Breathlanes: A Dialogue on Psychotherapy & the Poetics of Black Mountain College

Breathlanes: A Dialogue on Psychotherapy & the Poetics of Black Mountain College
by Jonathan Railey, LPC

Dear Sean,

Kind thanks for your revision notes & insight. Once again, you have helped me.

I should persist and will persist in analyzing my identity as it pertains to my aspirations here at Black Mountain. Sometimes, I admit, I find myself struggling with a line of verse and am clobbered by a sense of aesthetic confusion. This confusion amplifies as I sift through the endless layers that comprise my “self,” and wonder who or what it is that resides here, in this body, and as this body. And indeed, who is it that notices the confusion, writes this very letter & watches the yellow jackets disappear into fallen apples just beneath my window. As you can see, Sean, the aesthetic confusion turns quickly into an existential one.

Henry Miller supposedly said that a line without effort is worth a chapter of push and pull. But I don’t know any writer that doesn’t push and pull.

Tell me what you think, O Friend, O Doctor, is a person’s essential self merely an accumulation of memories and drives?

Shall I breathe deeply & return to my work – my photography and my words, where the pen meets the paper – reminded of Nietzsche’s bony-fingered warning that a person can labor endlessly to know the self, to arrive at some final authentic expression of it, “and still not be able to say this is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.” For there is enough wonder and expansiveness here in this idea, but sometimes groundlessness and terror,

a sudden flight into limitless non-being-

an uprooting experience for that in me which craves discreet definition and stability in my grasp of reality…or in my map of it at least.

Going for walks in the woods seems to help, with or without my Pentax, as a way to re-establish the kinetic link between mind-self and body-self. Then, as I say, it’s back to work. Work, which is the only thing, besides family, that really matters to me.

And if, perhaps, through my work, some chance glimpses of an enduring self are revealed and if a little letting go is dropped into the Void, and if it yields the milk of some simple awareness…I wouldn’t send any of it back.
Yours keenly,

Dear James,

Kind friend, I hope this finds you well. And Kate and the boys, too.

In your most recent letter you again describe a bewilderment which I feel must be better understood, but not obliterated. I say this because it does sound destabilizing, but it also seems a powerful tonic…mainly, in that the bewilderment spurs you on to do your work, which you have identified, with greater urgency.

Human lives were not built for very much ease. And while we’re here, to do our work regularly and well can bring tremendous relief. This has been my experience, at least.

The unease you describe is the kind of thing that sends people to my couch in search of relief. Beneath their presenting neuroses, they pose essential human questions “But who am I really?” And “What will satisfy me?” “Are there words for my experience?”

As you know, analytic theory holds that we are largely hidden from ourselves. But by putting our conscious thoughts and feelings into words, we might discover some of this hidden, wilder territory. That is the basic idea behind free association, when a patient describes his or her interior state as accurately as possible without editing or interference. It is simple, but not easy. And it takes considerable time and effort to master.

Because of this I sometimes find it useful to administer the thematic apperception test, which is little more than a set of illustrations depicting different scenes. Patients are shown each illustration, one at a time, and are asked to provide a narrative explaining each scene. Like the inkblots, but not abstract. Like a writing prompt, but more automatic and interpersonal, the aim is to call forth patients’ conscious and unconscious thoughts about themselves and the world.

There is a picture of a young girl with a violin, for example. Who is this girl? What is she thinking and feeling? What has happened? And what do you think will happen next? The thought is that the stories they tell are metaphors for the hidden self and therefore diagnostic.

You and I have long agreed on the primacy of language in the search for the self and the idea that words, as products of consciousness, derive ultimately from the body.

As our mutual friend Merleau-Ponty says, spoken words can only come from an “open experience;” they arrive “like the boiling point of a liquid, when, in the density of being, volumes of empty space are built up and move outwards.”

And so to answer your question, I do not believe that any of us are much more than our drives & memories & character. But for Pete’s sake – isn’t that enough? Let it all boil over, then, in the therapy hour and onto the page. And let the tongue be a flame to flower and the ear a thing to behold it.


p.s. you must be aware that in one of his stories Borges imagines a map so detailed that when unfolded it lays flat and literally covers the very empire it illustrates. We ought to beware our maps, and beware of always having to know where we are going.

p.p.s send more poems

Dear Sean,

The girl was born into misery. She has just stolen the violin. It is the most beautiful thing she has ever held. She learns to play and one day many people will adore her for it. The instrument is the machinery of the gods. It saves her life.

Now what does this say about me? That I have read too much Horatio Alger? That I am surrounded here in East Jesus by adorably photogenic and fiercely intelligent genius ingénues?

My existence, you see, is not a story. It is a series of alternations and cycles, an ongoing visceral, embodied event, a stream of consciousness and impulses interrupted only by the repose of sleep. And then what? Dreams. My existence is a flux, a happening.

And yet, when I start to convey my experience in words, they automatically seek the familiar conventions of narrative. Let me tell you about my day. Or my life. What I’ve been up to lately, or what I want. It was like this, then it was like this, but now it’s such & so. A setting, the characters. Homeostasis, crisis, resolution. As if a messy existence adheres to such neat order.

Why does this happen? Is it because we are primed with stories when we are children- something I think about when I consider how often Kate and I read to the boys, and how they crave stories of high adventure and magic. Is it because stories are inherently relational, stories that float between our selves and others, like vehicles carrying precious information.

I try again, this time less defensively, less piss & vinegar.

The girl with her fiddle lopes down consummate Boulevards with bored affect. She draws her hand to her throat as if to divine an exit / then contact fatigue, smashed freight / her ballad a going to pieces. If tongues of flame could flower- if anything could be swept away- listen, she lives in a mobile home the size of a small whale with a roofer who keeps his guitar tuned to open G / When the devil comes calling smelling like / sea salt & free will she picks up the bow the hellhounds lose the scent / & on t.v. a motorcyclist prepares to jump across fifteen garbage cans in a row / the world is on fire & in dreamsongs she accelerates as heat lightning/dashes through a September cloud.



p.s. As a patient, I expect my therapist’s analysis and interpretation. It’s part of the agreement. As a photographer, the image I present is readily accepted as the thing itself, in a certain light. But as a poet, I absolutely do not wish to have my words analyzed for additional meaning. They are the intended meaning, and if I could say it any other way, I would.

Dear James,

Thank you for your thoughts on the girl with the violin. She sends her regards, from all her various manifestations, and I send mine, with gratitude.

I think I know what you mean. We can feel disoriented without our closely held narratives. They serve us, after all. They ratify and scribe out our world as we know it. Perhaps this why we sometimes tell the same stories over and over.

Bruno Shulz, the Polish surrealist, has said that the mythologizing of the world is not over yet, that an individual might consider their existence as literary, a thing mythologically significant. Psychoanalysis is, itself, a narrative, a mythologization of the self. Oedipus the king, whose plight echoes in each patient, in us all. But I think that there are risks in becoming too closely identified with certain stories or too attached to narrative. The love story, the horror story, the mystery – a real, vibrant existence cannot be contained by any of these conventional genres or archetypes. Once again Borges and his sprawling map reminding us

What a relief it can be to not be tied to our familiar templates, which can and at times must be re-written in order for us to go on living. And what freedoms there are outside our most familiar narratives. Other representations of the psyche that are less linear, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness, fragmentary, or surreal word-thoughts, which provide a different kind of expression altogether. The poetry of everyday mind, uninhibited by social convention. As James Joyce put it, “much of human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”

Among other things, the therapy hour can be a place for patients to experiment with language, to create and dismantle narratives, to open up and out. The analyst, meanwhile, is not a reader, but a witness, and a participant, part provocateur and part comforter, also a kind of mirror- someone who can assist new ways of seeing and saying things. But this takes time.



p.s. send more poems

Dear Sean
The Pentax & I have just returned from a recent photography assignment in the fields of coastal South Carolina. Thank you for the postcard, for the impressive and muscular images of the Brooklyn Bridge. Surprisingly, I do not miss the City one bit.

I beheld some wonderful subjects on assignment: An old woman who sang and played a banjo carved out of a gourd. And a boy, maybe ten, who used a glass bottle to scrape piano strings nailed down to a plank and made plaintive little dreamsongs. Oceans of kudzu and sweet everlasting & mosquitoes big as Avalon plums. On the drive back home I saw a row of country boys and girls spring off a bridge like bird shot over the rail & into the river below, lilacs floating downstream. My Pennsylvania childhood comes to mind- an expansive thing of communal and private joy. Except for those few and memorable times when it was not, which I have shared with you before.

so opposite a mandolin rarely played & empty room fevering I bore witness

to cousins framed by convalescent window hefting trusses under a halo of wind churned poplars,

when I roused at dusk a clot of gnats in the atmosphere, the barn was raised with bats delving in the lower part of the sky

I have turned my attention even moreso to the breath- for something these musicians all seem to know how to do is to breathe. And spin the raw material of breath into sound.

There is a technique they’re calling projectivism devised by the Black Mountain poetry gang, particularly Olson and Creeley. who loom large and generous here. Their interest is in using breath to conjure a creative matrix. The poem, Olson says, is born out of a field of spontaneous breath-energy, the way a sound stems from a place, an actual physical location. The Mississippi river bubbles up out of the ground in Minnesota. As you say, Merleau-Ponty and the boiling point. Verse follows the natural rhythms of speech; and breathlanes flow, creating form along the way. Line breaks like geological formations. The hollows, the peaks. Something loping along in the cut. Now one of the main points of projectivism is the liberation of the self from itself, obstructive liberation of words & images from their usual, limited, pre-ordained meanings – a plunge into subjective immediacy, which is a kind of restraint, not boundlessness. It reminds me of your description of the wakeful dreaming therapy hour and its potentials.

Putting unknown things into words, bringing unconscious material out onto the veranda, into language where it can be known, is our common ground, Sean. But it is a vast and often difficult terrain. On the hilltop, our fiddle player and her high lonesome sound. PER ASPERA AD ASTRA.

Yours keenly,

p.s. please find the enclosed photographs of lovely Kate and our boys of summer, they are growing like weeds. Also find enclosed a few snapshots from my trip, quite suitable for framing.

Dear James,

Thank you for the images of Mississippi and the family. Didn’t our Nieztsche also write that life without music would be a mistake? Gourds, bottles, breath. One uses whatever materials are at one’s disposal to make it happen, but one of these is most essential.

Winnicott said that the breath is a function of “intake and…output.” that it…”lays bare a continuity of inner and outer, that is to say, a failure of defenses…”

Oh no!

But there’s poetry in that idea, James – that breath itself is give and take, vulnerability. I suppose I can see how the breath might be an authentic expression of self, for whatever authenticity is worth.

I say this, because I am feeling old and a bit grumpy with preoccupations with authenticity, of seeking out the most bona fide, original, and essential version of a thing. The “authentic self,” the “true voice,” the “real analysis.”

The cult of essentialism is tireless and not very particular. Meanwhile, Derrida and Hegel remind us, and Plato as well for that matter, perhaps only the sun overhead is truly original. Everything we know derives from it.

I readily admit, however, that the breath is life. A failure of defenses? Perhaps. But to me, it is the organism’s most ready assertion of viability and an ongoing defense against death, the Great Leveller. What could be more sincere than to breathe?

So more breathing, more work, for us both kind friend.



p.s. send more poems

Dear Sean
I hope you are well. Kate and the boys are all well and send their love. What luck – this failure of defenses – that we might, despite the chasms that separate us, continue to know one another.

Some among us say American verse is a matter of “the raw and the cooked.”

I’m not sure I buy it, but I believe I know what they’re getting at. It’s the difference between learning theory and composition in an academy versus making music with a gourd you find growing in the field. Between these valences very different songs about the human experience will be sung.

If this polarity is the shape of American poetry, the projectivists want more. I want more.



p.s. I still don’t know what we mean by the word “I” but I know that Spring is here and that’s a blessing & I know what it means to be self-conscious, and both Olson and Creeley, for whom I have much admiration, seem supremely self-conscious, as well as generous. At a recent reading here I heard Creeley talk about the sorrow he experienced as a boy when he came to the end of a story. “It would be heartbreaking,” he said, “that there was no more of it.” Old friend, I thought of you.

Dear James,

Yes to Spring. Maypops in Brooklyn. Maypops in America.

At the risk of sounding like a romantic, your existential bewilderment is a kind of broken-heartedness, I think it’s fair to say.

As for the schism between the raw and the cooked: I think there is a similar divide in how clinicians view and conduct themselves – either as behavioral scientists or intuitive humanists. In some pockets a vibrant synergy between these two camps is evident. In others, there is strident factionalism of nearly comical proportions.

In projectivism as you describe it, I see another a means of working with deep material so that the unconscious may be thrown into words without being overly processed and pounded into something that is no longer magical. This is something Freud said many times, by the way – that words have magical powers.

I think I know what Creeley means. We do crave stories early on. As a boy I loved Huckleberry Finn, because for one thing he was truly free. But also because Mark Twain, a man I had never met, seemed to understand so much about me, about being a young person, about being a human and becoming more humane. That was a kind of magic.

We speak words and we make the worlds we live in. Allowing that process to be an increasingly conscious and therefore bodily event, with the right words at the right time, is entirely possible.



p.s. do send more poems

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