What would become of our poetic heritage without the spectre of madness? Most of it would dissolve like stardust into the atmosphere. One never tires of exploring the theme of sanity’s tenuous threads and putting words together like a jigsaw puzzle, as if we could possibly complete and contemplate the mirror of our interior mysteries.
Its very nature, of course, means insanity is something no one understands. Yet many of us relate to it, or relate through it, having experienced it in our family dramas or our own private nightmares. It’s a fascinating topic, the labyrinth of the mind. Perhaps we fear its twists and turns, or perhaps we envy those whose lives seem more colourful or tragic. Regardless, the poet is almost obligated to document the sailing leaps and terrifying plummets of the human imagination. And in many cases, it helps if he is mad himself.
Brian Henderson’s new collection, Nerve Language, renews our connection with Daniel Schreber, a mental patient from the end of the 19th century, a time when labels were elusive and misleading, as they may still be. His condition was described as dementia, schizophrenia, and psychoses. Schreber was a perfectly sane judge until he began having outrageous episodes in his 40s, episodes where he received special messages from God in “nerve language.” Schreber kept journals about his alarming experiences, including his sensation that tiny men from distant constellations (stars with names like Cassiopeia, Wega, Capella) invaded his body. When he was delusional, he believed he was the last man left alive.
Brian Henderson tells fragments of Schreber’s story in this gorgeous book, somehow finding language that lets us look at the beautiful side of terror. He doesn’t deny this beauty, even as he evokes the pain and confusion. It was Timothy Findley who once wrote in a short story, “Why are the lost so beautiful?” Why is fire wild and exhilarating, or the ocean stunning in its power? Why is the bewildering vastness of stars—against which we are nothing—the glory every artist tries to convey? Why is the death of a loved one among the greatest intimacies, the most intense ritual a person can experience? Here is Henderson:
rivering through cities, nerves are hot lava…nerves the cracked mirror…the rhizomes of stars
(“Self Portrait with Nerves” 16)
And more beauty:
Through your nostrils
you’d inhale stars
that when they reached the brain
nova thoughts with nowhere to go.
The teeming unending night,
so shaken by miracles
(“Wall, Corridor, Balcony, Door” 79)
Henderson never insists on pinning down the diagnoses or forcing himself—and by extension his audience—to understand. He knows this is the true ineffable. Who is to say madness is not god, that god is not madness? Dostoevsky himself said his own epileptic spells and delusions, whether profoundly beautiful or haunted by demons, were real windows, revealing the other worlds to him. The poet doesn’t try to answer the questions no one has ever answered. He lets the words tumble out to tell their vivid story:
Out in the garden, everything that was once familiar
is left to gather its truth in the rain,
strangeness soaking everything.
(“Gathering Strangeness” 17)
In each poem, the words spill over each other, like the racing, jumbled, creative thoughts of the schizophrenic, free-associating yet establishing their own rhythms:
by they eyes of birds
by the bead of blood
by the dark drops of apple seed
and the mica gleam of salmon scale
by the notes hung on gibbets of air
flung out like smashed seat, by the
ember of heart
banked under the tear in the earth
by the sisters whose ears refused the drink of words
by the mother who polished the skies
by the spirit whisper of pine woods
the broken slash of mirror
in the wrist of the river
(“One, Crossing” 88)
Throughout Nerve Language Henderson weaves a spell, choosing a rich world that allows him the freedom to use gorgeous phrases like “fine filaments of nerves” (60), “the solstice of sanity” (36), and “the secret happiness of disappearance.” But be warned: you may find yourself seeking out Schreber’s Memoirs and being sucked into an underworld where the things that don’t make sense begin making more sense than the things that do.
Lorette C. Luzajic is a poet, writer, and artist. You’ve seen her work in everything from The Fiddlehead to Dog Fancy to Adbusters.