Mia Avramut Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
Sometimes a bio comes in that makes me do a double-take. Yours is definitely one of those. You and I share one thing in common that, for me at least, is unusual: we’ve both witnessed an autopsy. I’ve only been there for one; it looks like it’s a more common experience for you. But you also are a physician and brain researcher, which is fascinating to me. How did you decide to get into this field? What is it like to research the brain? Do you think in terms of possibility – and if so, what possibilities?
Yes, I did perform quite a few autopsies ̶ and sliced countless brains, outside their respective bodies. Many pathologists do autopsies, in addition to the microscope and lab work. While not as glamorous and dramatic as it may seem, this work has to be approached with passion, with artistry even. Of course, you also need running water, good scalpels and scissors, tens of cassettes for tissue samples, and solid training. You have to understand the body in front of you and its history, be organized and know the routine. At the same time, you need to be open to the unknown, willing to be surprised. You constantly think in terms of possibility, perhaps more so in research than in the largely algorithm-based clinical work, which emphasizes precision. As a medical student, I planned to pursue a career in Psychiatry, but my newly minted physician self decided it was time to stop scratching the surface and study Neuroscience and Neuropathology, the inner workings of the brain disease processes. The future of these disciplines looked especially bright during the nineties, the Decade of the Brain. Researching the nervous system proved to be in many ways like investigating other areas of the body. Many techniques and experimental approaches are similar. The implications differ. One seeks to unveil mechanisms that affect the way humans relate to the environment and to each other, the way they see themselves. I thought in terms of possibilities, yes: the possibility that the molecules I focused on were involved in generating disease, the possibility that dementia and Parkinson’s disease will disappear from patients’ lives. And these possibilities were, are, exhilarating and extremely motivating.
Your poem “Earthquake in the city” uses figurative language likening a city in the midst of an earthquake to a woman giving birth. This makes me think back to your fascinating bio and wonder, how are the human body (and brain) similar to a poem? How are they different?
I could elaborate endlessly on how bodies and poems are similar on many levels, macroscopic and microscopic, and on how they function well or not. On how they reveal themselves upon dissection. On the many ways for a body to be unlike a good poem, that include its disappointingly ephemeral nature. I will not do it. The one who brilliantly addressed the lyricism of the body was Whitman, in his “Poem of the Body”:
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more
than a helpless vapor – all falls aside but
myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth,
the atmosphere and the clouds, what was
expected of heaven or feared of hell, are now
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it,
the response likewise ungovernable..
Indeed, the poem flows like a good anatomy treatise- a true anatomy epos! One of the old ones, with pictures drawn by real flesh-and- bone hands.
And the brain, well, the brain is a very cryptic poem indeed, an endless epic one. We understand a lot about it, and that represents only a small fraction of what there is to comprehend. Maybe it’s better this way. Some things are better left unsaid and some revelations we might be unprepared to receive. It becomes frustrating, however, on a concrete level, when the lack of insight affects the therapeutic potential for the very real patient in your office or under your microscope.
Oftentimes, one has to bear with the deeper meaning of the poem, as with the unveiling of subtle biological processes.
In truth, what I find most rewarding is thinking in terms of ways for the nervous system and literature to influence each other. Neuroimaging studies show readers mentally simulate new situations they encounter in narrative passages. The brain lives the fiction. This is huge, both for writers and for scientists.
I'll add a question along these lines: Do I think brain scanning would someday provide an objective test to distinguish between “good” and “bad” literature?
Absolutely! My guess is the cerebral cortex on good poems, on living metaphors, lights up like a Christmas tree. With a piece that doesn’t engage a reader’s senses and memories, the scan is bland. A total Festivus. What intrigues me is the fact that, to my knowledge, nobody looked at the creator’s brain by means of functional imaging. The brain-on-reading vs., the brain-on-creating poetry. With any controls one can muster. That should be a juicy study, and very difficult. Experimenting with neurons and poems- that sounds like a life’s dream come true, and unified, doesn’t it?
How does your medical experience affect your writing? Do you find that it affects your writing more when you write about certain subjects – and if so, which subjects and why?
It is an integral part of me, so it must affect my writing, I suppose. This being said, I avoid biomedical details like the plague, but they do sneak in and inform some pieces, mainly memoir work.
Meanwhile, here are the bodies of my poems, to be seen, perhaps explored, dissected by those who care to do so. And here is my brain, grateful for it!
Your metaphors are powerful. I especially like your use of symbols and images in “Wars of passage.” Will you tell us a bit about your use of symbols in this poem?
It started with a pacifist thought, of the sort I constantly entertain, and morphed into a discourse on the deeper resorts of warmongering. An attempt to integrate the bellicose tendencies of the human race into the larger rhythms of nature, into the rhythms of life. There are at least two main avenues for interpreting the poem. The symbols can be reversed. The generals may be symbolic, or the plants. Either way, the universality of violence is disconcerting. One can attempt to think of it as a variant of normal behavior. Chimpanzees wage wars. Seeds need guts, need spunk to brave the exterior and explode. Plants are embroiled in their own wars- one of them against time. Not to speak of invasive species and noxious weeds. I find it difficult to think in these terms. Controversial as it may appear, I saw a parallel between the cycle of plant development, on one hand, and the cycle of human emotions and behaviors, on the other hand, with war a moral and functional regression. The Generals, each with its own appearance and personality quirks, symbolize this involution, suggestive of a plant dystopia. They effect a state of aggression, in which the plants ultimately decide to reverse their cycles, and hide indefinitely.
I’m also curious: how do you read a poem with symbols like those in “Wars of Passage” aloud?
I don’t have a niche, and I don’t perform, but if I did, I probably wouldn’t choose this poem.
It’s obviously not the ideal one to be read out loud. You cornered me, so I would suggest: General Vertical-Arrow, General Lemniscate, or Without Bound. Perhaps not as poignant as on paper, but still full of possibilities.
What brought you from Romania to Pittsburgh?
More graduate studies. I was accepted in a PhD program. Pure ecstasy! World renowned neuroscientists and neuropathologists make their home here, both at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and at Carnegie Mellon University. So I came, and was pleasantly surprised with the Euro flair many ‘Burgh neighborhoods boast. I fell in love, and I returned here, after a stint in San Francisco.
Do you write poetry in any languages other than English? What do you notice about language from writing in and speaking more than one language? Do you ever translate your own or others’ work?
Language shapes our brain. One example: bilingualism, studies have shown, somehow protects against Alzheimer’s disease. Language can direct our thoughts and moods, their mobility and plasticity. The opposite is also true. To me, the ability to think and write in different languages is both a blessing and a curse. I’m going to leave it at this. Perhaps this is why I rarely write in Romanian, although it does happen from time to time, especially in correspondence. I do not translate- it’s, of course, a betrayal (she says, and lifts the solemn espresso demitasse to her lips, pinky in the air). A necessary evil, no doubt. I don’t have to be engulfed by it, not now. There is but one exception: Romanian nursery rhymes. I do translate them into English, for my sons. On a good day, I also dream of writing a stanza in German.
“Danke schoen, Kaite Hillenbrand!
Die Fragen waren faszinierend.”
Here, I’ve done it. Tchuess!
Wars of passage
Petrified kernels of old wars limp into the neighborhood, into the neighborhood, largely ignored.
General X thunders. General Y burps and sees things. General Z slumps, passes out forwards. Corporals of lead open their names for posterity to promptly forget.
General ↕, on the other hand, fears nothing but tree crux chains and human skin shields. General ∞ grapples with wrinkled cotyledons—wilted Narcissus, fertile and feeble. General Bric-a-Brac hides gold nuggets in his heavy war mouth. General ™, seasoned and stout, aches to plant lush baobab and mayhap jumping onion mazes in each and every no man’s land. For wars on end.
Noisy delirious grains trapped in a circus planter reverse their germination and shoulder to shoulder undergo a bellicose decay in solitude.
Can war with time turn victors into cowards?
If not, just wear a coat of mail under your tegmen-pericarp-aleurone. Shield that pale
embryo, for in time no one will ever feel or pierce it.
If yes, think what a conflict lies in seeds!
Reasons for relish, infatuation and worship
she recapitulates my anatomy
he envies my womb.
he lashes out in lone spurts.
he dreams of oceans, nameless ancestors and
extirpating my ghost hymen.
for a long time, she believed I breathed like plants
and hid my sleeping prey-drive under tetrahedral
self-immolating curvy brain she saw
obeisance in passion
maturity in broad blood stains.
with arms held out like antennae
sprung fingers of player piano
for a long time
he believed me.
Earthquake in the city
undressed choleric multitudes spill from above and from below
sooner or later, later than never
slide out of wombs
shouting “take birth” (or some such dissentiment)
the building churns twelve storey shrieks
a purple rust roar drips
from sky to gnarled ground
stock-stills moon jaws sunk shoulder deep
seals oblong mouths
for the lapsed smoky wail
who needs translucent windows drenched in light?
anatomy’s revealed, contractions rhythmic scuttle back
into earth’s gristbiting and wavy antechamber
the metal skeleton speaks once.
blood halts in all its twisted tracks
and measures the night seconds.
A bird flies through smoke,
Strokes it and shatters.
Smoke billows on.