Reviewed by Rachel Newcombe
This is what I have been telling everyone (especially my therapist colleagues) since I stumbled upon esteemed poet Molly Peacock’s newest poetry book, The Analyst (W.W. Norton, January 2017). This book deserves a new genre: psychoanalytic poetry memoir.
Since the book’s birth there have been numerous reviews, and I cannot find one that is negative. Warning: this review will not be negative, either.
Molly Peacock does something very few people do. She publicly names her psychoanalyst, Joan Workman Stein. Peacock’s willingness to do this creates embodied poems, the analytic couples come alive: Joan and Molly. I’m not sure if voyeur is the accurate word to describe what I experienced reading Peacock’s poems. We are invited into her analysis, the sacred, inimitable intimacy that emerges in the analyst-patient relationship. And even more sacred, Peacock’s poems capture the tender tumult between patient and analyst when the nature of the dyad changes.
The Analyst is a poetic mutual love story between a patient and an analyst, a life story told through poems fueled by free associations. I imagine these poems as words and sentences that emerged and swirled around inside Joan Stein’s office for many decades.
Divided into four sections, The Pottery Jar, The Hours, Ruby Roses, and Kiss Goodbye, are thirty-nine poems from an unconscious process, a life in analysis. The life of a poet and psychoanalysis share the process of accessing language from an unarticulated place where experience exists before language, where words become the best approximation for the unnamable. The Analyst sets a tone of autobiographical reflection with its opening poem, “Gusto.” Peacock’s internal dialogue shapes itself with details sprinkled like breadcrumbs creating a trail of an analysis where the path becomes more important than the destination.
In “The Analyst Draws,” Peacock’s language creates a timeless immediacy. The reader experiences the analyst as she tries to draw:
Two days after your stroke, they hold out
you vigorously reject. Four days on
you do what you loved before language:
Pick up a pencil and draw.
Further on in this poem, Peacock paints a story with words of her analyst’s abandonment of drawing for thirty years.
In the past decade, analysts and patients have been writing more autobiographically about shifting interpersonal dynamics when an analyst’s health is compromised or when a termination is forced due to life’s circumstances. In The Analyst, Peacock’s poetry is an example of life as theory. Transference and countertransference intermingle through interpretation, words, art, and love.
Some of the poems in the book aroused curiosity. At times I caught myself trying to make meaning, to trace a story arc, an old habit, but I quickly remembered to enjoy my experience with the poems. I let them wash over me and suspended the pull for a linear, coherent narrative. In “George Herbert’s Glasse of Blessings,” the poem reveals when Molly found out about her analyst’s stroke:
but your words were garbled and weak.
Yet your message hemorrhaged its color
–in half syllables after your brain
I heard your voice as a painting: CAN’T
BE YOUR. PSYCHO-
THERAPIST. ANYMORE. Meta to physical.
The dreaded words no patient wants to hear. And no analyst wants to say.
“Fret Not” is the poem where I want to caution the readers to tread gently as they read the poetry of Peacock and Joan meeting for the first time since the brain hemorrhage. Joan and Molly are at their most vulnerable here—Joan for letting her patient enter inside her house and Molly for letting us, her readers, enter inside her internal world.
At times, analysts can be judgmental of each other pronouncing what they would or wouldn’t do with patients. But until any of us are faced with a situation like Joan Stein, we cannot know what we would do. I would like to think that I could be as graceful and open as Joan when she allows Molly to select one of her paintings:
The painting I chose was small: two
against a blue background, one with a tip,
a salmon-colored aureole. Lemons
like breasts, nurturing companions, the tip,
of a sensuous world on a piece of paper
folding out and beyond and inward and
onto the contours of the conquered land
Of your mind, landmined.
In analysis, we are taught to make room for the patient’s experience, to not rush in with pithy interpretations. Using our own unconscious process, we teach the patients to listen to their unconscious process, and to be present for whatever emerges. After reading Peacock’s poems in The Analyst, I believe that this is exactly what Joan Stein and Molly Peacock did. Thank you, Molly and Joan, for sharing your analysis with us.