Julie Hogg engages with a deeply thought-provoking collection by Dorothy Lehane
Dorothy Lehane’s, Bettbehandlung (Muscaliet Press) arrives and I let it settle awhile. This is the fourth publication by Lehane; following Places of Articulation (dancing girl press), Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press) and Umwelt (Leafe Press). This poet writes with honest verve and determination, here where poetry collides, tussles, sometimes wrestles with science and medicine.
This book is important and I admire Lehane’s writing; it’s diabolo-like, spun around with accomplished skill and always controlled, caught and tightened with the utmost precision. The form of this text is intense and earnest, a relentless exploration of historical female hysteria and its treatment; the book’s dedication, ‘for my sisters.’
The sequence begins in the nineteenth century with an utterance by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot to his assistant, documentarily overheard by Freud:
| c’est toujours la chose genitale | toujours toujours toujours
It is simply astounding how, beginning in ancient times, philosophers and physicians thought the womb to have a life of its own and be the root cause of neuroses. As this work reminds us, treatments have always been enough to leave a present-day reader speechless.
| to enter into | anchor this womb | plunge a closed fist into the area of
ovarian pain | such sites | unsated spaces
Lehane writes frantically in short staccato, poignant phrases. Found speech cleverly brings together breathtakingly fantastical theories (previously acknowledged as truth) which span a hundred years or more. Lehane’s voice enfolds everywoman as she condenses time into an irrelevant measure and reiterates ludicrous clinical practices. The poet’s words then expand into a cacophony of other voices reverberating in an echo-chamber of numerous limitations; the voices of some women are, metaphorically drowned. Lehane’s work manages to be both loud and simultaneously quiet. The form she uses allow the reader to pause for reflection or perhaps research into this salient subject. Bettbehandlung is fascinating, all-consuming, gracious and compassionate.
| who’s got the body
the poet asks, regarding the body as property. Charcot practised hypnosis for hysteria and a tableau by Brouillet captures his clinical demonstrations at Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital, Paris. His patient, Blanche Wittmann, became famous following his lectures; was she dependent on him or he upon her?
| & isn’t this performative
Here the poet draws the reader into reality and melodrama. Max Ernst’s collages also depict damsels medicinally in distress, a popular topic of his time. Lehane explores agency, gender, power, religion and, spiritually, the absence of soul: this is reminiscent of, and progressing from, Gillian Allnutt’s, Lizzie Siddall: Her Journal (1862), written in the voice of a model for Sir John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia.
The soap-opera of real existence continues with many violations of mind and body:
| with cuffs & belts & wristlets fastened to the bed | the sky only ever
clears in part | & only for a little tragedy | we must apply a perturbing method | to break the spasm by means of the
spasm | we must break their pride | monomaniacal or just a little love mad | let go of the tonsure and cassock
| this blood will out | they removed your teeth | force fed you through the
tooth gap tidy your spaces away | | vagina stitched up on Friday night is called growing up missy |
This text is relentlessly rich in content. Reader and poet are travelling together intimately and closely on, between, over and under a myriad of levels. There are many and varied references, some of which come from American professor Donna J Haraway, Hitchcock’s Marnie and Marianne Moore’s literary relationship with Wallace Stevens. Further reading from the author’s comprehensive inventory of sources led me to explore historical menopausal treatments and, also, the fate of women who wished to take advantage of the newly introduced Divorce Act, in 1857.
An exquisite cover image by Mark Lehane evokes all that a female self has endured, still endures and will continue to endure. Dorothy Lehane has written an extraordinarily deeply thought-provoking work which linguistically documents and bears witness to difficult experiences. These are often agonizing to read and acknowledge but always necessarily so. This is a unique collection by and for the voiceless; with chilling timeless pertinence. Read this.