Flow, Fissure, Mesh

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Audio: A Lecture on Kathleen Jamie’s “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall”

Here is an audio capture of a lecture I gave on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at the University of British Columbia, on two essays by Kathleen Jamie: “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall.” Both come from her 2005 collection Findings, which I’m using in my section of English 111, a first-year introduction to the study of nonfiction, to provide a set of thematic and conceptual anchor-points for the course. In the lecture, I focus on Jamie’s sense of the limits of language, of the intersections of body and text, on the concept of intersubjectivity, and on trying to understand the page as a porous membrane.

Texture, Line, Frissure: Kathleen Jamie and Birgid Collins

In addition to reading her newest volume, Frissure, which is a collaborative set of mediations on healing and attention, I have been re-reading Kathleen Jamie’s 2005 gathering of essays, Findings, to prepare for a set of first-year lectures on prose non-fiction I am set to deliver over the next few months.  The earlier volume appears to lay some of the groundwork for her more recent prose poems. In the pages of Findings, Jamie consistently demonstrates a palpable gift for perceptive clarity, an attunement to visual and auditory detail: the eleven mediations on the “natural and unnatural world” – “world” meaning contemporary Scotland – that make up the book reflect on her own all-too-human need to accrete what she sees and hears, to hold and remember it, to catch something of her sensory drift and document it on paper before it skitters beyond her field of view. She listens and watches, she notes and collects. And what she often ends up attending to, in each piece, are the gaps and uncertainties in the apparatus of her own consciousness. She comes to observe herself wanting to observe, trying to see and hear her way toward a sublimity, a sense of the near-absolute alterity of nature, that keeps refusing her any absolute access. She often directs her creative energies toward collection and preservation, picking up souvenirs and compiling wrack and flotsam from shoreline scrapheaps, a tactic that recalls the poetic salvage of “Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead.” (“Do we save this toolbox . . .?”)
Salvage is also self-directed, when she visits, for example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and peruses the formaldehyde-filled anatomical specimen jars: the human form, a late version frittered from Da Vinci’s homo mensura, becomes a collation or an assemblage of posthumous, scattered parts, bottled samples and amputations. “At certain shelves,” she writes, “you have to bend and look closely, without knowing what you might see. It will be pale and strange, and possibly quite beautiful. It will be someone’s catastrophe and death” (from “Surgeon’s Hall”). Bodies are catalogued, labeled, textualized; she sees them as particular, uncanny artefacts, almost art-objects that, with their vestigial humanity, still resist the aesthetical gaze. Medical and representational objectivity is mitigated by empathy, by the traces of human suffering and of feeling – not affect, but feeling – that persist in these fissured bodies, at once remembered and dismembered: “a stranger’s arm with his [not ‘its’] corroding carcinoma, a diseased breast, a kidney taken from a man gassed on the Western Front, all call forth the same plain tenderness, “ for Jamie.
“Pathologies,” the first essay in her subsequent collection, Sightlines (2012), develops this empathetic scrutiny further, when Jamie describes her visit to a pathology lab to observe clinicians performing biopsies. What she thinks of, plainly, are the people with whose tissues she has gained, as she scrutinizes samples through a microscope, a strange and unbidden intimacy, an impossible closeness. This complex ethic in which she finds herself implicated had already been hinted at in Findings, in the essay I’ve been citing, where she offers a précis of one of the earliest accounts, in “an Edinburgh book” from 1863, of a Victorian surgery: a certain “Mrs Ailie Noble, suffering terrible pain from breast cancer[,] is taken into theatre, and in full view of the young medical students undergoes a mastectomy.” Jamie’s writing practice is often highly iterative – texts embedded into texts, marking the retreat of an abyssal subjectivity – and she quotes her source text to close her own essay; but her point is not to remark a futility, so much as to emphasize the shared pathos of loss even in the seeming detachment of patriarchal science:
He says “Don’t think [the students] heartless . . . they get over their professional horrors and into their proper work, and in them pity as an emotion ending in itself, or at least in tears and in a long drawn breath, lessens — while pity as a motive is quickened and gains power and purpose.
Pity converts from romanticized, narcissistic amour-propre into viable empathy for others, an intersubjectivity of care (to borrow a phrase from Julie Livingston), a call to feeling that Jamie seems to discover somewhere between the jars she observes and the archive she re-reads: reminder and remainder. 
Frissure emerges from Jamie’s collaboration with visual-tactile artist Birgid Collins. When she turned 49, Jamie notes in her preface, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy. For her, she writes, “it seemed ironic: a case of life imitating art.” She had written extensively, as I’ve just noted, on pathology labs and breast cancer, and now her own body was subject to medical scrutiny and intervention. Redirecting her own attention selfward, negotiating the now intimate collision of observer and observed in her own physiology, seems to come to mean, for her, finding some kind of balance point between the aesthetic and the lived, a means of sensible transcription that would become part of her healing. She ended up approaching Birgid Collins to draw her mastectomy scar, to try to find a means of inhabiting this intersubjective tension; collaboration entails both deferring to perspectives outside of your own, and simultaneously voicing yourself against that deference: both seeing closely and being closely seen, in this instance. The scar is an unruly line, not only in the literal sense of a mark on her skin, but also in both the visual and the poetic senses: “Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of the silence. What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line.” She and Collins, in their various media, begin from a contingent, shared understanding of line.
“With that, a line of Burns arrived in my head. ‘You seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed.'”
Jamie composes a number of prose-poems during her recovery, which become part of their collaboration; Collins pastes fragments of text into her constructions, and incorporates found matter and textiles described in Jamie’s texts into her compositions, which she comes to understand not as drawings but as dimensional constructions she comes to call “Poem-Houses,” which she creates in “conversation” or “exchange” with “K’s fragments.” Line here becomes a trajectory of intersections, an empathetic give-and-take (though not without difficulties and uncertainties). Collins begins with drawings, then introduces “natural” matter onto her paper, then builds dimensionality beyond the surface of page or sheet. The resulting hand-sized sculptures, if that’s the right word, have a raw, stunning beauty, an intricacy and a delicacy of texture that suggest an uneasy balance between the found and the made, the fractal and the formal, the aleatory and the intentional, the natural and the unnatural, that informs much of Jamie’s best writing. (You’ll have to buy the book to see photographs of these Poem-Houses; Collins’s website also has plenty of images of similarly-realized constructions.)
The sense of line in these prose poems, for example, is more latent than manifest: the rhythmic shape of each sentence remains insistent but not (yet) fully differentiated from the rhuthmos, language’s unruly cadence, its natural flow: there are no clean lines, but, like Collins’s art, an attention to the besmirched, the impure, the incipient. “What is a line? “ Jamie asks in “Line”: “A border, a symbol of defence, of defiance.” But a body, such as hers, isn’t healed by being defended, medically or poetically, against its own enmeshment in the natural world, by the surgical repair of its boundaries and limits. Rather, healing for Jamie involves a return to the permeability, to the interpenetration, of body and world:  “To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change” (“Healings 2”). The textures of Collins’s work derive from this enmeshment, emblematized at a number of points in economies of reciprocity, mutuality and interchange, as healing gifts mailed to Jamie from friends, and passed on to her, like letters written in natural scraps, from the landscape around her: “Spilling from an envelope, a get-well gift of silverweed, bog-cotton and thrift.” (The brief catalogues of found matter in these texts recall the collected flotsam of “Findings.”) To heal, for Jamie, is not to protect or to defend herself in art, but to open up her language to the textures of the inhuman, of the given, and to listen carefully for a “music at the edge of sense . . . the sound of the benign indifference of the world.” (“Healings 1”). Tacitly, and amid its contingent stillnesses, Collins’s work performs this same close attentiveness both for and with Jamie, and both for and with us.