The Sea, the Shell, & the Pearl: Through Embodiment to Poetry
Content warning: This contains discourse about trauma, childhood abuse, dissociation, and suicidal ideation.
This essay is a treatment.
It tracks the predominant physiological responses of your traumatized past, the way your body remembers, the way your therapist guides you to presence, and the way presence unlocks a treasure house of language. Poetry, which has been your stillborn child as long as you’ve written, dead in its formaldehyde waters, has cracked the glass open, and you gaze at its enlivened hands with wonder.
What marvel, given you experienced childhood as though you were sleepwalking.
Deep-Brain Reorienting (DBR) is a trauma psychotherapy that processes attachment disorder through the analysis of physiological responses associated with threatening events—events like, say, a mother, your mother, threatening you with a syringe if you do not eat as you are told. Your relatives say this occurred at some comida de domingo. Which melcocha of your mother’s cooking did you refuse to eat? In your mind’s eye, a litany parades. Boiled beets? Beef liver? You have no memory of the instance, but you remember the sting of her belt buckle, the pitch of her voice, her disfiguring rage.
The developer Frank Corrigan MD, FRC Psych explains those suffering from attachment shock have a “protective tendency to turn attention away from the memory as soon as possible1.” That they experience dissociation, depersonalization, numbing, blanking out, and that the original memories are often so layered in further similar experiences that traditional talk therapy methodologies fail in accessing them.
When your therapist, M—, approaches you with this new treatment, tells you she’d like to try it with you, she explains your wounding predates language. Language lives in the cerebrum, the top brain, while your lower brain, responsible for fight, flight, freeze, the stress control of your body—it developed first, and it remembers.
Which is to say, escape from your body is more natural to you than language.
Before cutting off contact, before moving away, before even the forming of the word mamá on your mouth, you knew how to leave your mother.
“Embodiment begins with… getting comfortable with the discomfort felt in the body2,” the trauma scholar Deb Courtney says.
You spend the next three seasons of therapy with the discomfort in your body, trying to reel in your escape-artist brain, which slips with an ease like a silvered dolphin, so as to stay in your body, so as to feel the totality of your despair, taking breaks in between this violent undertaking. In each session, M— asks, “Where do you feel tension now?” and you listen, or try to listen, to the murmurs your body has long lidded and trapped.
The layers of memory accordioned over one another.
You’re thirteen and practice learning how to fall onto your couch because you read in some YA fantasy that the faerie princess could walk soundlessly, that she practiced falling down a well, and you need to know, your survival depends on it, to avoid the squeak of the third, fourth, and eighth stairs that will wake him, your mother’s love interest, and bring his searching hands.
You’re twenty-four and depart your first massage weeping and petrified, careening towards the Loop rush-hour train, because for a quarter hour your body felt weightless, and you are not ready for such goodness and your body rejects it like poison.
This essay is a temperament.
You embarked on a prose poetry class this spring with Ruben Quesada, who you’ve had the humbling fortune to interview, and now you are his student. You learn terms such as anadiplosis, anaphora, epizeuxis. You drop into prompt replies during class. You write an alexandrine. You count your syllables on your fingers and recall the Tuesdays you sat with Dr. Kaizer tapping metronome beats to synchronize your study of the Moonlight Sonata.
Ruben introduces you to Gregory Orr and his concept of the four temperaments of poetry: story, structure, music, and imagination, and how the most scintillating poems are ones which achieve the greatest symmetry of balance amongst the four. It isn’t lost on you, in subsequent lessons, how this is a kind of embodiment, a gathering of the parts.
During class introductions, Ruben asks your small group to share why you’ve come, and when it’s your turn, you say the truest, most concrete thing you know, which is that language is opening itself up in new illiquid ways. You don’t go into details about what this means or why, don’t delay the others or the class. But the missing context is this:
You have been the shell that holds the pearl. You have been the current of the sea tossing. You have even been the pearl. But you have never been the ecosystem, never been the three things all at once, equally singular and at home within. But something inside of you has shifted. You are the multitudes now, gathering. You are the infinite depths.
In your twenties, you reunite with your cousin in California. You had been binaries of the other growing up, youths sunk into the orchestra pit with stars in their eyes, until your emigration. He criticizes you at Kroger for purchasing foundation when you are unemployed, says he didn’t take you for being vain, and you argue about splitting room and dinner prices and leave the following day on the six o’clock Amtrak without saying goodbye. You do not have the Spanish proficiency to explain the acne scarring on your face, the protective layers needed against your mother, your classmates, gender-conformity, the patriarchy. You do know you need the mask more than another night at the Motel 6.
This essay is a rhetorical device.
It loops and repeats and folds itself ostinato, non-linear, like the actual experience of living.
A week after your first DBR session, your friend U— takes you canoeing to the Skokie Lagoons. She has a German collapsible canoe, made from cardboard laminate, that when you unfold together on the grassy slope, appears like a giant’s paper origami project, and you’re delighted by the childlike glee it reproduces in you, who used to fold paper cranes. On the water, every other canoeist or kayaker pulls alongside you and asks excitedly against the sun, “Is that a foldable canoe?” and your friend laughs in the affirmative.
Suspended in timelessness, watching how algae clings to the oars, you catch up on each other’s lives, talk about your shared fascination with danmei and dangai. She asks if you’ve been writing and you admit you have not, you cannot. You have spent the past week in a dissociated state triggered by your DBR session, wherein embodiment was too much and your brain, agile and hypervigilant, simply checked out.
For you, dissociation is absence. This does not mean you do not feel or experience emotions, but rather that everything is coated with a dampening flannel, like a piano pedal or a sound recording room, which softens and deadens the ache. It sounds soothing on the whole, has saved you since the start, but it disconnects you from yourself so entirely that you cannot manage day-to-day. Your dishes go unwashed, your meals unmade; you eat takeout or from out of the refrigerator, or, more commonly, skip meals altogether. Creativity holds no meaning for you. You waste hours on television, some of it good, some of it questionable in taste.
On the lakeside drive back to the city, U— is concerned, but you reassure her that your therapist specializes in dissociative traumas, though you hadn’t known that at the time you sought her. At home, your out-of-state friends text you, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT??? and you wonder if the cosmos is gossiping. Yeah??? you text back. The news alerts reveal the impetus of their worry—five miles from where you were, along the picturesque road you traveled, a gunman opened fire at the Highland Park Independence Day parade and slaughtered seven, wounded forty-eight. There, at the intersection where you once carved jack-o’-lanterns at the pumpkin festival years earlier.
Time collapses in a black hole. At least in your dissociation, you don’t hurt other people.
You are thirty and solitary at your Roger’s Park apartment, dressed in your satin Ren Faire dress from high school, a decision you don’t recall making. Your spouse is with her lover and you are despondent at what will bring her back (nothing), so you try to choke yourself with the exercise band draped on her closet doorknob, except you remember Chris Cornell hung himself this way and she had been upset at the news of his death, so you stop. You curl on the ottoman she restored pressing your hands against your trachea, your wails ululating like monsoon gales until your dissociation sets you free and you are blank as an 8 x 11 page. Hello, dear friend.
This essay is an opportunity.
Dream life, lucidity, and creativity go together3. There is research that describes it as a continuum with waking life on one end of the axis and sleep on the other, daydreams, lucid sleep, and dreams in the middle. Correlations exist between REM sleep disturbances, the dream state, and creative associations, and when you dream, your dreams are so vivid, it’s as if they’re made from saturated celluloid. You record them in a document and you will never run out of ideas, only time.
However, the detachment of dissociation disrupts the occipitotemporal cortex, impairs your language and judgment and motor skills4. In a state like this, how do you write from a place that requires you to feel? Poetry, of all the linguistic arts, is the one that most closely mirrors the subconscious of the brain. It can linger on a moment with such vibrancy your senses sing with it; the crush of a broken rib, the iciness of snow in your mouth, the whisper of a lover’s breath upon your skin. Poetry cauters associations, it condenses narrative and time so that events from your past life, isolated from one another, occur in a single instant instead—you are there as if you never left, only, and this is where embodiment hinges, you are there not only with your past self, but your future self, with every self you have ever been.
If your poetry felt narrow before, it was because it came from a singular direction. But you are moving from a bidirectional plane into a quantum realm, and you can begin writing from it now like a prism.
You lose it, somehow, at a picture of a person you cannot have. You’ve known this, but this gray November eve, silted like pond scum, you flail uncontrollably about it like a drowning rat. You cannot get air in your thirty-four-year-old body—on your bed, you choke, rasp. Overnight, the nightmares flash and you wake with cheeks like corrugated plastic. All day, you run through your list of grounding aids: yoga, piano, breathwork. You take long exhales through pursed lips like your therapist taught you. If these work at all, they’re fragmentary, and in ten minutes’ time you’re back to the crawling panic under your skin.
In the depth of your mania, something else pulses. You sit in your armchair with the journal you took to Iceland and a poem bleeds itself in your Lamy pen’s scarlet ink. Somewhere, a part of you marvels. You, who’ve convinced yourself you aren’t a poet, whose attempts are formless tides signifying nothing, wrote something, at last, that glimmers with musicality.
Your therapy session occurs in the same armchair via FaceTime. “M—, I tried everything,” you plead. “I walked the dog, I played piano, I even wrote a poem! Nothing helped—I just kept on feeling—”
It dawns the moment the words slip from your mouth. “Oh. That’s it, isn’t it?” you say. “I’m supposed to feel it.”
Through your screen, she nods. She looks at you with a mixture of softness and pride. “You are. But we can mourn the loss of your dissociation. You needed it for a very long time.”
This essay is an embodiment.
When you remain at long last in your body through the duration of the DBR session, when you’ve leaned into your responses for the better part of an hour, and your eyes cease their nervous wandering, your brows relax, your breathing regulates, and you slacken, even, against your Vanitas-Still-Life–with-Flowers-and-Skull pillow, something remarkable, miraculous, occurs—you begin to laugh mirthfully, hellaciously.
“Sorry,” you tell M—. “I don’t know why I’m laughing.”
“You don’t have to judge it,” she says.
It’s as if you were made of helium, as though if the ceiling were pulled from your apartment like a doll’s house, you would float up and join the clouds and dance shapelessly. It’s midwinter, and the clouds are tinted periwinkle.
You name this sensation joy but it can also go by other names: contentment, wholeness, embodiment. It is a state of presence, of undeniable fullness. You have found this on occasion at other moments of your life, in travel, in love, but it was dependent then on an external force to summon it, only for you to have it scatter between your fingers the moment your flight home landed or your dear one departed. Now you find it within and know, whatever murks you dive into, you will not dust yourself to oblivion.
You are grinning like a pearl, like a sea, like an ecosystem.
¹ “DBR History – Deep Brain Reorienting.” Deep Brain Reorienting,
https://staging3.deepbrainreorienting.com/history-of-dbr/. Accessed 12 May 2023.
² Heim, Benjamin. ““Bodies Tell Stories”: On Meaning Making and Trauma in Social Work,
Poetry, Pandemics, and Embodied Practice.” REFLECTIONS, vol. 28, no. 3,
reflectionsnarrativesofprofessionalhelping.org/index.php/Reflections/article/download/1895/1710/8882. Accessed 12 May 2023.
³ van Heugten-van der Kloet D, Cosgrave J, Merckelbach H, Haines R, Golodetz S, Lynn SJ. Imagining the impossible before breakfast: the relation between creativity, dissociation, and sleep. Front Psychol. 2015 Mar 26;6:324. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00324. PMID: 25859231; PMCID: PMC4374390. Krause-Utz A, Frost R, Winter D, Elzinga BM. Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Jan;19(1):6. doi: 10.1007/s11920-017-0757-y. PMID: 28138924; PMCID: PMC5283511.
⁴ Sebastian R, Gomez Y, Leigh R, Davis C, Newhart M, Hillis AE. The roles of occipitotemporal cortex in reading, spelling, and naming. Cogn Neuropsychol. 2014;31(5-6):511-28. doi: 10.1080/02643294.2014.884060. Epub 2014 Feb 17. PMID: 24527769; PMCID: PMC4108518.
Raised in Mexico City and the Midwest United States, Jael Montellano (she/they) is an ESL writer, poet, and editor. Her work explores otherness and queer life and features in publications such as Tint Journal, Beyond Queer Words, Fauxmoir, The Selkie, the Columbia Journal, and more. She is the interviews editor at Hypertext Magazine, practices a variety of visual arts, and is at work learning her fourth language. Find her at jaelmontellano.com, at X/Twitter @gathcreator, and at BlueSky @gathcreator.