There are no famously sane poets.
There are no famously sane poets.
In Surviving Literary Suicide, by Jeffrey Berman, a work in which the author touches on Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and William Styron, Berman quotes Key Redfield Jamison, who wrote An Unquiet Mind. Jamison’s research showed a 38 percent incidence of manic depression among students at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, while less than 1% of the general population suffers from the disease.
As a graduate of and former teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I wonder why in the years I spent there the subject was so little discussed.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show that 27 percent of high school students contemplate suicide and 8 percent attempt it.
Iowa, I can imagine the hell it would be… when the mind goes, as in melancholia, the imagination goes too. One ceases to dream, or is that just me? So where does it go? Maybe it doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe it just shuts down. “It,” “it” being the mind, “it” being imagination, “it” being something more than zombie-hood. I know zombie: Anhedonia, lack of energy, the feeling one has somehow been hollowed out. There’s nothing like feeling hollowed out, soulless, to make one feel, later, when the melancholia passes–always with the fear it may return–that there’s something more there than I had thought. There’s something clumsy in this. I hate my writing.
As someone who writes all the time, I lost all interest in reading, writing, attending movies… coffee was like poison, television was even more stupifying than I had thought possible, and there was the morning… well, that’s for later.
CONSCIOUSNESS, SOUL RETRIEVAL, WILLIAM BLAKE / GLORIA AKASHA HULL / ALICE WALKER and THE COLOR PURPLE
Again, it’s a work in progress. As it takes shape, it goes through a variety of forms and, at times, in my mind, becomes something of a collage. In the beginning there was this amorphous, ever-expanding thing… notes notes scribble scribble …given a shape of sorts, it becomes a composition, loose, a little chaotic, but a composition nonetheless–a “collage,” a combination or collection. So it is we move from William Blake (last entry) in communication with Catherine, his wife, to a remarkable work by Akasha Gloria Hull titled Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women.
“Communication with the physically dead is very much a part of African and African American culture. In traditional African thought, for as many as four generations the dead continue to visit with family and friends who knew them when they were alive. They give advice, regulate behavior, and, most important, act as intermediaries between the world of God and the human realm…
“Lucille Clifton’s first word from her mother was Thelma’s announcement of her name. The calling of the departed one’s name helps to keep him or her ‘alive’ in the human world. When no one remembers the dead person by name, they then totally cross over into the spirit dimension, dropping out of the realm of time and the present into all-consuming timelessness.” (p. 59)
Later, in Hull’s interview with Alice Walker the novelist says,
“All of it is natural. I mean, speaking to spirits, whoever is around you, whoever is inside you, it’s perfectly natural; there’s nothing supernatural about it… we’re here on the Earth, we’re on the planet. They’re here on the Earth, they’re on the planet. Nobody has ever gone anywhere. That’s why they’re still here.” (p. 81)
Alice Walker, in speaking of Celie, the main character from The Color Purple, says,
“…So I would lean toward my memory of her sound and try really hard but gently just to get any little sentence, any little word, any little expression, any little grunt. And for that –I mean, to get one of my stepgrandmother’s grunts in a clear way—is why I had to move from New York to California and go into the country, because I needed to be able to really hear it. I couldn’t hear it anywhere else, other than in real peace and silence… But after I could remember her saying, ‘Sho do,’ you know, I could make up, could say anything and it would sound like how she would say it. And at that point it would be so real that to me it would feel like she had just taken wing and that she was talking.” (p. 121)
* * *
It’s a stretch, but I’m bouncing between Akasha Gloria Hull and Alberto Villoldo, medical anthropologist and author of Soul Retrieval, and reflecting on what it is they are saying and how that ties in with what I am hearing from my podiatrist father. I haven’t yet put my cards on the table, but there’s another kind of scribbling going on, poems.
And then there’s the question of the nature of consciousness.
* * *
“If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things. Accordingly we find that the more clear-sighted evolutionary philosophers are beginning to posit it there. Each atom of the nebula, they suppose, must have had an aboriginal atom of consciousness linked with it; …the mental atoms …have fused into those larger consciousnesses which we know in ourselves and suppose to exist in our fellow-animals.”
–William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890.
* * *
“…the part of the world that is most recalcitrant to our understanding at the moment is consciousness itself. How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to–or, even more mysteriously, be–the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom? This has been called ‘the most important problem in the biological sciences’ and even ‘the last frontier of science.’ It engrosses the intellectual energies of a worldwide community of brain scientists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, computer scientists and even, from time to time, the Dalai Lama.”
–Jim Holt, Mind of a Rock [“Is everything consciousness?”], New York Times Magazine, Nov. 18, 2007.
So why can’t the dead counsel the living? In Blake, A Biography by Peter Ackroyd, the author writes, “Blake had told her [Catherine, the poet’s wife] that he would never leave her, and indeed she saw him continually when ‘he used to come and sit with her for two or three hours every day. He took his chair and talked to her, just as he would have done had he been alive; he advised her as to the best mode of selling his engravings.'”
Excerpted from God is in the Cracks (Black Moss Press, 2006), here’s a sample of how the podiatrist father communicates with his son who is in mourning and, indeed, seriously depressed, following his father’s death.
FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, THE PODIATRIST COUNSELS HIS SON ON PRAYER
“How to pray?
You’re gonna need a password.
But not now. And you’re gonna see
it’s numbers, not words. Didn’t I tell you: if it’s got words,
it’s not prayer, and it’s not a password either.
So what if I’m dead? What does that matter?
You think you bury your father and that’s the end?
Schmegegge! What are you thinking, that the living
have a monopoly on life?
Give the dead some credit.
I didn’t just die, you know. Think of the preparation. A man
has to get himself ready. And what did I ask?
That you pay your respects. So light the yizkor,
light the candle. Oi!
Tear the clothes, rend the garment, I said, and that you did.
Point my feet toward the door, I said, and that you did.
God takes what He takes, son, and the body follows.
But prayer? Prayer? Where was the prayer?
Listen: God created us first the feet,
then the rest.
So? So we bow the head when we pray
to show respect. Cover the head,
where’s your yarmulke? Daven, daven,
rock back and forth… Now ask:
‘Who am I? Who am I?
What am I here for?’
These are the things you ask,
but this is not prayer.
It’s what you need to know before you start.
Why are we here? We’re here to mend the world.
Just remember, God doesn’t answer prayers.
So don’t ask.
Don’t ask for anything.
Shopping is shopping. Prayer is prayer.
Don’t confuse the two.”
In the same way God is in the Cracks: A Narrative in Voices (Black Moss Press, 2006) is sequenced to form a book-length narrative, one “best read in the order printed,” I am planning on doing something similar with Dr. Sward’s Cure for Melancholia. The characters, Dr. Sward (a podiatrist), melancholic son, and even the family dog, take on a life of their own.
The book necessarily has highs and lows and the clinically depressed son is bound to reveal himself as in desperate need of help. That’s part of the drama. And we’re speaking here of a work in progress.
The story has an arc, a beginning (suicidal fucked-up son), a middle (muddling through, trying to find what he believes is missing, the __ pieces) and an end that delivers on what the title promises, Dr. Sward’s Cure for Melancholia.
In a New York Times review of Conversations with Woody Allen, Nov. 18, 2007, David Kamp, the reviewer, says, “The working title of his most acclaimed film, Annie Hall, was ‘Anhedonia,’ meaning the inability to experience pleasure.”
Rings a bell with me. Anhedonia. This work in progress, or whatever it is, has to do with getting back whatever it is that makes it possible to experience—well, pretty much anything, and to experience it not as a zombie, as someone soulless, “undead.” But rather someone with an imagination, say, and the ability to dream, even to have nightmares, God forbid! And the awareness that there’s something there there which, for a while, there wasn’t. I lived in a there-less place.
I’m told a Blog is a place where one can, among other things, organize one’s thoughts. And to do so in a sort of private-public place. I’m thinking aloud and there’s some pleasure in it. Ah, pleasure! It’s not all Anhedonia. It’s not all Annie Hall. At some level we all live in a state of grace. Even the undead. I’m thinking of hope.
“Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.” Who said that? Jean Kerr.
Anyway, the underlying premise of this work, of this cure, is that we have an inner self [‘something’] and that that something can be fucking shattered by violence or violation of some kind, with the result that one can literally, fucking “lose one’s mind.”
Gone. And that, for me, is one definition of the term “undead.” I been there. I know the feeling. I once was lost, and now I’m found. And, with all due respect, I’m not thinking of Jesus. I’m not thinking of Christianity. Though, then again, why not? Well, for one thing, because I’m, what else? a Jew.
The working metaphor is soul retrieval, which medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo, describes in his book as involving a) locating what was lost, that is, the “pieces,” b) then recovering and returning those pieces, and… well, read on…
“What is it breaks when a man breaks down? What is it “goes to pieces”? What I’m hearing here, nut that I am, is my Jewish Russian-born small businessman Republican podiatrist father explaining… the son needs help. The father, dead since 1982, is here to help.
“The pieces. With a net I need to find you. First find. Inhale. Make clean. Then breathe back into you. You know what it is, a soul?
“All the pieces in one place.”
For more, see the Fall/Winter 2007 U.S.A. issue of Dr. Martin Bax’ English magazine, Ambit 190. Ambit editors include J.G. Ballard, Mike Foreman, Henry Graham, Geoff Nicholson, and, in issue 190, art work by Ralph Steadman.
What do I have to say that’s new? What do any of us have to say…?
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
As I understand my Russian-born, life-long Republican father, we have an inner self and that “self” can be shattered, as when we are in some way violated, with the result that one can literally lose one’s mind. Think Post-Traumatic Stress. The working metaphor for this work in progress is soul retrieval, locating and recovering what was lost, “breathing it back” into an individual, and making that person whole again.
The “soul retrieval” poems pick up from the final section of The Collected (and from God is in the Cracks).
Fri., Nov. 16, 2007 – Dr. Sward is a Russian-born podiatrist who died in 1982. My father, he is the primary speaker in God is in the Cracks, A Narrative in Voices (Black Moss Press, 2006). In a review of The Collected Poems (2004), from which many of the father poems are reprinted, The Globe & Mail noted, “The heart and core of this book is a series of dramatic monologues and dialogues between father and son.”
He came unhinged after my mother, a former Miss Chicago, died at age 42. In the late 40s Dad became a Rosicrucian and practised his rites secretly in the basement of our Skokie, Illinois, home. He evolved his own blend of kabbalistic, Christian hermetic, and prescient New Age mysticism which lent its colors to his medical practice as well as to his view of my eventual career choice and several marriages.
The new book, Dr. Sward’s Cure for Melancholia / Soul Retrieval, is a work in progress. Epigraphs follow, then excerpts and journal… “journal,” the word derives from “jour,” day… as in the name of a newspaper. It’s also the root of the word “journey…” and this blog, well, what is it but a journey, day by day, a movement from darkness into light.
“So, you want to die?” says my father. “Goddammit, you’re already missing. I may be dead, but I’m not missing. What will dying—tell me, what will dying do for you? What is it breaks when a man breaks down? What is it “goes to pieces”?
You want a theme? That’s the theme.
“In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between the eye and the heart. With the one eye that is closed, one looks within, with the other eye that is open, one looks without.”
“But what is it then that sits in my heart,
that breathes so quietly, and without lungs—
that is here. Here in this world, and yet not here?”
–Mary Oliver, “The Leaf and the Cloud”
“Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have
Bookshop Santa Cruz Launch