The Poetics of Healing: Vital Forms


Critical explorations of issues in contemporary poetics: essays, proposals, statements, arguments, wild cards.

The following is excerpted from Melissa Buzzeo’s talk (April 20, 2013) at Vital Forms: Healing and the Arts of Crisis, a symposium curated by Eleni Stecopolous in San Francisco. Buzzeo explores the confluence of poetry and healing and what can be made of their failures in time. This excerpt is roughly the first third of a longer piece employing different poetic registers to the body space within time and its folds. 

by Melissa Buzzeo

I want to begin by saying how deeply honored I am to be here. That this space exists is like a dream to me, held very long. The ideal or the dream would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates, writes Helene Cixous, and I would add as much as it contains. So thank you: Eleni, Beth, Margit, David, Thom, Pavlos and Bhanu. I also want to preface by saying I have talked about these ideas for a long time, with Bhanu Kapil in particular and in various configurations of time. Many of the better parts of these ideas are deeply hers and more, as well as the many other people I have talked to and have been affected by, too numerous to name right now. Though I must thank Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s plant structures and CA Conrad’s enormous crystal.

So thank you all, here and not here.

The Poetics of Healing, Vital Forms 2013

I put off writing this talk for a long time, even as I thought about it for many days in my head, in and out of the bathtub, up and down the stairway. And while the topic is vastly interesting to me, the idea of writing it made me sick. I want to think about why and the confluence of healing with the already-there-in-the-body, a healing that, to my mind, does not necessarily annul sickness and death and does not often look like life. A poetics that enacts the same exact things inside and outside of the body. Inside and outside of the community. But I also want to say not all poetry is healing and not all writing heals and it is immaterial: good or bad or gifted has no place in a body worker. Or a palm reader. And healing—which to me is the arriving at form and content together, being able to hold them both in a new painful way—is often stripped of its meaning at first. Even as it promises some kind of future, even if that new future is for others. Or looks like a piece of Tibetan paper, the gold block inside, so lovely and so plain, so ancient. A poetics of healing makes and is made of a new kind of language that comes from the possibility of encounter, inside of the body or out of it. At the same time.

This talk would be easier for me to write to a different audience, say a phalanx of doctors or herbalists or another community of poets, those I did not know, people whose lives I am not invested in. I initially thought I would rather skip this conference. I would rather have a group trance instead. I would rather have everyone’s blank book already written in a kind of peace or ecstasy, writing that offers everything. But it is easy to see that the intense focus on the outcome—or the object resplendent in the space of outcome—blunts the potential for healing as well. And I do see that this is the exact right audience and the exact right place, and as such it has excessive meaning, just like the desire to heal and be healed can be excessive. But this excessive meaning, and the weight of desire, sometimes builds to make duration impossible. This counters healing as well.

So what is presence right now.

The moment somebody calls themselves a healer the potential for healing is gone.

And a poet?

I believe that healing and the space of poetry, or a poetic consciousness enacted to some opening of futurity, are the same. As such, I will use these terms interchangeably. But what these enactments mean, make possible, and are made of are different things for different people, and different things at different times for the same people. What works at one point does not work at another, as everyone knows. I believe healing is infinitely possible and natural in the same way that writing is and the ability to write well. So for me, writing and healing are more about removing the blocks, being so believed in, believing so in, erecting a context/shelter, reaching toward want, becoming flush with nutrients and allowing “failure” in encounter. With belief and impersonal love, perhaps with the earth, letting something in, letting what can happen happen. Knowing what comes out is the exact right thing for the moment. If this is facilitated and there is pleasure as well as numbness and pain—all so much the better.

I want to talk about myself and my experience with healing as inseparable from writing, an experience that has been deeply, up to this point, un-cathartic. I want to talk about its failures. The points of failure in which healing might have been possible from a new kind of language—in text or in silence—making a new consciousness possible. But where writing did not happen and why and what this might say about poetry or healing and its capacity for carrying something. Or nothing. And making this nothing or something more or less.

Why people who are sick are also looked at as waste products in society. Why people, especially women, especially sick women, do not want to draw too much attention to themselves. Healing is personal rather than universal. It is painfully intimate, often without the erotic overtones that sometime save writing. What does it mean to talk about yourself.

My mother died in 1992 at age 43 of pre-menopausal breast cancer. She was 36 when she was diagnosed. This was in the eighties, and she was the same age I am right now. She had a mastectomy and lost her hair, went into remission and came out surrounded by a great silence, a degraded silence which I will touch on later. This six-year process included induced menopause, multiple brain surgeries, and massive brain damage. In the end, she no longer knew who I was in the normal way and she was terrified, unable to move. Her body swollen with drugs past any kind of absoption, her skin deeply unhuman-looking. And she was terrified. Later I learned that many women in our small town had breast cancer. Our area of Long Island was then on par with some place in California as having the highest incidence of breast cancer in the country. Yet nobody talked about it. As an adult, I learned that our next door neighbor had it, as did the lady across the street, my high school guidance counselor had it, and many of my friends’ mothers. But no one talked about it. And no one knew why.

The first attention I got for writing outside of school came from the medical community. I was 10. We were told by our parents, in a time pre-internet, that breast cancer was very curable, 99 percent, that Jesus had saved Mommy and we weren’t allowed to tell anyone she was sick. Someday, when I got married, yes, we could tell. But not until then. This not-telling came, in part, from my mother’s extreme shame over her new body, unwanted. She was very beautiful. She wore high heels and was shy, was passionate, a virgin when she married, was so capable and so often looked at while walking on the street of our small town. She had the upper hand in her marriage, in a compromised society. And then she did not. Women were not supposed to be a problem, to put such a drain on the system. Were we a system? They told us that we could not tell because if anyone knew, she might lose her job as a teacher, the new and lucky job with health care.

The first summer after she was sick, as we became increasingly alone as a family, I would make up Q & A’s and ask everyone, but especially her, if you could have one wish what would it be?

She always said, for my body to be the way it was.

At the hospital, the doctors asked the women with children to have their children write letters to petition Congress for funding to see why our area was so diseased. Although I believed her, that she would get better, that everything was fine and that we would always be together, I wrote my letter by pretending to be someone else. I had seen a Highway to Heaven episode in which sick children petition Congress. In my letter, I mimicked the tone and voice of the children—very childlike, very performative. Please don’t let my Mommy die! And then I stopped thinking about it. But one day she came home from the hospital sobbing, at that point she maybe had been a little brain damaged from the treatment, but she wept and I had never seen her cry from being sick. She was going to get better, many people have worse things, AIDS, worse things, people without families, so awful, we are still very lucky. But she wept and said how proud she was of me, that my letter had been picked, out of all of the letters by all of the children in New York state, to be read in Congress. She wept and hugged me as we stood on the staircase. It was so confusing. And the upshot, of course, was that that writing—mine—led neither to healing (the money was given but the statistics stayed the same for so many years, I no longer follow it) nor to poetry. The rupture made of our embrace on our staircase did not produce anything but more weight, more silence, more fear. I was too afraid. She had experienced rupture, but then wanted to go back, almost immediately, to the other reality, the one in which everything would get better. And anyway, it was just a performance. On our staircase.

There was some content-affect moving at last, but no new form. Or the content could not reach the other form, swollen and lacerated. Or maybe it had overreached it. With such great shame, such confusion. But maybe, also, with great a capacity for openness. An openness unrealized.

She had always walked naked in front of me. Her parents were immigrants. She felt comfortable in her body, having come from another culture, a culture more comfortable. After she first got sick, she said to me, alone in her room, in the way she had of talking to me, out loud, that she had nobody to talk to. She said, I’ve decided I don’t ever want you to see me naked again. I want you to always think of a woman’s body as beautiful. I said nothing. And I never saw her naked again and I do think of all women’s bodies as very very beautiful, in whatever configuration. But my silence—it merged with and extended the cultural silence. It created a lot more violence. We were extremely close. I like to think that another kind of silence might have been possible, a kind that would have changed things for her and for me. Another kind of content-affect from me, beyond dissociation, might have begun. Another kind of pattern between her and me that would have made her death less hellish, her mourning for her own life more possible. Her body less mutilated. A different kind of silence that would have made it possible for me to enter adulthood more invested in a future. Which is the future of the body. Or the alternative language. What saying and silence might have been possible.

I would have liked to say, But a woman’s body is your body, Mommy. Which was true.

But not in language.

But how do you say it not in language.

Why could we not create another language together.

She tried to write to me. She was worried about the effect her illness would have on her children, and she was not allowed to go to therapy herself. My brother and sister were too young. They were little children. I had finished puberty by 11. The whole house was terrified by this. My mother and I had new bodies, unwanted. Change was not embraced. Our whole household was obsessed with breasts. All of a sudden I had trouble in school.

She read my 9th grade books with me. The last book she read was the Song of Bernadette, the common story of the little girl who became a saint. A little girl who had and was nothing, whose head was empty, and who had a vision of Mary and Mary told her great things. From this encounter came the healing city of Lourdes, where Catholics go by the millions each year, still, to be washed in the water. To be healed. Lourdes was a beautiful name to me. Far away in France. My mother tried to write to me. She liked that I had picked a good book. Would she have liked Clarice Lispector, eating the cockroach? Could I have made her like poetry? Does it matter? We had new bodies unwanted. I wanted to be a little girl again although many parts of childhood were uninteresting. Or I wanted to be a woman of thirty. But no age if it meant being without her.

She wrote to me in secret. The secret was called a notebook. The language of the time, the cultural langauge outside our house, was about expression. Oprah, etc. I was supposed to express, to tell her my secrets, tell her if I was afraid. A doctor told her to do this. She worried that my sister and I would someday be sick, but she expressed this to me by writing about how when I grew up, this sickness, cancer, would not exist. And besides, god was listening to our prayers. And besides, she would die for me.

Maybe repressed feelings made sickness.

When my father, whose immigrant parents had lived through the depression in tenements, my father with two purple hearts and who thought that life was not about the self or transformation, but about having real toilet paper instead of newspaper, my father learned from the doctors was that it was bad to dwell. Think communal positive thoughts. Don’t talk about it. The social silence was his idea.

But she went along with him out of shame. As she saw it, she was an aging sick woman who had lost all power. The PhD she had undertaken at the local college, her effort to think about something else, made no difference. Was she still, in the mind of her husband, a beautiful perfect woman?

1990: She tries to write to me. I hide the book that she wants to make with me because I cannot bear this too real. Other language still in my blood and in the water and in her hair on the floor which I do not pick up.

This language was not ours but a form that did not serve the moment then, that did not allow for particular problems, the particular complexity. It was too hard to emulate the talk show confession or the prayer, both of which seemed to have less and less to do with us. As all things, and all treatments, only work sometimes.

As I am writing this, in the computer lab in the school where I teach, I hear the very distinctive voice of an architect colleague. I gave a lecture recently in memory of his daughter, Christina, whose name is the same as my mother’s. She was a Dartmouth student and she wanted to be a poet. She ran into a pole while skiing. I saw the box with her skull, the part that split off immediately and had to be replicated. Brent has trouble speaking. He speaks in loops, speaks too much. Trauma is so common. When Bhanu Kapil came to our school last week, I wrote to him and to his wife and extended Bhanu’s offer to talk to them and to their dead Christina. I wrote a very careful letter from a very careful offer. Although they are so lonely and Christina was their only child, and although they engage in every extracurricular opportunity possible and want to talk about Christina at every rushed moment, and although they are interested in mysticism and are very polite, they did not write back. When I later saw him, he said, But we are so busy! We do not have time to see the healer! I had not used that word, healer, but I completely understood. Now I hear him really loud in this lab. Is he trying to help me?

The problems of this talk:

Am I being manipulative

Am I taking up all the energy

Is this so un-present

Is it too present, such that it misses the point

Will writing be erased

Where is the sacred

Will the pre language become toxic

Where did the rhythm go

Why can’t I make substance mean something and still keep it substance

Straining towards form

What to do in the absence of duration, the small time left for this writing


The problems of this talk are also the problems of healing and of writing.


If I had started earlier, maybe seven years ago

If many amazing alternative treatments had worked

If I could give and receive

If I could work

If I could write this from a sense of abundance

A place that I have been before

Everything already written and full


And the other voices I imagine mine and not mine:

If I had not gotten sick

If I had not made those bad decisions.

If those bad decisions had not worked

If I had written more

If I had written less

If I had suffered less

If that person had not left me

If I had spoken up

If I had been more quiet, left and lived in a permanent ashram

If I was another person

If I was the person I could have been

If I did not take that bad advice

If there were less alternatives, more choices

If I did not meet those bad people

If those bad people or choices or experiences had not so marked me

If I had taken all the opportunities, lavender and essential oil, all the promises of friendship, the roots in the tree, love when it was free, the roots in the ground so tangled, the light touch, the reiki and the oils, the non-attachment, the lit chakras, the beautiful class, the failed lights, the horizon.

If I had not stopped.


Melissa Buzzeo is the author of a forthcoming book from Nightboat in 2014—a seawreck-in-language which investigates impoverished speech and the concept of debris: a waste economy, changing. She is also the author of For Want and Sound (Les Figues, 2013), Face (Bookthug, 2009) and What Began Us (Leon Works, 2007). She teaches creative writing and architecture at Pratt Institute and lives in Brooklyn.

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