Alan’s Cancer vs. an Exquisite Corpse

Rene Magritte, Man in the Bowler Hat

Rene Magritte, Man in the Bowler Hat

Colleagues of my friend Alan Paskow held another one of our salons Monday night.  Alan is a former professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s College, now retired, who currently has cancer in his lungs.  We have been meeting once a month or so to show our support and to generally reaffirm how important community is.  Monday night’s theme was “the Exquisite Corpse.”

Lest you think that “exquisite corpse” sounds particularly morbid or insensitive given Alan’s cancer, let me explain.  “Exquisite corpse” is a method, developed by the French Surrealists, to shake up our perceptions of reality.  It involves randomly putting together words, images, even musical passages, and seeing what emerges. (The phrase “exquisite corpse,” or “cadavre exquis,” emerged from a surrealist session.)   I wrote in a previous post about a salon orchestrated by my colleague Sue Johnson, a visual artist, who had us (among other things) fold pieces of paper in threes and then draw (depending on which stage we were in) the head, trunk, or legs of a figure.  Then we looked at the full picture.

This past Monday we wrote poems.  Previous to the session Lois Stover, a colleague in Educational Studies, collected from us lines of poetry we liked and randomly collated them.  Our task was then to (1) look at interesting juxtapositions and then (2) write our own poem choosing from among these lines.

Authors of the lines of poetry and prose we contributed included Tennyson, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Wordworth, Proust, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Elizabeth Bishop, D. H. Lawrence, Rumi, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, and Mother Goose.  Eliot had the highest number of citations, prompting psychologist Laraine Glidden to note that many of us must have been channeling our adolescent angst.

My own contribution, which I chose thinking of Alan, was a Tennyson passage from In Memoriam:

So runs my dream: but what am I?
  An infant crying in the night:
  An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

We had faculty from the departments of educational studies, English, sociology, religious studies, philosophy, international languages, psychology, and library science.  They were, for the most part, not poets and many had anxieties about writing poetry.   But that’s one of the virtues of the exercise: since it is collage work, it allows people to bypass writer’s block.  They feel less threatened as they tap into the power of creation.

The result was a number of poems that were deeply moving, along with some that were very funny.  The accidental juxtapositions led people to imagine a wide variety of stories and then to search out lines that would build upon the stories.

Here is one poem, my wife Julia’s, which I found particularly effective.  If you know poetry, see how many allusions you can identify:

I’ll leave my shoes, and the door
Unlocked, going to bed early,
To welcome the dark stranger
So runs my dream 

A walking shadow
Full of sound and fury
Hidden in a man unawares
He takes what is before me and
What is behind me
The moon, the sun
From swerve of shore
To bend of bay 

Under lilacs in the dooryard
I used to go to bed
Plagued by love, curiosity
Freckles, and doubt
Ready to bear

Trusting that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill
And glory be to God
For dappled things
And finches wings
Floating in the Blue. 

 By joining with friends in a joint creative enterprise, we threw up defenses against the death lurking just around the corner.  It seemed to be the most important thing that we could have been doing.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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