Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Scanlon, “The Brain Is Not the United States” (poem) from Boston Review, April 2015

The brain is not the United States, the brain is the ocean,
Dr. Yquem said, referring to its activity as opposed to its structure,
the brain is not the United States whose borders are mapped
and whose expansion is inhibited by bodies of water —
 
The brain is the ocean who is vast
and incorporates every chemical dumped into it,
whose depths we do not know, whose darkness we fear
in the most primordial way,
who stymies knowing up from down when one sinks fast into its long pull.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Ah, how cool, a poem that triggers a soundtrack (earworm alert) picked up in one of my moocs on how the brain perceives spatial location. For the second time in as many weeks, a Pushcart piece has fit right in with several of the brain/mind moocs I’ve taken over the past few years. Scanlon, it appears, is no stranger to these issues: another of her poems, “Stroop”, accurately characterizes the Stroop test; “will over sensation” is as good a way as any to phrase System 2 and System 1. So she knows the territory, probably better than I do.

But I felt I needed to sweep that aside and read the poem on its face. But it wasn’t possible, because we all bring everything we’ve ever learned, felt, experienced to everything we read, just as we bring our entire lives to every next moment.

With the Dr. Yquem reference, I tried to fit this into some grim tale of someone with some physical or mental brain disease, but it’s just too playful a poem, and I discovered Yquem is a French winery, which fits nicely with the chemicals dumping into the brain. I do love the distinction between structure and function; that’s straight from a couple of brain/mind moocs, in fact.

Wordplay abounds, but it’s subtle, maybe not even there and I’m inventing it. Dr. Yquem, for instance: is that really to evoke wine, or am I making that up, and it refers to an actual person? But who, if not a physician – a neuroscience professor? When the speaker gives the French word for brainle cerveau – I’m reminded that the Spanish word for head is cabeza and for beer is cerveza and now she’s got me doing it. Like Dan Reeder’s song above, it’s irresistibly catchy.

Despite all that, the language hints at something much darker than random babbling over afternoon wine, a darkness that shows up again and again in words and phrases – darkness, “its long pull”, medication, salvo and artillery and “a slow gun”, “a warning”. But as a whole, the poem is so much fun, using subject as in math to leapfrog to subject as in subordinate of royalty, the Pledge of Allegiance, taxes.

Then the last stanza:

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
and we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.

And I change my mind again, feeling a kind of desolation in that last line. Is this a woman touring France getting a little tipsy in the afternoon and letting her mind wander, getting to know previously unexplored or little-used corridors, watching how it works as it leaps from one association to another? Or is it a woman using wine to drown out her terror at some catastrophe: an illness, a failed marriage, a lost job? Just general anxiety? I don’t know.

In these dark days I tend towards play, much as the speaker does. I hope she has better luck than I do.

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