“Nathan, in the Ancient Language”,
a poem in Ernesta, in the Style of the Flamenco by Sandy McIntosh
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, NY, 2010)
Knothole in imagined sylvan glade
Lacan suggests: “You must start from the text.... The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second.... Similarly, when it comes to our patients, please give more attention to the text than to the psychology of the author...” (Lacan 153, in Evans 13-14). Inspired by Lacan, I would suggest that a psychoanalytical reading of the poem “Nathan in the Ancient Language” (Sandy McIntosh) may provide what is hidden between the lines – silenced or repressed meaning.
Lacan defines the concepts of need, demand, and desire. According to Lacan, the need is a purely biological instinct that can be satisfied. The newborn is helpless and must rely on the Other to satisfy his needs. The newborn must make the Other aware of his instincts, and thus, vocalizes his needs, a process termed by Lacan as demand. Initially, the demand is limited to satisfying the biological instinct. However, if the instincts are satisfied repetitively and consistently, the infant begins to associate the Other with confidence and comfort, and ultimately the Other evolves into a representation of love. The demand itself also evolves into both satisfying the biological instinct and the need for unconditional love. However, whereas the Other can satisfy the biological need, the need for unconditional love cannot be satisfied. This gap between the infant’s demands and its partial satisfaction by the Other represents what Lacan defines as desire. Theoretically, when the parents, and especially the mother, are healthy and respond to their infant’s biological and emotional demands, this gap is small. However, later in life, the Other is represented by objects other than the mother, resulting in widening gaps. Therefore, according to Lacan, the desire provides us with a constant pressure and it is eternal (Evans 36-39).
As Sandy McIntosh’s poem, “Nathan, in the Ancient Language,” unfolds, we become familiar with several figures that are part of Hey you’s life. Interestingly, all relationships are imperfect to a certain degree, demonstrating what Lacan considers as desire or absence. Needless to say, these absences adversely affect the character of Hey you. The title of the first part (Fabric) raises connotation to the “fabric” of the speaker. In this context, words are like raw material from which the human being is made. Like clothes made of fabric, we also have “fabric” such as our parents, culture, language, words etc. The first part is the only part where we meet his original fabric, his father, who passed away during his childhood. It seems that the speaker and his father were not close. Not only didn’t his father call him by his name, but he named him: “Hey you”, as someone he didn’t even know. His father appears to be interested only in his expensive clothes and his status, not showing warm or fatherly feelings to his son:
“Hey you”, Father called.
“Come feel this new suit of mine,
Coattails, this fabric,
Intricate touch.” They fit,
As if he’d been born to them,
Not they made to his order.…
These descriptions give us the feeling that everything is artificial, external. He chooses to describe them as “reflections” and not directly: no warm emotions, no “we”, only “he” and “I.”: “How wonderful our reflections/ He sun, I moon” (McIntosh 87) . The son has not been the primary focus of his father’s life. Therefore, it is possible that the speaker has never experienced even what is close to an unconditional love. Using Lacanian terms, the father has not responded to his son’s demands, thus creating a widening desire (absence) already early in life. The father concentrated on his desires and failed to respond to his son’s natural desire to be recognized by his father.
Hey you has never really separated from his father: He was waiting to hear the sound of the landing coffin, but he never heard it (McIntosh 87-88). This idea was repeated several times in the poem (McIntosh 115, 117). The description of the coffin rope reminds us of umbilical cord between the father on one side and the mother and him on the other side:
On endless rope,
We waited days,
Of landing. But sound
Came there none.
Thus, it may be said that the son has never left his father behind, possibly leaving him with desire to become his father and manifested as obsession to cover himself with representative clothes such as “gentleman’s costume”, “cassock” and ”robes” (McIntosh 101, 106, 128, 133,152, 154).
The loss of the biological father has never been recovered. In the second part, a painful reality is painted. The son, Hey you is being harassed by the waiter. Still, despite having financial means, the son is helpless. This response may represent an unconscious desire to stay the little boy who is waiting for his biological father to come and take care of him. Also, it may represent a reaction to his low self-esteem (or, by itself, a response to the disabling father or a transference reaction- reacting unconsciously to the waiter as if he were his father). The suffering of the son and his endless helplessness are further emphasized when he came to his stepfather after failing to cope with the world. However, his stepfather tells him that he is on his own. This is also an example of desire as defined by Lacan where the Other fails to fulfill the demands of the son.
The mother is also described as someone who fails to respond to the unconscious demand for unconditional love, thus, representing another manifestation of desire, or absence. The speaker uses a motive as “shadow”, (McIntosh 92,109,131,151,152) to describe the mother. Moreover, the speaker describes the mother as one who cannot be trusted, all the more so, to provide unconditional love: “I cannot confide in her” (McIntosh 97).
Hey you and his mother are attached to a powerful, charismatic figured named Nathan (...”savior” 100) who claims to have magical power which allows him to talk to angels and dead spirits ( ...”seer”, “I share this revelation” 110-111). Nathan attracts people by claiming to help them.
“well, then,“ he plowing through silence.
“I am Nathan. At your service.
Call When you’re in need. Anytime...”
Hey you believes that Nathan may bring his father back:
“Digging to china/ Finding my father,/ maybe”
The mother also sees hope in Nathan. When they talk, the shadow changes to light:
Nathan answers: “I have seen angels”,
No response, but mother
Moves into light. Seems
“Tell us about them,“ she, gently.”
( McIntosh 110)
“I’m fascinated”. says mother,
Face almost in full light...
However, after Nathan left and she couldn’t reach him: “The light shut down” (151) and the mother “Repeated profoundly into/ Shadows” (McIntosh 152). Both of them, the mother and Hey you, are trying to achieve their desire through Nathan. Hey you wants to have someone to protect him, like his biological father, and his mother who wants to be re-connected to her original husband. However, Nathan only deceived them. It turns out that he is a murderer who eventually disappears into the sea. When Nathan disappears, the mother is trying desperately to prevent Nathan from abandoning her. Suddenly, she became so large, as she has never been seen before. A fly in the ointment, Hey you, has never seen his mother fighting similarly for him, further emphasizing his endless desire or absence.
Then mother appears from
Shadows. Larger, she is larger than
I knew. She bellowing: “Nathan!”
In the last part of the poem, Hey you chooses to take his stepfather’s job after his death and acts exactly as he did. In this way, giving up to his destiny (“wyrd”), he chooses to live unauthentic, denied life: “I run to him... as if several men/ Had been inside trying/ To escape”. (McIntosh 152-153). Hey you is subjected to his own desires, and becomes an imitation of imitation of imitation.
In summary, the desire in the poem is related to the absence having unconditional love, leading to constant search. The lack of identity is also emphasized by his name and by his inability to understand his father’s language. He tries to cope by withdrawing to a life of comfort even if it implies deception. At the end, nameless with unfulfilled desire, Hey you is still “Knothole in imagined sylvan glade” (McIntosh 122).
Evans Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Lacan Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. 1954-1955, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Cambridge University P, 1998. Print.
McIntosh Sandy. Ernesta, in the Style of the Flamenco. East Rockaway, New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2010. Print.
Hadas Yatom-Schwartz has a bachelor degree in Hebrew Literature and Education and a Masters Degree in Hebrew Literature (research tract), both from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Her thesis is called "Gentle Forcefulness" and is about the poetry of Meir Wieseltier, a well known Israeli poet and the winner of the Israeli prize in 2000. Preparing herself for a Graduate School in New York, she was introduced to McIntosh’s poems.