An Individual History
By Michael Collier
This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft
before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics
and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before thorazine,
which the suicide O'Laughlin called "handcuffs for the mind."
It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,
Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,
find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,
or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.
It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.
Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary
to neutralize communists with prayer.
When electroshock was electrocution
and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.
And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then
you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards
of state and private institutions,
and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head
sunk past quagmires, coups d'etat, and disappearances
and in this way find a place in history
among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,
though hidden by an epoch of lean notation -- "Marked
Parkinsonian tremor," "Chronic paranoid type" --
a time when the animal slowed by its fate
was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail
or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy
when for a moment her hands were still.
Michael Collier was my teacher in graduate school, so I'm delighted to see him in this week's Poet's Choice. He explains that his grandmother was a patient in the Central State Hospital of Indiana, which documented "delusional pronouncements she was apt to utter." He tried to write a poem based solely on the medical records, "but the literalness of the material and the disquieting paranoid lyricism of my grandmother's statements proved resistant." Later, "when reading an essay about the history of psychotropic drugs, I started a poem that used the names of these drugs as a kind of incantation. This led me to recall what my college roommate, who killed himself, had once said about Thorazine, that it was 'handcuffs for the mind.'"
It was a rainy, chilly, gray day, so after Daniel got back from volunteering at Hebrew school, we went to Baltimore's Mount Vernon Square, which was glorious with flowers despite the weather. The Walters Art Museum has two current exhibits that we wanted to see -- one on The Saint John's Bible and other illuminated manuscripts, another on The Romance of the Rose. The former in particular is stunning, not just the modern Bible, which is absolutely beautiful, but the collection of manuscripts with it -- several medieval Books of Hours, an illuminated Koran, a Kelmscott Chaucer, a hand-copied Old Testament with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin juxtaposed. The Romance of the Rose exhibit isn't nearly as big and doesn't have an entire room devoted to the hands-on teaching of calligraphic arts (treating parchment, creating dyes, lettering, decorating), but it has many different manuscripts and a collection of commentaries.
As for the rest of the Walters Museum, we visited the Chamber of Wonders with its collections of maps, insects and other natural items from all over the world; walked through the 15th-16th century religious art, 17th century European and Flemish art, and 19th century landscape art and porcelain; did a quick pass through the Medieval World, which we had seen in depth the last time we were at the museum; and paid a visit to the room called the Treasury because we had learned that the museum has a Faberge egg on display there, and after having bought Faberpet eggs on Superpoke Pets, Adam wanted to see a real one. We had also discovered that Armand's Pizza has a dinner buffet, so we took the kids there -- it's never going to make my top 50 restaurants but at the same time, it's so much better than Cici's and has so much more variety that I am not going to say anything bad about it!
A 14th-century printing of The Romance of the Rose showing the Lover asleep at the start of the dream vision with Danger lurking at the foot of the bed. (No photos were allowed inside the St. John's Bible exhibit.)
The Walters Museum's Faberge egg, containing a gold miniature of the palace at Gatchina (in this case merely with no flash/tripod, sorry). It was given as a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his mother.
A display of armor from the Knight's Hall, a favorite with the kids since in addition to the weapons, it also has chess sets that can be played with.
Medieval window panels from Leoben, Austria, and a Flemish tomb relief from the sarcophagus of Pierre de Bauttremont, also dating from the 1400s.
An ebony cabinet from the court of Louis XIII, carved on the outside with scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, but decorated on the inside like a miniature theatrical set.
Indonesian Jewel Beetles displayed in a case with other insects in the Chamber of Wonders.
A rubbing of the only surviving monumental brass of a knight of the Order of the Garter in full regalia -- collar, mantle, hood, badge, and garter -- set in the museum's spiral staircase. The falcon above his shoulder and griffin under his feet are his family crest and emblem: this is Thomas Boleyn (or Bullen as he is identified in the inscription), Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, father of Anne and grandfather of Elizabeth. The original brass is at Hever Castle.