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What It Means To Be Human, 2010. Click here to purchase at Ekstasis...

Great Poetry Books – Updated Feb 2, 2012

Book Just In: Brian Henderson’s new book, Sharawadji is fabulous. If there is any sanity and anyone capable of appreciating a good book of poetry out there, this book will win big awards, like the GG and the Griffin. I will do a proper review shortly. I just had to let you know now. His last book, Nerve Language, was up for the GG and Griffin. An experimental book in the best sense of the word. Sharawadji is a different tack, a different aesthetic. Like a cross between Tim Lilburn and Don Domanski.

D

Return from Erebus Julia McCarthy, Brick Books, 2010 (Aug 21, 2011)

Although I had not been there before, I have gone and returned through the reading of Julia’s new book. Perfect as white, every phrase a surprise. A food so perfect you meet the end of hunger. ‘Its memory is porcelain it dreams albino / it’s the colour of a promise / before it’s broken … if you touch it you’ll know absence / so profound you won’t feel a thing’. We should all be so lucky that each of our phrases and poems are so touchable and so unreleasable. Soft, sure, an extensive vocabulary so broad it extends into perfectly apt neologisms and when one of these does not exist, she invents a word you find you have always known. Much magic in the Skeltonian sense. Benign, original, novel, a complete voice that is also a self-generating lung of endless meaning, a river we stare into the same as we do a fire. Nature poetry in the best sense, with a lived-in humanity that her translator’s ability renders into a language you not only understand but know must be exactly as she says it is. Stand in the bookstore and read Legerdemain; it is legerdemain in its best, non-pejorative, most magic sense: ‘beetles black as shrapnel’. Don Domanski says: Reading this book makes me ecstatic about poetry. I am with Don.

And then on rereading the book, which stands up admirably to a second perusal, my interest was piqued by the references to western mythology. As the internet today is a truly magnificent and usable source of information on any subject, I spent a couple of days just following up on the various references and the the mythological underpinnings of this book. Erebus, Asphodel and so on. Anyone who has strong interest in western mythology will find themselves stopping to consider the allusions and how the references add depth to the poems through the associations made. For instance, Hades, the shades, and so on. Erebus, part of the underworld after death, is, of course, difficult to leave and return to life, but it can be done, and one context in the book is that both of her parents have passed. I asked Julia about the intentionality of her allusions and she had included them as part of her store of knowledge as though these are part of the knowledge base we all share and simply another source of metaphor where they naturally fit. It is worth following them up if you don’t already know the references.

What It Means To Be Human – DC Reid

My tenth book (fifth of poetry), What It Means To Be Human, has come out recently.The first person to send me an email asking for a free copy will get one. Contact me at: [email protected]. Free poetry, ahem!

I post below some comments from other poets and reviewers:

Brian Henderson (See his great book, Nerve Language below – shortlisted for the GG)

I’m now thoroughly ensconced and really enjoying it, especially your language use. Lots of on your pulses collisions and power coming off the diction’s radiations. It’s an out of the corner of your eye writing with plenty of speed. Trying to crank up the word to be as fast as the skin (Massumi). P 72, p 84, yes. I think of it as Lorcaian, a kind of Duende art, filled with physicality, irrationality, intense awareness, & awareness of loss/time/death/otherness. Performing a kind of autopoiesis of language. I think in some way we’re driving thru a land of similar poetics, so I’m sending along a couple of things for your reading pleasure.

David KosubSpeaking of Poetry Blog

David is not a poet, but is that rare sort of person that poetry needs: an interested observer who is willing to put the effort into a poetry blog and do regular reviews and articles for the love of poetry. Thank you, David.

Here are some words: “Like Tim Lilburn’s work, the metabolic rate of Reid’s poems is pitched very high, the effort to meld the poetry’s imagery and the narrative prodigious.” He did not buy the concept of poems/novel, however – the main technical thing the book takes aim at. But you can go and look, and you can find a half hour interview with Carmine Starnino, who comes across as a much better, bright, even modest guy than some of his written criticism would have you believe.

Alice Major – her The Office Tower Tales won the Lowther Award in 2009

Yes, we certainly share a liking for odd, technical kinds of language — nares and virga as well as gelignite. I love ‘virga’ and the idea behind it — rain that never reaches ground. You use that image very effectively. And there are many other striking images throughout — ‘black points of lash’ and the hole of wood under the dusty glass.

We tackle story in very different ways — I hope we get a moment during the League AGM to talk about that. Your fragmentary and provocative approach challenges the reader to make a coherent narrative, or else to let the shards lie unconnected. It brings up interesting ideas about wholeness.

Jim Andrews – e-poet and vispo.com. Check out his neat media tool: dbcinema

… interesting, unusual… really intelligent…

Cynthia Kerkham-Woodman – Palimpsest Press will publish her, The Animal Lying Beside Me

… great title… intriguing, inspiring in its innovation… ‘the slow tongue of night in the tree tops giving way’…

Victoria Book Prize Society – 2010

This prize is awarded to one finalist of the multi-genre short list.’ What It Means To Be Human was the second book of poems:

Your book was the second favourite poetry book, absolutely. The other jurors (and moi) absolutely loved your language and playfulness. Personally, I think it’s your best book.
Julia McCarthy – I was very intrigued by the structural adventures you undertook, and it put me in mind of Sheila Watson for some reason. it is quite a haunting book and very successful, so many good lines and images.
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You Shall Have No Other
The first publication from my sixth book of poems, also a novel, and ultimately a web presentation has just occurred.Visit ditch, for some of the Cloudio poems, a computer program created to impregnate his maker, Sandria. Cloudio has grammar and spelling problems. The line change oddness results at ditch. Have a look at: http://www.ditchpoetry.com/dennisreid.html.

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2010 Books

Zieroth ‘ The Fly in Autumn

One of the pleasures of reading mature work is the ease, the smoothness, the assurance of the poet, having worked on his or her craft for several decades. The poet knows what does or does not come off his tongue and so one poem moves to another seamlessly and you are easily drawn. You do not question because the discrimination has been done for you. Nothing jars. Zieroth’s, The Fly in Autumn has these qualities. It is a fitting book to have taken the GG in 2010, similar in its flow to another recent winner, All Our Wonder Unavenged, by Don Domanski. But where Domanski’s is more a paean to nature, Zieroth’s is more to the mid-age questions of death and personal meaning in a world where meaning and the need for it are ultimately illusory, though one continues looking. An added felicity is Zieroth’s use of the heroic sestet: three stanzas of six lines, with a set rhyme and metre, though he has communicated to me that the latter requirement is not one that comes easily to him. So, consider it a modified form that fits. These poems make no declarations just an often shy registered comment and diffidence, in this existence ‘what we borrowed in our mother’s wombs’ and will relinquish. A kind of lament both sad and beautiful at times, well, beautiful at virtually all times in these poems. How To Walk In The Dark With Flowers, for instance: ‘Open your eyes to the light / in the armful of lilies you are holding’. Simple, beautiful images. A family joined to urge the dying one to move beyond sense and let them get back to their lease on living, his ‘angel face so open it’s bland’. Harbour and Nightwood have a knack for publishing books that should be published.

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2008 – 2009 Books

 

What if red ran out ‘ Katia Grubisic ‘ Gooselane

Every poem in this book is superb. It is the work of a major Canadian poet at the peak of her powers. Reminiscent of Ted Hughes, but without his sense of declarative imperative, if that’s not double-speak, and of John Ashbury, but not too lush, too crammed with invention, not voltage that burns – at least not in a way that’s bad. And I had the sense, that I seldom have, that the book seemed the product of a male mind. Hmm, my failings, no doubt. Great authority, confidence, strong, undeniable narrative drive without being lyrical, occasional poems in the best sense of that expression. They take you easily where she wants you to go with her because she has that incandescent imagination that agrees with itself on where to go and without thinking about it, without it being an issue for the keen reader, you go there with her and discover along the way that you are glad you did. Poetry that is a communication, provided you want that out of your books, but not one that demands it either, muscular, a feral python. Only there is one little problem with all these attempts at words: this is Katia’s first book of poems and she is young. Makes one humble, jealous and thankful, too. Stop listening to my thoughts, you decide:

Oversight

Sharp and white, the moon notches the horizon,
funnels clouds into the early morning
Hoodlums pushing bicycles through alleyways, past gaping

casements. In the sticky heat, lovers conclude the night naked
and not touching. Fruit, rugs, all-nite coffee storefronts elapse. Perhaps
the day will illuminate new absurdities. The buses are full

of men, their apparatus and tired beards, their metal boxes
shiny between scuffed boots. Everyone gets off, everyone
else gets on. The vanished uncurl from rags and boxes, mute

in brooks of garbage juice. No longer full nor numb,
they throw off blankets on the marble ramparts of insurance
buildings, emerge surprised and maybe a little disappointed

to be not dead. The bus runs a red
and the moon slides down between the towers,
not really bothered, not bothering.

This is a book that will win awards, if anyone out there is awake. Dare I note the obvious unusualities: notches, gaping, not touching, new absurdities, apparatus, tired beards, vanished, and the best of all: brooks of garbage juice (let’s all steal that), ramparts, not dead, not bothering.

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2007 – 2008 Books

Note, I only review books I consider excellent, I don’t want to hurt any feelings out there by expressing misgivings, perhaps my own shortcomings, anyway, and my purpose here is to give the poet some confidence when working alone in the poet’s corner on that next book in times of indecision and questioning of one’s own abilities. A confidence thing.

Nerve Language ‘ Brian Henderson, Pedlar Press.

Nerve Language is an example from a very current stream in Canadian poetry: a documentary about a real person in a real time, and a taking licence with the story, along with the strategy of making the notes at the end of the book vital poetry for understanding the rest. This book is about the life of Daniel Paul Schreber, judge in Leipzig in 1894, who went delusional, and came to believe it was his responsibility to save the world. This is a spectacularly jagged book in both images and structural motion, jumping from the nerve language world of Schreber who talked to god and to other spectators of the mental institute. He describes it, for example, as ‘slightly overshooting blood metallic tinsel oxide smell of success.’ This is highly-current, non-lyrical, oblong-rhythmic, consonant-clash, stuffing into one phrase, exact-description words that make the reader dig deep to make a commitment to decipher the text and not fall back on wanting accessible lyricism. Henderson delivers: the fragmentary, the difficult, the asymmetric. Excellent. Raging, as bill bissett would say. In addition, Henderson’s book’s over all structure is so neat and tight that it adds an opposite tension like a tourniquet on the reader’s brain so that the jagged and the bound in conjunction marks this book as better than the rest.

the rush to here ‘ George Murray, Nightwood Editions

At once recognizable as a great book, the rush to here, effortlessly explores the sonnet in all of its permutations and is so neat in its execution, so Shakespearian in its lush authority that it sneaks up on a reader and takes him/her by the throat. There are quotable completely-full-of-themselves epigrams in each and every poem. From Silence is a Dead Language: What you’re looking for is ingenuity / enough to let ambition go: to find / yourself building the simple, the clever, / suddenly satisfied with what’s appearing // at the ends of your much-surprised hands. This is supple, sure, intelligent swelling of incandescence abundance. What impresses is the magic of great poetry captured in one of the western hemisphere’s millennia-long traditional forms, overleaping in one easy ‘ for Murray – step one current retrograde neo-conservative stream in Canadian poetry that holds up structure as the only important consideration in poetry. The rush to here blows that movement completely apart even though it’s not intending to. This guy is so smart so sparklingly clear in his poetic invocations that every line rings as clear as a glass tinged by a fingernail. You want the music to continue and continue in its arpeggio octaves.

Muybridge’s Horse ‘ Rob Winger, Nightwood Editions

I wanted, while I read another 60 books in this contest, for this oeuvre book to be my winner. This is the true story ‘ if that is not an oxymoron ‘ of Eadweard Muybridge, who proved with 50 precisely-timed still cameras, that when running, a horse’s four feet are off the ground during mid-stride; ground breaking work in 1878, that also led to moving pictures. In anyone else’s hands this story could be as humdrum as old yellow newsprint. But Winger starts with fire and just keeps on going. The first poem seeks to capture in words something in mid-motion. It is a very-current-poem-type that seeks to coalesce similar material rather than move in a trajectory from a to b. There is neither a nor b, only the quality of being between be and to be. For example: The time between target and gunshot’[in addition, by reversing the more usual order, the phrase actually implies motion as the sound rushes toward its object] a minute hand jumping to its next hour before the clock can chime’ the darkness that happens before any object collides with your face’ Thus the whole point of the book is made in the first poem, and in a way one that, in addition, confidently throws away on this page the usual way we write poems as a progression of thoughts as a connecting feature, setting down instead a list of syntactically and subjectly unconnected strings of words. And of course this is only the first poem. The rest is a documentary, novel, panorama of a life, twice as long as the usual book of poetry ‘ every page good, even the ones that are essentially found lists of boxes of photograph titles worked up by an agile infusing intelligence.

This is a book that moves what poetry means along to the next link of the chain; it will last, in the same way that Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid has lasted as one of the best books of poetry of the last half century in this country and one that influenced a whole generation of young Canadian poets. Finally, it has to be said that Nightwood should be given an award for the best designed book of poetry of this decade. One small item: a horse at the bottom of many pages that if you run the pages through your hands like a deck of cards, it gallops.

Thin Moon Psalm ‘ Sheri Benning, Brick Books

It has been said that all poets when they are young exhaust their coming to the world in the metaphors of actualization they contribute to the world of poetry. Once they run out of completely new, original phrases they move on to thematic concerns. If that is so, Sheri Benning is in the middle of her young poet’s life where every phrase is novel, every image startling and surprising in its un-before thought accuracy that older poets will recognize of themselves at an earlier age. Here’s an example: a flute can pull us from our prisons, / can piece together disarticulated days, // but these men strum furiously, their fingers inflamed wicks. / With vein-bulging intensity they shout their songs – // all of the cocked triggers of all the executions’ And each of these is brought within the arc that art must conform to to satisfy the mind. These are not simply images that don’t connect with the story within which they fall and rise. On the contrary their shorthand code does connect. The poet moves light fingers between thoughts. Once they are lined up with one another you see the story within which the dissonant lines inevitably must belong. Benning has the puppeteer’s hand, the butcher’s meat cleaver and the beauty of a discarded algorithm. She sees with her phrase-making eye that the ordinary conventional words of our speaking are not great enough to convey the images that she sees. Like Tim Lilburn, she makes startling hyphenated new words of unexpected rhythms to convey what she sees. A gorgeous beauty of original, prairie landscape lyricism. The images spill forth in her need to write and move on because there is more, much more. Benning’sphotograph at the end is as jarring and jangly, as her work. Read the book. Look at the picture.

Quick ‘ Anne Simpson, McClelland and Stewart.

Once again this is a book that is sure of itself, a mature, nimble mind of a book that passes from one crystalline phrase to another. Each poem has zero extra material, no slither, as Pound used to say. The crispness is a sign of a decisive, confident mind, and the images it works with so compacted that one can go right on by and then have to come back and make the mind pay attention. The mind is rewarded in this book of poems about the body of a human and of nature. The confusion, the concussion of a near fatal car crash, to the bodily observations of a bee and a human woman. How easily rain forgets us as it softens, pulls back into cloud. How it forgets. A hundred scents ribbon my body this way and that. The bee, of course, is drawn to flowers by scent and Simpson’s lucent mind and touch make clear that the lovely confusions of scent are a problem for the bee. The woman observes it another way: Out of the nothing of daylight comes one watery shape, another. The architecture of what’s heard’. It’s as close as sky gets: fingertips trembling over our upturned faces. Decisive, exact, perfect.

Domain ‘ Barbara Nickel, Anansi.

A highly-skilled, waited-for book from a poet who has already left her mark, in this, her second book of poems. A great series of exceptionally done glosas on Catherine the Great is part of the spine of the book, making the revelation, but only ultimately a detail:The girl pulls the blind and eyes the pills./They’re light as blossoms. Pale eyes.

The work on every day reality , its history, its absentness, its ultimate structure of a life, takes domesticity to a new and clearer place. So many times when poets start out they disappear for a decade in a time when children come to them. Some of them never make it back out, to being a poet. Barbara Nickel has done both and the trip through her and our Domains is a better place for her having born witness to what we see and most of us forget, or worse, think nothing more of ‘the what is happening’, what John Lennon said is ‘what is happening when you are busy making other plans’. I’m glad for us poets that she found her way back out of what happens. We are richer for it. Read: The Storage Room, and you will get what she found, not unapart from the what that has happened to her. The simple, the foreboding, the wrapping in the warm fresh scent of cedar: In the dark I’m all alone and safe, down here/in cedar closet smell and furnace purr, and the mirror’s returning images of different emotions, times and people.

No, read first the lead poems to each section. Each does a nifty trick of tying its last line to the beginning line of the next section’s lead poem. So it is a kind of history of what we live in our own lives – they become the real spine, and a frame for the book in its many parts as though the rings of the years of a tree. The things we do not understand, the mother we remember and then re-remember the years that we are growing. And the Domain is contained, and yet keeps on flowing, memory and witness the subject of our briefness in this world, the intentionality of memory, the artistic whole that gives structure to the dome that we would like our lives to be. Yes.

My mother agrees with the dead ‘ Susan Stenson, Wolsak and Wynn

This is the best fully-accessible book of poetry I have ever read. Not one word too many, not one word too few. A fully realized meditation on real death. The best feature is how Stenson captures in few words her mother’s character, a woman who was a mother in the 1950s and ’60s’, in small town Saskatchewan. Spare and laconic, without sentimentalism. After getting the cancer message, the two confer, write lists, and go through them together, without flinching, well, the mother at least: Book the hall. Buy the coffin/… Fix the zipper on the silk blouse. As though her mother needs to die as she lived, as though there are rules for living, her nose all the way to the paper as she writes, and slowly perfects each letter as though a teacher were watching over her shoulder and there is a need to do it right; this sense pervades the book dense with character, personal idiosyncracies and in its accumulation it is a death that each of us has seen with a person close enough to us that we are forced to pay attention, prepare for the loss.

The Shovel ‘ Colin Browne, Talonbooks

This book should be required reading for every would-be poet. That is because it covers so much ground, so many styles, and is just so endlessly brainy and erudite that before they are allowed to paint with words, all poets should see the entire canvas and tradition within which they will work. After all, anyone who wants to be leading edge, or experimental, cannot do so without knowing what the edge is, and where it is, despite what the poet might think.

 

 

All our wonder unavenged ‘ Don Domanski, Brick Books – I have an extra copy that will go to the first person who sends me an email at: [email protected]’ Sorry the book is now gone. Keep your eyes open for another double!

This book of poetry is sure, quiet, endlessly inventive in images and thoughts that flow from one phrase to the next in an apparent effortlessness that is, as Dickinson said it: the gift of screws. Hard, hard work by a mature poet who has come to a flowering point in his art. Nature poetry in the best sense of the words. This book deserved the GG.

 

write and rewrite then shut off the light ‘ roll the great stone
back into place ‘ all flat land after that ‘ all the way to sleep

All poets can appreciate the ease of this writing, that moves gently but with assurance from one small, or large subject to another, as though they and all the other words have to be there, and you go, yes, this is so. We are glad to be reminded what we have taken for granted in the endlessly renewing world. And the simple lyricism that is what so much of Canadian poetry is, is not done so well as here in Domanski’s eighth book of poems. There is much to be learned by many poets in this writing.

 

A Few Words Will Do ‘ Lionel Kearns, Talonbooks

This book, a selected works, has flow and a mercurial mind of endless felicities. Lovely.

Other notable books from 2007

 

Fluttertongue 4 ‘ adagio for the pressured surround ‘ Steven Ross Smith, NeWest Press

Like Colin Brown’s book, Steven Ross Smith’s book needs to be read by poets, so they can see one of the dimensions of Canadian poetry. From the bp nichol, Fred Wah sound poetry angle, Fluttertongue 4 is not an easy book. It requires a person to read until they are in synch with the style and then keep going. Throw out conventional structure – no little narrative stories here. This is a book-length poem that intends in its brought together fragments to be a different kind of telling. You have to bring your mind down to the microsopic to take in the perceptions as they come to you, as though you are turning in a circle, eyes coming to light here and then there. There is connecting movement, but it is told through the individual line or two fragment, and comes back to Smith’s wife, his father, his son, a trip to coastal Canada and the repetition of each gives the book passage from beginning to end. sun a low blaze, molten through trees. // i have read a few thousand words since rising, to free them. // was it wind calling? tires on gravelled road? the pressure? These are three back to back stanzas so this has that precision of small, but each is a leaping on or to other and this characterizes the whole book. This is a method for writing poetry that the poet should pick up and understand that it is legitimate, and try to write this way because in doing so is to take a great leap in what you can do. Smith’s book is a style, fleetingly enjambed-takes on what he poet sees, thinks and experiences. Doing things that are hard make a poet better. Even knowing that this kind of poetry exists gives the poet the context within which she or he writes. Do remember that the fragmentary need not be organized for there to be poetry, and even though this is subversive of the artifice of poetry.

Aesthetics Lesson – Christopher Doda, Mansfield Press

This book has a great series of glosas. For the as yet uninformed, the poet takes four lines from a poem, usually one that the poet admires greatly, and posits them above the poem about to be written. The glosa is a four stanza poem with ten lines per stanza. The first line from the quote is the tenth line of the first stanza and so on. There is also a rhyme scheme, if memory serves me correctly, the second line and fourth line together, and then the fifth, ninth and tenth together.

The glosa is an early Renaissance form, developed by the Spanish court poets. P.K. Page brought the form to the attention of current Canadian poets in 1994, in her now seminal, Hologram, from Brick Books and since then the poets of this country have turned out exceptional glosas. There is something about this form, as there is about the sestina, that brings out the absolute best that a poet can do – I think it is the using of the four lines from one’s idols that does it -and Christopher Doda’s glosas are… my search for superlatives comes up short.

And, Doda has added another twist that makes the poems even more difficult. He has written not one, but eight glosas, all are related. In addition to this difficulty, he has, starting with a favourite quote from John Donne, made each successive poem start with the last four lines of the previous glosa as its quote to be worked upon in the glosa form. This means that the fourth line from the Donne quote is the last line in all eight glosas. Added to this symmetry the eighth glosa in Doda’s series ends with the four lines that are the Donne quote that is posited on the first page. Doda’s bookis a good place to start when you are thinking of writing this form.

Found – Souvankham Thammavongsa – Pedlar Press

If you like books that marry content and design well, one real gem, that should take the silver medal for design in 2007 has to be Found. The cover lets you know what the design is all about: space and a few words, so that you focus entirely upon them. The front cover has one silver line on a navy blue background. This book is from her father’s scrapbook – and some of her own words, later – written in 1978 while her parents were living in a Laotian refugee camp. This is a book about understatement.

Souvankham’s father was not literate and his scrapbook could not be called a diary in the usual sense of the word. But Pedlar Press has done a fabulously understated design so assymetric, Asian, so simple that it makes you feel humble in its unadorned, bleak, thin, grey gruel of humanity stunted words of a man who had no words but was compelled to write down the little that he thought. And the photo of Souvankham at the end looks down and away, so that it would be hard to recognize her from the photo. Perhaps it is small because of her father; I don’t know. A few pages before the end, the single downstroke of the cover is understood to mean that on that day, or week or month, he stroke it off and there was nothing to be said. And it was also his record of captivity – when you look at a calendar of each day stroked out, it is a captivity, a striking off of what has been of little value, but is gone.

Read his daughter’s acknowledgements at the back of the book. They will tug at you if you are human, and that will make you want for there to be a place for bare pain reduced to sadness to be kept safe from all the damage of the world. There are many names in this list, and so you will know, that many people feel this way, too. This book is the memory of what is spare. The book will not take long to be read, but it will rest a long time in you once it has been read. This is a good thing. Thank you, Souvankham.

more to keep us warm – Jacob scheier – ECW

One my my chores last year as VP of the League of Canadian Poets, was to be chair of the membership committee. That meant reading about 60 books a year, along with submissions of poems for associate membership. more to keep us warm by jacob scheier was the best book I read. His style is straight ahead speaking of the story he is telling, not lyrical, mysterious or floating, not deliberately elegaic, but telling you what he is thinking: We decorate the past with gin martinis/that night, now, heavy as an olive pit/sinking in your coffee. In this there is the the surpise of the end of the first line and the end of the second. There is much in this poetry that is like this, many surprises which is the mark of an active mind of its own novel perspective on the world.

Most Canadian poets will know that Jacob’s mother was Libby Scheier, a feminist, academic poet who was felled before her time by cancer. And there are those poems in this book that deal with that time for him, and the distance that he has with his father. But they are clear, intelligent, idiosyncratic, in a good way, and moving where his agile mind will take him. There is cleverness, too, with a human side so that it is appealing. And anger: Fuck, I’m not comtemporary enough for publication. I’m too/narrative, too personal. Or, I should just tell CanLit to “go/fuck yourself with your regional aesthetics” But that’s not/subversive enough on a syntactic level. and so on, a short part of a long prosy poem about the state of, apres Howl, poetry. There is angst. Confessionalism that is not embarrassing. Honesty. There is much to be said about honesty, for it is its own crucible and there is much difficulty in bringing that forward for all to see, and a first book that is of uniformly high quality from beginning to end. And it has been short-listed for the 2008 GG, a great accomplishment for a debut book. And funny, too. November 18 brought in the news that Jacob’s book has won the GG for 2008.

And briefly, others that want to be read and should be, too:

The Bindery – Shane Rhodes, Newest Press,
The Bone Broker – Lillian Necakov, Mansfield Press
return to open water – Harold Rhenisch, Ronsdale
The Crooked Good – Louise Bernice Halfe, the best aboriginal book of many a year, and among the best in Canada from 2007
Torch River – Elizabeth PHilips, Brick Books, has the best section on childbirth I have ever read.
The Incorrection – George McWhirter, Oolichan, a book of many different interests, styles by one of the best-loved, by his students, academics in Canada
The Exile’s Papers – Wayne Clifford, Porcupine’s Press, you want sonnets done as easily as breathing, you got ’em.
this is erth these ar peopul – bill bissett, Talonbooks, another idosyncratic book from Dr. Bill who singlehandedly invented performance poetry way back when
rivers… and other blackness… between us – d’bi’young.anitafrika, Women’s Press, urban, woman of colour, a book that really rocks. Again another stream in Canadian poetry. She’s going to be great.
Notes for a Rescue Narrative – J. Mark Smith, Oolichan
forage – Rita Wong, Nightwood, the first third of this book is highly inventive, using hand writing written around the poems and internet information beside it, poems of environmental outrage, that again, on their own form another stream in Canadian poetry. Read this, again, for what it can teach you about new dimensions in poetry. Wong’s book won the Dorothy Livesay award for the best book of poetry in BC, 2008
Red Bird – Ian Roy, Buschek Books
Father Tongue – Danielle Lagah, Oolichan (many good boods from Oolichan in 2007)

Made Beautiful by Use – Sean Horlor, Signature Editions, a great first book
LIfting the Stone – Susan McCaslin, Seraphim Editions, my choice for the best Christian book of the year
Human Resources
– Rachel Zolf, Coach House Press a kinky, computer word generator book, and took the Trillium if I remember correctly

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Other Neat Stuff, Brain Creativity – Updated July 4, 2009

This post is for cool things not yet written.

It results because I am sometimes ahead of my computer division and I need an extra place to put stuff while the many thousands of them race to catch up. Okay, so there are not thousands of people in my IT division. Here is something better: a creativity exercise that will improve your poetry.

Creativity Exercise

You can help your brain to be more creative. You can do this by simple willing it to be more creative. By will is meant a positive favouring of thoughts of creativity. It does not mean free will and it does not mean will power. How this actually works is fascinating.

What happens when willing yourself to be more creative is the production of new brain cells. In songbirds, for instance, it has been found (1) that in the brain’s song centre there are 1% new cells every day and this is necessary for the bird to sing its complicated songs. And this means that in a little more than three months the entire brain centre is absolutely new.

Primates have been shown to grow new cells continually (2), too, and this includes humans. Both stress and a dull or constraining living environment reduce the production of new brain cells and you should intentionally change such situations in your life. On the other hand, stress is good for focusing the brain on what is happening to you, right now, the incandescence of an image, even though it is bad for memory and bad for creativity. So, you need both.

Here is a simple technique for getting your brain to produce new brain cells. Try to focus your thoughts on the left side of the brain by putting your fingers on your left temple and feel your will asking the speech production and language recognition centres (Broca and Wernicke’s areas) to become better. In addition, for poets, put your right hand’s fingers and thumb on your right temple and ask your brain to give you a highly creative period. The purpose is to open the gate of the right hand brain, much like a dam, to let it flood over both hemispheres and have a spontaneous out-flowing of poetry. Finally, put your first finger of the hand you are most dextrous with on the bone just above your right eyebrow, which is the centre of consciousness and where the concept of I resides. Once again ask your brain to be more creative and feel the power of your intention flowing down your finger into the brain. This does two things: it primes the conscious right prefrontal cortex where conscious creativity comes from; it also let’s the most creative thoughts come out of your brain because poetry, like music jamming and jazz (3), comes from making words that most closely arise from the I centre of your brain.

For both prose and poetry, put your first fingers on either side of your head just behind your ears. Try to aim a positive beam of will from each of your fingers so that its greatest power is inside the middle of your head. This is where the hippocampus is and this area of subconscious brain is where learning and, more importantly, memory are dealt with to the greatest degree. Prose writers in particular need huge memories whereas poets need to combine different areas of remembered thought. The drug fluoxetine, more commonly known as Prozac and Sarafem, are two such drugs that increase production of new brain cells.

1. Nottebohm
2. Gould
3. Charles Limb

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Take Pills, Get Smart

Many scientists (Gage, Gould, Duman, etc.) have made discoveries that suggest that antidepressant drugs have the most important long term effect of stimulating new brain cell growth, particularly in the hippocampus – the memory centre. And drugs are now being developed specifically for this purpose. This presents the very real probability of most people taking such drugs because who wouldn’t want to be happier (new brain cells make us happy!), more intelligent, have better memories and so on. This is a real life soma for Pfizer. But it also contains the scary notion that the Brave New World is upon us, for we can take pills to change our brains, even when the person does not have a pathological condition – they just want to be better and can be so. Scary. It means changing what we are as humans.

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I have just received Rocksalt which is an anthology of British Columbia poets – Mother Tongue Publishing. There are 108 poets and their poems and their poetics in this book. As the first such book in over 30 years, it is an important one. It will become even more important over time, as it will snapshot a year and hold it in amber. In addition, each writer has written a poetics which is very valuable because it lets other poets know what moves other poets.

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Random Poetry Esthetics

Line Breaks

I was looking to illuminate myself on Carmine Starnino’s New Canon, so that I could acquaint myself with its reasons for feeling that Canada could use a bit of new formalism – writing poems in forms like sonnets, sestinas, etc. I stumbled onto a review by _________ who criticized the movement and the book for a number of things. One of which was a poem by Diane Brebner written not long before she died.

And ______ said that the big wrong things with the poem were its line breaks and its cliches in the place of original images. He did a long critique and I got the feeling that while the expressions were everyday language, there was not much wrong with them, and that more importantly he had missed the important thing which was that Diane was dying of cancer. I found myself writhing in my seat, not just because I had met her just before her finding that out, but because she was writing in the face of imminent death and knew she was going to die in a matter of months. And that made me pay a lot of attention to what she was saying and be a lot more compassionate about common locutions. After all, rancour and criticism mean nothing once your meat putrefies.

And the fellow went through another critique of explaining why her line breaks were all wrong. And that got me thinking: are there such unshakable laws of line changes? Is there a book of rules the poetry police puts out? And I realized that, no, there were no such rules. Creative writing departments all over the country do teach people about line breaks, and there are texts that will go through alternate methods of lineating the same piece. And, though I have taken creative writing at a number of universities, and done decades of workshop stuff, it is some time ago, and one grows for the rest of one’s life past putting down the books. If one didn’t, it would be time to quit writing.

And when I broke from my past, I wanted to write in lines that had no end. As we put poems in books that are seldom past six inches wide – bookstores don’t like to stock them in their shelves – that arbitrary frame limits where lines can go. I wanted to write a number of thoughts and then I would make each thought, each line a stanza, and perhaps as much as three feet wide. What ever was required, one could do it. Just a different visual look, and one that went with saying a completed thought, and then saying the next and so on. That being my aim, it made the page in a book be seen as simply arbitrary and thus the line endings in this method would be arbitrary too, because, in the real poem every single line was accommodated sideways. This means that rules in an arbitrary setting are arbitrary, not within the particular setting, those were esthetic considerations, but arbitrary, limited.

At this point, I had left the world of line breaks I had learned, and no doubt, the young fellow so critical of CS would throw out my work, now – and no doubt, CS would, too. But would he, or they, throw it out ten years down the road? I’m not so convinced. He was pretty bright and the issue is how willing the artist is to break with tradition and stamp it his or her own way. All truths are provisional, and what seems sure after the teaching, unravels over time. But many different considerations go into the types of line changes that one is taught. Usually, lines end on big words, nouns, and begin on small words, prepositions, articles and so on. our English language has its own rhythm and flow – use Latin words in poetry and they jar, though that is not a reason not to use a different language, just make them comfortable with one another or emphasize the jostle. The rules also set natural phrasings apart, they can set up one meaning and then because the line gives way to the next, another and then a mixed meaning occurs and so on. And of course in strictly metred line, the metre itself determines line endings.

I decided that I wanted the big words on the left and the small on the right. I decided that I wanted to end a line on an offbeat, and make a single line be staggered down as it continues on. I also left off the ending words of lines, something that works particularly well with the last line of a poem. I added a first parenthesis in the middle of a line and never ended it (not a new technique as Atwood did it in the ’60s). I wanted a visual structure to a poem that made line endings simply to do with how a poem looks on a page, even if it has no other meaning.I will often take a poem and rearrange it several times until the visual structure works to my eye, a consideration that, again, is an intention outside what would be accepted as conventional line endings.

And I often end lines in prepositions, such as ‘of’. A conventional mind, using the common rules, would toss the poem out for making this mistake. But, and this is the point, if the poem and poet doesn’t intend to use a convention, then the reader, and one hopes for an illuminated reader, must take it on its own grounds. It doesn’t make much sense to say something is bad if it is not intending to do what you think is good. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to adopt a certain line ending structure for, at least, one section of a book, or a whole book, so that it isn’t confusing because you change your own methods in every poem.

Here’s another thought. When I do readings, I change the meaning of poems by emphasizing different things every reading, changing the emotion in my voice, changing speed, grouping and other verbal differentiating things. This means that the line changes on the page may never coincide with the meaning in a performance, so, being to rigid in one’s rules, in this case, line endings, reduces the possibilities of your poetry which is about as many meanings around a particular, strong meaning as you can handle.

New Formalism – The New Canon (2005) -The Poetry Nazi: No Soup For You!

Summary

The New Canon is an anthology of younger Canadian poets who write poetry in traditional Western forms, for example, the sonnet. Carmine Starnino is the editor and has championed the use of form. His essay in the book, in a nutshell, makes the argument that: the only good poetry is formal poetry and a Canadian poet has to write in these forms or his or her poetry is bad, because Starnino says this is so. Other forms of Canadian poetry are crummy mainstream image-based, little narratives with little, sound, poetry skills, avant gardisms that move into private indecipherable jokes, or degenerate forms of post modernism.

I think that there are some basic problems with this argument:

I will make some short preliminary comments and then some longer ones:

1. The argument says that Canadian poets need to write in forms. This leaves out poets from all the other countries in their countries and when they come to this one, and even Canadians who move elsewhere.

2. Poetry must be in forms. The problem with this is that it means English/European forms – perhaps a dozen. This neglects that there are more than 1000 different formal poetry ‘templates’ from around the world. See Robin Skelton’s, The Shape of Our Singing, or the Princeton Dictionary of Poetry Forms (not sure of the title).

3. Non-form poetry is bad because Starnino says so. This is the Poetry Nazi response. The problem is that poets refuse doing anything that they are told to. They just won’t do it. And they don’t have to. No one can tell you what to do.

4. The mainstream is crummy imagistic narratives. I agree that the mainstream has its faults, but that doesn’t mean you have to write in forms. (And, virtually all of the poems in The New Canon are strongly narrative driven, just like the Canadian mainstream).

5. You must use sound poetry skills. The problem with this one is that its definition is that sound skills are what you use to write form poetry. It’s circular, and, sound poetry skills depend on the stream of poetry, not on forms.

6. Avant garde poetry becomes indecipherable jokes. While some ‘experimental’ poetry does become ‘insidey’, much does not. The stream will not collapse.

7. Degenerative post-modern poetry typifies the rest. No, there are many streams of Canadian poetry, not simply post-modern. It is also the case that we live in an attention deficit, segue world, of the cell phone and blackberry, where all of human thought can be accessed instantly on the web. Much poetry reflects this.

Now I’ll make some more general comments.

1. The Streams in Canadian Poetry – see below (the next item) for a brief discussion of examples

2. The categorical nature of the argument is disappointing. I have no problem with someone saying: I like formal poetry and here are the reasons why. But moving on another step and saying that all other kinds of poetry are bad is not true. If this step had been left out, I would have felt more comfortable with accepting the argument.

What is below is just a first draft. Please excuse the tone. I will amend that later.

Here are some random thoughts, as I read through:

1. While the essay points out that there have been many anthologies over the years, it disregards them and draws a distinction with only one of them, Dennis Lee’s version from the ’80s. I have a dozen Canadian poetry anthologies on my shelf – several put out since The New Canon, and including Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve’s: In Fine Form, an anthology of formal poetry also published in 2005 – and it’s not fair in one’s argument to not take them into account. If one disallows 90 % of the poetry anthologies out there, as relevant to the argument, it allows for a drubbing of the Lee book and saying that one has shown the flaws of all anthologies. There is no truth in this form of argument. And, one doesn’t have to argue something away, just to posit one’s own thoughts. They can coexist.

2. And then Lee’s book is done away with. It is suggested that Lee’s anthology is ‘too-accommodating’ in spirit. What has happened here is that after eliminating the many threads and streams in Canadian poetry, as not needing to be considered, the argument goes on to say that a good feature is actually a bad one. And then moves on to drawing a distinction between the New Canon and the Lee book as all that matters in the argument, for all of Canadian poetry. I don’t think so.

3. There is also this curious sense that one gets that the argument being developed has a decidedly eastern flavour. By eastern is meant Ontario and Quebec. That tends to eliminate a whole lot of other poetry as well, and sound foreign in the same country in which the rest of us live.

4. Then the suggestion is made that to move forward, that when we write: ‘What conventions will we agree to respect and what will we allow ourselves to wincingly push past.’ The point is that the original expression has nothing to do with cats. It is: herding poets. And it doesn’t matter how clever your argument is, poets just don’t listen and go on moving as forward as their skills and point of view allow them. They write and after wards the description of what they do is figured out by other writers and academics.

There is only agreement in conventions by a group of poets who have similar leanings. Most poets will argue endlessly about those conventions. That is how art moves forward, in the sense that, over time, the art changes.

And, of course, there is the other comment: ask ten poets their definition of poetry and you will get several dozen different versions of the answer. So, someone whose interest is, say, creating a mental effect in the mind of the reader, may have more interest in looking inside their own head and the work of others for clues as to where to go in words to achieve what they do. And someone, who considers a page in a book as an arbitrary edifact, then wants to write a poem that may be only one line going off into side ways space and never end. They may write in traditional forms, but probably not. Trying to be the poetry police, and saying only one approach is valid, is not only wrong, but won’t be listened to by those who have other aims.

5. The reference to Stephen Heighton’s Quarry assessment that the nation has drifted toward poetry slovenliness (as in not in traditional forms) suggests that in six years several styles came and went. If this had said it took 20 years, I might be more inclined to believe it. But, does it seems likely that a style rose for a year, then died for a year, and did this three times in six years. I think not. I would have been more interested in hearing – and still am -words on the view that academia has strongly affected the poetry of this nation by pretty much teaching the writing of narrative, lyrical poetry that tells little stories that move from a to b. I’d say that 75% of what is found in Canadian journals is summed up by the preceding sentence.

6. “If Canadian poetry has been largely a list of prohibitions…”. This is an interesting thought that is not developed. I would like to hear more because I didn’t know there was a list of prohibitions.

7. “These poets are contributing to something bigger than themselves, an event that transcends the limits and operational bias of this anthology to represent a larger creative blossoming… what we are seeing is a new Canadianism.” It seems to me there is a problem here, and that is that Canadian poetry has many streams – as above – and the recent formalist stream is one of them. It is not better or worse, it is just a stream, like the others. If the argument presented had not taken the extra step of saying the rest is bad, I would have no complaint. It’s fine to note an angle. It’s wrong to add that only it has merit.

7. In choosing poems: “I was after big rhetoric, eccentric detail, arresting phrases. I wanted actively jarring, mood puncturing poems, poems of aesthetic betrayal. Indeed, more than minting every phrase afresh, I wanted poems that egged themselves on, saying: “If it aint broke, break it.”” I am absolutely and completely with Starnino on this front, and would say the same words myself in looking for those that do the spindle cell dopamine cascade thing and just keep on coming like a cross between a horror show and heroin. I do, however, see such poetry in all traditions, not simply those who hearken back to forms from our western, largely European, tradition. But I am getting nagging with such criticism.

8. … and, after all these reservations, why is it I feel a sestina coming on?

9. And why do I know Carmine could argue black into white even though I don’t believe it? He has a great command of the English language and it is fireworks to watch the words in motion.

And The Poets in The New Canon

Oh, and, of course, there is the book of poems. How could I come so far with not even mentioning it? There is much to say. But, coming as I do to the poems, and seeing in them what I would call the fine flesh of a European philosophical argument, not of this century, or even the last, no, perhaps even before, not as consciously as I would have thought of the forms that Starnino had led one to believe, but for the first 250 pages I am reading, a completely sound choosing of good, narrative poetry with a formal flair, only one or two with the sing songy effect of an aa, bb rhyme scheme and a few, relentlessly metrical feet, virtually all with a sure hand, and some of the more interesting remembrances of words, not before but of the accumulated language of the continent to our right (check out Anne Simpson’s, Seven Paintings of Breughel, for instance, for well-wrought, formal, verse, that has as a common feature with the other flesh, that sentences and the slowing punctuation marks of semicolons and periods, that makes for a non-lyrical progression that gives much of this book its similarity. Sentences that start one place and go to another, and for her that self fulfilling and satisfying sense of not so much the rhythm, but of the internal felicities of rhyme and half rhyme among the lines that cast your mind back to find where this has been set up. Well done. ; or Elise Partridge’s, Book of Steve, or Mark Abley’s, A Wooden Alphabet; the high class, ridiculously low humour of Noah Leznoff; the weirdly photographic, strobic, Sleep Walking, of Susan Gillis, periods ending each of 14 lines, not necessarily sentences; the pure simplicity of seamless metaphor and double entendre of Jeffery Donaldson’s small Spending Part of the Winter; Bruce Taylor’s agile, quick wit and unerring sense of qualification, poetry lending itself to an entertaining reading; David Manicom’s sure hand and flowing text; Steven Heighton’s gripping, sickening thing that is warfare, trenchwarfare with others who might be brothers before, but not after, The Machine Gunner; Gil Adamson’s dark and darker, almost unexplained, perhaps connected, similarly war inflicted poem wounds, Black Wing, for example; Eric Miller’s paean to the starling; Patrick Warner’s, any parent’s worst fear, The Bacon Company of Ireland, any human’s inability to watch a death, but not to then eat it; Tim Bowling’s tubercular west coast heron existing from before history was invented to after-man; Andrew Stenmetz’, Late, an English comedy of manners, just a few days late, and the self-congratulatory, less than delusional, chit-chat that entails before taking the subject for real – in another poem; Michael Crummey’s middle autumn move out into the universe after building the Observatory on Mount Pleasant (1890), an everyday divine thing for someone not so; Karen Solie’s, Sturgeon, and teenage brutality to an old old mind’s inability to understand and accept it; John MacKenzie’s run on hugely filled world in one small place, Riding The Route For Nature And Health, ‘sledgehammers/slamming fractals’ on a bicycle ride to melting facial flesh; the aftermath of breakdown, where one once was young now viewed from the other side of age and mind of Todd Swift’s, Evening On Putney Avenue, and the women he tangentially loves there; David O’Meara’s, mind of a child, The War Against Television, we were and are concerning our eventual demise, and not really ever getting anywhere in our one finite chance at existence; the lovely word flow, riff and rhythm of poems you can’t resist wanting every variation even before comprehension of Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s, August sequence that someone had the perspicaciousness to choose for the CBC Literary Award; the best meditation I have read on west-coast aboriginal past and present begun with another kind of tree and ending, The Vine Maple, from Christopher Patton; Stephanie Bolster’s small painting of the blending a family makes and doesn’t make, her storm front in a glass coffee cup, in, Chemistry; Life, McKenzie and reasons not to do away with yourself after getting sacked. Suck it up and get ready for more of Adam Sol; Ken Babstock’s Palindromic nice touch with half and near rhyme more satisfyingly, to me, on the off beat, going nowhere somewhere near Christmas past and… ; George Murray’s sure touch with the flow of narrative and incandescent imagination in, among the others, The Last Sinner Waits On A Rock For Noah, sound stuff; Suzanne Buffam’s fine sense of how to end on an unexpected, yet prepared for ending, Sweet Basil, for example, discussing the aging of herbs and ending with the growing of girls; the seizure world of Shane Nelson, Bedside Delerium: Family Visit, and a construction accident that takes him and father back to the first crush): finial, jackdaw, permian, stilly, elides, plash, plicking, angelica, valerian, trefoil, colophons, sconce, vouchsafe, sedge, inglenook, adamantine, termagants, flummery, scend, spavined, scrattle, scarps, florentine, bracts, gibbets, cadge, bosky, muzzy, elan, smutchy, fid, … unusual words, a small thing perhaps, but a good thing. And perhaps my unfairness is to have thought that formal poetry would be constrained by a dozen forms, when they are simply starting points for much of this work, though formal it is also.

You must buy this book. And dip into it. Like water, your entry will be everywhere and nowhere. Ignore the essay and you will be fine. Right as rain.

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The Streams in Canadian Poetry

As mentioned, and you can go to reviews under home (above left), in reading over 100 books of poetry to jury last year’s CAA contest, I was struck by how good our poetry is and how many poets write in completely different ways, comprising different streams, that don’t compartmentalize as neatly as Starnino suggests they do. They all deserve to be siphoned up into the mind so that the next time the poet writes, their bigger mind helps them write better poems.

The obvious contrary ‘stream’ is that virtually the entire literary tradition of this country is not written poetry at all (written poetry is largely about the past 200 years in Ontario and Quebec, a small portion of the country, and time) but is a verbal language tradition, as in First Nations for the past 10,000 years.

The hard part, I found, after realizing that there was this and many other streams in our poetry, was how to compare the relative goodness of books from different traditions. For example, how do you compare, a verbal performance of aboriginal legend (or a woman of colour’s Caribbean verbal poetry with its beat and dance flow, and etc.) with say, any written poem. That is very hard: is it great poetry of a type and is it so good that it is better than something of a different type, as in: is this particular apple a better fruit than this particular orange, and then, is it better, say, than this pork pie, or this cognac? I found this a real struggle not to disregard books because I was coming to their kind of poetry, for perhaps, the first time. In the end, I found myself disregarding the streams, and my crunched down top ten represented half a dozen different streams that did not relate to one another. I used taste, or as I put it, the juice: what the poetry did to my head.

Here’s another interesting point: the other judge’s – we had no contact, did not even know one another’s names – first short list (we were to arrive at a top ten, and then the lists were compared) had six of the same books in it as my short list of ten. In other words, the ‘goodness’ of a book is obvious to the reader – even those of different sensibilities (I tend to the associative and fragmentary. The other judge, once I found out the name, is from the narrative lyrical stream that is this country’s dominant stream).

Starnino will be happy to know that both lists were half formalist work. In other words it didn’t make any difference, neither away from the stream or to it, what stream the work was. And our short list of five – combined same choices (the sixth had to be turfed for a technical reason) – was 60% formalist. And our ultimate choice was Asa Boxer’s, The Mechanical Bird, a formalist book. In other words, stream doesn’t matter at all. The poet senses great work.

Very briefly, below, some of the streams, I encountered – and some books crossed boundaries – and one could argue that something, like, say, gay writing isn’t a category at all as any of the poems could be written in different ways. My suggestion is to just pick up the poems novel aspect and put it in your mind. Don’t disregard it. You will be a better poet, and that is what it is all about.

Steven Ross Smith – flutter tongue 4 – sound poetry, no narrative, no form but what the occasional phrase about father, or son suggests organization

Sylvia Legris – Nerve Squall – hyper squeezed, two-word lyricism, Latinate, scientific, word riff, choppy rhythm, must slow mind down and then text jumps out at you.

Anne Simpson – Quick – very good design that fits her high intellect

Brian Henderson – Nerve Language – about the life of a tortured human being – fabulous work, but difficult, fragmentary, oblong rhythms, footnotes

Rob Winger – Muybridge’s Horse – about the life of a particular human being, inventive poem structure, best book design in the decade, like Collected Works of Billy the Kid, see the first poem for the technique of organizing: being between two states, a list of such things

Colin Brown – The Shovel – huge intellect, writing in virtually all the forms out there, fragmentary

Susan Stenson – My mother agrees with the dead – best completely accessible, narrative, lyrical book I have ever read, no extra, not one word too few

Barbara Nickel – Domain – One of our best young women writers – glosa section – the formalist stream

George Murray – the rush to here – all sonnets, marriage of neo-conservative form poetry with spectacular poems

Asa Boxer – The Mechanical Bird – all sonnets, form poetry stream

Chritopher Doda – Aesthetics Lesson – spectacular glosa section based on John Donne

Bill bissett – ths is erth these are peopul – the guy who started performance poetry and writing phonetically, gay writing

Wayne Clifford – The Exile’s Papers – all sonnets written in 19th century diction

Arlene Pare – Paper Trail – a book about her white collar jobhalf poetry/half prose, a between streams form.

Louise Bernice Halfe – The Crooked Good – female aboriginal writer and great.

Agnes Walsh – Going Around with Bachelors – accessible, performance poetry and a cd at the end, NL writing

Larry Small – Around the Red Land – NL writing about NL accessible, narrative, lyrical, about the sea

Rachel Zolf – Human Resources – sentence generator poems using internet sites for poems, again office work

Dennis Lee – yesno – tight, stripped, ee cummings, word play, epigrammatic, associations of one word and then move with it

Kathleen McCracken – Mooncalves – poetry and images inspired by one another

D’bi.young.anitafrika – rivers… and other blackness… between us – women of colour and with the influence of Caribbean rhythms and music

David Bateman – Impersonating Flowers – gay writing, not at all in the closet

Susan McCaslin – Lifting the Stone – poems about Christian religion

ThammaVongsa – Found – found ‘poetry’, a diary, and the neatest execution of design used to make the all the poems stand out and be moving in a small format.

There is also poetry that has no language at all in it – unlanguaged poetry – but I did not ‘read’ such a ‘book’. Dub, slam,…

Oh, and, see Carolyn Force’s The Blue Hour, for its 40 page abecedarian poem that has as its only organizing principle that lines are listed alphabetically, it’s all over the map, but the mind puts structure into it to make it comprehensible. You don’t need form to see form.

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Brain Quote of the Month – Jan 14, 2013

Brain Quote of the Month – January 2013- Global Consciousness Study

“Highly Significant Data of 14 Year Global Consciousness Study Shows Evidence of Synchronicity.” The results of this study can’t really be understated: there is “highly significant” evidence that we may all be psychically linked.

See: http://www.sott.net/article/255804-We-may-all-be-psychic-Data-from-14-year-Global-Consciousness-study-released.

Brain Quote of the Month – December 2012, Jonathan Edwards

Where we are now with Consciousness

…I digress from consciousness. Today Colin Blakemore, perhaps the most eminent neuro-scientist in the UK, laid bare his heart in his final Chandaria Lecture and confessed that neuroscience is still a long way from answering some of the problems the philosophers would like to have a response to. The good news is that he has taken up a post at the Institute of Philosophy to show how committed he is to trying to bridge the gap. This is not a trivial meeting of minds. It will solve nothing overnight but at least it has potential. I think there was also a change of atmosphere at ASSC this year with a recognition that nobody has the right to be sniffy over consciousness. fMRIists can make as big a fool of themselves as extended mindists.

I had hoped by the end of this year to have a new website to include the project that has taken up most of this year for me – a 300 page attempt to set out a metaphysical framework that can marry physics, intentionality and meaning and give constraints for a theory of experience. At least I have permission for an official College site and hope to have an active URL within a month or two. With luck by February anyone who wants to know anything about my views will get it with a few clicks of the mouse. (Entirely optional!)

I guess my positive thought for the New Year is that maybe the physics is going to be much easier than people thought in 1994. Old quantum theory has gradually been replaced by a form of field theory in which fundamental events occur not just at the nano scale. They can occur at any scale you like. The trouble is that much of the practical application of field theory unapologetically uses unjustifiable approximations that make a nonsense of any direct ontological interpretation of the theory. Yet the basic metaphysical requirements do seem to show through. If we could just pin down the true physical venue of the experience of the first chime of Big Ben at midnight on December 31st maybe we would discover that everyone was right in their way all along.

Website: To come.

Brain Quote of the Month – September, 2011 – David Friend

The Rise of the EM FieldSince the landmark paper of Nikos Logothetis et al. in Nature, volume 412, 12 July 2001 there have been a number of subsequent publications confirming that the best correlation with fMRI BOLD measurements of brain activity are the local field potentials around the synaptic activity of pre- and post-synaptic neuronal terminals.To quote from the paper:
‘LFPs are often dominated by stimulus-induced and usually stimulus-locked fast oscillations in the range of 30-150 Hz, as are human EEGs or magneto-encephalograms during visual or auditory tasks.’ These LFPs represent integrated local dendritic events and possibly adjoining astrocyte activity.
This does suggest that LFPs have an important role in the encoding of information in the brain, because they account for a large part of its utilisation of energy. It is important to note that these LFPs oscillate, so they have the potential for encoding information. What do they then do with it? These EM fields only exist over extremely small regions, a millimetre or so, but because there are many thousands of them active in the brain at any one time the sum of their activities can be detected by EEG terminals on the skull surface.
I would suggest their essential nature is modulatory. They act to modulate neuronal signals that can be transmitted into broader networks. How else is the capacity of the brain’s circuitry to be utilised so that, as reported by Melloni et al. 2007, conscious processing of stimuli is associated with precise phase locking of gamma oscillations across widely distributed cortical areas, whereas unconsciously processed stimuli evoke only local gamma oscillations? One can envisage that a network stimulus is initiated by an incoming signal to one or more neurons and then transmitted and modified by a multitude of LFP modulators along the signalling pathway. I do not see how EM fields alone have the capacity to account for consciousness unless you envisage them acting on some speculative, unidentified medium. I prefer to follow the empirical trail, and there is powerful evidence that consciousness is associated with particular structures in the brain.
Two examples demonstrate that consciousness cannot be associated with neurons and their individual environment. Take the enteric nervous system as an example. It works away independently of the brain, organising the digestion of food and shifting it along the alimentary tract with all the necessary enzyme release and collaboration with bacterial commensals. The ENS has 100 million neurons, but all its activity takes place at an unconscious, autonomic level; until you receive a nasty shock. Then your gut contracts and you get an awful feeling in your abdomen as transmissions between brain and ENS become unusually active. Perhaps a more potent example is the cerebellum which contains 50 billion granular cells and 50 million Purkinje cells. The computational activity of the cerebellum is essential for motor control and the fine control of some cognitive activities. Remove the entire cerebellum from your brain and your consciousness will not be seriously compromised. Caesar et al. [2003] carried out their work confirming the original Logothetis observation on the correlation of LFPs with fMRI measurements of brain activity on the climbing fibre and parallel fibre inputs into Purkinje cells. So the sum of EM activity in the cerebellum is immense, without a sniff of consciousness.
All the evidence suggests that consciousness has evolved because of brain structure and its wider connections to the nervous system, and no mystical element outside the brain is involved.
Comment: There are a lot of vegetative functions in the brain, and so a lot going on just below consciousness. In addition to the above, the brain receives 6,000,000 stimulations from the body’s muscles to tell it where, in 3-D space the body is.

Brain Quote of the Month – August 2011 – Ralph Frost

In prior accounts of the trial theory of consciousness I advocate, the storyline goes that when we inquire about the source of electrical flux and potentials measured in neuroscience’s synaptic and neural studies, we quickly discover the energy comes from the aerobic respiration reaction. Considering that reaction, we discover the on-going generation of 10^20 water molecules per second being created throughout all the widely distributed sites in the body. Sequences of these particularly shaped molecules have the propensity to structurally code in an active 6^n analog/associative pattern.

In prior accounts, often I’d choose n=12 to get 6^n to come out to a high number around 2.2 billion options or different associations that could each pack into a stack of 12 molecules. These hydrogen bonding packets, once resonantly coded in relation with on-gong experience can then (1) unfurl or dissipate imparting influences in protein-folding so as to deliver expression or motility, and/or (2) become incorporated in bound water layers in newly forming protein matrices and thus be stored for use/retrieval/resonance in future events or cycles, sort of like excess food gets stored as glycogen in fats.

Hopefully, if one weren’t too terribly autistic or psychotic in their expressions, when replicated the expressions might prove beneficial to (absolutely conserve energy expenditures by) and thereby curry positive attention from both the individual and within the larger, enfolding social group.

In a 6^12 system there are 2.2 billion associations, and in a 6^18 coding, 10^14 associations. One can speculate this single common analog math divides between the different sensory channels or, repeats codes, so as to give odd influential results, for instance, should auditory codings flow within visual centers (synthenesia sic). Imagination, creativity, forethought, and one would surmise, wisdom would all function and easily develop within such a active internal language.

Yet, today, if we sift down into the lower numbers and shorter stacks and sequences (also shown with length-based initial, example-only, perhaps wildly speculative associated categories/functions),

6^12 = 2.2 billion – “complex, abstract thoughts or impressions”

6^6 = 46656 – “autonomous signals”
6^5 = 7776 – “touch”
6^4 = 1096 – “smell”
6^3 = 216 – “Turret’s Syndrome” [or your guess goes here]
6^2 = 36 – “feelings”
6^1 = 6 – “deep sleep/anesthesia”
6^0 = 1 – “red alert/flatline/anoxia”

and we consider the so-call six states of each unit as the six directional vectors:

a. bottom to top
b. top to bottom
c. left-back to right-front
d. right-front to left-back
e. right-back to left-front
f. left-front to right-back

within each tetrahedral-shaped water molecule.

With this backdrop then, for instance, assuming there are just, let’s imagine, only 36 “feelings”, and since emotions are said to prompt or be entangled at the root of each and every thought, the first two positions in all chains, or any two-unit sequence, can, speculatively, provide the ~emotional coding. Therefore, among the initial units in a sequence beginning with states a,c,e, say these code to some form of “flight” emotion, whereas units beginning with b,d,f code out to some version of “fight” emotion. Yet, then there is room to get added functional or dysfunctional alternatives or other versions, say, as breaking out various codes for “freeze” emotions or reversals to get predators and victims.

It’s something to think about.

Best regards,
Ralph Frost

http://structuredduality.blogspot.com

Comment: A structure of water theory of consciousness and a whole lot more in human thought. This is an interesting and novel theory for a wide-ranging mind to consider when thinking about thinking. And thinking and water makes for many lovely metaphoric connections for poets.

Brain Quote of the Month – June 2011 -Brain Ethics Team

Dear all,

We hereby announce that the popular BrainEthics blog, after seeing some months dedicated to competing science interests, has now resurfaced at http://brainethics.org.

The BrainEthics blog presents the latest news and views on cognitive neuroscience, and the broad and narrow consequences that these findings have.

As part of the blog revival, we have decided to launch a podcast, specifically aimed at interviewing prominent scholars in the fields of neuroethics, neuroscience and psychology.

Go to http://brainethics.org for more information

Best wishes,
The BrainEthics team

Comment: This is a worthwhile subject to investigate for any one interested in brain science.

Brain Quote of the Month May 2011 – Alice W. Flaherty

I propose that meaning in the sense of importance has a great deal to do with valence, the pleasure-displeasure, good-bad dichootomy that I argued earlier is the most basic aspect of emotion. This sense of meaning has its origins in the limbic system, as opposed to the linguistic meaning encoded primarily in the cerebral cortex’s temporal lobe. Within the limbic system the amygdala, with its ability to label stimuli as good or bad, is especially important. The interaction between temporal lobe meaning and limbic meaning reflects what has been called the tension in language between the dictionary and the scream. Without the former, we would have no ability to communicate; without the latter, the need to express our needs, we would have no drive to communicate.

Comment: So much of what we think about takes place before we think of it. We don’t think and have a good feeling. We have a feeling and get moved to speak. It is the body’s reaction to the big teeth of the dog that makes us grow alert and move out of the way.

Brain Quote of the Month – April 2011

If there was consciousness like ours

in the sure creature, that moves towards us

on a different track ‘ it would drag us

round in its wake. But its own being

is boundless, unfathomable, and without a view

of its condition, pure as its outward gaze.

And where we see future it sees everything,

and itself in everything, and is healed for ever.


Comment: Rainer Maria Rilke – eighth Duino Elegy. Ah, the instinctless human. To bad for us, yet on the other hand, to have less than limited perfection, gives us the consciousness and theory of the other at the same time when we are about two years old.


Brain Quote of the Month – Mar 2011

Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research has just published its latest issue entitled “The Dawn of Higher Consciousness” at http://jcer.com/index.php/jcj. We invite you to review the Table of Contents here and then visit the journal website to review articles and items of interest.

Thank you for your continuing interest in and support of JCER,

Huping Hu & Maoxin Wu
JCER Editors
[email protected]
QuantumDream, Inc.

Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research
Vol 2, No 1 (2011): The Dawn of Higher Consciousness
Table of Contents
http://jcer.com/index.php/jcj/issue/view/10

Editorial
——–
The Dawn of Higher Consciousness
Huping Hu, Maoxin Wu

Articles
——–
The Central Enigma of Consciousness
Chris King

Quantum Epiontic Consciousness: The Ultimate Nondual `Matrix’ of
Reality
Graham P. Smetham

Quantum Mindnature Matrix: Mechanisms of Formative Causation of Evolution
Graham P. Smetham

A Comparative Study of Equine and Elephant Mental Attributes Leading to an
Acceptance of Their Subjectivity & Consciousness
Marthe Kiley-Worthington

Book Review
——–
Review of Srecko Sorli’s Book:Einstein’s Timeless Universe:The
Foundation for Cosmic Religiousness
Katarina Habe

Comment: this is where consciousness came from.

Brain Quote of the Month – Feb 2011

Manifesting the Mind
April 28-29, 2011
BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute and Promega Corporation
Madison, WI

The over-arching theme of this Forum’s is exploration of the Mind-Brain
phenomenon and how this relates to human consciousness. The
challenge faced by planners of Manifesting the Mind was to respect the
many interests of our audience, to cover a wide range of topics —
ethnobotany to neurotransmitters to recent clinical reports on the use of
entheogens. One goal of the Forum is the exploration of these diverse
topics in understanding human potential and how we conceptualize the
next step in the evolution of consciousness on this planet.

http://www.btci.org/bioethics/default.html

Nicole Haselwander
Project Manager, Communications
Corporate Affairs
Promega Corporation
2800 Woods Hollow Road
Madison, WI 53711
608.277.2563

Comment: What do you think is the next step in the evolution of consciousness on planet Earth. An interesting thing to think about in post apocalyptic days after, say, MATRIX.

Brain Quote of the Month – January 2011

Dear Fellow JCS-online Members:

We at JCER wish everyone a Very Happy Holiday Season!

On December 21, 2010, Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research has published Volume 1 Issue 9 entitled ” Various Approaches to Consciousness & the Principle of Existence II” at http://jcer.com/index.php/jcj. We invite you to review the Table of Contents here and then visit JCER web site to review articles and items of interest.

Thank you for your continuing interest in and suport of JCER,

Huping Hu
JCER Editor
[email protected]
QuantumDream, Inc.

Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research
Vol 1, No 9 (2010): Various Approaches to Consciousness & the Principle of Existence II

Table of Contents
http://jcer.com/index.php/jcj/issue/view/9

Article
——–
Methods and Applications of Non-Linear Analysis in Neurology and
Psycho-physiology
Elio Conte, Orlando Todarello, Sergio Conte, Leonardo
Mendolicchio, Antonio Federici

The Dis-closure of World in Waking and Dreaming
Gordon Globus

The Principle of Existence II: Genesis of Self-Referential Matrix Law, &
the Ontology & Mathematics of Ether
Huping Hu, Maoxin Wu

Cerebral Dynamics and Discrete Energy Changes in the Personal Physical
Environment During Intuitive-Like States and Perceptions
Mathew D. Hunter, Blake T. Dotta, Bryce P. Mulligan, Kevin S.
Saroka, Christina F. Lavallee, Stanley A. Koren, Michael A. Persinger

Essay
——–
Cutting through the Enigma of Consciousness
Chris King

Human Consciousness and Selfhood: Potential Underpinnings and Compatibility
with Artificial Complex Systems
David Sahner

Book Review
——–
The Character of Consciousness
Peter Hankins

The Kingdom of Lies
Marc Hersch

Review of Edmund Husserl’s Book: Crisis of European Sciences and
Transcendental Phenomenology
Stephen P. Smith

Review of John Watson’s Book: Schelling’s Transcendental Idealism: A
Critical Exposition
Stephen P. Smith

_______________________________________________
Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research
http://jcer.com/index.php/jcj

Comment: This is an example of a journal devoted to the exploration of what consciousness means. You may want to go look for what academics think on the subject. Many of the articles have fascinating points of view, and come from many different disciplines, and backgrounds.

Brain Quote of the Month – December 2010

Writer’s Block – Alice W. Flaherty

What tends to be called block, whether painter’s or potter’s or physicist’s, is generally restricted to a field seen as creative or artistic, in which the problem is not well defined and requires more divergent than convergent thinking. At the other end of the spectrum are careers where the problem is well defined, where most of the thinking is convergent. One of the paradoxical joys of medicine [she is a neuro-scientist, non-fiction writer and bipolar] and other applied sciences is their relative freedom from block. When your find a vascular surgery patient with blood spurting from her graft site, the response required – if you have medical training – is usually immediate and obvious. At least, it is obvious compared to [sic] a task such as writing the great American novel.

Comment: Poets and natural scientists have the same rush, says Ludwig, and there is the divergent thinking and out of the box solution. Accountants are pretty rote though there was ______, and TS Eliot was a clerk. Wallace Stevens a lawyer.

Brain Quote of the Month – November 2010

Hypergraphia – the urge to write – Wikipedia

Several different regions of the brain govern the act of writing. The physical motion of the hand is controlled by the cerebral cortex which comprises part of the outer layer of the brain. The drive to write, on the other hand, is controlled by the limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deeply buried in the cortex which governs emotion, affiliated instincts and inspiration and is said to regulate the human being’s need for communication. Words and ideas are cognized and understood by the temporal lobes behind the ears, and these temporal lobes are connected to the limbic system. Ideas are organized and edited in the frontal lobe of the brain. Although temporal lobe lesions cause temporal lobe epilepsy, it is also known to run in families. Hypergraphia is understood to be triggered by changes in brainwave activity in the temporal lobe. Hypergraphia has been observed in 8% of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.[1]

It is also associated with bipolar disorder. Manic and depressive episodes have been reported to intensify hypergraphia symptoms. Additionally schizophrenics and people with frontotemporal dementia can also experience a compulsive drive to write.

Neurologist Alice Weaver Flaherty, in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, describes its relationship to writer’s block and to compulsive reading or hyperlexia.

Comment: This Wikipedia ‘definition’ is worth keeping in mind, even though it is a bit simplistic and one-sided. There are more than a dozen areas of the brain that contribute to a great writer or poet. And I will have a review of Alice Weaver Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease under the book review section, soon, if not already… yes, it is there and growing longer…

Brain Quote of the Month – October 2010

Ken Robinson – The Element – October 2010

The A quadrant (cerebral left hemisphere) relates to analytic thinking (collecting data, understanding how things work, and so on). The B quadrant ( limbic left hemisphere) relates to implementation thinking (organizing and following directions, for example). The C quadrant (limbic right hemisphere) relates to social thinking (expressing ideas, seeking personal meaning). The D quadrant (cerebral right hemisphere) relates to future thinking (looking at the big picture, thinking in metaphors).

Brain Quote of the Month – May 2010

Norman Doidge – The Brain That Changes Itself

Culture can influence the development of perceptual learning because perception is not (as many assume) a passive, “bottom up” process that begins when energy in the outside world strikes the sense receptors, then passes the signals to the “higher” perceptual centers in the brain. The perceiving brain is active and always adjusting itself. Seeing is as active as touching, when we run our fingers over and object to discover its texture and shape. Indeed, the stationary eye is virtually incapable of perceiving a complex object. Both our sensory and our motor cortices are always involved in perceiving. The neuroscientists Manfred Fahle and Tomaso Poggio have show experimentally that “higher” levels of perception affect how neuroplastic change in the “lower,” sensory parts of the brain develops.

Comment: It is worth repeating this version of what Damasio puts forward in scientific detail in Descarte’s Error. A surprising number of scientists and specialists in consciousness get perception backward, and thus the entire theories they come up with about how our mind works are backward. We are not waiting, we are always moving forward into perception.

Brain Quote of the Month – March, 2010

Patrick Lane

The memoir arose out of the rather fragile wreckage of my life in the month following my release from a treatment centre for alcohol and drug addiction. I began writing about my garden because it was a safe place to explore. I worried that once sober and clean I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, so I avoided poetry and fiction, practices where I’d succeeded. There Is A Season was never intended to be a book, but was only an exercise, a way of re-entering my writing life. That it turned out to be a memoir, and a successful one, is fortuitous at best. The novel, Red Dog Red Dog, began a few weeks following the completion of the memoir. It was a natural segue and a desire on my part to actually finish a novel, three previous attempts in the 70’s and 80’s dying on the altar of alcohol and cocaine. And, no, I never ask why I’m writing. I sacrificed two families to poetry, my life to art. After fifty years of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, writing is as natural as breathing to me.

Comment: Yes. The way a fertile poet’s mind works and how a master poet moves from one project to another based on where his brain can and will go. And, yes, ‘writing is as natural as breathing’ to a writer. See, the following website for further comments: http://speakingofpoems.blogspot.com/.

Brain Quote of the Month – December, 2009

“Based on his work with plasticity, Taub discovered a number of training principles [for teaching stroke victims to speak again]: training is more effective if the skill closely relates to everyday life; training should be done in increments; and work sdhould be concentrated into a short time, a training technique Taub calls ‘massed practice,’ which he has found far more effective than long-term but less frequent training.” (Norman Doidge – p156, The Brain That Changes Itself)

Comment: Look under Lecture Notes, item 59: Invent your own language game. A plasticity game for poets.

Brain Quote of the Month – November, 2009

‘The optimal definition (that has the least number of problems) of consciousness is: ‘consciousness is a mental aspect of a system or a process, which has two sub-aspects: conscious experience and conscious function.’ A general definition (that accommodates most views) is: ‘consciousness is a mental aspect of a system or a process, which is a conscious experience, a conscious function, or both depending on the context’, where experiences can be conscious experiences and/or non-conscious experiences and functions can be conscious functions and/or non-conscious functions that include qualities of objects. The term context refers to metaphysical views, constraints, specific aims, and so on. Based on this investigation, (i) qualia are properties of conscious experiences and/or qualities of objects, (ii) mind includes experiences, functions, or both, and (iii) awareness includes experiences, conscious functions, and/or pre- and sub-conscious functions. These are a posteriori definitions because they are based on observations and the categorization.’ (Ram Vimal, 2009 October 29, personal communication).

Comment: And you thought consciousness was as simple as opening your eyes. Not so. When you get down to trying to say precisely what it means, the definition gets long and involved, as Ram Vimal, has noted on the Journal of Consciousness Studies listserve.

Brain Quote of the Month – September, 2009

Descartes’ Error – Antonio Damasio

At each moment the state of self is constructed, from the ground up. It is an evanescent reference state, so continuously and consistently reconstructed that the owner never knows it is being remade unless something goes wrong with the remaking. The background feeling now, or the feeling of an emotion now, along with the non-body sensory signals now, happen to the concept of self as instantiated in the coordinated activity of multiple brain regions. But our self, or better even, our metaself, only ‘learns’ about that ‘now’ an instant later.’ Pascal’s statements on past, present, and future, with which I opened chapter 8, capture this essence in lapidary fashion. Present continuously becomes past, and by the time we take stock of it we are in another present, consumed with planning the future, which we do on the stepping-stones of the past. The present is never here. We are hopelessly late for consciousness.

Comment: we think of ourselves as consisting as a unique person with our own past memories and a singular conscious knowledge of that past which we mush into the concept of self. How interesting to know that the way it actually works is the opposite: the self is transitory, being recreated every instant that we live as an aspect of attention. Fascinating.

Brain Quote of the Month – August, 2009

Journal of Consciousness Studies – Tom Pokorny

Consciousness is not objectively observable. All our experiences with consciousness are subjective. For example, it is impossible to establish, as a scientific objective fact, that another is conscious, or is it possible? Is the question about Zombie’s and consciousness relevant to science? Are any of the philosophical questions about scientific practices relevant to scientists? Do all empirical scientists ignore such questions?

If I report to myself that I experience pain when I strike my thumb with a hammer, that is a subjective fact to me, isn’t it? If several people make the same claim, can we make the prediction that it is a fact that when you strike your thumb with a hammer, under ordinary circumstances, you will experience pain.

Is that scientific? Are there scientific subjective facts? Or, is the issue disputed? I mean I don’t know the answer. Is there one?

Are dreams a fact when many individuals report having dreamed, or is a dream only a fact when certain wave patterns are observed in the brain?

The dream scientist says you were dreaming last night. The subject says he wasn’t. Is anyone right? Is there a sense in which both are right?

Can there be a science of consciousness?

Comment: a fair summary of a philosophic point of view on the issue of what is consciousness.

Quote of the Month – July, 2009.

Descartes’ Error – Antonio Damasio

The somatic marker hypothesis postulated … that emotions marked certain aspects of a situation, or certain outcomes of possible actions. Emotion achieved this marking quite overtly, as in a ‘gut feeling’, or coverly, via signals occurring below the radar of our awareness (examples… would be neuromodulator responses, such as those of dopamine or oxytocin, which can change the behaviour of neuron groups that represent a certain choice). As for the knowledge used in reasoning, it too could be fairly explicit or partially hidden, as when we intuit a solution. In other words, emotion had a role to play in intuition, the sort of rapid cognitive process in which we come to a particular conclusion without being aware of all the immediate logical steps. It is not necessarily the case that the knowledge of the intermediate steps is absent, only that emotion delivers the conclusion so directly and rapidly that not much knowledge need come to mind. This is in keeping with the old saying which tells us that ‘intuition favours the prepared mind.’ … the quality of one’s intuition depends on how well we have reasoned in the past; on how well we have classified the events of our past experience in relation to the emotions that preceded and followed them; and also on how well we have reflected on the successes and faiolures of our past intuitions. Intuition is simply rapid cognition with the required knowledge partially swept under the carpet, all courtesy of emotion and much past practice.

Comment: this is pretty clear that emotion works hand in hand with the conscious reasoning part of our mind – right prefrontal cortex – and at times is preferred for some types of decisions.

(Quote of the Month – November, Panskepp, 197)

Quote of the Month – October 2008

What Art Does – Ralph Ellis

The limbic system ‘categories’ that motivate the ‘looking for’ of selective attention are categories of utility, to be understood in terms of emotional affordances whole-organism affective meanings. Art plays with this looking-for, using it to make us engage in different afforded actions that relate to different limbic (emotional) categories. The drawing of children and of the artistically untutored reveal this structure when we fail to ‘draw what we see’, drawing instead what we conceptualize that we ought to be seeing. Art teaches us to get beyond this almost complete dominance of’ habitual categories, and to see things more freshly – both in the perceptual and in the emotive sphere. Rather than reinforcing our preconceptions, it forces us to see how they affect our view of reality.

Comment: whew, lots of big words here, but what Ellis means is fundamental to the way that artists, by my arguments, look at the world, what art they create, and its effects on the viewer. The word ‘limbic’ is part of the subconscious mind that pushes consciousness to pay attention to what it receives from the senses. It does so by the innate and experientially derived patterns it expects us to see. Ellis correctly points out that art plays with our subconscious patterns, the very basis of our minds.

Quote of the Month – September 2008

The Nature of Consciousness – Greg Nixon

It is not that consciousness itself is oscillating but that the imbalance created by action and identity result in consciousness.

Now this is very interesting – and not all that far from the previous beginnings of a definition of consciousness as being related to reportability. McCard seems to suggest here that self-identity, much less in control of one’s actions than it likes to think, must spend a good deal of time accounting for those actions. Cs is more like a public relations officer than the chief executive officer, less rational than rationalizing. The implication izzat most of what we do arises from unconscious motives (which may simply be those of the body), just as psychoanalysis has long indicated, and one of the jobs of ego-consciousness (self-identity) is to make up “just so stories” – cause-and-effect narratives to preserve the illusion of self-agency .

Comment: Taken from the listserve of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (anyone can join and hear where the current academic pursuit of the study is at). This illustrates the point that much of what we humans do is from the subconscious and that consciousness more than a little is about making conscious what the subconscious has already or is actually doing, not the other way around.

Quote of the month – August 2008

Why Poetry – Margaret Atwood

… music, mathematics and poetry seem to be more closely allied than any of them are to ordinary conversational speech, to prose fiction, or to prose in general. Poetry involves pattern recognition – and so do those other forms of word assembly – but the nature of the patterns appears to be different – closer to those of music and math.

Comment: Check out Charles Limb’s MRI work in the bibliography on this site on the nature of where jazz comes from in a musician – from the I centre. I have asked him whether he will will be doing the same MRI work on poets and he said yes, but in a few years. (I will keep an eye on his research to update you, the reader). In other words, poetry comes from the I centre, and, I think that is why poets, artists identify so much with their art that they refuse to give it up in a world that wants them to get a job and raise a family.

Further, from Atwood:

[Our past] oral cultures swam in a sea of language – rich, aromatic, multiplicitous, exfoliating language. We on the other hand – as a culture at large – live on a comparatively dry shore. This is possibly why poets often feel – to themselves – obsolete, archaic, somehow not modern. They’re told that what they do is a remnant of something human beings no longer need – that we live by technologies and numbers now, and that these technologies and numbers represent the real world, as opposed to the dream world that poets live in, along with lunatics and lovers – of imagination all compact, each one of them – the implication being that the creatures of the imagination are not real.

Comment: The religious cult of science in its current paradigmatic form.

More Atwood:

“The arts”… are the heart of the matter, because they are about our hearts, and our technological inventiveness is generated by our emotions, not by our minds… it’s… the human imagination, in all its diversity, that directs what we do with our tools. Poetry is an uttering, or outering, of the human imagination. It lets the shadowy forms of thought and feeling out into the light, where we can take a good look at them and perhaps come to a better understanding of who we are and what we want, and what the limits to those wants may be. Understanding the imagination is not a pastime or even a duty, but a necessity; because increasingly, if we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it.

Comment: Pay attention to the art and pay attention to the science.

Quote of the Month – July, 2008

Introduction to the Boreal Poetry Garden – Marlene Creates, Newfoundland, Canada – 2008; See: marlenecreates.ca

I want to take you on a walk through the woods to the spots where the poems belong. They’re site-specific poems and, as a rule, I only read them in the particular spot where they arose – I won’t read them in a show-white gallery of a lecture hall. Only here. I hope the spoken words you will hear will enhance your experience and perception of this natural environment.

To some extent, I’m trying to work outside the institutions of the art world. I’m trying to integrate my life and my artwork in these 6 acres of boreal forest, which has resulted in the slightness of my artistic gesture. In responding to the landscape that surrounds me, my work is becoming more and more dematerialized.

All that is needed for the work I’m going to present is our perceiving, sensing bodies and the immediate experiential surroundings – the textures, colours, shadows, shapes and sound of this landscape. Mostly, my body has a silent engagement with these things. But more and more I have come to realize that I do not experience this place without local names sounding in my head. The expressive gesture of speech has texture and rhythm like the material landscape, and is often informed by and tuned to the sounds of the terrain and the beings in it. I find that many Newfoundland vernacular words fulfill a beautiful sonic relationship with this landscape.

Often words are the only means to convey things that my camera cannot capture, like sounds and other fleeting phenomena. My responses to these moments are quite various so I need to warn you that some of the poems are longer but some of them – those which are kind of like haiku – may be over before yo ustart to listen. I’ll tell you when it’s a short one and I’ll leave a space before I read it and a space after it’s over.

The present moment is often thought of as a tiny point between the enormous past and future. I’d like you to gaze around and try to bring all the present into your awareness – so that the present moment swells into a vast expanse while the past and future shrink down. Let the present balloon into something very large that takes in all of us and the circumstances of this place at this time. Take in the material landscape that surrounds us, including the sky above, and try to take it in through all your senses. Let the past and the future dissolve so only the immense present remains. Try to take it in through all your senses. Let the past and the future dissolve so only the immense present remains. See:www.marlenecreates.ca.

Comment: Two things: first, this kind of exploration has nothing to do with the scientific reductionists eight universal laws of art and beauty as suggested by Ramachandran. Marlene’s work may have beauty in it, but she is not searching for that – and it is an intense search, not to mention that as the forest is always changing, so the poems always change, something not addressed in the current scientific view of art: that art, this art, changes every day and over time, infinitely, and, is also cyclical.

As we were walking through the forest, listening to Marlene, Canadian poet, Don McKay and I were musing on the laws, I saying that the R-view says artists use his laws to make their art to make people like it and buy it, and saying that not only is this not in a gallery, that you have to come here, to NF, Canada, and to the land and also to have Marlene read you the poems, to get the art presented to you. And, as we walked on through the forest, Don pointed out, among many other things, that a frame for a painting in a gallery is simply an artifact of necessity because it’s only useful in a gallery. Of course this is true, but the reductionists don’t notice because their understanding of the nature of art is I am sorry to say, without depth. Why is it that intelligent people who grow deeply into their own specialty, think they know deeply another area that they have spent zero time trying to understand?

Second, note Marlene’s deep search into the nature of time and the suggestion that the past and the future need to be shrunk and then the present swells ‘into a vast expanse’. Not so strangely, I am reminded of Einstein, the Doppler effect, and that active perception deposits consciousness, seemingly as a continuous stream, rather than the other way around..

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Updated Feb 9, 2010

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – How to Get Help

I have had chronic fatigue syndrome for more than 15 years, and have had all the symptoms that one can have. Here is my list of things to do if you have it. Please keep the faith that one day you will be well.

Please look at item 11 for research studies that you may want to enter into.

  1. Finding a Doctor

Fifteen years after getting CFS I can tell you that doctors are still as clueless about the disease as they were in 1995. When I first started asking my GP about my symptoms, he sent me to three specialists. All of them sent a note back saying to send me to a psychiatrist. In other words, these four doctors knew nothing about CFS, only that I was a head case and needed talk therapy and anti-depressants. And this took more than a year of my life, in which time I was so sick I could be in bed for a week at a time. That’s seven days so sick all you can do is get up to use the bathroom.

I am sad to say that all these years later, when I run into someone who has chronic fatigue or is floundering around trying to get a handle on how bad they feel, doctors still, at the end of the first decade of the third millennium have no more knowledge than when I was at my worst. Hence you have to go out and find the right person yourself. I am not a person who believes in non-traditional medicine – the explanations, is what I mean. I believe in cures that actually work – but I can tell you that a naturopath or homeopath type ‘doctor’ often can do you some good with natural remedies.

Here’s why: I finally found a doctor who specialized in chronic fatigue. You have no idea the relief you will feel when you find someone who actually believes you have a disease. This is very important, because the medical profession, as mentioned, is pretty useless, even a psychiatrist who will try to talk you down – though his antidepressants might well be a very good idea.

Doctor Hoffer I found by chance in Victoria where I live. His thing, as he was a friend of Linus Pauling, was vitamins – but his believing in me gave me something to hold on to in an awful time. His belief in vitamins is something he shares with naturopaths and herbalists and so on, hence, why they may do you some good. My sister who also has CFS and been sicker than I, found a naturopath in 2009 at a Vancouver clinic: Dr. Agape National Health Centre. Her condition has improved dramatically, particularly her physical abilities, such as climbing stairs.

His regimen included many things, every day, and more than $100 per month: Vitamin C; Oil of Evening Primrose, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, Niacin (vitamin B5?), vitamin A, a B compound Pill, folic acid, calcium and magnesium. I had to take protein supplements, too, because of my allergies to meat. In my opinion, after taking all of these, and more, for five years that the most important ones that stood out for me were Niacin and B12. That does not mean the others are not important, they are, Vitamin C being an obvious one. Linus Pauling would have gotten the Nobel Prize for the third time if he had not been considered nutty in the ’70s – its antioxidant properties.

But the two stood out for me. Niacin gives you the wildest rush for the first fifteen minutes. If you didn’t know that it did that, you would go to emergency, it is that much of a flush and creeping of insects down your neck, arms and chest. But the purpose of the niacin is that it prepares you to deal with all the allergies that you have.

Vitamin B12 I had to take by injection every three days which is pretty icky, but that’s what I had to do. I had stopped eating red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and one runs out of B 12 from these sources in 3 to 5 years (you vegetarians need B 12, too). The purpose of B12 is to reduce mental confusion and inability to think. This was vital to me because the simplest decision becomes impossible to make, let alone trying to earn a living.

How bad do you get? If you suffer CFS you will know, but here is an example from my life: when I tried to get writing contracts, I would have to go to an interview. I found the stress of having to deal with this situation was so bad, that if it was on Thursday afternoon, say, I was wiped out and in bed from Monday all the way through to Thursday at noon when I had to drag myself from bed. Then after the half hour, I had to spend the next four days in bed. That’s how bad.

At my worst, I remember driving five minutes to the marina where I had a boat. I got on the boat, smelled the gasoline and had to leave. I spent the rest of the week sick in bed with my allergy to gasoline. Absolutely, completely wiped out. I didn’t think that I could drive home. When the light changed from red to green, I didn’t know what that meant. That’s how bad you can be. That’s why finding a doctor is the first step. But if you can’t find a doctor, the list below will help you deal with the disease.

2. Sleep

Sleeping is next to impossible when you have chronic fatigue syndrome. That is why it is called chronic ‘fatigue’. And you must get this one under control or you may get so bad you die. A human being cannot be awake for 13 days without dying. This disease can last two decades. You must deal with the issue of being able to sleep.

Here’s what you do: you must provide yourself a full night of rest. Many sufferers try to ‘nap’ in the day. I put the word nap in soft quotes because I have never, in more than 15 years of having CFS been able to sleep when I lay down in the day. I did and do lie there vibrating. I would never get to sleep. The only good the ‘nap’ does is to use less energy than required if sitting in a chair.

And there is a negative outcome to napping in the day: you cannot sleep at night. But I can tell you that the most important thing you can possibly do for yourself, though you must do many other things, too, is to provide that sleep. If you have to take pills, take them. Do not rest in the day if you cannot sleep at night. I take Zopiclone and its derivatives. I have also been prescribed Novo-temazepam, but found that it left me woozy for half of the next day. There are a long list of ‘pam’ drugs, for example, lorazepam, and the related, Alprazolam, commonly known as Atavan, for anxiety which you will have big time if you are trying to earn your living while having CFS.

Now, all drugs have their side effects. I take Zopiclone, and have done so for 15 years. It is a progressive hypnotic, meaning that it is addictive and that it is technically not a sleeping pill. I dealt with the addictive part by not allowing myself to take more than 1.5 of the 7.5 blue pills.

I take one whole Zopiclone at bedtime, leaving a half of one to take in the middle of the night. I also take probably the oldest antidepressant, Amitriptyline. It has two effects for me: it is a sedative (from the era of valium), so it puts me to sleep; and, it is an antidepressant in amounts from 75- to 250-mg. I take three 25 mg yellow tabs along with the zopiclone before bed and take one 25 mg pill with the other half of zopiclone in the middle of the night. This arrangement allows me to sleep about 9 hours. Please note that the effect of taking the pills in the middle of the night might just be psychological, but who cares. It is the issue of being stressed out just considering that you may not be able to sleep that wipes you out. Do what it takes to take this problem off your mind.

You need to figure out a routine of pills to achieve a full night of sleep. Do not turn down antidepressants, but tell the doctor you want one that will help put you to sleep. Not sleeping is, among other things, depressing.

I only vary my pills in the event that I have to be up early and therefore simply must get to sleep at a specified time. I add a half to one zopliclone, but I only do in for one night – remember its addictive properties. And when the depressive thoughts flood my mind, I add a fifth, and some times, sixth amitriptyline. Do note that I add the extra antidepressants for as many nights as it takes to feel better. Some antidepressants, for example, paxyl, take as much as a month to start working. So taking one one night and not the next will not solve being depressed. I keep taking the extra until my mood has risen and stabilized. I have to add that I have been assessing my mood for a long time and am much more healthy than I was. When you are really sick with CFS, you may be unable to assess your mood.

You simply must get your sleep pattern under control or all the rest of what you should do will not help you.

3. Allergies

The most important issue to get under control, and as important as getting sleep, is the allergies, intolerances and sensitivities that you will have to everything around you.

I had had mild hives and itchiness with ice cream and strawberries for a few years before I found that I was sick. In that same time, my marriage was falling apart, and the stress from that was so high it was two years until after my divorce that I realized how sick I was.

My first killer of an allergy was to roast beef. I was going to the rights of passage place for Canadian writers: The Banff Centre, and had a huge fill of beef before leaving. When I arrived in Banff I was so sick, I had to stay in bed for a week, instead of work and etc. I could not eat the food there and was taking three extra-strength Tylenol every three hours with little relief from migraines. I had foolishly, prior to this, slowly worked up to taking a dozen extra strength Tylenol everyday for ten years – something that 20 years later, has given me liver and kidney problems, but at the time, it was before all the contraindications we get today.

When I got home, I went to an allergy doctor which was a waste of time because they do that prick thing for 100 things to which you are not allergic to. For example, pine turps and so on. The only things that were positive were dust mites, dust and cat dander. But I was allergic to the entire world and you will be too. All the tens of thousands of chemicals that have been invented in the 20th century are in our environment making us sick. (The most significant to the human race is: bis-phenol A. It is from the type 7 recyclable plastic and mimics estrogen, making males into non-, hermaphro- female, and non-reproductive males, calling into question the survival of entire species. Frogs first, humans next. And you thought Global Warming was bad).

The hard part was figuring out what made me sick. The problem is this: how do you figure out each particular allergy when you are allergic to more than 90% of the foods out there. It took me more than two years of trial and error. And many of the items I would not have expected. One of the hard ones was carrots. How could one be sick of a basic vegetable? That is how hard it is, even if the food is clean. By this I mean sulphite and nitrites and nitrates. The former is put on lettuce and etc. the latter in every smoked meat, like hot dogs, and barbecue sauce, even soy burgers.

Here’s a short list of the foods I could not eat: tomatoes, nuts (and that included even touching a nut, any kind, from peanuts to cashews, and any product that had a nut oil in it), milk, eggs, white rice for Pete’s sake, all dairy products including yogurt, cream, ice-cream, butter, all cheeses, and my favourite: pizza, because of the cheese (and lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome), salmon and every other kind of fish, lobster, crab, shrimp and every other crustacean, pork, beef, lamb and every other red meat (for example, elk, deer, ostrich, etc.), all oils whether made from palm kernels, canola, soy or anything else, mayonaise, all preservatives, like the kind they put in every canned and bottled product including all cereals, chocolate (can life be so unkind), Coca Cola, my favourite sin, and every other cola soda pop, root beer and all other soda pops featuring anything other than carbonated water, Hawkin’s Cheezies (could hardly go on without these) and every other kind of chip whether ripple chips or tostidoes, pita bread, pastries, date and nut loaf, banana bread, bread, no gluten problem for me though, but every kind of baked bready food, avocados, garlic, white onions and every other kind of onion, ketchup, relish, mustard, horseradish sauce and every other kind of condiment in a container because of the ingredients and preservatives, soy milk, soy this, soy that, everything soy, every thing that came from a bottle, or a can, or plastic container, bananas took me five years to figure out and then every other kind of fruit (save apples) including pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges, pomegranites, beans, rasishes, peas, chick peas and all other vegetables other than raw corn, all kinds of dried fruits, particularly those that come from places like Chile where they still use DDT, and places like Turkey where they use sulphur or sulphites on things like apricots, raisins because they have wax to make them shiny and so little sulphur you can hardly smell, but I can tell you that your sense of smell goes way up. I can smell sulphur on vegetables just going into the vegetable part of the store. If I make a mistake, by the time I smell it on my fingers, I am already dead.

But this is a short list. There are hundreds of other foods that had to be cut out. And this is the big problem that you face, with no doctor to help you, unless you find a copacetic naturopath/homeopath and many years of being sick to figure out what you leave out. But slowly after many years you will start getting to the point where you are not wiped out by foods, because you have very little choice left. And the niacin will help in this regard.

What is left to eat? Virtually nothing. It will take you years to figure out your problems. I existed for ten years on: one specific kind of raisin scones, apples (skin off because of the carnuba wax they put on them to make them shiny), boneless skinless chicken breast with no sauces or flavourings whatsoever, apple juice, only tea until noon, potatoes in the skin, and raw corn. A whole decade.

And that is only the beginning. I am allergic to virtually every kind of chemical in our environment. You will be, too, and you need to figure them out. Once you do, you will look at your household cleaner cupboard as simply full of poison. I threw all of it out, and cleaned things, when I was able to, with hot water on rags. That’s it. Vacuuming made me so sick, because it lifted the dust into the air, I had to put up without vacuuming for many many years. My house was killing me. But I had no alternative to living with a slow case of sickness because cleaning made me so so sick. Try to eliminate carpets and underlay. Get down to wood or linoleum and have someone else clean it, if you can find anyone. You will not on your own be able to afford a domestic goddess.

The chemicals in your cleaning cupboard include pinesol, toilet cleaners like Vim, those blue duck things, Drano, most particularly air fresheners like Febreeze – you will come to think of these things as poison directly from an oil well that you spray into your only air to make you so sick you can’t get out of bed for days. This includes all paints, whether latex or oil based, and does not matter whether it is acryamide, enamel or whatever.

As for the chemicals in the environment, meaning the ones you know you come in contact with – you can’t take action against chemicals that you can’t smell, like PCBs or Bisphenol A and so on. But in the aerosol department, gasoline is a killer for me, get a few drops on my hand when filling the car and I am sick in bed in less than an hour. Even the smell of gas, any kind of grease or oil-based product that is in the air. Every time I fix something like my car, or boat, lawnmower, and the exhaust from all of these, once I get grease on my hands I am wiped out for the rest of the day. Wear disposable gloves. If you are allergic to latex, or to baby powder, try the blue nitrile ones. When I paint, I use an industrial gas mask with the replaceable chemical filtres so that no scent comes my way. And, even then, if I get paint on my my hands or clothes, then I get sick, too. This includes paint thinner, any chemical like dormant oil spray for plants, citronella for insects, smell of propane, glues, Goop, diesel, WD-40, Loctite, all dry-cleaning products including, Scotch Guard, per-cloroethane, Brillo Pads. More than 75,000 chemicals have been developed in the past 50 years, and only now are we staring to realize that they are killing us. Asthma being a leading generalized disease group results largely from chemicals we breathe, particularly living close to a major road syste.

And the long long list of personal products that people use. Shampoo, conditioner, those absolute killers, static cling sheets for the dryer, even the ones the neighbours use because their vents come into the air you breathe outside, deodorant, skin creme, hand cream, dermatologic products, perfume, cologne, candles, candles wax, bees wax, the scents from candles, burning candles, women’s makeup, particularly the base or foundation put on the skin before putting on makeup – a real killer for me. I have to walk away from such smells within the first few lungfuls of them or I can be wiped out for several days. Lipstick, mascara, the clothes people use to clean their glasses, anti-fungal creams or aerosols, soap, dishwashing soap, clothes washing soap, walking in the soap and chemical aisles of food stores. Simply the smell can leave you in bed sick as a dog. House mold and mildew, static air from not exchanging air in the winter, not changing furnace filtres often enough, needing HEPA filtres. The first one I bought actually made me sick because the charcoal in it, in early use was putting the smell of charcoal in the air. Everything in the air can make you sick. Alcohol, yeast, beer (a true tragedy!), buildings with mold in them, like archives and museums. It’s a mine field out there for allergy sufferers. So no going out to restaurants, bars, nightclubs, churches, recreation centres, city halls, shopping malls, stores, any building where people gather will be filled with dozens of chemicals that will make you sick.

The only thing good about all this is that your nasal abilities will increase to an astronomic level. I can smell scented products in the air from 30 feet away. I can to into a room of several hundred people and walk right up to the one person with perfume on and point them out – this is assuming no other personal product or its residue on clothes, has been worn by any of the hundreds of other people in the room. At my worst, I had to hold my breath and dash out into the air so that I wouldn’t get as sick, but, even one lungful of a scented product put me in bed for days. Develop your nose. It will save you many times. You will come to realize that we are saturated in chemicals that are killing us, only the effects in others is not as strong – yet.

You will get to the point where your would like to explain how sick you get by putting your hand on the head of someone with a scented product on who just doesn’t get the point and saying: “I take from you your health, and give to you my sickness.”

4. Floundering

You may feel very badly about yourself because you just can’t seem able to get it together to get it together. Don’t feel bad about not achieving things, even though this world is about achieving things, if you are an adult. CFS wipes out your ability to do anything. Try not to beat yourself up about your inability to keep to even the most rudimentary plan.

I floundered for more than 10 years with my family and others telling me constantly what to do, and how could I live if I didn’t have a job, and why couldn’t I eat white rice or whatever, which is simply negative stuff aimed your way. You will not be able to do anything about it. You will simply flounder without hope year on year and life will seem to grow away from you, even though you are so sick you just cannot do things: keep a job, take kids to lessons, plan meal schedules, do washing.

I have been improving slowly, but now have realized I will have chronic fatigue for he rest of my life. I have to tell myself constantly that I cannot achieve things because I am sick. It is something that I struggle with even now, when I have been telling myself for the better part of two decades not to feel bad about not achieving anything, that I am sick. You just have to keep at it.

It’s true, too, that even now, I could not go to a regular job, which I have not done for more than 22 years. The stress of not being able to control my situation would leave me totally wiped out by coffee break at 10 in the morning. Keep telling yourself you are okay when the negative thoughts enter your head. Most of the time you will be too sick to even have negative thoughts.

Not long ago, I was asked to talk with someone else who had CFS and was much earlier in her sickness than I. When I asked her how she was feeling, she was unable to tell me. She was so incapacitated with feeling small that she could not put into words how she felt. So I started telling her about me, for example, what I had had to do about sleeping. Only then did she tell me that she napped in the afternoon but couldn’t sleep all night long. I told her what I said above.

I should add that she was unable to do her job, but had a husband who was working. Needless to say, her sickness was affecting her releationship. But she didn’t have the confidence to tell me this. I had to lead the conversation saying that I could not have someone in the same room as me if I was ever to go to sleep. And that prompted her to say that she a some problem.

The conversation ground on for three hours, her unable to even talk about having CFS, and I trying to lead her by telling her my story. She couldn’t even have a conversation. That’s how bad she was. I had to tell her parents when they said they were at wits end, about how they had to intervene with doctors for her, harp on her to do certain basic things, to follow through on seeking a herbal this or a vitamin that. She just couldn’t do anything. She was floundering and had floundered for almost a decade and still couldn’t even verbalize her problem.

Her parents said what if I’m in my sixties still doing things for my child. Will she never grow up? Who will do things for her after I am gone? And so on. I said that your child is floundering, she isn’t doing it on purpose and you have to continue to support her for as long as it takes and just accept that. She will come out of floundering when she is able to do so. There is no time limit, no score card.

One of the small things that can help, with the depression that occurs with sickness is a seasonal affective disorder lamp, as in, a SAD lamp. These put out high luminosity of light – not full spectrum – and sitting with the light on your face for half an hour a day, makes a person feel better. Try it out. I now leave mine on all day while I work at my computer in the winter – Canada seems all winter sometimes – from late September into late May. Get out in the sun and take Vitamin D.

Just accept that you are floundering, it’s okay to be sick, even though you may be so sick you cannot even comprehend what I am writing here. And for relatives, you must commit to staying the course, and find non-pressuring ways to help your sick relative. Remember that if you do it with any kind of negative tone, that the person will just pick this up and slide away from you, back into sickness.

5. Eating Regimen

With all the allergies and sensitivities that you have, you will have a very restricted list of foods and drinks that you can eat. Going out to a restaurant will be a major challenge, if you even attempt it. The problem is that those without allergies don’t think about the little things, like toast that is put on a grilling surface rather than being put in a toaster. They do not get that the residue of cooked meat, for example, can make you sick. Fortunately these days, there has been a big improvement in the public’s and restaurant understanding that some people do suffer allergies and will leave off things that you ask them to.

First, make a list of those things you can eat, and eat enough of them to give you enough protein, calories, vitamins and minerals. Do note that you need to be specific in what you cannot eat, for example, I could not tolerate apple skins, but could eat skinless apples all day long. Be specific. Go to a dietitian with your list of foods. I found, for instance, that I was eating about a quarter of the protein I needed in my diet. So, I added a protein supplement. These are very expensive and it seems hard to justify their purchase when you are ill and in financial stress. But do what you need to do to get a proper diet – or you will not ever get well. I found that I could tolerate whey protein – though I am lactose intolerant and get irritable bowel syndrome from milk products. You may need gluten free/soy free foods/proteins.

And follow your eating plan. I am now hypoglycemic, something I did not have prior to CFS (meaning I had to first find out that I was hypoglycemic, something that took several years to figure out). I went through peaks and crashes all day long. Finally I realized that I had to eat about every twenty minutes to maintain my sugar level. That means constantly eating something. You may well have to do this too, or have some other regimen type requirement. Make sure you find out as if you don’t eat properly, it will make you far sicker than you already are. And do note that protein in your diet helps to maintain the sugar level in your blood for as much as three hours. Eat it and you have one way of counteracting the peaks and crashes. You will need to carry food and drink with you at all times because if you crash, you will be wiped out for a whole day. So you need to catch the crash at the first symptom, often, a reduced level of thinking and decision making. I never go anywhere without water and without some types of candies high in sugar. Werther’s Original candies have saved my bacon hundreds of times, as do Tic Tacs. One Tic Tak gives me about 30 minutes of leeway. But if you are out without something, get to a store and buy something quick.

If you travel, say by plane, take enough food for several days. If you tell the people at airport carry-on security you are diabetic – much easier to explain than hypoglycemia – they will understand and let you take on what can otherwise seem like an excessive amount of food items. You can get stuck just about anywhere and you do not want your thinking abilities compromised in a foreign country, particularly one where you may have difficulty finding the quality foods you must have to stay healthy.

My experience is that ringing in the ears – an experience that is so killing I cannot even describe it – is made far worse by lack of food, lack of rest and too much stress, among other things. I have asked other CFS sufferers and many of them say the same thing. Don’t let anyone tell you that tinnitus (the technical name for ringing in the ears) is not serious. It is the worst symptom of CFS. It takes you right off your feet for weeks at a time, and you need to eat properly so that it contributes to reducing the ringing.

6. Getting Control of Your Schedule

When you have CFS you lose the ability to work because it wipes you out. For those of you who still retain some of this ability, I am happy for you. In any case, getting control of your schedule will help you be less stressed and less wiped out. If you have control of what will happen in your day and life, you don’t have to worry about what will happen because you will already know. This seems self evident, but let me give you an example: for years, and I didn’t know this was happening, I was completely wiped out in the evening, any time after about 4 in the afternoon.

After years of this languishing so stressed that all my muscles contracted for hours at a time, it finally came into my conscious thought that one of the big worries of mine was that I never knew when the telephone would ring. As I had no ability to stand the stress of this possibility I was wiped out by the possibility, even though it seldom happened that the phone would actually ring. I decided not to take telephone calls after 6 pm, to turn the ringer off and machine noise off and leave the phone base in a different room from where I was. This small change in taking control of my schedule took a great deal of stress off me, so that evening was not a time of silent, lonely dread.

Over the years, I moved the close off time to 5 and then 4 pm. Some time later I decided never to take a call when it came in. My family and others, work things, for instance, were not very happy, but I told them it was my health and schedule that was important. I now seldom phone anyone back in less than two days. People who know me send me emails, as I have less stress with those and they are a kind of cool thing afterall. So take control of your schedule.

If you are putting exercise in your day, and you should, as below, try and put it in at a specific time and make a rigid unbending rule about everyone and thing in your life. The purpose again is to reduce your stress, and with CFS the possibility of stress is almost as important to eliminate as it is to ensure you sleep properly. I do it first thing in the morning, have a shower and clean up so the day does not begin with the detritus of yesterday hanging all over you and your night clothes. It is very easy to slip into complete slothfulness as it is too hard to climb out of it. And nights become days and days become night and the inside of your head drifts down and away.

Part of getting control of your schedule is finding a way, if you can, to fit some income working time into your life. I will deal with the income part next, but here, the point is to figure out what you can do. For me it was to become a freelancer of non-fiction. As a literary writer, non-fiction comes as easily as breathing to me. For you, your strength might be gardening – so put a flower stand in front of your house, and make money that way, or eggs (many cities allow people to keep chickens), or stuffing envelopes, or knitting for charity, or developing a product of some kind and starting a blog to sell it. I know someone who was able to begin drawing (but not use paint because of allergies). She was able to over time develop into making drawings from photographs of babies, houses or whatever else she could do. And then, if you do so, sell it at market rates. Your confidence will be low and you will never price what you do at its correct value. But I say: if the market price is, say, $50 per hour, then use that as your price. Where you make allowances is not with your confidence up front, but later, after the doing, for example, if an accomplished artist would do the drawing in 10 hours, you charge $500. It doesn’t matter that it will take you, let’s say, 25 hours. First you price yourself in the market, and slowly, over time, your speed will increase.

By having control over your ‘work’ schedule that eliminates stress and gets somethings done. For me, at my worst, I might have gotten 15 minutes a day before I was wiped out. I made myself accept that inability and told myself it didn’t make me a bad person. For about five years I was only able to work one hour a day. So I sat at my computer and wrote as fast as I possibly could for my hour, and then went back to bed for the next 23 hours. Awful, but it was a plan, and slowly I worked toward being able to pay some of my bills. Don’t beat yourself up for your inabilities, just work with what you can do. Keep the faith that one day you will do better.

7. Making an income

Making an income while you have chronic fatigue is an oxymoron.You just can’t do it. The problem with this is that we all have to pay our bills and that is a huge problem. Chronic fatigue is so hard on a person that losing your job means you have to have some other support or you will slowly become so financially low that you become homeless. Then you will die because it is not possible to have chronic fatigue while you live on the street and sleep on cardboard. That is simply the truth. A sad one, but the truth. A truth for a person without any other support, as in some family who will help you out.

I have made some suggestions above for when you are well enough to do something. Unfortunately, there are many years before that time will arrive and you will flounder looking pretty useless to anyone outside of yourself. As mentioned, don’t think badly about yourself. You are sick and that’s that. The most important thing to have in order to pay bills is family, particularly a spouse or parents where you can live while going through the worst of the disease. This means that if you can help maintain it, the most important thing you can do is try to maintain a good relationship with your partner or family during the trying years. A partner may want to move on and leave you because they didn’t sign up for supporting someone for a period of time that seems endless. And you may lose that partner, another strong pain to bear. The bright side of this is that you will be so sick that you cannot feel much about losing the relationship.

I lost my marriage (thankfully in my case), my health (previously something I thought in inexhaustible supply), had no money, had no job, couldn’t work and lost my children – the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone, and it goes on at 15 years for me (no contact at birthdays, no contact at Christmas, etc. – this is just life). Very painful. Perhaps it will change.

Regardless, you will have to pay your bills. The best thing for you to do is: do something that you are good at. This is usually your favourite hobby, and so it is something that is nourishing and positive for you to do in your diminished capacity. It’s positive, even if you don’t earn much. Then you find someway to make $$ out of it. Remember the person who loved watching soap operas. She parlayed that interest – didn’t have CFS – into Soap Opera Digest a multi million dollar outcome. You will not be able to handle the stress of such an outcome, but it is unlikely that you will ever get to such a stage.

The reason for doing something you are good at is that you don’t have to any studying, or course work or anything else. You are already starting as something of an expert. Don’t ever start out to do anything where you have to do anything other than what you know – research never pays off, except when it contributes to a longterm goal. It takes too much time. Then find a way of expressing what you already know in a way that brings you money. I have made many examples above in item 6. Your hobby may be: horses, drinking wine, collecting stamps, collecting Star Trek memorabilia (Elvis?), playing bridge, singing in a choir…

My hobby was fishing. I didn’t think I knew that much and there were plenty of people out there who I thought knew way more than I did. But you don’t have to be an expert when you start out, just have something to say. You will become an expert over time. It just slowly snowballs. I made my first trip to BCs Queen Charlotte Islands to fish Langara – paid by the resort on the understanding that I would do an article – when I was very sick. This was when they didn’t have any sympathy for those with allergies. It was tough (and the guy who went with me almost ended my budding career on my first trip, the turkey). I just took pills and got through it. I knew that when I got home, I could go back to the one hour a day writing and spin the one story into a dozen in the next few years.

After 15 years of being sick, I have developed so that writing about fishing is an important contributor to my overall income. I have written more than 1500 articles in that time. I have been a weekly columnist at the local newspaper, the Times Colonist, for more than 7 years. My fourth book on fly fishing came out in 2008. I have one more written and making the rounds and in the process of selling another about fishing the remote coast of British Columbia – I have traveled the entire coast asked by remote resorts to come in. I have become something of an expert – to some more and to some less – fly fishermen can be picky – just because I have made my hobby work for me in my down time. I slowly learned a whole lot over the years. And my next book that I am shopping around is about how to bring salmon runs back. It is intended to be one of my major books in my career, so a very serious pursuit for me. Fortunately for me, my first degree is in biochemistry, so I can understand scientific research. And so it goes.

Develop your own interest/hobby into earning money. It will take a long time, but you do have time. And, once again, try to maintain your personal relationship with family and partner as you will need their help to get you through. Tell them you are sick and need help. It’s a tough sell but it is what you need to do. I hope that they will be able to see that you are not just unable to get it together to get it together.

8. Exercise

Probably the most underrated but highly important thing that you can do for yourself when sick or not sick is: exercise. When you have CFS you are at your most unwilling to add exercise to your life because you are chronically without energy. But, take it from me, it is as important as getting your allergies under control.

Exercise that has a cardio component, meaning it gets your lungs going and your heart beating, such as bicycle riding, running and swimming is good for anyone because it makes you happy, is good for your body and can be a solid social activity when you are least able or inclined to be social. I am a runner and do so, for the past 15 years, at a gym. It takes your mind off how badly you feel, and it keeps you in the company of other people who are not sick so that it gives you perspective from the very depressing life that you lead.

The most important point, beyond what I have said, is stretching your body out. Both yoga and tai chi are useful, low energy requiring alternatives if you would prefer those. The reason that stretching, and I mean your arms, shoulders, trunk, stomach, bum, quads, glutes, hamstrings, knees, calves, ankles and toes, is so important, is because in chronic fatigue your muscles tend to tighten up into spasm, and regular stretching will keep them from putting you in great pain. This is also important because many, including me, get fibromyalgia in the upper body and shoulders. Stretching out your muscles reduces this pain. I stretch twice a day, first thing in the morning, before exercise, and last thing before bed while lying brain dead in front of the TV. Before I started stretching, I could feel my body tighten up all day, and slowly all my muscles would be contracting so that my body slowly went into a fetal position. Very painful.

Exercise gives you a break from how awful you feel. It gets your mind off it, and you can use it for having a goal in a time when you cannot achieve much else. As mentioned, as adults, we live a life where we are expected to achieve things, and feel poorly when not. If you are trying to get to 25 lengths in a swimming pool, or to run a 10 km run in the spring, there are goals along the way to getting to where you want to get to. This part of your life can help you, then, with other aspects of your life, and the endorphins of it all are good for you. The spindle cells that comprise your dopamine circuits for immediate satisfaction are also turned on by exercise. This is a good thing as this system is the one that underlies our experientially derived sense of satisfaction.

Exercise will also help you with how cold you feel with CFS. Feeling cold is very debilitating. This results because blood vessels get constricted, because you are using less energy from lying still, and thus your body’s temperature is lower. No doubt your metaboloic rate is lower in CFS because folic acid, which helps with thermoregulation, is one of the supplements that you take with this disease. I can tell you that I spent years on the couch frozen, in a down sleeping bag, having to go to bed fully clothed. A very depressing way to live. Exercise which involves breaking sugar down to move muscles, gives off heat because muscles breaking sugar into two carbon fragments cannot harness all the energy released during the process. This energy is given off as heat and it warms you up.

9. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is characterized as pain in the upper chest and arms. It can be very debilitating in itself, as pain wears you down completely over time. Seeing a doctor can produce a ho-hum response because such pain has been conjoined in the literature with most of the symptoms of CFS, for example, anxiety, inability to sleep, mental disturbances, mental incapacitation and so on. This makes it a syndrome, not a disease, and one that overlaps so much with CFS that some don’t take it seriously – not to mention that they don’t take CFS seriously.

But you must do something about the pain. The problem is that every common pain medicine causes its own problems in the body over time; Tylenol is not good for your liver; ibuprofen is not good for your kidneys, and so on. My pain got worse as the day went on, and it was conjoined with being exceptionally cold, as mentioned above. Search the web for all such things. I wouldn’t take Codeine on a long-term basis as it is a narcotic, and there is the constipation thing. Inderol is also a beta-blocker, but is what I took for two months to wean me off acetaminophen (Tylenol); it reached the point that the 12 extra strength acetaminophen pills I took everyday, simply resulted in rebound headaches, and when I had to hit higher amounts, it finally had no effect at all.

So talk with your sympathetic doctor, after you have done your web search – a recurring theme, here. And make a point of turning up your heat in the evening. Pick up a space heater for the room where you lie in state having to watch tv for the time before you take sleeping and anti-depressant pills to put you to sleep. Leave that high intensity SAD light on all day long and sit in the room with it. I have to hit 75 before my cooled body starts to warm up.

10. Be Around Well People

I have been so sick that for more than 15 years, it has been impossible for me to stand to be in the company of other human beings. I was so sick that just the stress of thinking about being with someone, even a week away, would reduce me to a wreck. This is inability to take stress. It also made me impossible to be normal around others, and so many many of my relationships, friendships, ‘work related’ acquaintances, significant others failed or never got off the ground. I mentioned to someone not long ago, who I had not seen for about 15 years, that I had CFS. She was visibly shaken because she and a whole lot of other people thought I was constantly over the edge and pretty well impossible to deal with because my mood swung so badly. At the time, I was unaware of the problem. Only now as I slowly improve, though I will never get well, am I able to think about such a subject; it was beyond me for a long long time.

My best advice to try and keep yourself a little bit level is to be around people, easy, normal people. Odd advice perhaps given my inability to do this when I was sick. But people need people. We are social animals. We die without such contact. And CFS kills such contact. Try and be around easy people, ones who do not make you anxious, nervous or whatever. Don’t put yourself in difficult personal situations. Even it this is as simple as watching people walk by on the street, or in a recreation centre, church or whatever. People do not understand long term sickness, how bad you feel and how weird you may act. And you can’t blame them for that. But find some people to talk to about everyday things, even if it is the weather, or saying ‘Have a good day.’ to someone. I finally, after 50 years of my life, understood that such a saying was not superficial. I mean it when I say it. And accept such a saying as a kindness to you, too. Be compassionate with yourself. Allow others, who may be able to hold you, do that. Speak and listen.

When my divorce ended, it took two years for me to realize how sick I had been in the marriage. The marriage was so turbulent, I had no idea how I felt. Grieve for what you lose. Watch a show like Intervention if it makes you weep. You need to pass through the illness, pass out the pain and emotion and reintegrate with life in due course. I lost my children. And it took me 15 years to come to terms with that. We all need the simple conversation that is people going about their lives. Please talk to them. Please try.

11. Take Action – Be in Research

If you can tolerate such a thing as being in a research study, below are some current ones. I read through the abstracts for most of these and found that most of them would not include me as a relevant subject. This sounds to me like more of the same old same old: well-meaning researchers not quite getting the point of the disease. For most of these studies I am too old – over 45 – and don’t have the specific things they are looking for. But, do a search at some of the websites, and you may find a subject in which you fit. It is a positive thing to do, and helps others. And these research studies are mostly done in connection with universities. But, do satisfy yourself they are right for you.

Here they are – there are many more than these:

Studies currently recruiting patients with CFS or related conditions

The CFIDS Association of America regularly issues funding announcements as part of its research grants program. Its most recent Request for Applications was issued on March 3, 2008. For more information about this funding opportunity, please visit http://www.cfids.org/profresources/grant-policies.asp.

Please note that cfids is worth looking at as it is a website that has as its mission: working to make CFS widely understood, diagnosable, curable and preventable. I looked at their list of symptoms and while they are short compared with what I have had, they do have most of the most important symptoms.

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Brain Book Reviews – Updated Mar 13, 2011

So you want a little closer look at the books on the brain bibliography. You got them:

1. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness- VS Ramachandran

When I began my inquiry into the relationship between current brain science and art, this is the first book I read. While I had been reading in the area for a decade, I decided to write a book on the Brains of Poets (two extensive bibliographies on dcreid.ca) and zeroed in on books like this to pick up and read.

This book does not go where the title suggests. It is not a brief tour of human consciousness, but, instead is a fascinating look at how lesions (small cuts) cause disabilities in human thinking, and how, using lie detectors (galvanic skin response) to understand problems that develop in human brains, scientists can understand how ‘normal’ human thinking works.

Issues such as blind sight (a blind person ducking a ball thrown at them, though they cannot see it), synaesthesia (mixing two types of perceptual information, for example, seeing the number five as a red five), how language works (using Chomsky’s well known expression: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously), kinds of amnesia (prosopognosia, more commonly known as face blindness, inability to recognize faces), phantom limbs (being able to feel limbs that a person has lost), allow Ramachandran to enter and describe crisply, quickly, and without too much science-talk, various aspects of the human mind. A definitely readable book that is well worth the purchase by a general reader who is interested in knowing more about the brain.

But there are two important criticisms of this book for the more widely read reader: Ramachandran, without telling you this, presents perception as a passive reception of what we see out there, rather than active searching for things out there, a view that is not very successful as a basis for understanding human consciousness; and, his ‘universal laws of art’. He says artists manipulate them to make a viewer see the beauty of art, and thus that art is about the pleasure centre of the brain. Tsk Tsk. As a poet for more than the past 30 years (and one of my degrees in biochemistry), I can tell you that I have never written anything to make it beautiful, though many poems are beautiful. Ramachandran’s mistake about art is simply being a bright, bold, award-winning neurobiologist, thinking he can make deep statements about fields he doesn’t know anything about. You can follow the subsequent ‘spirited debate’ amongst academics in many journals about human consciousness, and, of course, in dozens of books on Amazon.ca.

2. Proust was a Neuroscientist – Jonah Lehrer, 2008

This excellent book does two things exceptionally well. It presents 2008 brain science, and marries it seamlessly with art. It has a chapter on Proust – the memory one – about his tome: In Search of Lost Time, coming to the startling conclusion that the more we remember something, the less the memory is real. The book is not a book about Proust, per se, but, has chapters on different artists, for example: Walt Whitman – I Sing the Body Electric – literally; George Eliot, and the biology of chaos theory, and how this presents the ability for us to will our way to new brain cells; Cezanne and his understanding that brains take visual perceptions and impose upon them the need to recognize form, and this results in another unsettling truth: we see what we want to see; and, Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who discovered that glutamate – yes, really, MSG – from rendered animals and plants, is the key to all of smell.

Other chapters include Igor Stravinsky who introduced the 20th century of music dissonance and atonality by trying to change all the old rules about how classical music should sound and progress, harmonically, that the mind rebels at newness but soon it becomes, familiar, trusted and wished for; Gertrude Stein and her unending battle to write language without its form, essentially random gibberish, but had to concede that no matter how much she tried, underneath it all there was the structure of grammar – Chomsky’s universal grammar; and, Virginia Woolf and how her stream of consciousness novels reveal our emerging selves, in that the odd notion that we exist only in so far as our attention is focused on perception is true, and thus the self exists only in these moments, though we experience it as an ongoing river through time; the self exists for 10 second lengths before short term memory collapses and attention makes the next splinter seem joined as though seamlessly.

This ‘lad’ has managed to put in his brain more science and art than most people manage in a lifetime. And he expresses it so clearly that when you hit hard, dry, stuff like quantum mechanics, you go, oh, so that is what that means. The book is endlessly brainy, inventive, charmingly erudite, and at the same time cracklingly readable. I say this as a person with one of my degrees in biochemistry and who has been a poet for more than 30 years. I am in the process of writing a book on the brains of poets, (see dcreid.ca), and have read tons on these subjects. This is wonderfully well wrought stuff about difficult things to understand.

3. The Stuff of ThoughtSteven Pinker, 2007

The Stuff of Thought ought to be titled The Stuff of Language – a tale told by a linguist full of sound and parsing signifying a fair bit of neat info about language but not a lot spot about the brain. This is because the book leans heavily on linguistics rather than the biological sciences and talks of how language has been taken apart by linguists and what this suggests about how our linguistic minds work. And if that is what you want in a book of this title, written by a well-known, clever, disciple of Chomsky, this is it. Pinker is an engaging, magpie intellectual in that he has an almost endless, tantalizing list of interesting facts, jokes and permutations at his fingertips while ripping through such subjects as: the social purpose of language, the mind as metaphor machine, the relation between language and the ‘reality’ we share, the relation between words and thinking and emotions, the etymology of words, for example, names, and naming, the symbolism in language, how we say one thing while meaning something quite different, how we use language as a medium of mental exchange, and so on.

The last paragraph of Chapter 1, Words and Worlds, is a quick summary of this book. If you are looking for someone to disaggregate language and show what this reveals about humans, this is a good book to buy. On the other hand, at 439 pages (bef0re chapter notes) of medium-sized print, the book is 100 pages too long. I found myself skipping here and there, rather than my usual slavish attention to the first word, second word and every word until the last word thing.

What I would have been more interested in a book of this title was to hear an update on books by Damassio and Panskepp about the role of the sub-conscious in our thoughts, particularly as we do not think in our emotions in words, an important distinction, because when we think consciously, much of what we do is in words. So that words have a primacy in our conscious thinking, and thus the world that Pinker is talking about, but have zero, zilch, nada, nothing to say about the mid-brain where emotion is situated and sends its tendrils up into our conscious brain behind the right front eyebrow for us to focus our attention on and then be brought to life.

I would have liked to hear his take on how Wernicke’s (recognition of language) area in our left temporal lobe has a role in recognizing what others are saying to us and our visual understanding of written language (whether in letters or hieroglyphs). I would have liked to hear him address the role of Broca’s area (speech) in our being able to communicate with one another through making our lips, tongue, lungs, mental feedback loops and etc. work.

And I was interested, as a poet, in his take on metaphor, because that is a primary part of poetry. Here, again, in chapter 5, he breaks metaphor down into different types based on this and that distinction on subject matter, time sequence, spatial separation and so on. All of these are important to the student of language in that person’s quest to understand our medium of mental exchange. And how our language is saturated with metaphor to an extent that we don’t even recognize that many things we say are metaphors. If someone offers the symbolic ice-breaker: ‘Hi, how are you?’ And we answer: Feeling up. Feeling down., or, I’m dead. All of those responses are metaphors, as in, to feel good is up, to feel bad is down, and being dead simply conveys how tired we are. All three are metaphors, but trivial ones.

I found it fascinating that our speaking is drenched in metaphor. On the other hand, the distinctions, of different metaphor type as parsed in this book is irrelevant to a poet. A poet is interested in producing more, more apt, more original, non-cliche metaphors out of the endless manic creativity that we have in Wernicke’s area linked to frontal creativity, influenced by the subterranean currents of the subconscious. But, perhaps this is expecting too much out of this kind of book.

4. How We DecideJonah Lehrer, 2009 (This book has been re-released in 2010 as, The Decisive Moment.)

After being blown away by his previous book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, on the relationship between brain science and art, I snapped up Lehrer’s next one. Its purpose is to demonstrate the relationship between brain science and the way we make decisions in our everyday world.

It points out early that the old dichotomy that we all know and our western tradition has believed for the past three millennia is in fact false. That tradition is that the brain is divided between reason and emotion and that from Plato on forward we have been told we have to pay attention to reason because emotion leads us of the rails and has to be cajoled and bullied back into place by reason.

Wrongo. The brain is a prediction machine and conscious and unconscious factors lead people to made decisions, sometimes favouring the speed and experience of intuition and on other occasions mulling over the facts.

In this context, Lehrer uses compelling real life situations to make his points. How Tom Brady passed into the ‘future’ to win the Superbowl; how the radar tech felt a returning jet blip was wrong and ordered it downed, less than a half mile from a battle ship he was not on – it was a missile; how the mind is averse to loss and that we invest money in the stock market for bad reasons; that superstar basketball players do not get on streaks of success; and so on.

Early on, Lehrer points out that a brain injury patient who has the connection between the subconscious and conscious centre (behind the right eyebrow) severed cannot make decisions because without emotional preferences consciousness has no way of determining which action to take. Then he gets into the dopamine system that makes us feel pleasure, but at the same time tells us when something is wrong (the blip being an enemy missile rather than one of us good guys in a fighter jet) by stimulating long slender spindle cells that go all over the brain so we get the jolt simultaneously. Interestingly enough these ’emotion’ sensors are only found in higher primates, and humans have 40 times more than our closest monkey friends, pretty conclusive proof that our emotions are a highly flexible system for real time predictions with a mistake recognition loop for improving our expectations for the life we move into.

Intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. That is the conclusion of one of the best chess, backgammon and poker players in the world, Bill Robertie. If you want to improve, review your mistakes. Lehrer even tells you how to stop spending so much on so many credit cards, based on brain science of the small ‘insula’ in the brain that recognizes negative feelings – it’s far harder to hand across cash than plastic. Got suckered in the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage debacle? There’s a brain region for that, too. And Herman Palmer, a New York debt counselor (part of the every day use of this book) says, ‘…read only the fine print,” on credit card come-ons.

On mulling the facts, in a crisis, Chapter 4: The Uses of Reason has a stellar section in it about two pilots trying to save their DC-10 (no not because of the faulty baggage door that put the company out of business) from crashing, pages 120 – 132. This tells you how the brain works through a problem when terrified, and coming to a counterintuitive conclusion that has never existed before when 500 lives, most importantly your own, is at stake. Afterwards, 57 pilots crashed in a simulated version of this problem, before one landed safely.

Chapter 5: Choking on Thought, is about how when we think over something we know well, that we inhibit our conscious attention and we choke. This is intended to further develop the intuition, subconscious part of decision making. For my tastes, this was a tad repetitive, and perhaps too many scientific studies to make the same point several times. But, interesting stories, nonetheless, for example, it has been conclusively shown that MRI examinations for lower back pain have resulted in more than 50% more ‘invasive’ incorrect outcomes from doctors because our conscious centre in the right prefrontal area can only handle, get this, seven different factors before its ability to make decisions goes down the tube and we make worse decisions. And you thought the brain worked like a computer. Wrong.

Chapter 6 is about how we make ethical discriminations. Kant, Descartes and lawyers won’t be happy to know it doesn’t take a lot of rational thought to make moral decisions. It turns out that we are hardwired to do so. We get the feeling, and then the rational mind makes up reasons to explain the feeling. This is because mammals need the warm feeling of mothers and others from the first moment to turn out okay. Our minds innately sympathize with others, empathize, then make altruistic decisions based on, actually, not wanting to see others suffer. We have active emotional reactions from our amygdyla, mirror cells that key in on others expressions so we experience the feeling, then our fusiform area recognizes particular people, and unlike psychopaths who do not feel, an amygdyla problem, or autists who cannot recognize the facial features (fusiform face area) that mean certain emotions (superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulate, and medial frontal gyrus) and we want innately are wired to theorize that others are like us (no existential loneliness for us – despite JP Sartre et al). The three parenthesized regions do the anthropomorphism that poets and those who think pet rocks are happy. We are all imbued with this need. It’s not about rational thought at all; that comes later in the justification stage. Interestingly, if we are deprived of others our abilities to empathize and take actions to help others go way down, so think about various types of child abuse that change people when they most need those various centres to be turned on, nurtured and grown. Fascinating chapter. Oh, and all you parents who have been deprived of your child or lost a child feel intense pain because of simple hormones that also regulate water level in the body – vasopressin and oxytocin. Such a loss wipes most people out for the rest of their lives.

The collected wisdom of How We Decide comes on pages 244 – 250, but the book is much more fascinating than the summary. And The Coda puts neatly the mesh between the experience (emotion) and reasoning (conscious thought) components of our thoughts. Both have their specialties and both are required all day long every day.

Lehrer takes my vote as the science writer who has best thought through the science – their papers often written with tentative conclusions, in gibberish text and with the need to pass peer judgment, demonstrate repeatable experiments and with an overladen Latin weight – and translated it into incisive, sparkling, accessible, understandable and compelling reading for the human being who is interested in investigating how things work in their heads. And it passes the short attention spam test: the book ends in less than 250 pages. As previously mentioned, I am working on a book: The Brains of Poets (dcreid.ca), and would always like more science and more art. This book will appeal to a broader audience. It will help you make better decisions every day.

5. Descartes’ Error – Antonio Damsio, 1994

I came to this book after reading 10,000 pages on the issues of art and science – bibliography on dcreid.ca. I decided to go back and read this 1994 book because it underlies a lot of current discussion and dispute on the role of emotions in thinking and decision making. Because of this central influential role, I gave this book a five star rating. It is highly scientific, so not a light read, and will annoy those with a philosophy background; the title makes you pick up the book, though this is not, ultimately, a refutation of Cartesian views: mind and body, reason and emotion.

First published in 1994, Damasio’s classic brain science book put on the map that the emotional and sub-conscious brain is far more important to our thought than the last three millennia of western thought has believed. This is must-read background for those who want to understand how the brain works. The current Penguin paperback has a new – 2005 – Preface where Damasio updates the science of the intervening decade and posits a good summary of what the book covers – you can get the complete argument from it, for those who like to cut to the chase.

The book makes a good case for the use of emotion, feelings, intuitions, and underlying currents of electrical activity from the body (the brain exists in a body after all that bathes it with more than six million nerve impulses a second) in the process of making decisions some of which require much thought and some of which happen instantly without any thought.

For those looking for a quick, decisive account of brain anatomy, Damasio has done a good job on pages 24 – 30. But, of course, a well put together, book length treatment can be found in Rita Carter’s, Mapping the Mind, a good introduction of depth for non-scientists.

Early in the book, the case of Phineas P. Gage, circa 1848, who got a metal bar shot through his brain but survived, is discussed. The poor fellow made poor decisions for the rest of his life and had various personality issues – understandably. These result from the areas of the brain that were severed. Then Damasio moves to the present, discussing clients/patients who had lesions (cuts) in the brain and specific personality problems because of them.

Chapter four gets into the nitty gritty science involved in the parts of the brain responsible for normal processing of emotion, personal feelings and its integration with attention and reasoning. Essentially the central lower part behind your eyes, the bands of brain beside and up from your ears and various centres, particularly on the right side, along with the high emotion centre, the amygdala are the areas involved. I have a science background and the chapter had so much content it left my brain whizzing, fascinating as it was about how cuts that separate different parts of the brain result in specific problems that can be teased apart in experiments. Page 83-85 of the next chapter neatly summarizes the science in non-science speak.

One problem with brain science books, and this includes this title, is that memory is not adequately understood yet. Here we do not store true images, but dispositional representations, yet, at the same time we can all recall the Mona Lisa’s face, our children and waves dropping on a shore. In other words, I don’t think science yet has a convincing argument. Time will tell.

One of Damasio’s central insights occurs on page 111: the body exerts effects on our minds and our emotions constantly. It does this through nerve circuits of ‘modulator neurons’ that are interested in survival and so monitor our conscious mind’s, the relative goodness or badness of circumstance and influence our thinking and acting toward or away from them. The end of the chapter section: Beyond Drives and Instincts, p 123 – 126, is a good summary of the science, genetic, biology, reductionist side of the equation with the effects of humans living in and being affected by a communal society.

Damassio then moves to a central distinction for him: the difference he posits between emotions and feelings. The former are, in his definition, about the body, and the latter about the mind; however they are linked in that a conscious feeling results in effects on the body (more than just a GSR polygraph sense), and those effects also can affect the way we think. He sees feelings of three types: basic universal (like fear), subtle universal (like guilt) and background feelings derived from the body in which the brain sits. The full system is drawn on page 163, but don’t just flip to the diagram; you need to understand it in context. This again is full of science and I suggest you go through with a yellow magic marker and highlight the high points, if you need something to make you pay attention.

Chapter 8 is the meat of the book: the Somatic-Marker Hypothesis. This means the body’s images, or emotions. I think it a bad term, but it was not my choice. The chapter is about how our underlying emotions, our body states help us make decisions, whether good or bad. We can’t make ‘rational’ decisions without the body’s input on how it ‘feels’ about a situation, say avoiding a car accident, how a smile can make your defenses melt, how even the love of rationality is about the love, not the rationality, and so on. This centre which is brought together in time with working memory in the prefrontal cortex, is much about the spindle cell system and its distribution of dopamine as a ‘reward’ for a gut feeling, whether good or bad. This theme is well extended in Jonah Lehrer’s, recent book, How We Decide. Damassio’s pages 196 to 201 are where he brings together the entire subject and how the mind, and body movement work through time, and are a fascinating completion of his thoughts, that you should not read before reading the chapter preceding this last section. Basic emotions manage actions in a rational way.

Chapter 9 relates interesting gambling experiments with normal subjects and with ones who have lesions in their prefrontal cortexes where conscious attention is focused. The results are clear that those without proper wiring to receive the bodies accumulated ‘knowledge’ about past events cannot predict what will happen in the future and thus result in disastrous decision making skills. Normal participants come to learn when to avoid certain decisions because they can read the body’s experientially derived feelings about a possible choice. Note that this type of analysis is about our abilities to predict future events, and is from an entirely different perspective than those scientists who focus on, say, how the eye picks up images and sets the mind in motion.

Chapter 10 has two fascinating explanations of central features of the human mind: consciousness and subjectivity. Consciousness arises in the instant of the mind focusing on a subject, not the other way around. So it is ephemeral and gives way to another and then another consciousness in an endless stream. Subjectivity arises from the mind reviewing the effects of events the mind is engaged in, a triple mind event.

This book does not pass the short attention spam test. At 267 pages, the book is not that long, but the type is small and the text is dense. Tough sledding for those looking for a not-so-deep look.

6. The Brain that Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

This is an excellent book for the general reader of the new concept of neuro-plasticity. Doidge is a doctor and worked with Paul Bach-y-Rita, the scientist who brought this subject on stream since the 1970s when every other neurobiologist thought he was a nutbar. That was because the view was that once a brain was formed, it could not change. If you had a stroke, head injury, or eye damage, tough, you were stuck with it for the rest of your life.

Bahc-y-rita found out differently. His own father, a professor, had a large stroke and could not get himself on or off the toilet, could not crawl, could not lift his arm. But with much ongoing work of doing things like learning how to crawl again, then to stand without falling over, and so on, he ultimately regained his abilities – including speaking and typing – to be a professor for many years, and go mountain climbing, where he died on a holiday – he fell off a mountain. Very ironic.

The concept of brain plasticity means that if you can give stimulation to one sense for another sense, that the brain changes itself to process the new information and also connect with the areas that require responding to the world – like walking or talking – and the damage is ultimately repaired. For example, a woman who was given too much antibiotics in an infection in a hospital lost her sense of balance so badly that she could not stand up, lost her job, lost everything. She was treated by Bachy-Rita in the following way: a hat with gyroscopes and vision devices was put on her head and then the leads were attached to a small paddle that she placed on her tongue. The small electrical discharges to her tongue were taken up into her head to compensate for her ruined vestibular system (our balance centre in our inner ears), made connection with the visual cortex and the parietal body command centres and ultimately she got to the point where she only had to put the hat on for a few minutes every four months. I have grossly simplified this one example of dozens in the book.

In another example – this has been made into a documentary, that I have seen on PBS and CBC – a blind man was given a vision hat and the tongue paddle. In the end he was able to navigate his way around a room, and, ‘see’ and pick up a ball from the floor, spot a garbage can across the room and toss it into it. I don’t think I could do this, and I’ve got sight.

Plasticity, like the left brain right brain concept, is currently being dumbed down into psycho babble on many tv shows. This book gives you a much better introduction to the concept and is definitely worth looking at for anyone who wants to understand how the brain can be trained to use another area to provide a function. Many products have been made using these concepts. Space suits are so thick that people can’t feel nuts and bolts in their fingers. Gloves with sensors on the outside connected to the inside make this possible. Men who have lost the ability to ejaculate have been provided with a sensory condom that takes the friction information to another area of skin that then gets taken to the brain and processed so that sexual pleasure is enjoyed and ejaculation happens once again. Tests have shown promise for dealing with the tremor of Parkinsons… it’s a very useful concept of wide application. If you have a brain ‘misfunction’, you should read this book. The problem is not your brain, the problem is that no one has devised a rehabilitation program that you can follow to get the functions back.

And for a Brave New World concept, read page 84 for descriptions of how, in future, we will be able to turn our ‘learn easy’ centre (nucleus basalis) on with yet to be developed drugs and learn anything with the ease we did in childhood. It will be for us the Matrix response to the question: Can you fly this thing? Answer: Not yet. And then you get loaded.

Do focus on chapter 4 that is about love, sex, parenting changing our attractions, losing a love, grieving and learning to love another. All are plasticity events whereby certain brain chemicals (for ex, oxytocin and vasopressin) allow us to unlearn old loves and form new attractions, but at the same time change sexual attraction into love. It also has an excellent section on sexual fantasies, how they arise, stimulate us, and when knowing their origin, change can begin. You will be able to look at your own mind with new light, a common association is sex and violence, and this chapter will give you some insight into yourself. I lost my children through divorce 15 years ago, and this chapter has a good explanation of how one begins to feel less pain by making small steps away over the years, or how, for instance, a new love can shield you from the necessary grieving over the loss of children. It’s still there, waiting to be faced and let go.

Chapter 7 has a fascinating section on pain in phantom limbs (Ramachandran, as above). Using a mirror box that projected a limb for an amputated limb, Ramachandran, was able to have patients lose pain from the limb they didn’t have and to unfreeze limbs that had been in slings or casts before amputation. This means that pain is in the brain, not the body, and that the entire body is really just a phantom the brain has constructed for its own use. This means that with the correct mind stimulus that a person could become anything they wanted to be, including a rocket scientist, or a better rocket scientist.

Chapter 9 focuses on psychoanalysis/psychotherapy and how the mind through its ability to change, does so, and at the same time, can become completely rigid, too. Anyone who has done the shrink thing must read this chapter as it is fascinating and deep stuff. I have done so, and believe me it was painful, but, in my case, allowed me to find my life, something I could never have done on my own. I changed beliefs I didn’t know I had and beliefs that were what I considered my most important good points, and so very hard to give up. Very difficult, very painful, but all plastic. You will also see Freud in a new light – he has had the bad rap of being all about sex for too many decades. And it has much about the left and right hemispheres of our cortex – the left is about explicit memory, the right about implicit. This is a good description of a topic that became dumbed down in the 1970s to serve a pop psychology industry. You will learn much about memory and the hippocampus that mediates learning and long term memory, much during sleep.

7. The Element : How Finding your Passion Changes Everything – Ken Robinson – 2009

This is a well-known book on creativity. Not particularly scientific, so it is to the side of what I am doing, but the gist is that you have an aptitude for something that you are passionate about and you should pursue it because that is the best thing for you to do. He has much to say about how the education system is narrowly focused on reading/riting/rithmetic, but that the world is in a period where change is happening at a far greater speed than in the past and as it is about technology not yet invented our children will be in a world with jobs not yet conceived. We are educating for the wrong thing: the past, the Industrial Revolution when basic math and reading was required and passed to a greater percentage of the human race in the western world in the 17th and 18th century. See TED.com for videos of Sir Ken doing a lecture.

The first chapter explains what Sir Ken means by the Element. Pages 21 – 26 sum the situation up: I get it: I love it: I want it: Where is it? The next chapter has a good take on western thought that our interest in reason against emotion is deep-seated and not a good measure of intelligence. The IQ section is very interesting. The inventor, Alfred Binet, did it as a contract for the French government, thought of it as the opposite of an intelligence test, but for the use that children could get their special needs met in schooling and that intelligence was something that was not innate but could be made greater and greater.

The second part is the addition of Lewis Terman in 1916. He felt the exact opposite: eugenics. He thought it shows how inferior races were not intelligent, and this was innate and unchangeable, and thus they should only be given education to the point where they could labour. He identified: Indians, Mexicans and Negroes as races that should be given rudimentary practical training only. Today, of course, we call this discrimination – a word that, incidentally, has changed its meaning over the decades from good to bad or both. And then there is that old notion about ‘breeding’. IQ tests was used by 30 states who passed laws allowing them to neuter people below a certain number because they reproduced too fast and had to be stopped. Pretty bizarre. The rest of the chapter argues the notion that there are many types of intelligence, for example, as Howard Gardner argued: linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. So ask not how intelligent you are but, how are you intelligent.

This book has an excellent method for you to follow if you want to reach your potential – not in simply a $$ sense – but in the sense of fulfillment. Check out Miles Davis and the section on Kind of Blue, p 124, how it came to be from talented musicians, with no prior practice with one another, recorded that jazz great disc largely in one takes. Davis got them moving in a direction together and their talents created more than the sum of their parts. There are literally dozens on examples of identified people and how they did what they did, well known or not.

Page 161 has a very interesting take on ‘lucky’ people. They: maximize chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky and turn bad luck into good. Are you lucky? Maybe you should change your attitude. Oh, and by the way, Sir Ken started out to be a soccer player and after having polio as a kid, his parents got him thinking education because he never was going to make it in sports. Lucky that.

And as Sir Ken’s underlying big interest is the education system, the last major chapter: Making The Grade, p 225, contains some of the ideas he is so famous for – do look at the TED.com video lecture, too. He points out that education typically does three things: has a curriculum of study, the method or pedagogy of making students learn and assessment, as in exams. Typically, reform seeks to ratchet up the basics over and over. Today, 70% of American kids have no arts education (and I can tell you that I would never have realized I could write poetry – now it is a necessary love – because I could never understand what the teacher was trying to make me see – until a poet, when, a decade later, I was in the Banff Centre rite of passage for Canadian writers, told me that something I had done was terrific poetry, and would I just make it into short lines. Now I have five books of poetry out, and my next will be a webpresence non-printed-page ‘book’. I couldn’t think of my life now as being anything other than a poet, though I have several other hugely important interests). The process works ‘better and better’ by standardizing testing, clarifying curriculum, and drilling things into people. He points out that this leaves out things like innovation and creativity – the whole point of his book, and underlying views on education reform.

Robinson points out that the No Child Left Behind thrust that gets rid of principals, teachers, schools etc. if they don’t measure up statistically, makes them conform even more to redn, ritn and rithmtc. And the businesses in the business of school testing business have made more than $100 billion in the past seven years. So, don’t expect change. You have to do it yourself. And making great teachers is one of the most important changes, along with finding out what each child’s strengths and interests are and teaching to those. This then leads back to the IQ tests that were put together originally for just this purpose. It’s only over the past century they have been used more and more to rate people.

And all you teachers who come to this book, do read, his wife’s take on education in the slums of Liverpool (I lived there doing a degree in the seventies, and so I can use that word), starting on page 239. It will raise your spirits greatly and the rest of the chapter will keep on lifting you, higher and higher.

8. The Midnight Disease – The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain – Alice W. Flaherty

I have to admit that even in the first pages of the introduction I became uneasy with this book. It makes the fundamental error in saying that art is about beauty, though it mentions meaning which is the important thing. Art is a search for meaning set in some form. And it also says that art is about communication to others, tsk, tsk.

The introduction tells you what the book will be about on pages 14 – 16: Chap 1 is brain conditions that increase desire to write; Chap 2 is about how the temporal lobes drive both writing and writers block; Chap 3 is writers block psychology; Chap 4 is biochemical explanations and treatments of block; Chap 5 is the new science brought to bear on ‘normal’ desire to write, and writerly things like metaphor; Chap 6 is about how the drive to communicate pushes writing (oh, sure); and Chap 7 argues that metaphoric thinking is a temporal lobe function and mediates most types of establishing meaning.

Chapter two transmits a good understanding of the neurobiological base of the desire to write, along with some pretty darn good quotes. It covers epilepsy, temporal lobes, and a brief run through of the major brain functions involved in writing (p20 – 23). But I agree with the other reviewer at Amazon.ca that her understanding of one of her own breakdowns seems so superficial (the Cap’n Crunch ‘scene’ for instance) that you wonder if the rest of the stuff is so also. Perhaps knowing the self through bi-polar disease is not the same thing as understanding the drive to write. One more and I will not bring the subject up again, p 36, Flaherty says that behind locks, her desire to leave the hospital was seen as proof of needing to stay, and it made her frantic. “Thinking about the experience even now makes me sweat.” I think she should have delved into her frantic feelings to understand herself, as she has obviously not understood because she still sweats. She needs more meds, so she can gain more self-knowledge.

Here is one other quote that gives me pause in accepting her overall theories: Writer’s block… can stem from… insulating ourselves so well from the desire to succeed that we weaken our motivation to write. My experience of writers is that this is total rubbish. Writers are driven to write, the issue of ‘desire to succeed’, whatever that may mean, is totally irrelevant. Okay, I won’t carp any longer.

Okay, one more. Flaherty says that in, In Search Of Lost Time, Proust’s smell of the much-quoted madeleine spurs him to huge output of associated memories because smell is processed in the temporal lobe. She is a neurobiologist and missed the main point: smell is the only sense that passes first into the subconscious brain – dreams, memories, feelings, emotions, etc., – and then is shunted up into the temporal lobes.

And then, like after reading a hundred turgid pages of Sartre’s, Being and Nothingness (phew), we come to some clear, succinct, well put together words on the combination of left and right hemispheres that increases creativity, and fosters written art – p 68 – 73, with the rest of the chapter devoted to what the new tools can do: PET, MRI, fMRI, TMS. The latter can change our thoughts and abilities simply by aiming magnetism at the brain. Fascinating, Brave New World stuff.

Chapter 3 is about writer’s block and contains some wonderful quotations on the subject from writers down the last few centuries. It’s discussion of what block is is good at considering all the nearby states as well. As a writer, none rings much true to me, but that is because of being a writer – nothing else matters. It’s like breathing, if you can’t do it, you die. Flaherty points out that psychologists don’t think much of the notion of inspiration that is separate from skill or hard work aren’t writers. And there is the issue that the definition of block is dependent on one’s point of view: cognitive psychology. behaviourism or depth psychology like psychoanalysis, under the control of conscious drive or the will ‘o wisp intuition. And, of course, it makes a great deal of difference on what the definition of creativity and psychopathology means, as in the Emile Glazer paper – 2009. Check out the Charles Ducey, quote on p92, for half a dozen different reasons for block. This chapter’s good point is that it is a good introduction to the literature on writer’s block and fairly evaluates them. The appendix at the back let’s you get into the subject further, if you wish.

Chapter 4 presents a general discussion of a lot of brain states that affect writing: such as sleep, mood, length of day light, time of day, hormones, drug therapies, anxiety, depression (causes block by sapping energy and motivation), procrastination, high-energy block, rejection of ideas prematurely, alcohol, Xanax, sleep medications, beta-blockers, SSRIs (Prozac, Effexor), self consciousness, talk of block leads to block (so say it to writers you don’t like), block is caused by the failure of helpful repressive mechanisms, compulsions, listening to music, antipsychotics, dopamine’s effects of increasing motivation, initiation of movement, these neuroleptics suppress the critical internal voice, epilepsy and their anticonvulsant drug effects for stabilizing mood, perfectionism, self help press, placebo effects, ‘objective’ tests or tools like the number of words you have written this week to counteract negative perceptions, exercise, drugs, diurnal rhythms, therapy and the right therapist, intense moods, these are mediated by the limbic system in the desire to write.

Chapter five is about how we write. For the reader without a scientific background, this one will be difficult sledding. On the other hand, it gives the actual parts of the brain where language and parsing language occur. If this is something you must learn, then it is all in one place, and for the general reader, a chapter to be reread whenever you have questions about the minutia of reading, writing and speaking. Most discoveries have come from brain-damaged patients, those with lesions or cuts, and what they lose. For example, a lesion can be so small and so precise that it causes the sufferer to not be able to visually recognize a capital letter, while leaving intact recognition of lower case letters. Other subjects: synaesthesia, dyslexia – Winston Churchill, autism. The main centres are: Broca’s and Wernicke’s area in the left hemisphere.

Chapter six is about why we write. The underlying motivation, arousal and continuing to prefer writing over other activities is mediated by the limbic system, various neurotransmitters and parts of the conscious brain. The limbic system of the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus are subconscious and about emotion, memory and action.

Humans have the instinct for language as evidenced by the notable asymmetry of our left hemisphere. It is larger before birth, when we have no need of speech. Speech explodes from us starting at about 18 months after birth and we learn a word every two hours until we are 18 years old. That’s an amazing 70,000 words. Flaherty goes through what speech is for in communicating, its development in our lives and the underlying motivation for writing, as well as the seemingly trivial exchanges. Gossip, for example, is an entertainment and a way for us to share some good juicy stuff with one or more or our confreres, and foster group identity: man as monkey.

A good part of this chapter discusses both language and behaviour in our social species and other social animals, the interdependency that language or complex behaviour creates. Think of weeping or screaming, for example, both express a need and request a response. Or winning the lottery results in joy. And there is laughter. This underlies her point that language is about emotion, not about expressing logical propositions in a detached way. Descarte’s and the western tradition of mind/body, or reason/emotion to use Plato’s distinction. And then she moves to say that writing is an extension of our emotional speaking, our unlanguaged utterances. Read page 205 for her lovely metaphor of eating grapes out her window at night above a ruined garden. The rest of the chapter has some great quotes by a long list of authors on why they had to write versus do anything else..