The Colorado Poet, #16, Fall 2011

Song of the Deep Middle Brain

Barbara Sorensen’s Song of the Deep Middle Brain was a finalist for the 2011 Colorado Book Award in Poetry

Bob King: Barbara, just so I know if I’m on the right track. The “middle brain” in your title is the limbic brain, right? I remember Robert Bly writing about the reptilian, the limbic or mammalian, and then the neo-cortex parts of the brain. Is that where you’re coming from? And why is it important to you?

Barbara SorensenBarbara Sorensen: The subthalamic nucleus area is an essential relay locus for your animate nerve organs. Yes, it is part of the limbic area, in general, and it is where I received deep brain stimulation for symptoms of dystonia. It alleviated the painful twisting of my feet and other unpleasant things that happen when you have Parkinson's, and it buys me time.

Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, is a three-part operation beginning with the placement of leads in your brain. In my case, the leads were placed in the subthalamic nucleus. I had to have two operations for those placements, in an operating theater. I was awake, unfortunately, when they were drilling the hole in my head during the second operation. There was a sound like sand. They only lightly sedate you for those two operations because you must be awake and cognitively alert to answer questions when they begin searching for the "sweet spot."

The third operation is an outpatient one and they totally anesthetize you. That is when they implant the pulse generator right below your collarbone. After all of that, you are calibrated, and you feel normal again!

BK: There’s also something quite interesting about hooking ‘song’ to ‘brain’ We don’t tend to think of those two together, although I guess all we do is connected to the brain. But you must attach a certain weight to both terms of your title, right?

BS: I became very interested in connecting song and brain together out of scientific curiosity after listening to a program on NPR about zebra finches and their unique way of learning song patterns. They learn similarly to how the human brain learns to speak. Consequently, scientists are scrambling right now to decipher the code because it holds great promise for better understanding diseases like Parkinson's and the symptoms that some people experience, namely, not being able to speak. I have a zebra finch (naturally, he's named Atticus Finch!) and he sings to me every morning.

Also, I read that wonderful book by Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch, in which he explicates the observable, phenomenal process of evolution on one of the Galapagos Islands that is full of finches. Weiner was specifically detailing the work of British biologists in their successful efforts to prove that natural selection is real and going on around us all the time. Kind of makes "intelligent design" a moot point. Incidentally, you can hear the NPR story by accessing this link:

BK: The title poem which opens the third section deals with a tremor, a palsy that came over you and your therapist’s story about her father’s hands shaking when he had to produce his papers at the Polish border. When asked why he was shaking he said he was a child of war and they laughed and let him proceed. What’s the connection between those two experiences in your mind?
BS: Well, really the key line in that poem is: "You see, anything can cause a tremor." I think it's pretty obvious to most people by now that stress plays a big role in many types of adverse physical conditions. Whether or not it actually causes an illness is arguable, but I do believe stress is woven into the body's memory. In the poem, the father's shakiness or palsy was caused by what we might today refer to as post-traumatic stress syndrome. If you are asking me about why the border guards laughed, well, they are expressing a certain cruelty in people that prevents them from understanding nuance—the deeply ingrained nuances of pain and grief. If you are asking me about my own connection to the father's experience, well, there's a lot there that would take more than a chapbook to fill. I am working on it.

BK: Your book is in three parts. I’m not very good at figuring out sections of books without blatant titles, but it looks like Section One deals with memories, childhood, family; Section II to do with travel; and Section III to deal with illness and healing. How do you think of the sections? How important was this in forming the whole book?

BS: Well, the three-section idea came courtesy of the book's editor, Bryan Roth. I just had them in one entire section and as he was editing the manuscript really late at night, he had this great idea of a completely new organizational structure. He was very excited when he showed it to me the next day because he had seen that the book had an intuitive, organic three-part flow. I took his advice and divided them up. As far as forming the whole book, I think the three sections are a very simplistic and easy way to read the poems and understand the various themes. As a magazine editor by trade, I like the idea of reader accessibility.

BK: Many of the poems contain images of nature or have a natural setting. I’m thinking nature is important to you as a poet and a person, right?

BS: Yes. Nature has always been very important to me, of course. I'm not a 'nature poet' though, and would intensely dislike that label. Again, the importance of the natural world has to do with my illness. Neurological studies have more or less concluded that regular and intense endurance exercise is neuroprotective. This means that the degenerative aspect of an illness can be slowed by exercise. But it must be intense exercise. So, I regularly hike, snowshoe, do back-country skiing in my favorite "backyard" which is Rocky Mountain National Park. For about 30 years, the park has sustained me physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I have experienced such surreal beauty in that area.

As far as the importance of nature in poetry, in general, I have always loved the way Theodore Roethke approached the natural world and I try to learn from his poetry. "The Shape of Fire" is simply epiphanic, as is "The Far Field." I like to think of the natural world with its melancholic patterns as holding something valuable that defies definition, yet provides contemplative properties.

BK: Your poems contain some  striking metaphors. I’m thinking, from “Some Small Thing I have Held,” of “I walk quietly downstairs, / balancing myself like an egg / in someone else’s hands.”  Or  in another, speaking of a nude woman, “her hips  move / like a lily slide, a wedding of bones.”  How do metaphors come to you in your experience?

“Metaphors come to me much later, after an experience has occurred and I am just doing the work and crafting of poets: trying to show, not tell, mixing up words, search for the pattern of sound.”

BS: I very rarely, if ever, have been in a moment and suddenly thought of some great metaphor. Metaphors come to me much later, after an experience has occurred and I am just doing the work and crafting of poets: trying to show, not tell, mixing up words, searching for the pattern of sound that I think fits the occasion. I'd love to say that I dream in metaphor, but I don't. I've never dreamt a good metaphor—maybe Freudian or Jungian metaphors, but nothing that I could really use in my poetry.

BK: In some poems your lines are somewhat measured and long, sometimes in couplets. In others, you’re working with regular free verse and with stanzas that function as paragraphs. What are your thoughts on formal matters, like rhythm and lineation?

BS: I have learned a lot about rhythm and lineation, as many poets have, by reading. Pound's Canto CX--with its fun, hyphenated modifiers like "paw-flap/ wave-tap/that is gaiety," as he is describing the "boat's wake on sea-wall"--is great for studying rhythm. And again, Theodore Roethke informs with his use of alliteration and assonance: "The wasp waits./The edge cannot eat the center./The grape glistens./The path tells little to the serpent." My poems do not have that extreme freedom and interwoven pattern of sophisticated playfulness, yet. As an undergrad at Iowa, I learned scansion, but I don't really like it, except maybe in sonnets and odes. As a grad student now at Regis University, I am learning more about rhythm and lineation. I must mention Bryan Roth again because he made me very cognizant of lineation. He has actually informed many local poets who may not wish to recognize him as a really good teacher because he happens not to be a university professor. He is very generous, at least. That all said, I am really an advocate of free verse, which as David Rothman has continually pointed out, has its own meter and form.

BK: There’s something about your poem “Parallel Lines” that struck me, a presentation of language and cultural difference. You’re listening to some Pueblo women speaking in a dorm and you write “I know we hear each other,. / I know we listen to each other, / though from parallel corridors / that never meet.”

BS: "Parallel Lines" came out of my work teaching college application essays to Native American high school students. I have done this for ten years at sponsoring colleges and universities such as Duke, Stanford, Washington University, St. John's-Santa Fe. I do this through a program called College Horizons.

“Ortiz said to me: ‘We must not throw the beloved away.’”

During the 2008 AWP, I had the opportunity to interview Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz. He was talking about the importance of language revitalization and the barrier, or inability, to really express oneself to someone who does not speak your native language. The tragedy of this country, of course, is that we are losing indigenous languages at breakneck speed, so I am painfully cognizant of this fact when I am teaching Native students. They come with remarkable stories, but sometimes English is really their second language, so it can be very hard to get them to articulate their stories, and yet they are priceless. They don't see their stories as being priceless. That is my job. Ortiz said to me: "We must not throw the beloved away." I have always loved that he shared this with me and I used part of what he told me as the epigraph to that poem.