Meridian Johnson

"The Problem With Anatomical Thinking—"Meridian Johnson
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2016
Selected by Ada Limón

What inspired you to write “The Problem with Anatomical Thinking—”?

First of all, thank you for this opportunity to respond to your questions. I love questions; they pivot our mind away from "closed" into "open." And, a forewarning: I am full of strong opinions and optimisms about the ecology of the human body. This poem is just one sand grain of my love for being human. This poem is a condensed ecopoetic treatise on turning toward the lushness of the Unseen, that is, those phenomena in life that are apparently imperceptible—our connection to all that was, is, and will be.

I took a brilliant graduate Medical Anthropology course when I was in my third year of MFA at the University of Minnesota. The course exposed me to some amazing writers in the field, in particular, the phenomenology of Robert D. Romanyshyns, Byron J. Good’s anthropological perspective of medical schools and residencies, David Armstrong and his historical reflections of human anatomy, and William Ray Arney and Bernard J Bergen, who together mused about the actual experience of being a living-breathing human being. Reading these texts set some kind of fire ablaze within me. I began reading widely from a list of books that the professor happily recommended.

And then, a few years ago I had an experience of anaphylactic shock where I began to exit this world. It was transcendent to begin to cross over. It was amazing to observe my body systems shutting down, to say goodbye to my children and everyone that I loved. To touch the other side as a kind of experience of living. And then I was brought back by an epi-pen and an ambulance and a crowd of cherished community members. I was so angry for a while about being brought back. When they say “She’s in a better place now,” it’s true. It was blissful. A kind of unity-orgasm exit sensation. However, the experience taught me that being here, now, is equally amazing. Our “now” is the ultimate opportunity for bliss. I am glad that I started to die. I am glad that I didn’t die. I am intimately connected to the corpse in this poem. This corpse will someday be me. And you. And all of us. The Seen and Unseen of what we are lies ready in this poem like a timeless proclamation.

Behind this poem is my fascination with the simultaneity of experience that is, at once, feeling grounded in human form, feeling present, feeling exuberantly alive, and then, because of some spiritual, physical, emotional or mental distress, addled into a victimhood mentality where we apparently know nothing about our own health and well-being (let alone what we might do to heal). This is the experience of powerlessness that we sometimes feel when we “don’t know” what’s happening inside of our bodies. But, how often do we stop to ask the body itself, to see and feel what sort of message resides within? And who demonstrates or teaches us how to do such a thing?

I am also fascinated by the apparent block in our acculturated minds where we see ourselves as separate from our environment. We see the earth as some kind of antiquated object, as though the sciences make the mysteries of the universe “known” to us, and therefore we rise above the earth, separate from it. We call this “progress.” We call this “peer reviewed.” This is not the whole picture. Or a holistic picture. But it is mostly a subconscious perspective of the cultural (economic instead of ecological) waters we sip and swim in. With culture’s help, our consciousness is tight in tiny boxes and without our awareness. We are otherwise inextricably connected to everything seen and unseen. In my view of reality, “illness” and “healing” are part of a continuum of the human experience, which is at once spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental, and thus inherently mystical.

You’ve noted that you work in alternative therapies as a biodynamic craniosacral therapist. Can you tell us a little about that and how it might influence your writing?

Biodynamic craniosacral therapy is a way of approaching the human body on holistic terms. Clinically and philosophically based in cranial osteopathy, no part of a person’s journey as a human is excluded in this perspective of care. This approach to living describes my identity in the most basic way. I am of wholeness. Wholeness communicates. Invites. Resonates. Is limitless. Is sometimes overlaid with shock and trauma. But wholeness organizes everything, even our most traumatic experiences and memories. Wholeness is at the heart of everything. And this is what I am thinking and feeling every time I sit down to write. Every time I observe a shadow shifting in the day’s light, I am feeling what it means to be a living vehicle for wholeness. I am a playful poet. I accept the travesties and gorgeous highlights of being alive. I sense this really comes across as a playful prayerfulness in the tone of my writing.

The poem was originally called “The Problem With Anatomical Seeing—” until our poetry editor accidentally wrote “thinking” in an email exchange. How did you choose the title, and what made you decide to adopt the unintentional suggestion?

I realized in this “accidental” email exchange with Jason Schneiderman that “seeing” is more holistic, and “thinking” is what often separates us from perceiving the total picture of being a living human body. When working with a client I begin by listening to their nervous system, not by “thinking” about what might be happening and what I should “do” about it. The body is a magnificent sentient entity and it’s not enough to meet it by intellectualizing. It is an experience happening, and so I respectful allow the individual’s system to show itself to me. So the word “seeing,” I realized, really speaks to the subtly of perception that my work requires.

It takes time and great awareness to learn to perceive the body accurately. Not long ago I was doing craniosacral work with a retired pediatric physician of 40 years. She expressed her sorrow at allowing herself to reside in her practice like a round peg in a hole. “I never let myself out of the box, and I ignored a lot of my own intuitive wisdom.” She then asked me “How did you learn to trust your hands?”

How did I learn to trust my hands? I learned how to palpate the body and this taught me to “see” intuitively, and to trust what I was feeling and sensing. And then, combined with a deep study of anatomy and physiology, and growing my understanding of patterns of movement in fluids and energies in a person’s system (in balance and in trauma), the body can be perceived in an incredibly in-depth way, right down to the cellular level.

A poet friend of mine said she was referred to craniosacral therapist for a head injury, and the person referring exclaimed “It’s like voodoo, you won’t know what’s happening, but it really works.” And recently, another client popped her eyes open at the end of a session when a lot of release and reorganization had happened and said “This shit really works!”

My point is, “thinking” about the body only gets us half-way to the bliss of being alive. And “healing” is a return to being in touch with this bliss. We have to really “see” the body as a dynamic lived experience. That the “laying on of hands” is mostly anathema to modern medicine is astounding to me. We are made of Life-Force, and so far, medical science cannot exactly explain all of why sentience exists in the first place.

If I just think about what I learned in anatomy lab, if I just see the body as an object, I miss the point. I betray the mystical underpinnings of my living anatomy. “Seeing” is actually a better verb to describe the graceful, reverent understanding I have of what it means to be walking talking Life-Force. “Seeing” is now most often synonymous with “awareness.”

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

Listening deeply to what wants to come through me, not what I “think” should come through me. You might say, “trusting my hands.” Actually, this isn’t the biggest challenge at all. This is my biggest gift. The challenge is universal. Single mother and sole-income earner, a woman with an excruciating amount of interests. Balancing it all, getting the time it takes to pour over one word. Sometimes just one word is more hungry-mouthed than both my children and all my clients combined. How to spread the love around and still sleep seven hours a night!?

Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

My mainstays are HD, Duncan and Levertov, Olson, WCW, Neruda, the Polish poets of the twentieth century, Rumi, Meridel Le Sueur, Rachel Carson, Gretel Ehrlich, Barry Lopez, Gregory Bateson, the Latin American magical realists. My mother read so much work in translation to me as a child; it’s a long list.

Currently, I am reading and rereading Eunice Odio, posthumously famous Costa Rican poet. Oh, what familiar depth and resonance. She left a diverse body of work in both Spanish and French, much of which has not yet been translated into English.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

My partner said to me recently, “There’s no model out there for what you need to write. You are that living model, that unexplored territory. Only you can take us there.”

And a bodywork mentor once said, “Eventually, we just have to stop doing what we were taught and do what we do.”

And another teacher once said, “Study your resistances and your attachments, and if you’re open to seeing the truth of these two things, you will always find yourself at your next growing edge.”

The best advice is always the next moment of presence to the particulars, knowing full well that wholeness surrounds. Jason’s typo of “thinking” was, in the moment, such great writing advice. Thanks Jason!

And gratitude to BLR for this opportunity to play and participate in the place where body and word live as a unified event.

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