Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lowell via Jamison

The first Jamison book I read was not her An Unquiet Mind, but the textbook she co-wrote with a colleague (Frederick Gay Godwin), named simply Manic Depressive Illness. An enormous tome that amasses pretty well all the significant data on the condition gathered up to the date of its publication (1990), at least 4/5ths of it I could only give a quick skim, as it consisted of dry summaries of clinical studies whose results are, of course, significantly out of date. What I did find fascinating were the testimonies of patients (some of them -- anonymous at the time-- actually revealed later to be those of Jamison herself, and incorporated into Unquiet Mind) as well as the chapter on the bipolar condition in the arts (later fleshed out in Touched by Fire.)

Robert Lowell was cited quite frequently. Indeed it impressed me how valuable a contribution his eloquent testimony has made to an understanding of the condition.

I have been out of my excitement for over a month, I think, now, and am in good spirits, though I don’t feel any rush of eloquence to talk about the past. It’s like recovering from some physical injury, such as a broken leg or jaundice, yet there’s no disclaiming these outbursts – they are part of my character – me at moments… the whole business was sincere enough, but a stupid pathological mirage, a magical orange grove in a nightmare. I feel like a son of a bitch.
(Lowell, cited in I Hamilton, 1982, p. 218)*

Lowell, born into an old-line Boston family, where “Lowells talk only to Cabots and Cabots talk only to God,”, wrote poignantly on his fall from “pedigreed tulip to weed” in his painful recovery. Perhaps now I'll look over much of his later poetry -- which I previously felt represented a dissolution of his talent -- with a renewed appreciation.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends to our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.
I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

*NB, you'll have to look in Manic Depressive Illness to find this bibliographical reference.

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