And Darkness

February 6, 2013 § 2 Comments


I decided the other day I would only write about upbeat things. And then yesterday, after too-vivid dreams, I woke up feeling worse than I have in months. Same old same old—pain that goes back to childhood but psychotically powered by not-so-recent events, the endless mountain of grief and over-sensitivity, rejection, abandonment, shame.

I can’t write about it because I’m overwhelmed with the voices of those close to me who have told me how ugly, scary and unwelcome these feelings are. I can’t make them pretty. I don’t want to. I’m too angry. But I refuse to give up.

Suicidal ideation (I love that bit of jargon; it’s like a piece of poison Easter candy) has lost its charm. Imagine that. I’ll fucking live in torture if I have to.

But enough of that. Fitzroy is on his back and looking like the sexy cat-god he is; Charles is out hearing music (I can’t leave the apartment), and I’m here in my messy, well-lighted place. I have books and more. I made jewelry today. I made dinner. I have to keep swimming for that shore, the one where creation and helping others is my goal & heart, and the rest is somehow not allowed to kill me. Because I’ll be dead anyway, so why not suffer and let it be enough?

I remember reading a book by Aldous Huxley in my 20’s—I can’t remember the name but it was about a saint being tortured. The torturer (Spanish Inqusition) demanded the prisoner renounce his religion or his leg bones would be splintered. I was wondering how one could possibly hold on to something as abstract as God under conditions of such agony when I suddenly understood that in extremis whatever you have—in his case, faith—has to be clung to because otherwise the personality will disintegrate. It’s taken me this long to get to the point where I feel like my life is nearly empty in regard to selfish pleasures. I don’t mean I’m in an objectively horrible position—far from it— but for me, at this moment, there’s nothing: no desire, no indulgence that works anymore. No escape.

An hour ago, 2 hours ago, this morning, yesterday, I wanted to die and kill someone else (pretty much in that order) but I can’t, I won’t. I’ve always felt contempt people who give in to rage and so there’s no path there, and self-pity’s no good. I suppose this entry has its share of both, but I’m tempering it to your delicate ears, all of you whom I hate—

No, I don’t hate. I’m just so tired of being unhappy; it’s so wasteful.

But I can’t think of it like that. Who privileges happiness?

Happiness ran off like a swift fox, dived in its burrow and left the stumbling cloddish hunter on the horse making slow passage in the February woods, thin branches whipping across her face, the horizon that slate gray where the lowest sky seems to congeal over the frozen snow, the glint of sunset on that icy crest so pure and uncaring.

Oh, the New Hampshire of my youth, the cold, white winters and empty fields, long drives on slick roads, thickets of stars! Always a boy in mind. A boy I saw through a kaleidoscope, fragmented, jagged and crazy-colored; yet when I heard evidence that he saw me in the same broken-up manner, I was righteously angry and terrified of nonexistence. But the air was sweet. I had hope like an abundance of clean laundry.

Now I’m down to one shrunken sock I’ve never seen before. Okay, then.

Carrion Comfort

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Lark, Hitch, Death, Whine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m not too keen about weighing in on the deaths of famous men and didn’t think I had anything to say regarding Christopher Hitchens until I read Ross Douthat’s column about him in the Times this Sunday (although what I have to say is not really about Hitchens). Douthat claims the atheist Hitchens as a should-have-been Christian. He ends, “When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that ‘death is no different whined at than withstood.'”

Douthat continues, “Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.”

Yet what makes Larkin a great poet is that he doesn’t give in to despair in his poetry, which is the only part of his life that anyone cares about now. He offers no quotable lines of solace but he follows his arguments to their terrifying end with enormous control and precision of language while the emotions they arouse are so bleak that one can’t help thinking—over and over—so why write? And whatever answer you come up with owes nothing to despair. He didn’t write gaudily about wanting to die, only about struggling to live in an emotional atmosphere very few people could withstand. Yes, he drank a lot, but not enough to kill the poems.

Hitchens was altogether a happier and more charming creature, and if he had, as an atheist, more interest in God than many atheists do, it was surely a result of the fact that God and his various cohorts are everywhere in literature. If you love the masterpieces of the English language—not to mention all the other Indo-European languages—you’ll have Christ, Yahweh, Satan, et al, rattling around in your brain, along with the Greek and Roman Pantheons, other deities, half-deities, and assorted supernatural specimens. And if you’re Hitchens, you won’t know too many people as conversant with them as you are. So, yes, you’d want to talk to religious intellectuals. And you might wish God himself were around to debate.

One way of looking at the human spirit is to say that those who withstand horrific tragedies and remain or become productive, generous, joyful contributors to the world have the most to teach us. But it’s also true that there’s something to be learned from people like Larkin—people without the solace of belief, suffering severe, unending melancholy, but determined to explore and communicate that which they do know, to honor the peculiar shape of their experience without drowning in it.

Christopher Hitchens blessed us with his wit, and Christopher Hitchens was blessed not to be Philip Larkin. We are all blessed that Philip Larkin refused to be anyone else.

And I’ll be damned if I know why I’m strewing these blessings around, since like Christopher I suspect that all joy and pleasure is here, along with every variety of torment. Merry Christmas.

Continuing To Live

Continuing to live – that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries –
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise –
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

–Philip Larkin

The Cat Psychiatrist

November 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Hope in a Prison of Despair

Hope in a Prison of Despair, by Evelyn De Morgan (30 August 1855-2 May 1919), British

As I have told you before, and probably will again next week and the week after until we both expire of collegial boredom, my cat refuses to let me sink into gloom. I use that phrase because merely being depressed—but still active—seems to go by him; and lying in bed reading is okay, too (though he prefers active). But lying in bed sunk in gloom is not permitted. He meows, bites, sticks his wet nose in my face.

Is this what I should have done with my father all those years ago? Not tiptoed around his bad moods…not believed adult inner life was sacrosanct, demanding of awe and dread? Should I have just nudged him with my wet nose?

Oh yeah, he wouldn’t have reacted by saying (fondly) “….okay, okay, ya dumb cat, for chrissakes, I’ll get up.” He would have snarled and said something hurtful. I only do that when Fitzroy is being Felix Ungerish neurotic. When I’m sunk in gloom, I’m touched by his distress. And who can say it’s better to sink in gloom than write this blog post, which is fairly useless but doesn’t upset the cat?

I always want to explore the gloom for reasons that once made sense. The metaphors of ‘shining light on’ or ‘cleaning out’ are timeless and seemingly experience-tested, at least until you try them 8 million times. Now it’s all about keeping busy, but the obvious things—doing the work I’m paid for, calling friends—are impossibly distant from the state of gloom. This isn’t. This is the coffee bar in the mental hospital, the one that exists nowhere but in my mind.

My Ideal Mental Hospital: on one side are sunny gardens, mountain views, hot springs, and a library of great poetic and comic works: books, movies and TV shows. Masseurs, yoga teachers and therapists are on call, and at the end of the session, they pay you. Grandmothers (certified grandmothers, older, wider and shorter than all the patients) prepare simple meals with lots of fresh vegetables, meat raised with kindness, home-baked bread and pie. All the bedrooms have big windows and the breeze is warm or cool, scented with the Pacific Ocean, eucalyptus, mountain laurel, autumn leaves or just-mown grass.

On the other side, it’s like a college or boarding school common room, with a stained carpet, ridiculous chairs, and people in pajamas day and night. The coffee is not bad but slopped into ugly gray plastic cups. Sunk in Gloom plays her greatest hits on the jukebox, which eats quarters and often skips or stops in the middle of the song. There’s only one phone and when it rings, it’s always a guy with a sexy voice asking for some girl named Marcy.
On The Meeting Of García Lorca And Hart Crane

Brooklyn, 1929. Of course Crane’s
been drinking and has no idea who
this curious Andalusian is, unable
even to speak the language of poetry.
The young man who brought them
together knows both Spanish and English,
but he has a headache from jumping
back and forth from one language
to another. For a moment’s relief
he goes to the window to look
down on the East River, darkening
below as the early light comes on.
Something flashes across his sight,
a double vision of such horror
he has to slap both his hands across
his mouth to keep from screaming.
Let’s not be frivolous, let’s
not pretend the two poets gave
each other wisdom or love or
even a good time, let’s not
invent a dialogue of such eloquence
that even the ants in your own
house won’t forget it. The two
greatest poetic geniuses alive
meet, and what happens? A vision
comes to an ordinary man staring
at a filthy river. Have you ever
had a vision? Have you ever shaken
your head to pieces and jerked back
at the image of your young son
falling through open space, not
from the stern of a ship bound
from Vera Cruz to New York but from
the roof of the building he works on?
Have you risen from bed to pace
until dawn to beg a merciless God
to take these pictures away? Oh, yes,
let’s bless the imagination. It gives
us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
the visionary power of the human—
the only animal that’s got it—,
bless the exact image of your father
dead and mine dead, bless the images
that stalk the corners of our sight
and will not let go. The young man
was my cousin, Arthur Lieberman,
then a language student at Columbia,
who told me all this before he died
quietly in his sleep in 1983
in a hotel in Perugia. A good man,
Arthur, he survived graduate school,
later came home to Detroit and sold
pianos right through the Depression.
He loaned my brother a used one
to compose his hideous songs on,
which Arthur thought were genius.
What an imagination Arthur had!

–Philip Levine

Didn’t The Night End?

October 30, 2009 § 2 Comments


The New York Times has an article by Gordon Marino about Kierkegaard and the difference between despair and depression, the main point being that despair is of the spirit, depression of the mind.  Certainly one can be very unhappy yet spiritually joyous: artists, monks, priests and their ilk often find themselves in this condition.

I remember it well. I call it youth. I was miserable yet the world was so glorious! So beautiful—autumn leaves in the mountains, the full moon over water, the rocking cradle of a subway car late at night. So strange, changeable, fascinating…far more alluring than the rancid charms of suicide, which has always been nattering at my elbow.

Yet if, as Kierkegaard says, despair is the result of refusing (or not knowing how) to be oneself, I must differ. Certainly, in my teens, 20’s and 30’s, there were big parts of myself I was denying out of shame and fear. And if I had been able to embrace them, I would have been much happier. Yet it’s now that I feel despair—now when I’m much more accepting and open about who I am.

Or have I only accepted my limitations? Am I still squashed by fear, this time that it’s too late for literary acclaim (among other things)? Perhaps. But there’s also my confusion about what approach to take to death. Like our President, I inherited this mess, it was never my idea, and I’m dithering.

McChrsytal wants troops to focus on protecting Afghans, not killing insurgents. I want the same thing in my spiritual life, such as it is. But I spent so many years zealously protecting parts of myself that only needed light and air, and then became furiously angry at my mistake; I’m not sure how to get back in the game properly.

I need a posse for guidance. And Joe Lieberman’s head on a stick.

Oh, sorry. That’s a topic for another day.

October (Section One)

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn't Frank just slip on the ice,
didn't he heal, weren't the spring seeds planted

didn't the night end,
didn't the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn't my body
rescued, wasn't it safe

didn't the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn't they just end, wasn't the back garden
harrowed and planted--

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren't the seeds planted,
didn't vines climb the south wall

I can't hear your voice
for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care
what sound it makes

when was I silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can't change what it is--

didn't the night end, wasn't the earth
safe when it was planted

didn't we plant the seeds,
weren't we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

--Louise Gluck


January 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Depression a whirlpool, sucking me down. So much force. Will it be gone tomorrow, next week? Never? Right now I wish there were a door to go through marked ‘Death’ ( not into the earth but somewhere airy and bright that’s  also nowhere and empty but in an airy, bright and possibly surprising way) and to go through this door is okay, nobody minds, people wish you ‘Bon Voyage’ and aren’t unhappy. Of course I don’t want my friends to go through that door, except, if we all went, it would be okay.

Where Am I?

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