The ProsenPeople

Picking Up the Brush. I Mean the Mop. I Mean the Brush.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, poet Molly Peacock reflected the courage behind the encouragement she received, her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant, and how the story of a boy who saved himself from the Nazi gas chambers with a mop stayed with her through adulthood. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a goyishe lady, almost 70. After 38 years of being in analysis (not all at once! In spates, sometimes long, sometimes short, of intensity over the years,) I am no longer a patient. Yet now I have to be patient with my former analyst, Joan Stein, now 82. We have embarked on a new relationship. It’s a bit like a watercolor of the old relationship. The paintbrush (and the mop) are still saving our lives.

After those watercolors began appearing on her walls about 25 years ago, Joan Stein reduced her practice to four days a week. On Fridays she took painting classes in the studios at the 92 St. YMHA on Lexington Avenue. Her watercolors were often portraits of people. It was people who engaged her, not landscapes or objects. Faces, postures. Like the face of her father that she painted as a very young woman at Radcliffe. What had once been rejected resurfaced. Her talent was waiting, just as she so patiently once waited for me, hour after hour, to slowly come to feel what I felt when I felt it, not after the feeling had hardened cold.

Doctors rescued Joan, even as she, the analyst, rescued me. But in both our lives something else, so health-giving and so essential to survival, was at work. After her stroke, Joan lost a great deal of language, and most of her ability to read. She even had to re-learn to use a key to unlock her apartment. Of course she had to abandon her practice.

But she did not lose her capacity to paint. That part of her brain worked—and it began to work to save her life. After she returned from the hospital, she began to paint. The art she had turned away from began to restore her life. She couldn’t any longer paint faces, so she began painting other living things: flowers.

When people talk about the “vision” of a poet, they’re really talking about imagery. It’s the images a poet creates that amount to what we name a poets’ “vision.” I don’t think of myself as a visionary, but I often wake up with images, and I try to write poems from this hypnogogic state. Occasionally I wake up with this image: a mop in filthy water in a bucket on a concrete floor. After visiting my analyst, whose living room that once served as her therapy room is now a watercolor studio, I wake up with another image: a watercolor brush dips in almost musical motion into water, into paint, onto paper… Another image materializes, brilliant and glowing.

“If I couldn’t paint, I wouldn’t want to live,” Joan tells me, on each of my pilgrimages to visit her, and in each of our stay-in-touch phone calls. She is saving her own life by picking up the brush. I mean the mop. I mean the brush.

Joan watched me as I reintegrated all the parts of my life. She watched the repair over decades. And now I have the privilege of watching the woman who helped with every artistic decision of my life put her own life in her hands as she takes up that brush, every day. Several of the poems in The Analyst take place in small museums we have visited in our new, rather strange, post-stroke, post-analytical relationship. I barely know what to call her in the last poem in the book, where we are watching three monks make a sand painting at The Asia Society in New York. Here the poet steps in to query the monks:

“…Excuse me, my friend is

recovering from an accident. She’s a …
painter. May we ask you some questions?”
(Have I introduced you, my former analyst,

as my painter-friend?) You point with your cane<
to the mandala-in-sand…When they’re done,
they’ll brush it all away. You can’t believe it.
Nothing stays (including the memory you’ve lost).
What lasts? The pattern the monks have

memorized. Their burnt-down temple re-
turns as this circular core.
                                                                                                       Only when
something’s over can its shape materialize.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

Related Content:

The Courage Inside Encouragement

Monday, January 09, 2017 | Permalink

Last week, poet Molly Peacock reflected on her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant and how the story of a boy who saved himself from the Nazi gas chambers with a mop stayed with her through adulthood. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

By New Year’s week of 1992, I am on the subway looking up at a poetry placard above the heads of bundled-up New Yorkers and feeling pretty amazed. I am 45 years old, President of the Poetry Society of America and a co-creator of Poetry in Motion on New York City’s subways and buses, thanks to the encouragement of my analyst, Joan Stein—whom I now see for check-ins, unless something big comes up. She is avidly interested to support all my efforts as a poet, helping me to weather rejection after rejection.

I was not then aware that she herself refused to pick up a brush for 25 years after a terrible critique shut her down. So often helpers help from desiccated spots in their hearts. I was utterly unaware that watching her patients grow helped Joan grow. Well, of course it was more complicated: being aware that she was helping others withstand rejection, she was able to reestablish some part of herself that allowed her to pick up a brush again.

It strikes me that, metaphorically speaking, a paintbrush is a bit like a miniature version of the mop that the boy had the wits to grab to escape death. A gigantic version of a paintbrush saved his life. Somehow, the story of the boy who picked up the mop and the story of the woman who picked up the brush after decades of hurt refusal are now for me intertwined. One is monumental and full of the noise of the shouts of the officers; the other is small and quiet. But the images seesaw back and forth.

How is it that my analyst was so sensitive to criticism? Once she asked me, “Do you know how much rejection you take?” I answered that my actor friends take a lot more rejection at auditions. My painter friend used to take half a valium before she went on rounds of galleries to show her work. I did not realize that Joan’s question came from such a deep place in her own life. It forced me to understand how much rejection I really did take—and still do. As Joan was helping me to realize this, I also developed ways to acknowledge that it was happening and to cope with it.

When I receive a rejection of a poem (and believe me, it happens, even to those of us lucky enough to have W. W. Norton as a publisher,) I don’t tell myself I should “have a thicker skin.” Poets, by virtue of what they do, must have thin skins. Instead, I tell myself it hurts. Then I wait. It takes about 48 hours before I get furious. How could that misguided editor reject my adorable poem? Then I can revise it—or not—and send it out again.

I am completely convinced that 1) being able to write poetry saved my life and
2) a woman who made a career after a critique shut her down helped make that artistic life possible. But what about her? As a teenager she turned to art to transform her deepest feelings. How could she deny the transformative power of art to herself, yet encourage it in her patients? I think of the word “courage” inside “encourage” and realize that inside the warmth of support comes the steel of bravery.

Watercolors began appearing on her walls.

When my thoughts misfired for me
you painted me a copy of their beauty.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

Related Content:

Brushes You Exchanged for Words

Wednesday, January 04, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, poet Molly Peacock reflected on her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

By New Year’s week of 1982 I have become an independent, divorced, goyishe young woman of 31. I am about to tell my analyst Joan Stein the story of the boy who picked up the mop. I live in a tiny studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her office is in her home, a one-bedroom apartment in a comfortable building on the Upper West Side, near Zabar’s. Waking up from dreams where my father has vaporized into toxic smoke that seeps beneath my apartment door, I schlep through the city slush and at last show up in her office. We begin each session sitting across from one another: I tell her about the poems I’ve gotten published and wait for her to beam her famous smile of approval. Dark-haired, high-cheekboned, she outlines that smile in clear, direct red lipstick.

Then, as I swing my feet onto the couch and lie down, she switches to the chair at the far end just behind my head. Now the analysis begins. Reliving the half-dream of the seeping toxic smoke of my father, I realize I hope always to keep my wits about me, always to be ready to scramble across a room and pick up a mop and fake my way to safety. That’s when I tell about the boy. A talisman I’ve latched onto. She doesn’t discuss whether I’ve appropriated a tragic story for my less-than-tragic life. She doesn’t tell me to embrace an Irish myth because I have no right to internalize a story from the Holocaust. Joan doesn’t remind me that my father didn’t kill me. (I always put those knives away.) Or that I escaped from my family. She doesn’t remind me that I overcame the fear of claiming myself as a poet (with her help). Instead, she waits. And waits.

When I finally burst into the tears I always seem to save for the end of a session, just when I have to leave in a disheveled mess, she speaks. Just a little bit. Reminding me of my habit of hyper-vigilance, something I shared with some of my elementary school classmates who were children of survivors.

Years later, after her stroke, and after she is forced to close her practice, I learn about Joan’s own father, an attorney, who died when she was seventeen. He had encouraged her to take independent painting lessons. He and her mother sent her to a special art summer school. She was determined to become a painter. A neighbor helped her to apply to Radcliffe, and the bright, electric Joanie Workman, as she was called then, was accepted. She entered Radcliffe in 1953, and the Dean sent her to study with T. Lux Feininger, the son of the modernist painter Lyonel Feininger. Raised in the tradition of Bauhaus painting, T. Lux Feininger embraced abstraction. Although he and his family fled the Nazis to settle in New York, he enlisted in the United States Army and fought in Europe. Traumatized, he returned to New York, and after seeing a therapist himself, moved to Boston and his job at Harvard. When bright, 17-year-old Joanie Workman appeared in class, he was not interested in her mournful paintings of the father she had just lost. T. Lux was determined that the T-square, and not the organic, messy shapes of life, the ones he had suffered, should rule post-war art. Joan Stein recalls his critique of her portraits of her father as “excoriating.” That’s how it felt to the girl whose father had left a great hole in her life even as bombs had burst holes in her professor’s life.

“…your Radcliffe professor taught:/ all drawing is thought,” I write in the second poem in The Analyst, “To you, abstraction was lying./ All you did was draw your father failing,/then dying…”

What did she do after the “excoriating” critique? She turned on her heel and left the class. Never went back. Declared a Psychology major. Graduated early to marry. Moved to Seattle. Had two sons. Did graduate work at the University of Washington. Divorced. Moved to New York City. Never picked up a brush for twenty-five years.

…brushes you exchanged for words
drawing from what you heard,
the lines of your patients’ inner lives…

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

Related Content:

“I'm an Irish Molly”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017 | Permalink

Molly Peacock is the author of The Analyst, a collection of poetry exploring her evolving relationship with Jewish psychoanalyst Joan Stein, With the release of the book today from W. W. Norton & Company, Molly will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a goyishe girl, age 9, returning to PS 88 in Buffalo, New York, just after New Year’s Day, 1956, hanging my snow-caked leggings up on a coatroom hook with all the other girls. My fourth grade class is almost exclusively Jewish—except for me, a Protestant, and two Catholics. In Show-and-Tell my girlfriends will show off the poodle skirts they got for Hanukkah, and I will show off the poodle skirt I got for Christmas.

1956 is the same year that my future psychotherapist, Joan Stein, one of the few Jewish women in her class, graduates from Radcliffe. When I meet her in 1974, I am about to be divorced and in despair. So will begin our 38-year psychoanalytic relationship. It will last until 2012, when a devastating stroke will force her to close her practice. Astonishingly, a new relationship will begin, one in which I get to watch the woman who helped me with every major decision of my life make the choices that will infuse her end game with the power and light of painting. All this is part of the backstory of The Analyst, a book of poems about this remarkable woman, about the power of art, and about how, post-analysis, an unlikely friendship began.

In my writing this week, I’m tracking Joan’s and my story, starting with my childhood, of course. My mother, a raven-haired Irish farm girl who married a Navy man with PTSD (though no one called those violent, alcoholic vets victims of war trauma then), determined that her daughter must have the best chance in life. She convinced my father and grandparents to buy a duplex in the north of Buffalo, where the public library is a wonderland, where kids catapult through elementary school, and where almost everyone is Jewish. I am the only goy in my Brownie troupe. After school I visit my friends’ houses where their bubbies dole out almond cookies, their sleeves slipping upwards to reveal the numbers on their arms. And in these houses, larger than mine, darker inside than mine, the light seeming not to come from lamps but from the polish on the massive mahogany furniture, I hear the stories about children who used their wits to survive.

Wits! I need my wits not to perish in a household where my mother instructs me always to put the knives away immediately after they are washed. You never know what my father, the man who tried to push her down the cellar stairs, who hurls plates, glasses, and beer bottles, shards flying, will do when drunk and out of control. Inside my house, I fear for my life. (Not that I mentioned this to anyone until I met my analyst.)

Meanwhile, mild-mannered fathers read the newspapers in my friends’ houses. Mothers take the time to lie down on the couch with a headache. Arguments ensue about the Rosenbergs. Bubbies plunk babkas on those mahogany tables. My friends are grilled about what they learned in school, and I am grilled, too, a little girl with a Jewish name, Molly. “I’m an Irish Molly,” I patiently explain. Stories of the camps unfold, including the story of a boy standing in line for the lethal showers who suddenly drops to the floor, using his wits to save his life:

As the line shuffled toward the gas chamber and the soap was doled out, the boy spied an abandoned mop and pail when commanded by an officer to deliver a message. The boy scrambled to the pail, picked up the mop and started swabbing. The line moved on, and the boy who seized his chance survived.

If only I could be like that boy, I thought. He became my example of kid resourcefulness. If only I could summon up his vigilance to protect myself. The difference between my friends and me is not only whether you get one bonanza of presents under tree or you stretch it out for eight nights. The difference is blue-collar violence.

In Boston, my future psychotherapist is also protecting herself, in quite a different way: by stalking out of an art class.

Eighteen years later I will tell her the story of the vigilant boy in the camps.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

Related Content: