Thursday, August 28, 2008

Poetry and Pain: Jane Cave Winscom

Through life’s meridian bound,
In silent pain I weep;
What joy on earth is found!
Too slow the minutes creep.
O death! Thy aid I crave,
Advance to my relief;
Consign me to the grave,
And banish all my grief.
(An Invocation to Death 21-28)

This is an excerpt taken from the poem "An Invocation to Death" by Jane Cave Winscom. In the 1790s, Winscom wrote three poems ("Written the First Morning of the Author’s Bathing at Teignmouth, For the Head-Ach", "The Head-Ach or An Ode to Health" and "An Invocation to Death") describing living with chronic headache pain. In the above lines, she describes the silent agony she is feeling. The pain is so bad, she craves the "aid" of death to relieve her suffering.

Jane Cave Winscom is somewhat of an obscure poet. Not much is known about her life outside of her poetry. Winscom first published "The Head-Ach" in a newspaper in 1793 as a plea to readers.

Live’s one on earth possess’d of sympathy,
Who knows what is presum’d a remedy?
O send it hither! I again would try,
Tho’ in the attempt of conqu’ring I die.
(The Head-Ach 45-48)

Although written over 200 years ago, some of Winscom's sentiments may seem familiar to modern times. In her three poems, she describes her agonizing pain, multiple treatments she has tried, and a frustration with the medical community who apparently promise much but deliver little.

Physicians, and ye crowd,
Who boast of physic-skills;
I may proclaim aloud,
You’re but a splendid ill!
In vain I’ve sought for cures,
As tortures still confine:
What fruitless pounds are yours!
What pain and anguish mine!
(An Invocation to Death 9-16)

Something that strikes me about Winscom's poetry is the evolution of hope. In the first poem, she seems hopeful that her pain can be can be relieved by bathing in the Teignmouth (a popular treatment at that time for many different illnesses).

I chid my fears—my cowardice was nipped,
And next below the wave my head was dipped:
A strange sensation—in a second o’er,
And I quite braced, much happier than before;
When I bathe next, I’ll have two dippings more.
(Written the First Morning of the Author’s Bathing at Teignmouthlines 18–22 )

By the time she writes the last poem, her hope has changed. She no longer believes in the physicians or other practitioners who have tried in vain to relieve her pain. She now places her hope in death. Through dying, she may finally be at peace.

And ye of tend’rest tye,
To whom I yet am dear!
Heave not a fruitless sigh,
When you behold my bier!
But join me to the dead:
Rejoice my days are o’er;
And say,—“that peaceful head
Shall bow with pain no more.”
(An Invocation to Death 41-48)

Winscom is not alone in using poetry to express physical pain. The American Pain Foundation has more contemporary poems written by those suffering from chronic pain.

References: McKim, A. Elizabeth, "Making Poetry of Pain: The Headache Poems of Jane Cave Winscom" Literature and Medicine 24, no. 1 (Spring 2005) 93–108

Thursday, August 28, 2008 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 0

Monday, August 25, 2008

Frida Kahlo

There is a certain theme surrounding much of the art and music discussed on these pages; that creation is often born of personal suffering. Perhaps no better example of this exists than the life and work of Frida Kahlo.

Born in 1907 in Mexico, Frida was aspiring to be a doctor, when at the age of 18, a tragic bus accident forever changed her life course. Having been impaled by a metal pole, suffering a fractured pelvis among other injuries, she spent her recovery time exploring the world of painting.

She later met and married a man 20 years her senior, a famous painter himself, Diego Rivera. Much of the tragedies she encountered during her life have been portrayed masterfully in Frida's surrealist paintings. Diego called her art, "agonized poetry", and certainly agonizing is one of many words people use to describe her work.

Frida had several great losses in her life. Due to the bus accident, she discovered she wasn't able to carry a pregnancy to term. Desperately wanting to be a mother, both the loss of actual pregnancies as well as the loss of the idea of being a mother come across in her works.
The painting "Henry Ford Hospital"(1932) was painted after one of her miscarriages. This was the very first time in art history that an artist created a painting specific to the death of an unborn child. The painting communicates more than this loss. It also portrays Frida's suffering and isolation which followed. Represented here are 6 objects symbolizing different aspects of her anguish: Model of female reproductive system, a male fetus, a snail (represents the slowness of miscarriage), pelvic bones responsible for the loss, an orchid (symbol of fertility) and an autoclave for surgical instruments.

Although the bus accident happened at age 18, Frida continued to have problems with her spine requiring extended periods at home in traction. This next painting "The Broken Column"(1944) was painted during a 5 month period that she wore a steel orthopedic corset. She wrote in her diary, "To hope with anguish retained, the broken column, and the immense look, without walking, in the vast path...moving my life created of steel".

Notice the cracked iconic column in place of her injured spine and her flesh pierced with nails. The background landscaped is also cracked and open as tears fall from her eyes.

The final painting of suffering to look at is "Without Hope"(1945). The name itself should give indication to the feelings portrayed in this painting. Here again is Frida, stuck in her four poster bed that she spent so much time in. The landscape has become even more barren than the 1944 picture. Above her is a funnel, force feeding her all types of meat products. Again the classic white tears fall.This time of constant pain and isolation from surgeries was more profound knowing that in 1940 she and Diego had divorced. He had not only been caught being unfaithful many times, but in fact had a yearlong affair with Frida's younger sister Cristina. This then was yet another huge loss in her life.

As she became more and more ill, she became very aware of her own mortality. She had had over 35 operations in her lifetime. She wrote of her own death, "I hope the departure is joyful, and I hope never to return". Frida Kahlo died in 1954, thought ultimately to have died of a pulmonary embolus.

If you're in California, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is hosting a Frida Kahlo exhibit until Sept. 28, 2008. For Online I suggest The Art History Archive which has over 70 of her works.

Monday, August 25, 2008 by Amy Clarkson · 3

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Seventh Seal

If you're looking for a feel good movie, this is definitely not for you. The Seventh Seal is a 1957 Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman. There is a lot going on in this movie, so I'm writing about some of the main points. You could easily analyze each scene.

A knight and his squire return from the crusades to a plague ravaged Europe. When Death comes to take the knight, he challenges Death to a game of chess, with the stakes being the knight's life. The scene below is taken from the beginning of the movie and sets up the plot of the movie. (In subtitles for those who don't speak Swedish.)

The title of the film comes from the first line of the movie, which is a taken from the book of Revelations. This passage is repeated at the end of the movie. The movie is full of religious references and symbolism, as the knight struggles with death and his belief in God.

The chess game is worked in throughout the movie as the knight travels through the countryside, witnessing the horrors of the plague and how people react with facing their own mortality. Groups of people roam the country whipping themselves in penance and begging for God's mercy. A women accused of being a witch is burned for fear that she brought on the plague. (Did I mention this was a dark movie?)

In the end, the knight distracts death so that others may escape. After the chess match, he asks Death to reveal his secrets.
Death responds "I have no secrets...I am unknowing." When death comes back for him, he is welcomed into the knight's home with a mixture of fear and awe (maybe even some happiness) by the knight and his friends.

I see the knight as a man who has essentially just gotten a terminal diagnosis. He makes a wager with Death, bargaining for his own life. He tries to buy more time.

But in the end, no one escapes Death (or death).

So, what are the pieces on our modern day chess board? Are modern medicines just more moves to buy time in a losing chess match? Interesting movie, but it doesn't leave you with the most pleasant thoughts.

As a side note, the painting referred to by the knight in the film clip is one in the Taby Kyrka, a medieval Swedish church, painted by
Albertus Pictor in the 1480's. This is said to have inspired Bergman in the making of the film.

Monday, August 18, 2008 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 2

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9

Knowing the context of a composition can transform the listening experience, especially for classical music, that has no words. Such was the case for me when I heard a brief history of Gustav Mahler's 9th symphony prior to listening to the Chicago symphony preform it. Perhaps you will say the same after this post.

Let us look at an intricate interconnection of events that eventually leads to the final complete symphony of Mahler. First we must look back to a German poet named Freidrich Ruckert. In a 2 week span Ruckert lost two of his five children to scarlet fever, Luise age 3 and Ernst age 5. As a way to grieve their loss he wrote a series of 425 poems in a collection called "Kindertotenlieder" or Songs on the Death of Children completed in 1834. These were of a private nature, and only published after his death in 1872.

Gustav Mahler came across these poems and found in them an inspiration for composing his own 5 song cycle entitled Kindertotenlieder (1901-1904). This was an unusual time for Mahler to be writing songs about children dying. He had just married Alma Schindler in 1902, and the birth of two daughters soon followed: Maria Anna(1902) and Anna (1904). Many found it difficult to understand his ability to be interacting with his own new young children and yet focused on such a haunting theme in composition. Mahler's wife was even appalled, "What I cannot understand is bewailing the deaths of children who were in the best of health and spirits...hardly one hour after having kissed and hugged them." (Gartenberg)

It was Ironic then when in 1907, his beloved daughter Maria Anna contracted diphtheria and at the young age of 4, died. 1907 was also the year Mahler himself was diagnosed with infective endocarditis. Grief stricken and with a new life limiting illness he began work on symphony No. 9.

We are not surprised then to hear these themes in Mahler's 9th symphony. Listen to the beginning of this 1st movement. It begins subtlety, even hesitantly. Can you envision Mahler at a picnic with his daughters, the merriment of life abounds. Then the intrusion begins, an ominous discord like a storm on the horizon. The climax is ushered in with trombones piercing the calm, as death appears in the midst of joyous life. The strings then follow as a voice crying in sorrow.

It is in the 4th movement that Mahler finds his conclusion. He uses a theme from his earlier Kindertotenlieder cycles in this movement. Although when he originally wrote it he had to imagine the loss, it was now more poignantly real. The poem of that 4th cycle speaks to the recognition of the tricks the mind can play when we've lost someone dear. Yet in the lines that follow you'll note the resolution, in the term "those heights" which Mahler changed to a German word meaning "heaven". From cycle #4. Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur aus gegangen:

"Often I think they've gone outside! / Soon they will get back home again! / The day is lovely! Don't be anxious, / They're only taking a long walk / .... They've only gone out before us, / And will not long to come home again. / We'll catch up with them on yonder heights / In the sunshine! / The day is fine on yonder heights!"

As you listen to this part of the 4th movement, hear the words of the poem. The sadness behind the strings slowly resolving into resolution. Mahler himself perhaps finding his own peace, not only in the loss of his little girl, but in his own mortality. Do you hear the theme saying, "It'll be okay", the grief is still present, but "the day is fine yonder heights"

Sources: Gartenberg, Egon. "Mahler:The Man and his Music" (New Tork: Schirmer, 1978), 288.
Rushing, Randal "Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder: Subject and textual choices and alterations of the friedrich ruchert poems, a lecture recital, together with three recitals of selected works of F. Schubert, J. Offenback, G. Finzi and F. Mendelssohn"
Works: Mahler, Gustav "Symphony No. 9"

Monday, August 11, 2008 by Amy Clarkson · 0

Monday, August 4, 2008

William Utermohlen: Descent into Alzheimer's

In 1995, American artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. In an interview, Utermohlen's wife commented, “From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself.” He began a series of self-portraits that demonstrate not only the physical effects of the dementia on his brain, but also how he saw himself through the eyes of his illness.

The first self-portrait was done in 1967, while he was healthy. The other three were done after his diagnosis.

As his disease progresses, you can see how his artwork has less fine details. The lines are more blurred. In the second photo, Utermohlen's face is greyed, maybe showing what he felt was going on in his mind. Like there is a shadow cast over his face.

In the first, his eyes are wide open and looking out. In the second, they seem tired and almost covered by his brow. They are more sunken into his face. The lines and creases of his face become more prominent.

He also seems to focus on his face and head. The rest of his body becomes irrelevant. It's only his mind that matters. This becomes more obvious in the third and fourth paintings.

Later in his disease, his image becomes more and more distorted and abstract. His images also become more flat. They definitely lack the depth seen in the first.

In the third, he seems to focus on certain facial attributes, like his ear and nose. His eyes seem to be more prominent than in the second. His brow seems furrowed. The background looks almost architectural. Maybe attempting to create a space?

In the last painting, there are very few recognizable features left. The entire image is very abstract. His nose and ear are still somewhat prominent. His eyes are absent or distorted. His mouth is barely penciled in.

Per the New York Times article, William Utermohlen no longer paints. As of the time of the article, he was living in a nursing home. An exhibit of his art has been on tour around the world entitled ‘Inside Alzheimer’s: Portraits of the Mind'.

Monday, August 4, 2008 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 6