Phoebe Sparrow Wagner: Learning to See in Three Dimensions – O-Rings and Cathode Rays


Published by Green Writers Press in partnership with Sundog Poetry Center in Vermont, Phoebe Sparrow Wagner’s (formerly known as Pamela Spiro Wagner) illustrated collection ‘Learning to See in Three Dimensions’ is an instantly arresting poetry collection, not least for its many striking full colour pictures by the multi-talented author. Review by Alan Morrison

Book cover

Learning to See in Three Dimensions by Phoebe Spiro Wagner

Some of the standout pictures, to my eye, are Flanders’ Faces, Blackbird on Snow, ’32 Chevy with Murmuration of Starlings, Fork You, Psychiatry, Self Portrait in 4-point Restraints, Self Portrait in Seclusion, What’s Bugging Me, Eye in the Egg: Birth of Insight, and the Odilon Redon-esque Five Watchers at the Tree of Creation. Many recurring images and symbols are of myriad ectopic eyes bespeaking paranoia and a sense of being monitored and judged by others.

But it’s the poetry to which I turn most of my attention, specifically the poems related to endurance and survival of the psychiatric system, perfectly complemented by the brilliantly disturbing illustrations.

It might be deemed a form of Confessional poetry, a seam rich particularly in the American poetic tradition; and Wagner arguably belongs to the lineage of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. There are resounding echoes of Plath in particular throughout this book, but also, from the English canon, Stevie Smith (herself influenced by American poet Emily Dickinson).

It is particularly in the third section of this book, Poems in which I Speak Frankly, that this psychiatric poetics comes into full focus, and due to the limitations of space and word count, it is on this section that I will focus, as it is the viscera of this collection.

Poems in which I Speak Frankly is a sequence of searingly candid poems about Wagner’s traumatic upbringing, subsequent breakdowns and experiences in psychiatric hospitals. Inescapably, in the poem Tyrannosaurus Rex, Plath comparisons surface: this is a painful poem about the poet’s medical father’s psychological and emotional abuse of her and is explicitly dedicated to him. It would seem that Wagner, pressured by her father to also enter the medical profession, left during her training due to a breakdown in health after which she was effectively disowned by him:

Tyrant, they called you, emperor, bully,
the first time I was in the psychiatric wing.
Yes, you finger-painted, getting down on your knees

to smear pigment with stiff abandon.
But afterward, in the hall, when I froze, contorting,
you let the whole world of the ward know

your scorn, imitating me, calling me “crazy.”
I seemed finally better. I came home.
But when I failed you, leaving med school,

an embarrassment and a humiliation
who couldn’t even keep work as a clerk or waitress,
you claimed suddenly you had “three children” not four.

In turn, and in time, Wagner had to scrape an existence through menial jobs and meagre state assistance: ‘Between us interposed silence for forty-some years/ as I learned to live on $3 a day, writing my life/ into poems when I had words to share’. Wagner keeps the momentum of the narrative moving through heightened poetic descriptions:

Years passed inside “the bin” and out “on the farm,”
as I called the hospital and those programs by day
structuring my life. But hospitals dimly shape-shift

after a dozen or more and there are decades
of my life that are lost even to memory,
each melding into another like shadows

on night-lit walls in carbon paper alleys.

The following trope on enforced ECT, still something practised today in psychiatric hospitals, is compelling and perfectly pitched: ‘One keyhole through which I see the past:/ Forced shock treatments’ drowning anesthetic drops// and stunned awakenings’. Wagner’s phraseology has a fragmented, dreamlike aspect which perfectly suits the sensory and chronological fugue of chronic ‘mental illness’. Thankfully it seems as if there was some degree of reconciliation between father and daughter:

…Then, somehow, there you are,
standing in the seclusion room door
resuming a conversation as if begun just yesterday

not decades years before, no older, or at least
no grayer than “Daddy” again, shorter yes but
kinder. What could I do but respond?

As previously mentioned, the use of the term “Daddy”, although universal, in the poetic context recalls Plath, an association which Wagner might well intend us to make. Both poets’ fathers were clearly domineering men; and while Plath juxtaposed hers with a Nazi, Wagner describes her father, in the end, as a burnt-out Nero (excuse the pun): ‘I never dreamed that at eighty-three/ you’d lose your fire, habanero, old Nero,/ or that I, Rome, would ever stop burning’.

Detailed watercolour painting in which a figure with a tear in his eye holds up a middle finger to a man in a white suit pictured in a mirror.

Fork You Psychiatry. Image © Phoebe Spiro Wagner

Forgetting To Remember is about multiple personality disorder, which is, according to its inscription ‘believed to arise from early sexual trauma and abuse, now considered a dissociative disorder’.

This complex condition, also known as dissociative identity disorder, has also been characterised as split personality (perennially confused with schizophrenia which is more to do with the atrophy of personality), and was famously depicted in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), the true story of Christine Costner Sizemore as told by psychiatrists Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley, made into a film later the same year.

In this startling poem, Wagner takes the position of someone prompted through therapy into introspection as to whether they might have suffered molestation, as a young girl, but repressed these memories:

Two suicides and such a multitude of multiples
wrung from their imagination the year I was there
by student-psychologists
eager to make names for themselves,
the halfway facility would be shut down for good the next,
but not before seeds of uncertain certainties were sown:
repressed memories miraculously recovered
from the abyss, of incests, sodomies, satanic abuses,

had I really escaped such clutches?

it’s hard to trust
what my sister tells me was in fact true:
that there really were neighborhood Bad Boys
and a shack in the woods
where they kept a stash of comic books and pin-up calendars,

the price to read there all afternoon
if you were a girl: a feel,
that I’m not wrong to believe I read my fill
of Archie and Prince Valiant and Peanuts

Though I had to find my own way out
afterwards after they’d gone,
taking their comics with them,
leaving just June, now unpinned from the wall

in her tiny shorts, the shine of her raspberry lips
pouting next to a tractor…

The Rape of the Hug, 2005 begins with the etymology for the word ‘rape’: ‘Rape: orig. from Latin, rapere, to seize’. Wagner expresses her sense of hyper-vigilance to close human bodily contact of any kind, a common after-effect of past trauma or abuse, a lasting scar which no one should have to carry with them through their life.

How all contact is rape
even the gentle hugs you have
been tutored to give relatives and friends?
You only withstand them and hand them over
but you do not like them.
Though you know no harm is intended
if done, when he prolongs the hug, stands closer
and turns his head towards yours
you sense the threat
of a kiss you can’t for fear of hurting his feelings
though you feel no feeling
of wanting it

Prelapse of Failing is a return to a dissociative syntax and curious phraseology, making use of almost surreal free-associative qualities, images and strange idioms such as ‘at-one-ment’ (i.e. atonement) and ‘fears-ful’. It is in these senses, too, reminiscent of R.D. Laing’s poetic expression of a psychotic dissociative state in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967).

I’m also reminded of Near Calvary: Selected Poems 1959-70, sole collection of Nicholas Lafitte, a schizophrenic poet who committed suicide at just 27. Wagner’s poem indeed seems to be an attempt to express the dissociative mind state:

The shrieking dead-wakes you
from an alongside universe (unnumbered
the ones unknown, unknowable) it’s
a through-breaking marble-like membrane
and your soul separates shocked from your body
with a terrible lurch only an instant
apart before at-one-ment reasserts
the world of time that happens in that eclipse
…depending on the fork
in your universe or the spoon if there is a spoon-
your front teeth resonate skintight with fear
and the shakes molar-deep,
your distracted, contortionist hands
scratching fears-ful an inch that doesn’t exist.

Distemper is an apposite depiction of the daily monotony of a psychiatric hospital, so many inpatients over-medicated to stupors and sentenced to still-constant mental ruminations and sensory symptoms in front of eternally switched-on television sets:

A new pill for distempered minds leaves me myself,
untempered. …
…I no longer snap and seize
at the fluorescent shatterings of daily living.
But this placidity borders on clinical torpor
so that even daytime television
seems like a worthwhile invention…

The ancient cathode ray flickers and the talkies chatter on.
Deep in my chair, smoking away
five years of non-smoker sobriety, my drugged eyes…

A dozen should-dos fog me into lumbering up
and I aim myself towards too many goals to count,
but quickly all recede into a cave of twilight.

I sit back down, light another cigarette
and press on the remote.

painting of an old car in a wheatfield following a murmuration of starlings

Chevy with Murmuration. Image © Phoebe Spiro Wagner

The ubiquity of the television in psychiatric hospitals has more symbolic significance than might be immediately apparent. An 18th-century inmate of Bedlam, tea-broker James Tilly Matthews, is believed to have been the first reported case of paranoid schizophrenia, his main symptom being the conviction that a strange mechanical device he called ‘The Air Loom’, operated by sinister-sounding persecutors, was implanting strange thoughts and sensations into his mind and body via rays it emitted.

This bizarre case was later used by pioneering Austro-Hungarian psychiatrist Victor Tausk (1879-19) in his seminal paper On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia (1919). In the illuminating polemic, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), Jerry Mander argued that Tausk’s ‘influencing machine’ was a conceptual projection of what would eventually manifest as television.

The candidly entitled Poem in which I Speak Frankly, Forgive Me is preceded by this descriptor: ‘GOMER: ER-speak for a troublesome, unwanted person in the emergency department, acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room’. It is a particularly graphic depiction of some dissociative symptoms such as self-harming. The poet put on suicide watch in a hospital, but later on, at home, she attempts to immolate her leg:

So many times gurneyed in by ambulance and police escort
“dangerous to self or others,” and too psychotic
to cooperate or scribble consent, you suspect by now
you are just a GOMER to the snickering scrubs in the ER…

When you dip paranoid into the inkwell of your purse
extracting a paring knife more amulet than effective protection,
they strip-search you, then, unblinking, eyeball you all night
through a bulletproof plexiglass window…

Later, at home, the voices decree your left leg
should go up in flames to atone for the evil within,
and you listen, and you do it, you do it:
the searing flare of cobalt actually crackles.
This time you tell no one, the char too deep for pain,
until fear of worse trumps your fear of being taken away.

But in spite of all she is utterly defiant that ‘This is not the story of your life./ It’s not the story of your life-‘. In ‘On Not Speaking’, after pondering on the limitations of language to truly represent thoughts and feelings, the poet opts for elective muteness in protest against an unhearing world:

wordify my senses,
precipice, for instance
with its sliced peaks
and acrid’s encaustics, that bite on my tongue.
Even blench
somehow leaves me paler and more livid than before.

Sensible or senseless,
I know when shutting up is preventive
or at least is less insane
than trying to be heard
by those inured to hurting
or being hurtful

But if silence, as you claim,
overspeaks the chattering air
why do you refuse
to hear all I cannot use
my voice to say?

painting of a face with a large beetle crawling across it

What’s bugging me. Image © Phoebe Spiro Wagner

Philomela is another startling depiction of extreme mental affliction, it picks up where the previous poem left off: ‘I haven’t spoken out loud for many weeks,/ bullied by “voices” to a frightened-into-myself silence’.

There then come the striking and disturbing images of two famous ventriloquist dummies, at once evoking such cinematic depictions of split-personality expressed through ventriloquism as Dead of Night (1945) and Magic (1978): ‘except my brain’s hallucinated snarls,/ Jerry Mahoney and Charlie McCarthy thrown/ into surrounding shadows// ordering up this stoppage, blockage, blockade’.

This is an exceptional depiction of dissociative identity and the imagery of dummies and ventriloquism perfectly capture a sense of depersonalisation and/or that someone or something else external to one is manipulating their body, thoughts and words. We then get another allusion to Wallace Stevens which also dovetails associatively with Laing’s Bird of Paradise:

Now, like Stevens’ fire-fangled bird at the end of the mind
feathered unlucky, tarred, locked in golden cage

my voice remains only a memento

of everything
I wanted to say, but could not get out,
I couldn’t get it out, I could not get it out…

I’m also reminded here of Stevie Smith’s sublime poem on the sense of one’s mental distress not being understood by onlookers, Not Waving But Drowning.

Reality Check is preceded by an inscription, ‘Writing prompt: Lost in the middle of nowhere’, presumably from a creative writing workshop in the psychiatric hospital, and  Wagner produces a polemic in response to this, citing such iconic novels/films set in psychiatric settings as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962; filmed 1975) and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964; filmed 1977) (a rich pantheon which also includes The Snake Pit (1948), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), In Two Minds/ Family Life (1967/71), They Might Be Giants (1971) – though curiously no mention of Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963):

This isn’t the movies. At least it isn’t Cuckoo’s Nest,
or the I-Never-Promised-You-a-Rose-Garden rose garden.
As for Girl, Interrupted? I assure you it is definitely not
that giant sleepover with hair rollers, gossip
and steaming faucet-water hot chocolate. For one thing,
hospital tap water isn’t hot enough for cocoa
and unless your roommate, that anorexic
with the fruity breath and ironed tee shirts
becomes your best pal…

Wagner notes how ‘Keys play a big role in film and someone always swipes/ a set for the night to go AWOL or wreak havoc’. Her remarks are scored with sarcasm: ‘..As for the unit sociopath/ having enough uninterrupted free time to wrap catatonics/ in toilet tissue?’; and barbed with rebukes: ‘Besides, with medication and better care/ catatonics are not allowed to stay that long/ catatonic, so very quickly slowly they move too’.

Wagner re-imagines the hospital as an ‘Ice Hospital’, like a kind of dark fairy tale, though in the poem itself she phrases this as an ‘Ice Hotel’:

where beneath the furs and fleece all the appointments
are hard frozen to the floor.

Like Ice Hotel staff, the nurses try their best
to be kind, to find compassion for those suffering
here on their sub-zero beds.
But really, they have their warm lives elsewhere.
The psychiatrist knows better. She visits briefly
once a day at the height of the sun, chewing her Vitamin D,
and encourages Hotel visitors to Happy Talk
and Life Skills. If she fails to ease their suffering
in any part, it is because she does not see it, blind
to the fact that the beds are frozen pallets that chill
to the bone. She sees only the furs and warm fleeces.
She cannot fathom why one would not rise and walk
under her cheerful ministrations after a few nights
spent on a banquette of ice…

If Wishes Were depicts decades of psychiatric hospitalisation and an accompanying and quite typical chain-smoking habit, interspersed with ruminations on the assassinations of Kennedy and Luther King:

Weeks she was well her friends would say she was “on the farm.”
Back at the hospital was “in the bin,” loony, of course, not dust

though it felt like dust, fifty years gone up in smoking-
only poems, hundreds, to show for what she might have been,

only not in this, her small failed life, where all was linked
so intimately to national disasters: guns, cold weather, Dallas

bullets, schizophrenia, O-rings-an undifferentiated all
that never should have happened it all felt her fault.

Couldn’t those perverse mandarin butterflies
have stirred the air into a different turbulence, maybe

wishing between the real cigarettes and endless coffee,
or for a single O-ring not to have failed in freezing air…

Wagner’s supreme accomplishment in this compelling and brilliantly illustrated poetry collection is testament to how she, like many similarly-driven, experiential and expressionistic poets, fills the empty spaces of the page with a colourful explosion of painful experience and intense insights acquired through acute psychical suffering that not chemicals, therapies or electric shocks, but self-expression, poetry, can hope to fully process and possibly heal.

Phoebe Sparrow Wagner is an artist, poet, and co-author of Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey through Schizophrenia (St Martins Press, 2005) and author of We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders (CavanKerry Press, 2009). Her third book, poems and original art, Learning to See in Three Dimensions (2017) is available through Green Writers Press or from Amazon and other booksellers

Wagner is available for readings, speaking and sales of her art. Contact by email or Facebook or via blogs. Check out and  for links to Wagner’s art and poetry.