We Are Barometers of the City; Collected Poems by Psychologists
This article is a collection of poetry by psychologists who practice in cities, mainly sunny Sydney, with solidarity from others. Poetic introspection gives us access beyond the visible into the affective atmosphere present in our therapy rooms, but also embodied at the beach, in the streets, in houses and apartments, in schools and further beyond the crowds to the bush and further to the island prisons and England and the United States. We present poetry as cultural data, a snapshot of the city.
KeywordsPoetry Practice Atmospheres Cities
Practicing psychologists are in a unique position to reflect culture, given they spend their days listening to the many voices of their city, a polyphony that sometimes haunts us, keeps us awake at night, but reflects the culture of place. We hear the voices of voice hearers, mingled with our own, and turn towards them rather than away (De Jager and Rhodes 2015).
“We live at the bottom of a great ocean of air. We can’t see it but we can feel it every time the wind blows. This air presses on us from all directions and we walk around with a great weight sitting on our heads. We have, however, evolved on this planet with this atmosphere and this gravity so we don’t notice the pressure on a day to day basis”. (Symonds 2010)
Finding the means to access the mind of the contemporary psychologist is another matter. We have responded to the problems of our age with monologic certainty (Watzlawik 2017), the barometric glass clouded by the scientist-practitioner model, evidence-based practice, audit and competency-based learning. We have optimal efficacy but are lost. Indeed, the current trend is towards cybertherapy and avatars (Gaggioli 2017), where artificial intelligence threatens the therapeutic relationship. Psychology is a disembodied discipline, reflecting the sickness, rather sensing it and then standing against it.
“There are openings in our lives of which we know nothing. Through them the belled herds travel at will, long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust”. (Hirshfield 2001)
For Klempe and Valsiner (2014), psychology is “guilty of crimes against humanism in the building of a science, and that it has been involved in that crime over the last two centuries” (l.54. p6.). They present Kierkegaard as a historical witness, arguably the first psychologist championing subjectivity before it was gone. Poetry and the Arts can support the rehabilitation of our field, returning the field to its origins in introspection, back to the toleration of uncertainty, unfinalisability, back to polysemy.
In this paper, we aim to present a collection of poetry as an act of resistance. Resistance against death. We have planted our feet in the dust of the streets, in real rooms, flesh and bones.
Interestingly, Pind (2016) describes Kierkegaard as a poet, because of his imaginative approach to psychology. We aim to bring back the poet-psychologist. None of us are professional poets—indeed, for many, this is the first time thinking through our work poetically—but we aim at knowledge production, learning as we type.
I Dance for Money by Kylie Saab
I hate myself. How do you have fun without alcohol? He does not love me anymore. What is the point? I do not even remember his name. It is meaningless. Do not ever join the army. I do not have private health insurance. I have had depression since I was 7. I killed them all. I am scared all the time. I sent 50 resumes today. He will not validate me. I remember the look in his eyes. I told you so. The place was full of blood. I was drunk. I had the knife in my hand. The wind blew me back. I want lighter skin. He just wants casual sex. It was a long way down. I just got wasted. I am wasting your time. I miss her. They put me up for adoption. I am lonely. I am nothing. I am worthless. I just want to scream. I hate wearing a suit. She is going to go live with her dad. People will think I am weird. Why I cannot stop crying. If I died, do you think they would care? I killed her. Did you know only 1% of the ocean is protected? I want more followers. It tells me not to trust you. It was my fault he died. She is stalking me. I am having strong self-harm urges. I am going to lose my house. I do not think I can get through if you do not call me back. I have been keeping him sick. I enjoyed it. I grabbed the knife. It is cheaper to stay in hospital. I had a miscarriage. I called the police on my parents. I slept in the car. They were the orders. No one likes smart women. I am in love with you. I could go to jail. I have seen 15 other therapists. I have this old gun. You have no idea what it is like. Who the fuck are you? I dance for money. The government should do something. I hate you. Everyone drinks. I guess I will just be an Uber driver. I did not say no, so it is not rape. I watched you leave work yesterday. There are moths flying out of your mouth. Will this be my life? Is there a cure? I cannot see a way out. I do not know the word in English. It has been 13 years. He says I spend too much money on make-up. She cut my finger off. She slept with my brother. The gun was jammed. Meds just make me fat. It is not my real name. I am guilty. I did not sleep last night. He has photos of me. I have never touched myself. She said it is because I am Asian. He is a deadbeat. He is going to find me. It is an arranged marriage. They said it would be a 3-week wait. I hear voices. Can you help me? I just want to be famous. They are not his children. I came so close yesterday. I am bored. Everyone does coke. No one understands. It is so hard. Will it stop soon? How much longer? Am I doing ok? I think I am gay. What happens when you die? I will get rid of the bag tonight. I will flush the pills tonight. I do not want to be Muslim. Are you angry with me? He lied on his profile. I did not recognize myself in the mirror. Is not it obvious, minds are in the culture not the brain. I am sorry, I am high. Why do I do this? Please. I just need to cry. What is wrong with pot? Sometimes, I pretend to be someone else. I do not remember. I do not know. That is exactly what I am afraid of. It is just been pretty numb. Ice helps me study. I need to go to hospital. Why are you keeping me alive? I just flinched when he touched me. She posted it on Instagram. I saw red. Burning men smell like bacon. I lied. My priest told me to pray more. I have cancer. My daughter was raped. I might go back to prostitution. I hate the city. I keep having these nightmares. I am stuck in a bulimia hell. Can you talk to my teacher? I cannot stop thinking about it. My boss is horrible. If we got a better place, it could work. They increased my medication. There are crooked cops involved. My mum said it would be better for the family if I killed myself. I am going to be homeless. I was raped in hospital. I cannot take this place anymore. The kid just smiled as raised my gun. I sell drugs at NA meetings. I do not know if she is still alive. I do not know where she is. He said I was a terrible dad. My dad is homophobic. This is my last chance to have a baby. The market is crashing. I can see him now, he is just behind you. I am so tired. I am used to it that most people are racist. She does not want me to see you anymore. I cannot afford rent. She will not behave. I need it to stop. Yeah, it makes sense, but it will not make a difference. I just do not care anymore. Yesterday, I lost $15,000; Monday it was $50,000. Dad said I deserved it. It is too competitive. Dad said I was the disappointment of the family. Mum said I was a mistake. I hate AA. I will not get in. How did I get here? Why is it easy for them? I came in second. Mum said she hates me. Her parents are racist. She put an AVO on me. She said I was boring in bed. I honestly do not have it in me to start over. He said that medication will not work for me. He went ballistic at me. I am 50, who is going to employ me? People laugh at me. What if they do not like me? I just want to be skinny. I do not want to stop using. I cannot afford a lawyer. I cannot afford to come anymore. Why did they spit on me? I did not get into Uni. I am scared of taking the train. The wait for housing is too long. I bribed the cops. At least he is Jewish. I hate being a nurse. Am I paranoid? I just need to do more yoga. I dropped out. I am not smart enough. This is not going to work. I just want to curl up in a ball. I cannot stop smoking. No one picked me.
Smoked by Ruth Nelson
I was born with this skin
Painted the colour of my ancestors
And their sin.
What occurred between my particular convicts
Shipped from their own colonised home
That child alone in a Sydney orphanage, taken from his convict father, no wonder we are vicious,
That teenage great-great aunt, locked in the bush shed until she died, starved and cooked in roasting tin, her sin getting pregnant and creating another mouth to feed, no wonder we are defensive.
And the mob here
In those high lonely forests west of the mountains—
What gives me the right to say
I have skills that heal
When the colour of this pigment paints me a perpetrator?
Give me your children and they will feel better.
That is a familiar line to their ears.
The weather out west in this city is hotter.
A grey of hot sky and scrubby mountains nearby.
My white meets their black and I am the other.
There is just enough forgiveness and an extraordinary grace of spirit
That lets me in the door.
I heard a wealthy white girl asked kindly what she would do after school.
“Anything,” she laughed.
The elders laughed too. But they heard more in her answer than she did.
This city has two maps.
It has two geographies.
A white one, concreted.
Its climate is as poisoned as its waterholes, its creeks subjugated for rail lines, leaking through into ferns in the underpass.
Its nights are hotter, bricked in from its cooling southerlies, conditioned against lives lived outside.
It is superimposed on a black one.
Written in wet concrete near the school crossing
Sovereignty never ceded.
The ghosts of gums and roos and hardy joyful little black kids
More visible at the edge and in the evening
When the air is thicker and the wet sheen between us thinner.
Knowing this now, and having walked through the smoke following the ghosts of all those stolen children
In the heat, the relentless western heat
How do I take notes?
Stay by Lisa Parker
Stay still do not talk do not sing, do not move, breath.
Put your make-up on.
Stay still smile show your bones do not be angry, fake it.
Look for lovers.
Stay still retreat do not move stay still.
Use the night to game sleep in the day denies the shame.
Hide from the outside gaze.
It hurts I do not fit empty. You know the rules on how to be.
I cannot do this anymore. I am tired it is time to die.
No one knows, it is hard, no one.
Empty my heart is beating my stomach aches hot.
I am here.
My heart is beating my stomach aches.
I am breathing. Still.
A Prayer by Jo River
In this lane,
down that street,
of blank windows and doors
that stare openly,
I sometimes feel
the shards of words spoken
that cut my mind
and broke this world.
I think of him,
his reckless and beautiful fury,
those violent brown eyes
furtively seeking retribution
for all that was lost.
With a will to fracture innocence.
I only have one prayer,
which runs like a mantra
along each footpath:
That I can love
and find my way back.
Southerly by Paul Rhodes
I am a barometer of the City. Not the whole city, but the lives that flow along the bus and train routes and roads from the suburbs to my office, along the streets, from the station, near the Coke sign, past the café and the Mexican, down the hill. From the beaches, the businesses and the red brick. A river, where all roads lead to my poor self, to the oasis and quiet of my room, where I try and breathe. I have to purposefully breathe so I do not say anything. I have to trust and wait.
Young children, some pretending everything is fine, some heavy with the burden of their parents, some broken, others much worse, cutting themselves, fascinated with broken glass, hidden. Some waiting for justice. And a woman who told me she has five spirits inside of her and that one was dead.
I am a barometer of my City. Not the whole city, but the weather that I see as I look out of my window across the rooftops below the inpatient unit where young people stay. It is like a hotel up there. I felt the ground shake the other day and thought there was an earthquake, but I still had to carry on. I put my arm around my colleague and told her she was good and she did too. We are as lonely as our patients in this factory in the City.
Cocaine is popular, and self-harm, suicide, starvation. Perfectionism. Violence. Couples drift and argue, and they struggle to answer my questions about how they met, and what first attracted them to each other and when they knew he/she was the one. Everything is the other persons’ fault. I try every trick I have. I am a barometer of the City.
Imagine what it would be like to spend your day trying to keep a loved one alive. A mother or a father, a wife or a husband, trying to keep their loved one alive. They watch the stairs and balconies, the drawers and the drains and the doorways. Sometimes, they resign themselves and accept that it is just going to happen. Imagine what it would be like to know less about yourself and how you feel than a doorpost, to live disembodied, with no one home, walking around the City every day without your body. You watch the stairs and the balconies, the drawers and the drains, and the doorways.
I stop for a coffee every morning before clinic just to feel I belong and the owner tells me “You got this.”
I stop for coffee every morning just to feel like I belong and they call me “Pauly.”
Every Thursday, they have a pasta of the week. There is an old man with a dog that scratches his back on the pavement. Every week, they give him free pasta, and the man buys fresh mincemeat and feeds it to the dog with his fingers.
The City is a character in their lives and my own. “Dufrenne helps us think of atmospheres in terms of singular affective qualities that express a certain world” (Anderson 2009, p. 3.). At night, when everybody is asleep, the city roams the suburbs, growling, devouring souls. During the day, it lives in the private schools who drive their kids to death and in the poor schools where the boys dance to the death in the playground. It lives in the office blocks and the Mosques, up in the Mountains and out West.
In the polyphony, we wait.
“Tell me what has brought you here today?” “What effect do you think he would say that has had on him?” “I can see you’re distressed, what has happened?” “How close would you say they are?” “Who is the first person you would turn to?” “What message do you think she was trying to send?”
I remember once nearly drowning in the ocean trying to swim from point to point, and the waves were too big. I put my hand in the air so a fisherman could see me, but what could he do. I felt the pull of the sea and the feeling that I should give in to it. But, in the end, I took a wave onto the rocks and clambered up all bloody but free. It is this wave that we wait for. We wait, together.
Shadow by Claire McAulay
The ground is grainy
I dodge the glass
And walk, walk
The towers cast
A long shadow
And talk, talk,
Of routines and of
But no warmth
To connect one
To thousands of bodies
Or the sun.
I gatekeep for the giver of
Blank faces pop against the
Giving what I give
Feels thin and measley
But all of us reoxygenate
Til our smiles become more easy.
I think back
To my last bush Christmas
When the light seemed flat
And the long days, thin
And in this dark box
With stories of misery
And a window to a brick wall,
Life seeps in.
New Moon by Amanda Donnet
It was a new moon.
In the nursery, she waded through the relentless black.
She could not find her son.
She shifted, squinted and shifted again,
willing herself to scrape together photons of light.
But her eyes were tired and would not adjust.
She blinked back fatigue. And tears.
Zombie arms outstretched she lumbered,
pressing herself forward into the unlit night,
until she jarred on the bars of his crib.
A prison for them both.
Her son howled and so did the wind
down empty streets where the village used to be.
Lines of Bodies by Katharina A. Azim
Lines of bodies snake around carefully demarcated tracks,
Feet inch forward in unison,
Synchronized moves of lone dancers.
Push–tread–pull–step, round and round the ropes they swing
Their heavy limbs in slow motion.
Quickened breaths of forced calmness.
The first slopes peel off excitement and joy,
The next unravel time and purpose,
From hereon, the weight of collective motion
Pulsates the bodies along the black cords,
More listless, more sluggish with every round.
Sprouting pearls of anxious sweat.
Mouths yawn, eyes stare,
Hollow circles of fatigue–exhaustion–boredom–impatience.
Damp musk of acidic skin seeps into the atmosphere
Mixing with those who have passed before,
Lingering for the ones who come after.
Stifled waves of nauseous panic.
The farther they crawl, synchronicity grows,
An assemblage of bodies progressing along,
One by one plucked from the line
All on their own.
Deafening pounds of pulsating terror.
The hand commands with a snap of the wrist:
“Papers here. Fingers there.”
Demands spill out of the mouth:
“Valuables to declare?”
Instinctive graze of motherly warmth.
Hawk’s eye catches the touch to the womb,
A hint of protective embrace.
The gloved finger with forceful intent
Stabs the air at the hidden bulge,
Detected. Exposed. Undone.
Muffled screams of desperate pleas.
Led past the previous shovelers and inchers,
Assembled again at the carousel,
Glances briefly wandering over, eyebrows raised
Back to the spinning belongings.
Prickling wounds of unjust shame.
Lastly, escorted past the promising ads:
“Welcome to JFK.”
“Enjoy Your Stay!”
“I <3 NYC.”
“The yearning breathe free!”
Broken in the City by Jhilmil Breckenridge
In this age
of quick fix
and happy pills,
cities of grime,
that are far
from their name.
In this age
of DSM heavy
and the relentless
march of cities
to progress, parents
to better jobs,
to more kickbacks,
laughs all the way
to the bank.
In this age of
black, heavy water
in our rivers,
we ride yet again,
for another wave,
as the city laughs—
all skulled and skeletal—
and another one
bites the dust.
Sydney: A Case Formulation by Danielle Gessler
Sydney presents as younger than his stated age. He is articulate and well groomed; on interview, however, he is agitated and restless, frequently changing seats. He is charismatic and engaging; however, he demonstrates limited insight into the aetiology of his symptoms.
At times he is impatient and sometimes rude in his interactions with the examiner. He seems guarded regarding aspects of his developmental history.
His presenting concerns include generalised anxiety, sporadic depressed mood and polysubstance abuse. His affective state was labile, despite the denial of distress. Present symptomatology was life-long with acute episodes reported at significant life-cycle transitions.
Sydney’s pathology occurs on a background of infant separation anxiety. He reports a distant relationship with his mother and disorganised attachment style. There was evidence of repressed memories of violence and possible signs of callous unemotional traits.
His distress is masked by alexithymia and grandiose delusions. While this provides temporary relief, he also experiences dissociative amnesia triggered by reminders of historical events. Sydney relies on obsessive compulsions on these occasions, tending towards unrelenting standards.
Migrations by Cynthia Langtiw
Ancestors climbing winding roads
Mountains live in me
Still body … rattling train platform
North south east or west?
Technicolour streets we call home
Only for a while
Flat prairie land reaching to kiss
The greatness of lakes
* The Ike poem is Pan-African poetry form, created by Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, consisting of 16 syllables, one for each letter in red (3), black (8) and green (5), in three lines, reflecting the Pan-African flag.
Cracks by Averil Jones
The pulse of this place
In the cracks of the pavement
The abandoned lot
Where empty packets and
Tell me more of people
Than their names.
Across the tracks
Where lost pieces of home
Tell a yearning story
In blood and pills.
And dusty doors that cannot help.
This place that has no light
And the eyes in the skyscrapers cannot see.
The Beat of Time Made Whole by Tracie Rogers
Heart caught in the grip between
Desperation and Frustration
Rising above the hot smoke of
“I know exactly what this is”
The truth is
I have no idea
Shut your eyes
Let me melt between the cervices of this microfiber and disappear
Shut your eyes
Like he does to me
Like she to her
Like her to me
Shut your eyes
Open your hands
What does this feel like?
Close your mouth and taste it
Rising above the sweet sweat of this city
Rising above the politics of race
The oil clashes with us
Washes us in haste and waste
Folks are churning but the sea at the harbour is still
The price of oil falls
Recedes into this session
The city is receding fast
Receding past everything but the talk
So we talk the talk of silence
The cries split between us
In this space
I see you
Stretched across from my folded legs
Your folded heart
I write you though I have no right too
As I see you I see me
Across from me
Catch my heart
Unlatched from frustration
Craft a metaphor to see me
And make me whole
The City wants a metaphor
The beat of time made whole.
In their introduction to a special issue on staging atmospheres, Bille et al. (2015) described atmospheres as “never exclusively a psychological phenomenon, as state-of-mind, nor solely an objective thing out there.” As an environment or milieu; atmospheres are always located in-between experiences and environments” (p. 32). In the poems in the previous texts, these complex interactions between bodies and environments—the multitude of emotions and thoughts, the grappling with the analysis and truth-seeking of psychological practice, the subjectivities and vulnerability of the authors—all become visible in their writing with/in and through their daily experiences. The authors lead us along their conversations with clients, their musings and struggles moving through the city streets, their research participants’ sharing of life-determining moments, their interrogation of colonial complicities, and their own ancestral threads of connectedness to the people they work with, to name a few. It is not the authors’ goal to capture or reinscribe authenticity, value, or meaning onto the observed. Rather, what brings these scholars together is their intention to think with/in and through affective atmospheres in creative writing that helps them challenge the century-old scientist-practitioner models and evidence-based practices deeply embedded in psychological practice and teaching.
Unsurprisingly, such narratives overflow with a multitude of emotions that illustrate not just the interaction between the authors and their environments, but also the authors’ own complex subjectivities. Therefore, to use a traditional representation of writing for these emotive moments would have not done justice to the affective atmospheres described and re-created—atmospheres that are often “transgressing boundaries” (Bille et al. 2015, p. 32) which we as clinicians, academicians and researchers often find ourselves caught up in. To make visible and problematize these everyday tensions between practice, teaching and thought as psychologists, the writers used poetic expression to write through their experiences. Poetry and other forms of non-traditional writing in academia can help practitioners “find a voice of feeling, a voice to explore not only what happened but also how and why and what it meant to us as emotional beings” (Kendall and Murray 2005, p. 745). These foci shift the psychologist’s approach away from the medical models of care of clinical detachment and therapeutic problem-solving, to embracing the messy entanglement of body–object–space in our personal and professional lives.
Richardson and St. Pierre (2005) ask, “What else might writing do except mean?” (p. 969). In the writings in the previous texts, the authors utilize creative forms of textual re-presentation to zoom in on affective spaces as forms of interruption (Kendall and Murray 2005) of the presumed normalcy and trod of everyday clinic, research lab and classroom life. With poetry, they intend to challenge not just the borders between subject and object as observed, in situ, but potentially re-present or stage an atmosphere with the devices of creative writing. While the narratives and their poetic re-presentation exhibit the weave of deeply personal and professional experiences by their creators, the texts are also situated within the writers’ cultures, histories and understandings of creative writing. Some texts make use of stanzas and metres, others use paragraphed prose or capture a multivocal collective in a stream-of-consciousness form. Even with the more traditional formats of creative text and despite the word solidly printed on paper, the spaces, bodies, objects and nature within those narratives remain dynamic, malleable and agentic.
While constructing these affective atmospheres within the texts leads the authors to inevitably become the “architects and designers [who] intentionally shape the experience of, and emotional response to, a space” (Bille et al. 2015, p. 33), the described interactions between subject–object–environment are not stagnant and fixed through the authors’ words. In fact, as “[n]o textual staging is ever innocent” (Richardson and St. Pierre 2005, p. 960), the authors intentionally address their shifting subjectivities and growing uncertainties by directing their gaze towards the development of the physical and historical spaces they observe, for example in the poems “Southerly” and “Smoked”. The constructions of these textual spaces become inevitably fractured, incomplete, subjective, contradictory—observations by not-so-innocent humans of not-so-innocent spaces. As an inevitable consequence, the staged spaces that emerge within the creative texts do not necessarily transport to the reader the same emotions experienced by the writers at the time of their observation or writing; the reader herself may respond quite differently as her understandings are shaped by her own socio-historical, political, familial, tribal, emotive, etc. knowledges and onto-epistemological venture point. How these atmospheres are, therefore, experienced—whether by the author at the time, by other bodies or objects that cohabitated the spaces, or through the readers’ eyes—can vary greatly just by the differences in which the spatial composition is observed (Michels 2015). However, they are perceived, though, the creative texts hold value and human experience as they are transformed from the affective atmospheres into new-other affective atmospheres in their textual re-presentation. The poem itself becomes “a site of exploration and struggle” (Richardson 2000, p. 8) that captures the psychologist grappling with a humanist paradigm of practice—a paradigm that can neither capture nor restrain the complex spaces of the profession. Maybe it is through these texts that we can “break the rules in the service of showing, even partially, how real human beings cope with both the eternal verities of human existence and the daily irritations and tragedies of living that existence” (Lincoln and Guba 2005, p. 211), a relational humanity that is in dire need of being reclaimed and embraced by those who try to make sense of and situate human struggle in their work.
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