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Umwelt by Dorothy Lehane (Open House Editions, Leafe Press)

Umwelt by Dorothy Lehane (Open House Editions, Leafe Press)

Umwelt, a term in biosemiotics theorised by Jacob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Seboek, unites all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Each functional component of an umwelt has a meaning and so represents the organism’s model of the world. These functional components correspond approximately to perceptual features, and thus to understanding. Dorothy Lehane’s Umwelt takes the semiotic parameters of the body in trauma as its impulse and uses this frame of reference as a way of exploring patient experience, clinical measures and embodied phenomenological practice.

Umwelt begins with a strong sonic and rhythmic surge into the abyss
of the traumatised body with ‘verbal machinery annexed’ as ‘the body still roams’ and ‘is a throne of abuse’ delineating a split between body and speech. There is a clash between an impersonal use of medical language, as in ‘social pleasures rely on the pineal gland’ or flowing backwards / from the alveolar ridge’ and the implied problems of dysfunction, and a personalised anger leading to a ferocious rant with witty asides. This clash of register is at the heart of the poem’s momentum and success. The poem is both personal and impersonal, being imbued in medical language, emotionally and linguistically powerful as shifting attitudes and understanding of the self and the body’s condition change over time. This produces a powerful testimony, as it is both detached and emotionally charged. The reader feels each attack on the body as they are liberally spread throughout the poem’s 424 lines.

The poem charts the ebbs and flows of the illness, tussles with a surgeon and impending surgery, and how it impacts upon the tongue:

The throaty oesphageal tissue dislodges
as if to say here be nourishment & battle
Keep going & Peer at the womb that haemorrhages post-coitally
Remove the tube & it’s still a sticky mess

The sense of struggle around the mouth, tongue and throat is palpable and leavened by the constant reminder that the female body is specific and under attack.

A comparable recent work might be Sophie Mayer’s (O, 2015), where a series of traumas are registered against the female body and voice. Lehane, though, has her own distinct poetic approach and utterance to the point of rage:

At times I called out MONSTER
We never talk body fluids
The couch & my vicarious trauma
“informed” breach

Much of the poem turns on the concept of ‘disfluency’, a term from pathology meaning ‘impairment of the ability to produce smooth, fluent speech’, or an interruption by a pause or the repetition of a word or syllable. The poem starts with a disfluency in the repetition ‘so tongue in throat’ / ‘so tongue in heart’ / … ‘so tongue in rouge’ / ‘so rouge in ruin’, and favours disfluency as an act of disobedience, which the poem in turn embodies. This embodiment comes through its enjambment, shifts, repetitions and returns, as well as all the internal arguments and self adjustments, which serve to register changes to the body and gives the poem its narrative twists and turns.

What has happened to you is everywhere on the lips of strangers
tiresomely
& I’m never sure if they are talking about my faith or my body

Umwelt imprints on the memory through its linguistic force, strident defiance before and after surgery, and the sheer number of striking lines.

David Caddy 27th June 2016

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