Writing & News

Launch speech for Ann Shenfield’s ‘A Treatment’ by Helena Sandahl. Readings Bookshop Carlton 30 March 2023

In a seminal paper from 1914, called On Narcissism, Freud turns to the romantic poet Heinrich Heine and his Schöpfungsliede, Creation songs, from 1844. Freud is working on the question of love: Why does man in the end give up his narcissism and let the love flow on to other objects than self? Well, he reasons, “a strong egoism is a strong protection against falling ill, but in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we are unable to love.” And it’s here that Heine’s lines come to Freud’s mind; he sees an analogy in the Creation songs, where God speaks: “Illness was no doubt the final cause of the whole urge to create. By creating I could recover, by creating I became healthy”. Creating – or writing – as treatment.

The theme of writing as treatment in all senses of the word, that is as in handling, manipulating, dealing with, negotiating, setting forth (in speech or writing) conducting oneself toward, has been taken up by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

For him poetry and poets have a particular place in psychoanalysis. Poets, says Lacan, say things in spite of themselves. They play on the equivocity of language and they know without knowing how to manipulate not just speech but the very structure of language. Poetry, he argues, like psychoanalysis, does something. It’s performative, and he adds – perhaps especially to poets, why not?

Poets, Lacan says, also manage to say things before anyone else and he refers to Arthur Rimbaud’s brilliant formulation “I is another” a phrase that’s been thrown around so many times it might have lost some of its power.  The phrase was penned in May 1871 by the then 16-year-old poet in a letter to his school teacher and benefactor George Izambard. Rimbaud: “It’s wrong to say I think, one ought to say I am being thought. Forgive my play on words. I is another” I is another captured the truth for young Arthur, and the expression was important to him we understand when we learn that that he used it again two days later in another letter to a friend.

The element of surprise of “I is another” is there in Ann Shenfield’s poetry. She suddenly catches the otherness in her, the place of the Other in her own being.  She writes from a place that is the most intimate yet outside, or other; extimate with Lacan’s neologism., She says: “It is the place I’m trying to reach but also trying to step beyond, in my writing and life.” Yes… In her poem ‘It’s easier’ we find the following line: [and I say, you are moving forward, when all I’m doing is sinking with the tide] in this place that’s sometimes no-place that sings me like a siren”. A place that is and is not, that’s familiar, yet strange, uncanny, and with an irresistible pull; It sings her like a siren.  And her reader here [Helena], is captured, is taking in every word, walking along with the poet, just in the way Freud described so well in his paper on creative writers and day-dreaming.

A Treatment is a poetic reflection on life. It’s a family’s history constructed, reconstructed, narrated and created anew in that gap where language can occur between the two points of a beginning and an end. It is in that gap that she catches something with language that is not of language but of the real.

A Treatment is also about our current times and as such a political commentary on how we treat our environment, other lives and our own.  There is an urgency in her voice, a fury at times. There is rhythm. The prevailing tone – or, I think, her way of being in the world  – is open, direct, astutely observant and witty. There is a tenderness, such as in the gentle poem Sway. There is the theme of light that repeats in this work in such a distinct, lyrical way… She is a visual poet above all. The eye, the light, the gaze become the premises of her poetry. The image – external and internal – is the creative source of poetry.

Psychoanalysis – and I want to add poetry – offer another treatment of time – and of our times. In an article called “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychanalysis”, Lacan writes:

In psychoanalytic anamnesis, what is at stake is not reality, but truth, because the effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come, such as they are constituted by the scant freedom through which the subject makes them present.

This is the effect of Ann Shenfield’s poetry. She reorders past contingencies and creates a new beginning that also passes through the beginning of the new past. The same comes again but as the different and possible. The poem is not a passive recollection of the past but an active repetition forward in time. In her work she reaches for a new version of truth.  and I think her metaphors don’t just have poetic power but they also “do something” as Lacan put it. They have practical vitality.

To finish, I wanted to read to you a few lines from one of Lacan’s seminars [sem III]:

Poetry introduces us to a new dimension of experience. There is poetry whenever writing introduces us to a world other than our own and also makes it become our own, making present a being, a certain fundamental relationship. Poetry is the creation of a subject adopting a new order of symbolic relations to the world.

I invite you to enter the world of A Treatment. For its lyrical beauty, for its luminous metaphors, for its way of treating the real with language.

And: You get to play with Polish Profanities – a bit of enjoyment that’s not to be missed!

Helena Sandahl