to break free from the suffocating constraint of the self and reunite with the All—and I wrote the first faint line, / faint, without substance, pure / nonsense, / pure wisdom
 Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is an approach to treating trauma. I’ve written more about it here: https://granta.com/on-the-trouble-of-bound-association/
Lisa Wells is a poet and essayist from Portland, Oregon. She is the author of a poetry collection, The Fix (2018), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a book of nonfiction forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020. Her poems and essays can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, The Believer, n+1, the Iowa...