On the Psychology of Crying Over Spilt Milk

by Priscila Uppal



According to Freud’s observations and analysis of his nephew fantasy-making with a shoe, the fort-da game is the necessary foundational basis by which a child can rightfully count on a parent who leaves for work or an office party or a trip to the Bahamas with her younger lover to eventually return.

The child, controlling the outcome, sees that through simple will and aggression he can force the shoe to go, then facilitate retrieval whenever he so desires. This, according to Freud, makes it easier for the child to accept separation of all kinds. Fort-da is mourning play.

Hence, in tragedies, shoes play important roles. Actors must think carefully about where to step. Frequently, prints are drawn in light chalk on the stage. No one likes to share a pair. Letters are pulled from their lips, as are knives. When boots find their mark, victims claim the soles.

Children must be encouraged to play fort-da. Freud said so, and he had very healthy relationships. For those of you whose parents have left and never returned, you happen to be screwed, psychologically speaking. Perhaps, as in the most successful tragedies, you should seek revenge.

Notes on the Poem

As fascinating as the wide range of subject matter that poets tackle is the voice and tone with which a particular subject is addressed. Let's examine these elements as Priscila Uppal applies them to childhood coping mechanisms and psychological analyses of same in her poem "On the Psychology of Crying Over Spilt Milk" from her 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection "Ontological Necessities". The poem sets a tone that is stiff from the very outset, with the formality of "According to Freud's observations and analysis" What is interjected is both troubling ... "Letters are pulled from their lips, as are knives." and quietly sardonic ... "or a trip to the Bahamas with her younger lover" but also conveys a strong sense of striving for calm and control, not only in tone but even in the compact, aligned format of the verses, as if something (hurt? frustration? rage?) has been or is being boxed in. The poem's title uses the idiom of "crying over spilt milk". Even if the reader sympathizes or empathizes with the child's trauma suggested in the poem, the title intimates that the child (the poet reflecting back?) needs to get over unhappiness for something that cannot be undone or changed. Just as the child ostensibly controls outcomes and overcomes painful experiences through play labelled as fort-da by psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud, is the poet mastering painful memories with the poem itself? In a memoir that mines some of the same personal history, Uppal is praised: "The rigorousness of the structure and the sentence-to-sentence quality of the writing here is borderline-heroic considering the rawness of the scenario." Is it fair to surmise she's done the same thing in this poem ... in addition to perhaps seeking some of the revenge the last line so tellingly prescribes?

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