Sunday, June 13, 2010

bodies of knowledge

Though I've been trying to set myself the post-graduate task of one blog entry per week, last week's entry fell by the wayside. I had some scribblings about cultural code-switching, but after the fun and the drain of festivities planned in anticipation of my best friend Lisa's wedding, I wasn't feeling too bloggy. Inevitably when I looked at the notes, the small flame that had lit that fire had extinguished, and I put the notes aside for another day when the spark returns.

Do you experience that same phenomenon? I know writing, and the creative life in general, requires discipline. But if I don't have the fire within for that particular creation, it's very difficult to push it through. I have to thank my friend and teacher Donna Masini, among others, for helping me come to terms with this ebb and flow. At Hunter, Donna drilled into our heads from day one that "willing" a poem was often a dead-end strategy. That it was often more productive, and kinder to the host (i.e. ourselves), to let the unfinished poem lay fallow rather than beat our intellects against the Muse's door. Of course there are times when, without will, I'd write nothing. But it is not the will that reveals the poem usually, but the will that puts me in a place where I might stumble upon the beginnings of a poem. Those of course are the lucky days.

I don't mean to suggest that I consider the poet to be some sort of medium who is "possessed" by a poem, but who has no direct role in that poem's creation. For me it just sometimes feels like that when the quick cold lightening in my belly announces inspiration. When the poetic instruments, or organs, are roused from sleep, and begin to dance with the mind and body.

The poetic, or creative, instrument. Could this be a third essence, or idea, or substance? For the past few days, I've been reading An Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, the 1945 Modern Library edition edited and introduced by Anton C. Pegis. And let me stress the "introduction" part, as I have yet to make it past Pegis' introduction, which for me has been a mind-whirling good time of parsing out where Aquinas split from the Platonic tradition and set the 13th century's britches on fire. Or not, considering that many of his Neoplatonic contemporaries thought his more Aristotelian theory of man as a composite being, for whom body and soul were inseparably important, was just plain wrong-headed.

I can see why a world that disdained the body as largely a housing for the purer "Intellect" and/or spirit might be rocked to the core by Aquinas' view that "man is a knower rather than a thinker, and he is a composite being rather than a mind" (Pegis, xxiv).

Marinating on my own poetic process over the past few years, and how torn I feel about relinquishing head knowledge to body knowledge, I've often put this struggle in feminist terms. The knowledge I feel bubbling within, what my intellect begins to intuit but often strains to decipher clearly, is precisely the type of body knowledge, or knowing, that my feminist mothers' writings (Cixous, Stein, Rich, Lorde) urge the world to acknowledge, even as baby feminists such as myself struggle to accept that this knowledge is valuable.

Confession: I have doubted. I might say I was taught to doubt, and raised on doubtful elixirs that poisoned me to the worth of my own knowing. But whatever the causes, the Doubt of my own composite nature, twin knowledges, instruments of knowing and thinking, exists. I still fight to tear it out at the roots.

And yet, I constantly stumble upon dudes--here an old Catholic dude, no less--who sort of say, to be human--not just to be woman--is to be a knower of many things. A composite of forces.

Here I admit this an interpretation of Aquinas based on scanty reading and no scholarship. I probably project more than a little pop Gnosticism onto it. But ride with me. I admit I am feeling my way around, toward a knowing, rather than thinking, progressing through the discrete white rooms with tables, at right angles, resisting the pencils that suggest I scratch out a proof.

I think the reason I love poetry is that its proof is in its feeling. I'm not going to label Aquinas a feminist per se, though it IS bolstering to do a Google search of "Aquinas" + "feminism" and find that these ideas are circulating in other skulls. What I am trying to get at is the import of self-knowing. Trusting the knowledge that might come from sources other than the socially-recognized "intellect." Something that you might not have proof for (hey, we can't all be masters of philosophy), but that is intuited.

This weekend I spent some time with Esther Gokhale's (Go-clay) book Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It ain't the Summa Theologica, but it is a fantastic example of one person following the path of an intuited knowledge. In this case, a woman who suffered from excruciating back pain.

Gokhale spent years studying what she calls "traditional" societies, such as those found in Burkina Faso, India and Portugal, where back pain, even among elderly manual laborers, is largely nonexistent. Approaching the issue through the lenses of biomechanics, photojournalism, history and anthropology, Gokhale developed a method for preventing back pain based on training the modern body to return to its pre-modern knowledge. The comparison of pre-20th century and post-20th century medical drawings of "healthy" spines speaks volumes itself.

Basically, she shows you how to sit. And lay. And stand. And walk. And let me say—even after a day and a half of trying some of these exercises, it is amazing to feel the spine settle and the muscles release in a way that feels like a return to a sort of physical innocence. All the pictures of babies and small children doing their intuitive biomechanical thing don't hurt either.

During one of my sitstretching sessions, Shyam asked what I was doing. After giving him the short version, he started flipping through the book--and laughing. He found the idea that babies "know" how to sit correctly to be a tad ridiculous. This at first made me angry. As anger is an umbrella emotion, I looked under that umbrella to see what was there. I found frustration, disappointment, exhaustion and sorrow. Why sorrow? Because yet again I had bounced against a fundamental lack of respect for "other" types of knowledge that I suspected (feared is perhaps the better word) could not be resolved.

Having spent much of my life passionately defending feminist principles to audiences who were at best bemused and at worst scornful, this moment felt like another in a long series of being patted on the head and told to go back to my funny little projects. Of course I comforted myself with thoughts like, "he's just afraid of what is different and foreign to his ways of knowledge." Cold comfort, that.

When we first met, he told me that he felt his life had been a little too Apollonian, and he needed a Dionysian influence. To my eternal amusement, I was that Dionysian influence. (Those who know my day-to-day habits will see the amusement in this.) I think maybe he was also saying, "Hey, I have my worldview, and I'm attracted to yours, which is not mine. But don't expect me to join your tribe so easily." I'm not one to change my principles on a dime either, so this was at least a meeting on the grounds of respect as well as a proverbial drawing of a line in the sand. Exciting at first. Tiring, even alienating, at other times. I will be charitable and imagine there have been moments when he's felt this same mix.

Later in the evening, we took a walk through the neighborhood. I couldn't help taking note of the posture of the small children we passed. It was remarkable how their biomechanics were so consistent. Gait and posture were the consistent gaits and postures of new beings whose bodies know how to move, ineffably.

Shyam teasingly asked if I was keeping track of all the babies' postures. (And in Carroll Gardens, ladies and gents, this is no mean feat.) But when we got home and I wriggled my way into another attempt at stretchsitting, he did join me in trying to sit like "a straight-backed baby."

This was a feat of sorts, though I did wonder later whether presenting the whole idea in terms of Thomism (even if only as rhetorical device) would have expedited this process. I think I'm glad I resisted that tactic.

Photo Credit: Tamara BonĂȘt, "Indian Woman (Maiden) Sculpture WIP"

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