POETRY MONDAY: October 3, 2016


Elizabeth Socolow

To those of you whose holidays are this time of year, our very best wishes.

For all of us, we are pleased to present a poet who last with us on this page in October 2016. I urge you to search the archives to read about her and her previous publications. She’s a splendid poet, has long been a splendid poet, but there’s something special about these new poems. They are about someone our readers know quite well – and they were sent in response to a call to poets we published recently, in which we announced our forthcoming anthology of poems about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry, Edited and with an Introduction by Irene Willis and supported by a grant from the American Psychoanalytic
Foundation, is now in progress, and IPBooks has agreed to publish it – hopefully, sometime in 2017.

Why these poems by Elizabeth Socolow now? First, when I read them I realized that the content is quite different from that of her previous work; it is more open, more personal than before, representing, it seems to me, something of a poetic and emotional breakthrough. I found them not only intellectually interesting, as her poems always are, but also quite moving. I hope you will, too. Here are three new poems, published here for the first time. One or more of them will appear in the new anthology.

                                                                                                   –Irene Willis
                                                                                                   Poetry Editor

Freud and the Others in the Old Days

About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters . . .W. H. Auden, “Au Musée des Beaux Arts”

I think from the time I knew about Beethoven being deaf,
I measured genius in part by the degree of suffering
any one of them had to endure. Jungle fever and dysentery,
storms at sea for the explorers like Humboldt,

ridicule and the enmity of the upright and religious for Galileo and
so many of them, but Newton lost his father before he was born
and his mother to a step-father when he was four.
I always knew, I think, he imagined the pull between

distant bodies because he was sent away
to live with his uncle when he was still very young,
and bonding being so unreliable, he never married.
At a certain age, that was the worst sacrifice I could imagine:

my mother threatened me with spinsterhood
as the ultimate punishment all my life in her home
and in that fear, I was like many girls of my time, and
did not feel so hurt or different that I wanted to chase down

talk therapy, or an analyst. I cannot recall when I stopped
comparing them—Darwin against Freud, Mozart against
Shakespeare. Or even why I began. I remember, though,
a conversation with a close friend on the subway when I was

sixteen or seventeen about the material of study: what
difference did that make? Marie Curie gave herself radiation
poisoning which seemed a terrible consequence of curiosity
and ambition—we had already learned from studying

Achilles in the Iliad it was not worth giving up long life
to have enduring fame and glory. But Freud: he just took
ordinary things, families, houses, hugs good night in the dark
and from our daily lives, he told amazing stories the Greeks

knew first. That seemed to me astonishing, nothing special
like uranium to start from, and yet he saw something
altogether new, like quilts stitched from bits of garments, or
girl’s dresses made of patterned flour sacking in the old days.


They Loom Large, Parents

I remember especially my father’s fears and his tears
because they were so terrible, and so rare.
Tears for the days he came home, gray, and said,
every time, the first metaphor I ultimately understood:
another candle has gone out.

I thought until I was about five he only meant that
something he had tried to do had not worked out.
And from birthdays, I thought perhaps he had not had time
to make a wish before a candle flame guttered. I do not remember
when I first really understood
one of his patients had died.

He complained when I was six or seven that, as a cardiologist,
he was in a profession with the ultimate adversary.
He could not win the war he said (after we had defeated
the Nazis) but only some skirmishes. I had to figure out
that an ‘adversary’ was an ‘enemy’ and he meant death.

Sometimes he saved lives, but often he could not. Later, when it
was clear to him that my little sister was schizophrenic,
he became terrified of Freudian analysis. He believed in brain disease,
and took her to therapists who agreed with him that,
until drugs could alter brain chemistry, we would get nowheremuch
with psychosis.

He raged at Freud who only looked, my father said,
at ordinary families who could afford to have sons overly attached
to mothers or fathers to daughters. He wanted something new
for the extremes, for the abnormal brain, damaged at birth if not
in birth, and he hated labeling our situation in a fixed way.

He kept tropical fish and a small garden and he was fond of saying to me:
For your sister, there is one thing to be hoped,
a great mystery. The late bloomer.


Climbing the Rope

In high school, swimming a lap was a requirement
for graduation. And I never knew anyone, even my blind friend
the year ahead of me, who did not meet the test.

In grade school, more quixotic: in the high ceilinged gym
a hemp rope with knots we had to climb, reach with one hand
to touch the ceiling and then come down, moving from knot

to knot as we had gone up, leaping with our feet and pulling
with our hands. My sister, delayed in all things, would never
have been able to pass this test on her own

so I got my army and navy cousins, home now that the war
was done, to hang a rope on the eight-foot lowish ceiling
of their basement in Queens, and teach her for three years

to master the task, so that when she was in fourth grade
it would not be so daunting to perform in gym.
I wanted her to stay in that school, and I wanted to stay too

which I could not have done had she been booted out.
It did not seem to me unfair to have to care for her
or follow her if she failed. So much of life in those years

just was what it was: what is, is. Deal with it. If there is
an act of God directly seen in a child in a family, what then?
Freud did not deal with that except insofar as our sex,

boy, girl is the first such act that makes all the difference.
But that he was so great and had so little to tell a family
like mine, that genius can slip, overlook, ignore,

that seemed to me the most important thing. Their greatness
showing in how much they got right about almost everyone.
The little bit that included us, just not touched.

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