Unexpected States of Mind

Lord Brain
by Bruce Beasley,
[95pp, $16.95, University of Georgia Press]
Classic Rough News
by Kenneth Fields
[69pp, $17, University of Chicago Press]

Bruce Beasely's book deserves to become a classic; fusing as it does the fascinating, the arcane, the quirky and the universal, and using throughout the conceptual/metaphorical gold mine of neuroscience and allied schools of thought. Do not flinch from this extremely well-researched volume: all is as accessible as the literary case histories of Oliver Sachs in his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other volumes. What is most strange in our human condition - the surreal, the fantastic, the bizarrely misaligned perceptions of the afflicted mind - takes us into extreme territory, but also allows us to reflect on the core elements of our basic assumptions and beliefs. The title of the collection honours the (bizarrely but aptly named) Walter Russell Brain, a leading British neuroscientist.

Beasely explores these big issues obliquely, with respect as well as curiosity, and sometimes also with the  poignancy of narrative involvement. I was hooked by the many intricate yet accessible poems intercalating quotations ('brain slices') of erudite thinkers of the past - Aristotle, Newton - with instances of pure personal grief. These poems have a momentum which drives the reader through the maze of references, rather like the rats running through doors which Beasely uses as an image of our thought processes. Some poems are just intrinsically fascinating: presenting the painful linguistic lack of aphasia ('Aphasic Echolalia'); the weird phenomena of the phantom limb ('Unbehold'). But other poems deal purely with intensely felt anguish, the 'Melancholia Oracles' which recur within the collection, as does the intermittent agony of chronically recurring depression. Here the 'pleasure receptors' are redirected, as they so often are in the depressive state, to the 'business of self-blame'

     linkup, signalling
     mea culpa, mea culpa, mea
     maxima culpa
     spiking in every crevice of the brain

                    ('Melancholia Oracles: VII')

The quotation nicely illustrates some main concerns of these oracles and the other poems here: scientific language, the spiking chart of medical terminology echoed in the uneven line length of the stanza; and the penitential religious language of remorse and obsessive repetition. Religion and neuroscience might seem unlikely bedfellows, but in face Beasely charts an interesting and hallowed path - not just in the proposition that temporal lobe reception may be the cause of religious experience, but also that the pineal gland, the only unique part of the otherwise perfectly symmetrical brain, was once thought the seat of the soul, residing in the cruciform background of the optic nerves:

    chiasma, crucifix
            Or x)

                 ('Little gland which the spirits surround')

Spirituality has a real presence in this collection; not at all as a doctrinal certainty, but as an elusive, sometimes ludic presence running through the interstices of poetic awareness. Christianity is referenced, certainly, as an incarnational, eucharistic expression of belief. But ancient science, Pythagorean myth, bears almost as intriguing a weight, and sometimes a tenderness, too, as in the sequence 'Counterearth and Lux'; which evokes the ancient cosmological concept of a tenth planet, hidden because so closely allied to the earth: 'the innermost sphere / harmonizing the music of its celestial passage / we can't hear only because we've always heard it, / inaudible in a deep accustoming'; a beautiful metaphor for long lasting love; primarily human love in this poem, but powerful enough in symbolism to embrace the presence of the divine.

Beasely can write in a number of different styles: the dislocated and experimental as well as the simply lyrical - I like those poems which strike a middle ground. 'Lord Brain' is in no way a technical manual, but I had a satisfactory sense of learning a lot (footnotes - user friendly ones - are appended), as well as being taken on a poetic journey which made my thoughts, on occasion, soar.

I took a liking, too, to Kenneth Field's Classic Rough News; although any thematic or stylistic connection between these volumes is rather tenuous. If there is a similar interest it is in the disordered, even multiple, states of mind which can trouble those on the margins of society; the troubled, the drunk or addicted, the merely melancholic, and (embracing within their perceptions all of the above) the poet. Fields is essentially a formalist, the sonnet his basic precept, and its sturdy iambic pentameters serve him well as he seeks to explore the fragmented elements of poetic self-examination: 'a whole life latent in a little line' ('In the Place of Stories').

The poems employ in turns a clutch of personae: The quirky Burton, searching for meaning (echoing Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, but perhaps also Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer and man of letters); Billy and Billie, male and female alcoholics, struggling with the hard game of life. 'most lamentably inclined to melancholy/ Though also to hilare delirium
' ('On the Bus'): these personae are tragic-comic, semi-autonomous, implicitly autobiographical: Berryman's Henry comes to mind. Sometimes the mask slips - deliberately, I assume, as in 'In another country' when third-person memories of Billy's abusive childhood are suddenly assumed by the narrative 'I'. Fields (or his narrator) confesses all towards the end of the volume: 'The Billies, Burtons, secret, schizophrenic, / These fearful subjects of my dormancy, / The black stars doubling everything I saw' (The Hinge). But of course quasi-identification with a narrator or other character is what hooks us as readers, too: like Billie in 'Powerhouse': 'A tiny sun / In a universe of mirrors, she was sure / That everything said to her was about her'. As a reader, I hesitated on the edge of amusement, identification, some puzzlement at the quixotic, shifting scenarios Fields deploys. 'Why are we taken by these brief encounters / These glimpses of a life?' ('Into the World of Light'). Because they are marginal lives embedded in the universal; eccentric extremes of everybody's story.

          Sarah Law 2005