EP&M Online Essay

Trauma and Poetry: 
A Psychoanalyst’s View of the Healing Power of the Arts
Frederick Feirstein

Since the earliest days of Freud and his followers, psychoanalysts and literary critics have tried to construct theories of creativity that link the arts and the art of psychoanalysis, My ideas about the relationship between them come from my work both as a poet/playwright and as a practicing psychoanalyst. They have found their way into my literary criticism and psychoanalytic essays having to do with dramatic structure, meter, rhyme, and particularly metaphor. In twenty years of doing clinical work, I have learned to listen carefully for one key metaphor which repeated throughout treatment helps uncover memories of  trauma and the unconscious fantasies attached to them. The metaphor in its many permutations comes to structure all of treatment which fascinatingly reflects a split in the psyche that shock and fantasy have created.

By bringing these metaphors over and over again into the psychoanalytic dialogue, I can help my patients heal their splits and revise their life narratives. That this can happen at all is because the mind has a natural propensity to use metaphors and dramatic techniques for internalizing trauma and, if we’re lucky, for self-healing after trauma. We can see how natural this self-healing process is when we look at those dreams in which we psychically revise both private and public trauma. We give ourselves the nocturnal distance we need by turning the actual details of trauma into dream metaphors, and by dramatically making other dream characters suffer the trauma with our dream selves safely watching. In our waking life we see the same natural attempts to repair trauma by creating and participating in the arts. During the walling in of the Warsaw Ghetto, for instance, right up until the boxcars were sealed, there were more theatrical and musical performances, art exhibits, and poetry readings than ever before in that city. Creativity has a considerable healing power, more potent and sophisticated than our mere dreams. Creativity gives writer and reader, painter and viewer, composer and audience a safe place to re-experience emotions that have been stunned into silence. It does so partly by making a bridge of metaphors connecting and creating distance between what we knew and felt and what we didn’t want to know or feel.

In our own time, right after 9/11, many psychoanalysts such as myself had to try to heal themselves along with their traumatized patients. As I tried to help my patients articulate their past personal and public traumas that were instantaneously connecting to this new one, I simultaneously tried to help myself by writing poetry. I helped ward off post traumatic stress symptoms from developing by first writing a long lyric sequence, “The Unholy Dark,” structured in part by using the key metaphor of the lost home, one that I had used in my earlier work.  “The Unholy Dark” helped me metaphorically connect the 9/11 trauma with earlier ones, and to set in motion a mourning process for the lost home that I had been unable to complete before. But even this mourning process would turn out to be only partial until months later when I dramatized the aftermath of the disaster in Dark Carnival: A Dramatic Monologue.

My wife and I were home when the first plane hit. My son who lived downtown saw it and called us. We turned on the t.v. and watched transfixed as action movie fantasy turned into reality. That day, and through the rest of the week as I listened to my patients, I found that the towers quickly became metaphors for parents who had died, or had crumbled for them in childhood or adolescence. These metaphors showed up in their dreams and just below the surface of their daylit dialogue. At the same time, I saw how the fall of the towers were also connected for me with the death of my parents, and the clustered deaths of my extended family.

Just months after my son was born, my father died from a flu shot -- an ordinary American object, like a commercial jet. Afterwards my second tower, my mother crumbled emotionally, and then died of a heart attack. As I was beginning to write “The Unholy Dark,” I found I was connecting the rescue efforts at 9/11 to my failed efforts to rescue them. (I had warned my father not to take that shot, and tried to stop my mother’s long fall.) Further back, the disaster and rescue efforts connected to my being three years old and watching my mother fall down unconscious, seemingly dead. It also hooked into another public disaster I was directly involved in -- trying to rescue children during the Nigerian Civil War. Then, in my twenties,  I realized I was also trying to rescue my mother’s childhood from the pogroms she had witnessed in Russia. Here is the first poem I wrote in “The Unholy Dark”:


I’m served by Erica, badly exposed
To Chernobyl burning in those breakfast years,
Scrambling her cells to terrorist cells
Just miles from where my mother witnessed Hell.
“By smell,” she says, “we’re forced to witness this
Crematorium mixing bone and skin,
Spreading up here like metastasis …
And your son watched the two planes hit, and your
Brother-in-law escaped from a top floor?
So eat,” she smiles like Mom, “You’re getting thin.”
And time and place collapse and the dust blows in.
As the days following 9/11 limped on, I realized the poems I was writing were developing into a sequence connecting the present disaster with still earlier public and private traumas. I might say that preconsciously as well as consciously, I was symbolically making bridges between this event and the fantasies it generated with split-off earlier ones whose full meaning and emotional impact were becoming clearer to me as I wrote. From my own neuropsychoanalytic point of view, I might say that I was storing as metaphors and symbols my experience of 9/11 in my brain’s cortico-limbic system, with the aid of the self-hypnotic effects of meter and rhyme to prevent long-term kindling of neurons that result in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Or, to put it yet another way, in the unconscious time doesn’t exist, and by using metaphors, meter, and rhyme, I was trying to place the experience of this trauma and loss in the larger, more time-bound narrative of the poetic sequence, thereby revising my life narrative as I had told it in earlier poems.

One of the recurring themes of the new sequence and of my earlier poems is the relationship between the loss of my childhood home and the bucolic home in the Berkshires.  For instance in 1994, I had  written:


This is the house we lived in, white as a bride.
Mozart is echoing the birds outside.
We’re sitting at the table playing gin.
My son is laughing every time he wins
Because he’s eight, because we’re all in love,
Living the future we’re still dreaming of.
Spring is in the mountains, green as Oz,
In the fresh-cut flowers in the crystal vase,
Mirroring the garden where the bees are thick.
Though everyone was dying, dead or sick,
These were our uncontaminated hours,
Like bottled water sipped by scissored flowers,
Permanent in memory, sealed by the pain
That childhood ends, and we can’t go home again.
Here, under the impact of 9/11, I looked for that home again, now through the eyes of my grown son.


You’re in the Berkshires with your girlfriend – “Hi!” –
And, though our house has long been ruined and sold,
You’re driving past it where our road is still
Turning, as always, burning red and gold,
And we’re still in Manhattan, me and Mom,
Our Towers ancient rubble, smoking still,
And only seven years have passed, and we
Are drinking scotch to kill the coming chill.
And now that our retreat is gone (we knew
When we first bought it, it would come to this),
I’m singing Heroism’s final song
About how lovers live from kiss to kiss
Until their autumn ends in killing snow
Falling on rooftops, boxcars, empty streets,
And you are bumping on our narrow road
And blowing kisses at our last retreat,
And in those windows, as in memory,
We’re cooking, reading comics, writing poems
About this future that we knew would come,
Though we were safely sitting still at home.

Finally, the theme of my lost childhood home and my lost home in the Berkshires came together in “Half The Office, which describes half my psychoanalytic office. In it are both a painting of a house reminiscent of our house in the Berkshires and  a Chinese vase from my mother’s house. In this process of self-healing, the  poem moves the theme and key  metaphor of mourning  the lost home into one of  re-attachment and reconciliation:


What seemed unnoticed when the towers fell
Now seems symbolic, lasting, luminous,
As if disaster cast a magic spell
On the merely simple, merely beauteous.
A print of Durer’s St. Jerome, a gift
Our oldest friends brought back from Amsterdam.
The meaning of his contemplation shifts
Now that they’re ill. His forehead seems a lamp
By which I see our youthful lust and zest
After our dinner, after the end of light.
His eyes are dim, he needs a little rest.
And so we lie back down and say goodnight.
Next my diploma, 1984,
For psychoanalytic training, and
A store-bought painting of a farm house door,
Blue like our Dutch Colonial, and land
With its luscious fruit trees – apple, peach, and plum,
Its grape arbor with its ancient moss-stained swing,
Its violet beds and staked delphiniums,
Its bluebirds, and its bluejays bickering.
Below the door, irises in profusion,
Stuffed in a basket colored copper, tin.
We bought our house in Time for its seclusion.
Our road once faced the Berkshires’ oldest inn
Where then only haystacks stood, their lights the stars
Our son would reach on tiptoe, trying to snatch
Fireflies, one hand Venus, one hand Mars.
It vanished as if Time blew out a match.
What is the meaning in this Chinese vase
Mom left, four scenes of mother and child
In daily tasks made fabulous as Oz?
The child is earnest, Mom is gracious, mild.
For me the meaning’s green and porcelain white
And red and green and black with flecks of gold,
And I am seven captive to delight
Though I am nearly sixty-two years old
And I can’t mourn her, though I mourned the rest
Who died in clumps like those who disappeared,
And when she fell down dead I got depressed
And lost myself in clouds of childhood fears.
The vase is calm in motion, glazed like hope
Covers me blindly with these simple themes,
Mother and child who will not have to cope
With what’s beyond the realm of quiet dreams.

For months after finishing what turned out to be a twenty page sequence, I was uneasy, knowing that I would have to go beyond the narratives of my own life history and dramatize 9/11’s impact on my beloved city. After a few months I realized that what I had to do was to return to the city I had described in Manhattan Carnival and write its sequel. Thirty years before I had celebrated Manhattan exuberantly in the dramatic monologue Manhattan Carnival  It is both a book-length poem and play in which the monologist Mark Stern wakes up after an awful one-night stand to search for his estranged wife Marlene:

      from Manhattan Carnival

     “Get up!” Marlene?” I smell the April rain
And squint half-dreaming at the windowpane
Where winter light intensifies to Spring.
I pull the plug so our alarm won’t ring,
Then prop myself up on our double bed
And dip to kiss the imprint of your head
And rub your pillow for Aladdin’s lamp.
Oh, I’m a sheltered child away in camp!
Get up, she’s gone. “Marriage is for the birds.”
But who expressed feelings in those words
Stockings, torn underpants litter the floor.
And who’s that leering from our bedroom door?

Now thirty years later with the city darkened by 9/11, I decided to set Mark Stern on a parallel but much darker journey through more or less the same locations. So now in the Fall of 2002, Mark Stern again wakes up, this time to find both Marlene and their daughter missing, his beloved son-in-law Jack gone for good.

            from Dark Carnival

     “Get up, Mark Stern, it’s summer, spring, it’s fall,
And winter’s coming fast; the caterwaul-
Ing geese, heading for Miami Beach
Fly in a V, perfectly out of reach,
As Jack, twirling bacon on a fork,
Called on his cell phone -- then flew from New York
Over New Jersey, south to God knows where,
A soul in freedom, once a millionaire
Broker with Morgan Stanley, handsome Jack,
Sensitive Jack. Mourning won’t bring him back.
         To give me and the reader some more distance from the unfolding tragedy, I tried to summon not only courage but the sense of humor, albeit darker one  I had used in Manhattan Carnival.

      from Manhattan Carnival

   I need the window of the Tourist Boards
Of Fifth – their beaches, lower Alps, and fiords –
The students playing clarinet duets,
The mime in top silk hat and epaulettes,
The Hari Krishnas spreading incense, joy,
Their flowing peach robes, shoes of corduroy,
The blind man singing hymns, St. Thomas Church,
The scaffolding where whistling workmen perch,
The haughty English manager of Cook’s,
St. Patrick’s nave, Rizzoli’s picture books,
Tiffany’s clock, the pools of Steuben glass,
The pocket park with cobblestones for grass.
Remember how we’d stroll on your lunch hour?
My nickname for you then was “City Flower.”

from Dark Carnival

This Times Square is a souk, a carnival
Where tattooed druggies mix with biblical
Preachers and peep-show businessmen who lurk
For quick fixes before their pin-striped work,
Among the hawkers of fake jewelry,
Americans Al Immortality
Makes prey – Mozambiques and Vietnamese
And Pakistanis, Malis, Japanese
-- All splendid decking out the goods we’d sell,
All multicolored, every infidel,
And Saudis, Yemenis, and Sudanese.
America’s packed in a valise
Each opens, not a dirty bomb, a vial
Of smallpox – there’s no murder in the smile
Of missing teeth or, if they’re lucky, gold.
They’re all New Yorkers, flashy, chatty, bold
Beneath huge billboards selling underwear
Of gorgeous nudes, huge sculpture in mid-air,
And adds for scotch and candy, DVD’s and slacks.
This is what Al Immortality attacks.
The whole square trumpets, This Is Liberty,
“These teeming masses yearning to be free”
Of amputation, clitorectomy;
For what these peddlers joyfully declare
Is real Americana: buy, compare,
Manhattan Music, passionately rare.

Finding some of the courage and sense of humor I was searching for helped me repair myself and complete the mourning for my parents, my collapsed towers I had only partially completed in “The Unholy Ground.”

As Mark Stern got closer to the unholy ground of the World Trade Center site,  I also began to understand, self-analytically, what I was doing with the style of what I was writing. As in Manhattan Carnival, I had deliberately chosen rhyming couplets to stylistically echo the theme of re-unification, here of Mark with his wife and daughter, and with a city that was trying to come together in defying death. I had also made many passages and in lines parallel in DarkCarnival   But though I knew these conscious reasons for the rhymes, I couldn’t understand why I had chosen those nursery rhyme names – Jack and Jill – for my characters. Consciously I had chosen Jack for my missing hero because the name referred us back to an earlier public trauma, to our loss of “handsome Jack/ sensitive Jack” Kennedy, to a similar shock to our innocence when he was assassinated. But what was involved with my nursery in my original home that made me use Jack and Jill? What earlier private trauma was I trying to remember and repair? When I brought Mark to the disaster site, reuniting him with his family, I suddenly realized I had reversed the generations to reunite my own Jack and Jill in my quest to mourn them: Jack, like my father, brought down by the deadly needle of a plane, and Jill collapsing into despair like my mother: “Jack and Jill went up a hill/ To fetch a pail of water/ Jack fell down and broke his crown/ And Jill came tumbling after.”

But it wasn’t until a happy coincidence a few months later I would discover an unconscious connection to a very early trauma that most likely had led me to choose not only the names of these nursery rhyme characters, but also the meter of the poem. A psychoanalytic peer group I had joined was discussing infant research, and a couple of people expressed the conviction that infants really couldn’t conceptualize their feelings until two years old. Their comments made me feel oddly trapped and angry. Then I had a flashback to being well under two years old. I saw myself lying on my parents’ bed with a bout of severe recurrent ear abscesses, waiting for the doctor to come and puncture them. I vividly remembered tapping out varying patterns of ten beats with my fingers to distract myself from the pain.  Was this, I thought, the basis for the iambic pentameter in my work, and specifically for the meter in Dark Carnival with its many varying feet and caesuras? Certainly the nursery rhyme names, Jack and Jill, at a deeper level, had their origin here. Finally, it seemed that those two jets hitting were not only  also metaphorically connected to my father’s flu shot but the terror of the doctor’s needles hitting my ears – metaphor originating in the body.

After the meeting I told myself that if metaphor and dramatization could be derivatives of early traumas and fantasy , then maybe too were meter and rhyme. Perhaps at its deepest level my own attraction to rhyme, as well as meter, originated in this very early attempt to hold myself together in infancy as I was doing now. And, as I went on with this bit of self-analysis, perhaps too the rescue fantasy driving both the lyric sequence and the dramatic monologue derived at its earliest from a profound wish to have my parents rescue me from both my pain and anger – my anger at them while they held my arms down so the doctor with his needles, like those planes, could pierce. So in a parallel passage to Manhattan Carnival’s ending where Mark and Marlene are reunited, Dark Carnival ends with a very different reconciliation, one of child and parents that helped me cope with the traumas I’ve described and helped me heal.

     from Manhattan Carnival

The crowd ignores the dwarf peddling The News
Of murders, bombings, chaos, doomsday. Time.
We’re innocent, let’s dance. The only crime
Is coyness, lady. Let the sun collapse
And night come, we must shoot our craps
Once more, must challenge Death to play.
The jukebox blinks. The song is Yesterday.
A traffic helicopter overhead
Reports that you’re refusing to be led
Even in celebration, reports the crowd
Is laughing at us arguing out loud
That you should lead, that I think in clichés,
That somehow love remains when love decays,
Reports a man is falling to one knee
And shouting, “Marlene, please re-marry me!”
Reports that you are crying “Yes No Yes,”
Reports that I’m unzippering your dress
And leading you to bed, that you’re without
Your diaphragm. “Let’s have it now,” I shout,
That you shout back, we’re coupling like rhyme,
Reports that we’re oblivious to time.
I’m coming – do you hear that baby crying
Across the garden where the wash is drying.

     from Dark Carnival

   “I’ve come to mourn him here and, as we’ve prayed,
We’ve heard rock music classically played.
I see Jack dancing in a masquerade
With Lady Death – black dress, black hat, white plume
Uptown, crosstown, and in our living room.
He bends her low. She tries to kiss his lips.
He keeps her distant in a graceful dip.
The music swells, and they are out of sight.
I call him, ‘Jack, come back to say Goodnight.’
This song is from your time, a haunting melody,
My ghost, ‘My darling, save the last dance for me.’”
Now Jill sits, small, beside me on a stair.
I see Jack dancing, molecules of air
Under the Winter Garden’s mosque-like dome
Now cleared of rubble … “Daddy take me home
By cab, let’s see our skyline as we drive,
As it still stood when Jack was still alive:
The Chrysler Building and The Empire State.
We ate this island whole on our first date
From the Brooklyn Bridge to the George Washington.
Please help me get up with the setting sun
Smearing our skyline with a blinding sheen.”
   Come on, let’s take our baby home, Marlene.
Let’s flag a cab or gypsy limousine.
Let’s take her home to thirty years and back
Before another terrorist attack
(Their bodies shaved, their eyes all deadened black)
Attempts to make our skyline disappear.
Let’s seize the day, this night, this year.
Let’s seize Thanksgiving, Christmas … Do you hear
That segue, bows drawn slowly as they play.
They innocently smile at us, and sway.
You know that song since six, Jill … Yesterday.

To sum up, then: Working with metaphor, plot, characters, meter and rhyme both in the lyric sequence and the dramatic monologue helped me to prevent what might have become psychic numbing, or at best the formation of symptoms. It also helped me stay not only emotionally alive but self-analytical as I listened to my patients talk about what 9/11 and its aftermath meant to them. In writing poetry between and after sessions, I was not only better able to help them, but moving by the drama to reconciliation at Ground Zero, to heal myself as well.



WHAT HAPPENED now seems tragic but abstract,
Somewhat, after fear calm fear calm fear.
TV turns it to historical fact
As we complete the turning of the year,
As we switch channels on the Afghan Show.
The deli owner from Islamabad,
Who chattered about the NASDAQ and the DOW
Until they crashed with what few stocks he had,
Wears rhinestone flags in his sweater now
And asks me if I know the Iliad,
A poem which, like the Qu’ran, defines our space.
I answer him, but what he understands
More than my words, the smile artificially lighting my face,
Is my tone: Hope despair, hope despair, hope,
As if we’re shouting through Time’s desert sands,
Two mock-knights: grace, disgrace, grace, disgrace, grace.
He sticks a cigarette between his lips.
He moves on to “Odysseus’ Oases.”
I have my mind on what I want to write.
We talk and gesture in this kind of stasis,
Lonely and frightening in this cave of quips.
I pay for my coffee, doughnuts, we shake hands.
He keeps the butt unlit and laughs, “Don’t ask.”
Allergic he remembers. Understand,
In our New York City such friends wear no masks.
“I wouldn’t hurt you in a mask of smoke.”
“Non-toxic,” I laugh, “That’s a dirty joke.”
He nods, I nod, an Ishmael/Israelite,
Old comic strip characters, our bubbles
Emptying into question marks – contrite
Compassion for each other’s troubles …
I trudge back to my office where I’ll write
Trauma and Symbolization in the dying light.


The room I write in is quiet as old age,
Rage dying, hope dying, despair dying.
I write by hand, slantwise on the page,
Sometimes closing my eyes and in pain sighing.
The carpet is a calming green and gold,
The couch, L-shaped, is Berkshires autumn brown.
Behind it is a table: cherry, maple, oak
Like the trees that protected the home we sold.
The air tingles, not with toxins – just jokes told
Like dreams, slips, associations. Here transference
And nonsense actions make symbolic sense.
Resting on the table is a wooden swan
Also from our dining room – Fred, dream on –
And colored like the good witch from our land in Oz,
Stargazer lilies bursting white and pink
In our home’s earthenware, unbroken vase
Filled with spring water for the stems to drink.
In the window, a girl is lost in urban night,
Marching a keyboard to a metronome,
Above her Hopper lovers still as stone.
I glance at them when it gets hard to write,
And at the statuette of white Quan Yin
Who, like my mother, is my soul’s guardian;
Turn left, a stark white telephone
Where patients call in terrors from within.
Beside it is a radio whose news
Of terror gives in now to simple blues.
Above it is a vial of Klonopin.
Below it is a drawer with Cipro, masks,
Tuna fish cans, M&M’s red white and blue,
My will, my passport, and my father’s flask
For football whiskey – and what gifts have you?
I write and doze and write and doze again
Until the dawn blooms a purplish pink.
I shave and shake my stubble in the sink.
This book will take till I am sixty-four,
Three years from now – where will you be then?
I lie back on the couch, pick up my pen
And think of you reading this distraction.
I hope my ending ends in satisfaction,
Fitting you better than these crumpled clothes
Before the world brings terror to my door,
I’ll say, “Good morning, Fred, lie back and doze.”

* Adapted and developed from an essay by Frederick Feirstein of the same title first published in Partisan Review, Spring 2003