"Inquiries into the Umvelt" and "The Last Living Confederate Divorcee Tells All About Her Wound Debridement"

Inquiries into the Umvelt

Once they closed the flap, the dark of the sweat lodge obscured everything: the assorted limbs
of seventy-odd parents squeezed in together, the color of the mud we sat on, the body of the
speaker somewhere in that black velvet. When he invited each of us to chant with him,
Ommmmmmmmmm, Ommmmmmmmmmmm, rit , rit, writ, writ, Ommmmmmmmmmm,
there was no I, we was swallowed into a huge instrument, vibrating in total darkness. Stunning.

When I was growing up in Miami Beach, a peculiar magic: things were there, but not there,
shimmering. The one professional woman I knew was a doctor, like her husband, like my
father. She was tall and angular. Other mothers didn’t like her, though no one said or did anything that I could see to indicate that.

According to David Eagleman, a noted neuroscientist from Baylor, we experience only the thin
slice of what’s out there that suits our biological receptors, see only one trillionth of what’s
there to be seen. Perception as a function of biological imperative: snakes see ultrared light;
honeybees, ultraviolet. The blind and deaf tick perceives temperature and butyric acid. The
world of the echolocating bat is composed of air compression waves. The bloodhound, with his
long snout, his 200 million scent receptors, the wide slits in his nostrils that can take in huge
gulps of air would be surprised to discover that we can’t smell the cat that’s a hundred yards
away, that we don’t know that our neighbor was on this very spot six hours ago. Scientists use
a German phrase for the tiny slice of reality that is accessible to us, the umvelt, or surrounding world.

When someone wishes me “Merry Christmas” or asks me what my family is doing to celebrate
Easter, a shimmer of loss: I can make them uncomfortable by challenging their assumptions; I
can make myself uncomfortable by ignoring my discomfort. What I don’t know how to do,
without embarrassment, mine and theirs (maybe it’s all in the pronouns, I a confusion, separate from we), is to have an honest conversation about what just happened.

I grew up on an isthmus: you could only cross from Miami to Miami Beach via three bridges: the Venetian, the MacArthur, and the 79th Street Causeways. The first was the route for buses from Opalocka carrying the maids who worked on the Beach. I never noticed that none of the black women who cleaned our dirt lived in the same city I did.

Whenever my husband and I go out to dinner, invariably the waiter hands him the check and, later, even though I almost always pay with my credit card, the bill that has been processed for him to sign. In dim light, the waiter cannot see the s before he.

Maid. Barmaid, bridesmaid, chambermaid, milkmaid, mermaid. Nineteenth century English gentry had a hierarchy of servants: the scullery maid could never aspire to work as a lady’s maid. In Middle English, “maid” applied to both men and women. In the late 12th century, it was first used to refer to a virginal, unmarried woman. Embedded in language, somehow the suggestion that marriage frees women from servitude?

When, as a freshman in college, I first read Alexander Pope’s 1743 “Epistle II To A Lady,” I commented on diction and meter:

                        Nothing so true was what you once let fall
                        Most women have no Characters at all

I’m not sure what I was doing when I was reading – exempting myself from the category “Most”? assuming I wasn’t yet a woman? unreferencing what I read from what I experienced?Unable/unwilling to see.

Since I’m pretty sure that had I lived in nineteenth-century England, I would not have questioned child labor, even had I been one of the children laboring, since I’m afraid had I been raised in the pre-bellum South, I might not have questioned slavery and had I been born a 1920’s Christian German, I would not have had the courage to risk death to save Jews { I might not even have seen much wrong with expelling them from my community, might have lived in Lublin and not acknowledged, even to myself, what was happening in the ovens on the other side of the fence}, since I sense the conventionality in my vision, how can I explore what I’m not aware of not seeing in 2017 America?

It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I learned to pronounce common Arabic names, that I noticed the Denver Islamic Society I’d driven by on my way to work for 10-odd years.

It wasn’t until I was a mother myself and my children were old enough for extensive social arrangements and ingratitude, that it occurred to me that my mother might have preferred doing something other than chauffeuring me to dance lessons, play dates, parties.

Privilege, privilege, who got the privilege? An elaborate game, Double Dutch, dizzying, that speed, that grace. When I speak to a person of color, I hold the privilege and am obligated to be aware of it. When a man speaks to me, he has the privilege. When I speak to a Muslim, do I have the privilege? a Muslim Holy Man? When a Christian wishes me Merry Christmas, she has the privilege. As I age, do I gain or lose privilege from young white men? If I’m not sure from the rear whether that bun belong to a man or to a woman? where is the privilege? Does blindness sometimes open possibility? When I is a blurring overlay on you, we’re no longer playing games.

Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies, a 16th century 65,000 word anti-Semitic treatise has a rating of 64% liked on Google. Does that mean that 64% of its readers on Google agree with Luther? I’d prefer to think that there are some academics out there grateful for the availability of evidence of virulent anti-Semitism. I want not to see, to be part of a larger instrument that can make something lovely of the dark.



The Last Living Confederate Divorcee Tells All About Her Wound Debridement (Debride, 19th century, from the French, debrider, to unbridle, De Bride, to end a marriage is to break an oath; afterward, after/words, language itself is suspect)


The body begins to heal
immediately. White blood cells
attack bacteria, a jelly-like clot
over the wound and soon
a protective scab.
Be careful not to rub.
If the wound refuses to heal
consider debridement.
For health, you must
remove dead tissue
black and nasty. 
You have choices:
the knife,
the laser, 
the compress,
or the maggot.                        

She dances
hard and fast alone
her hips a metronome
to tune the heart.
What she decided
she decided was right,
but her way of doing it
ate out her dreams.
Before, all that
was missing niggled
through her smiles.
later, what she did
carved holes in
people she loves.
She will carry this weight
in sickness and in health


a most disagreeable wound
receiv'd at Bull Run
a bullet through the bladder
he lay almost constantly
in a sort of puddle.
A young man wounded
in the head dug
with his heel a hole
kept his heel going
night and day.
I will plant companionship
thick as trees along
all the rivers of America.
the real war will never
the real war will never
get in the books.*

*from Walt Whitman's Specimen Days and Leaves of Grass


Joan Manheimer is a poet and psychologist working in Denver, Colorado.  She has had poems published in Edgz, Calyx, Literary Mama, and Adanna, among others.  

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