Elizabeth Scanlon on "The Brain Is Not the United States"

The Brain Is Not the United States

The brain is not the United States, the brain is the ocean,
Dr. Yquem said, referring to its activity as opposed to its structure,
the brain is not the United States whose borders are mapped  
& whose expansion is inhibited by bodies of water —

The brain is the ocean who is vast
& incorporates every chemical dumped into it,  
whose depths we do not know, whose darkness we fear
in the most primordial way,
who stymies knowing up from down
when one sinks fast into its long pull.

The brain is not the mind, try explaining this to a child,
that what is meant when we say I don't mind is not the same thing
as in make up your mind & that neither of them are the stuff in your skull.

I am trying hard to concentrate on the kind doctor's research
but the statistics mean nothing, I don't have a head for numbers 
so maybe these distinctions are wasted on me,
which is not to say that my mind is made up but this is not my subject.

The brain is le cerveau in France, I'm France
says the overacting imagination. I am not the United States.
The cerveau is also a walnut, you can see that,
a little crenellated universe in a nutshell,
it is a want, the brain, it is a salvo
it is firing all the time in concert with other, louder artillery.
It is warning you –
It is the nanny state –
It is a slow gun that is nonetheless faster than we can see.
The brain is not the United Mind it is something more diversified.

But I cannot pledge allegiance to that because I am not the brain.
I am not a good citizen of any nation. The brain is the citizen of the body
& pays its taxes without much complaint.

But because I am France I am not interested in medication.
I believe in unruly behavior & that etiquette can
& must be learned. It is a subject, like math.
It is not a subject of a royal kingdom. Rulers rarely care
what you say about them.

It is not the United States, it is not where you are from,
with its false meritocracy & aspirational wellness.
It is what you choose to do.

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
& we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.


 On "The Brain Is Not the United States"

This is a poem that began from a passing remark that struck me as simultaneously comforting and mystifying. My son has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, or high functioning autism, and throughout his childhood we've seen various doctors and therapists. During one follow-up conference, a doctor who had done a series of cognitive tests with my son said the brain is the ocean in the context of an explanation of what we do and do not know about how the brain develops and functions.  I don't know if it was his intention to speak to me in poetry, but it was a metaphor that stuck. I spun out in many different directions from that image, and this poem is kind of a mess intentionally—it was my desire to somehow represent the blending of wonder and panic at these ideas. Wonder at the beauty of science, the bottomless, borderless search for understanding; wonder at the brilliance of my son. And panic at the idea of not being up to the task, of being a bad student. Of being an inadequate speck in the ocean.

There is also a desire to dissociate from the United States at a moment when being an American feels shameful. This may be deep subtext, but the national crises in both healthcare and education become glaringly apparent when you have a neurodivergent child. So, while not overtly political in its aims, there is an undercurrent of anger in this poem at the failure of government to fulfill its purpose, especially with regard to the well-being of children. What is a nation if it is not always adapting, developing, moving forward? Our brains—our imaginations and potential—should not confined to or by the idea of American-ness. That is one hurdle. There is so much more.




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