Gray Area: Thinking With a Damaged Brain
by Floyd Skloot
"Poet Peter Davison has noticed the resonant irony of the phrase "an insult to the brain" and made use of it in his poem, "The Obituary Writer." Thinking about the suicide of John Berryman, the heavily-addicted poet whose long-expected death in 1972 followed years of public behavior symptomatic of brain damage, Davison writes that "his hullabaloos/of falling-down drunkenness were an insult to the brain." In this poem, toying with the meaning of the phrase, Davison suggests that Berryman's drinking may have been an insult to his brain, technically speaking, but that watching him was, for a friend, another kind of brain insult. He has grasped the fatuousness of the phrase as a medical term, its inherent judgment of contempt, and made use of it for its poetic ambiguity.
"But I have become enamored of the idea that my brain has been insulted by a virus. I used it as motivation. There is a long tradition of avenging insults through duels or counter-insults, through litigation, through the public humiliation of the original insult. So I write. I avenge myself on an insult that was meant, it feels, to silence me by compromising my word-finding capacity, my ability to concentrate and remember, to spell or conceptualize, to express myself, to think.
The duel is fought over and over. I have developed certain habits that enable me to work — a team of seconds, to elaborate this metaphor of a duel. I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together. Every time I finish an essay or poem or piece of fiction, it feels as though I have faced down the insult."
Anthony H. Risser | neuroscience | neuropsychology | brain