The Geography of Self
About the author: Michael Alcée, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing in Tarrytown, NY. He loves bringing together the wisdom of poetry and fiction with psychological insights, and how these can enhance a creative approach to living and being. Connect with Michael through his LinkedIn or learn more through his website.
It is fall again, and as I rake the leaves, I find myself joining the speaker of the poem "Totally" by Tony Hoagland (1998). Mindlessly humming a tune to a song he thought he hated, the speaker laments, “That’s how it goes when your head and heart/are in different time zones—/you don’t often find out till tomorrow/what you felt today.” Thus begins his reflections on how curiously the self is built, how funny it is that it operates in a perpetual state of jet lag.
Hoagland here is echoing a wonderful poem by Pablo Neruda (“We are Many”) which goes through a series of humorous surprises—the cowardly self coming out when the brave self is wanted, the arsonist coming out when the firefighter is needed—and what’s more, he is starting the poem where Neruda ends.
At the conclusion of Neruda’s poem, the speaker is so thoroughly intrigued and puzzled by the wild discrepancies of self, that he decides that instead of talking about self, he is going to ‘speak of geography.’ That’s how vast and diverse the states of self are! And the science of that selfhood, psychotherapy itself, requires a vocabulary that encompasses its many time zones.
Hoagland has us go here too, but he takes us through the seasonal ritual of raking leaves instead. His speaker enjoys the beauty and order of leaf piles in their "glowingheaps of cadmium and orange" -- how nice it is to be put together and golden! -- but yet he doesn’t understand the leaf removal process, identifying so much more with the "entropic gusts of wind." Although he appreciates the dynamic and non-linear state of flux to the static and orderly forms, it perturbs and puzzles him, leading to the first subversive turn of the poem, in which he wonders, as we all sometimes do:
“Is it natural to be scattered?”
There is an intimation that he could be part of nature rather than disconnected from it and that maybe the process of putting leaves into neat piles is not all it’s cracked up to be. As he ponders this though, he seems to come up with all sorts of alarming examples of his own fragmentation, to the point where he nearly concludes, “my here is disconnected from my now, so never am I entirely anywhere.”
Lucky for us, Hoagland rescues his speaker with the consolation that this capacity is at the core of what makes him and us fully human. Referencing the sciences and the arts (through Darwin & Keats), he reminds us that this capacity for division is also at the heart of the capacity for creation. It is the paradoxical propensity to be both "lost and found" that we find in life and in our therapy experience that gives us the ring of joy and hope, even in the most scattered and seemingly disconnected moments.
One could say that within the unconscious is both the capacity to be separated and the capacity to be connected. And as Hoagland concludes, it is in this place, where we can have the "strange conviction" that we are going to be born.
Hoagland, T. (1998). Donkey gospel poems. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.
Neruda, P., & Stavans, I. (2005). The poetry of Pablo Neruda. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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