This week’s Last Words feature comes from an article written by Heriberto YÃ©pez, about the indigenous Mexican poet and curandera Maria Sabina. You can find the full article here, and another YÃ©pez article that explains Maria Sabina in more depth here.
Recently I have been thinking about healing. My maternal grandmother was a witch/faith healer (both she and my mother would prefer “faith healer”Â, for witches are a different thing; and yet, like pharmakon, the poison and the cure can occupy the same space), my mother is a nurse, my father was a surgeon, two of my brothers and nearly all of American cousins are nurses or nurses-to-be. I was an extremely sickly kid. For most of my life, nearly the entire surface of my flesh was a constant unhealed wound, which was only occasionally, and never wholly successfully, obscured through the use of immunosuppressive drugs. I’m now growing out of it, I think, very slowly and still very painfully. (Which is to say, those wounds are now becoming scars; sometimes even disappearing entirely.)
In any case, there was never any shortage of medicine in my life. As a result, I’ve long been hateful (with the hatred shaped by intimacy) towards the hospital, the doctor, the nurse, the faith healer. Hateful towards the medical and the miraculous, the entire industry of care, such that I now find myself at a bitter distance from healing itself. As a concept, as a possibility.
And I have especially resisted the idea of any relationship between writing and healing. Just the opposite: I looked to writing for all the vital sicknesses. Young, I cherished Kafka’s Ungluck: that writing should affect us like a disaster, should grieve us deeply; like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into the forest far from everyone, like a suicide. (All this comes before the more famous, but less powerful line, at least to me: “axe for the frozen sea within us.”Â)
(And I still want all the vital sicknesses.)
So when it came to writing and healing, I found myself doing the thing that I resent and criticize the most: protecting writing from “contamination.”Â I’ve never liked the chastity fights surrounding writing; that privileging of the neutral and universal Good Writing—whatever that so disingenuously means—in defense against, well, what, everything I love: writing that plainly doesn’t aspire to universality, neutrality or the pure and hypoallergenic Good; writing that engages with representational issues; sloppy confessional writing, obtuse writing, vulgar writing, cheesy writing, writing outside holy artfulness, writing outside even literacy, writing before writing.
But here I was, doing more or less the same thing: protecting writing against the contamination of what I thought of as the nutritional, the constructive, the prophylactic. I was suspicious of the industry of optimism, rehabilitation, and resilience. I still am. I was opposed to the idea that writing could or should be in any way “good” for me; that writing could or should heal me. Me, or anyone. Writing was not part of the prescriptive sphere. It did something else, made something else. I love a porous and mutable writing practice, the kind of writing that means everything is a writing, and life a writing gesture; but the only thing I ever made sure to leave out of mine was healing. I would not make a medicine out of writing. Just give me one place where I’m not trying to be cured, I thought. Wound, not scar. I believed, and still believe these things.
And yet, and yet. Recently I have started to think about healing in writing as a possibility. Healing as a radical gesture. Difficult, painful, revolutionary healing.
I can’t say I totally feel it yet. Still committed as I am to sickness, decay as survival, fungality and revenge. I think I always will be. Though I should probably clarify that I think of sickness and decay as being in grotesque continuity with health and life, not opposed to it.
But I’m starting to think about outright healing. Not only sickness that redresses by virtue of its audacity and exposure, the sick body as furious subversive shield (a position I love and know best)—but healing healing; the frank desire to heal and be healed. And about writing that can live in those healing and healed places; writing where it becomes compromised, beholden, ruined, impossible, and even help-ful: full of a hard and sore kind of help. When YÃ©pez suggests that “removing pain from others”Â can be one of the things that happens in writing, I am embarrassed by how much this simple phrase holds me. I even feel stupid, since obviously this is nothing new, many people have all kinds of stories about how writing saved their lives, about how writing through and about trauma was able to heal them and help them.
Now I tentatively realize it isn’t simple at all, or that its simplicity is its guts. It’s stark and risky and naked. To remove the pain from people. To not only put your hand on the infected wound, but to actually will it, will it, will it to mend.
China MiÃ©ville in an interview: “I got very interested in scars because of the fact that scars are not wounds. They are ugly and they don’t look like our conception of our healthy, unblemished selves—but they are about healing. We are all a mass of scars. And I like the idea that healing isn’t about smoothing over the traumas that happen but growing over them, so that you’re still shaped by your traumas, by your wounds, but that you are also ok, healed. There is no core “I” to which damage is done—we are all the sum of our damage.”Â
Thinking about the wound-scar transition as life. That first splitting of the cell. Wound-making, scar-making.
Heriberto YÃ©pez says of Maria Sabina: “She was trying to go beyond. She wanted to open the book. Maybe trying to open the book too much was the reason why her own book fell apart.”Â
Open the book. Open the book. More. More. Even if it falls apart. Open the book. Even when one is failing, especially when one is failing. More. More. Even when it is impossible, especially when it is impossible.
Heriberto YÃ©pez, “Re-reading Maria Sabina”Â:
Sabina represents a critique on those who believe (like Paz and most mainstream poets) that poetry is a voice that comes from nowhere, “inspiration” or the unmediated unconscious, an ahistoric otherness, those who consider poetry is an individualistic practice by essence or solitary compromise, she challenges those who find the idea of having just a single identity possible, of who try to produce a voice without a context, an impossible purity.
But Sabina is also a critique on those who believe there can be radical experimentation without healing, or see the poet as a sophisticated specialist whose social role is just writing, those who act in the mere sphere of literature, and who don’t break up the boundaries that separate the different domains of their own culture. “Poets” without radical wisdom, wisdom that comes from the roots; “poets” who don’t go to the roots of society, to cure ignorance, sickness, injustice and poverty.
Sabina was without a doubt a poet. She was not only a poet, but more importantly poetry’s wholeness. Her activity’s goal was totality. She reached for the impossible. Searching for a book-beyond-the-book. Having a new poetic body. Breaking the differences between writing, reading, chanting, talking, dancing and silence. Removing pain from others. Fighting for the survival of a great culture. Investigating sounds, meanings and languages. Increasing wisdom. Teaching. Being radically self-critical, recognizing when one fails, when one is dying.
Being a writer is easier.