What a Difference a Day Makes

July 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Look for the bird

I was feeling suicidal yesterday, in mental shackles I couldn’t unlock, and despairing about how the depression deepens and begins to speak with my tongue, dream my dreams, operate my hands and feet. Dopey girls on phones in the elevator are lucky I don’t have a gun and that my testosterone levels are low; it seems entirely right to share the pain with bullets, a fist, or to simply explode like an IED.

While the one I am so angry at cannot be touched, for he is loved, and that is magical. I’d sooner die, and think I might. (I also believe I’m as much or more to blame than he; there is such a thing as love addiction—mine—and he’s allowed his own quota of crazy.)

But fear not: I went to a small meeting of seven sad folk, AA/mood disorders, and they spent a long time reading the Second Tradition, which is about how AA has no leaders, never has, never should, and how of course many people get prideful and think to lead, but are always brought back down to the common level.

This isn’t always so, of course, but in that small room, with 7 people fighting lifelong severe depression, it was true. I felt an immense calm come over me. In every aspect of my life now, I feel compulsion; I feel ruled and driven; and if the shackles are of my own devising, so what? They still bite. But for an hour I was free of them. No one dominated me. And I remembered—this is what life used to be like almost always, even when I was unhappy…a certain level of ordinary human freedom…this cage I’m in, is there an exit?


Success Comes To Cow Creek

I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is
inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

James Tate

Sylvia Plath

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Cathedral of St John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th street, New York City) inducted Sylvia Plath into its American Poets’ Corner in November, 2010.

I helped put together the program of readings and talks, and learned more about this poet I admired when I was very young, didn’t think about very much for years, and now, in middle age, admire again differently. Lately I’ve been reading Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook and found myself pulled in again to that passionate, sad story. This is the kind of life you find in literature all the time, less so next door, but which I think happen to ordinary people much more often than one thinks. Agony moves us. The inner agony of the extremely gifted and privileged moves us very differently: the waste (as if the work of one artist matters more than a million anonymous lives), the selfishness (as if we have any idea how others suffer)! But more powerful, and the reason people read Plath, is because she can articulate that agony in a way that makes it seem not a waste and not selfish.

Reading her work and her diary is transformative because of the qualities many find repulsive: her relentless focus on herself and her rage. When I was in my 20’s, such naked expression of female ambition and anger were still new and thrilling. She wasn’t a feminist in the strict sense—she was ferociously competitive with other women and didn’t leave much trace of her political views. What she did was kick the ideal of woman as all-forgiving Madonna in the teeth. “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary,” she writes in The Moon and the Yew Tree. She started out wanting to be a perfect wife and mother as well as a great poet and realized, as most women do, that this is impossible, and beyond that, absurd.

Many of the famous women writers before Plath grew up in circumstances, or with sensibilities, that did not put them in such conflict with the role of domestic goddess. They were either artist/bohemians from the start, or else in a productive harmony with their domestic side or obligations. Virginia Woolf may have written A Room of One’s Own but she also grew up in a family and milieu of artists, and had servants.

For most of history, art was created by people of means, or people willing to live very simply. Living simply is harder when you have children, and “La Vie Boheme” became far more expensive in the latter decades of the 20th century. Certainly the way Sylvia and Ted managed to live—poor but able to buy a house, eat and feed their children without working at a regular job or teaching—couldn’t be done today. The circumstances she faced only got more drastic.

Plath probably would have detested many of the people who came to consider her their icon. Her suicide wasn’t a political act against male hegemony. It was an expression of hopelessness and defiance–the two so intertwined they can’t be separated—and maybe (probably) revenge. suicide appeals to people suffering from depression, and infuriates those who don’t understand, precisely because it is so uncompromising and powerful. It renders visible the idea of unbearable pain occurring in ordinary circumstances, shameful desires for attention at any cost; it tells the world what grief is, which is something most of us try very hard to forget.

None of this means that it’s wrong to read the poems from a feminist or any other standpoint. Poems belong to the world. But if you want to know why she wrote them—and I don’t mean why she wrote poetry, she was born to do that, but wrote these poems in particular, you need a long acquaintanceship with pain.

If Plath had lived, she would be less known to those who don’t read poetry, but far more known to those who do. She was developing so fast, and had such prodigious energy and ambition, there is no doubt in my mind that her work would have only gotten better. She was working on a second novel when she died, and the thought of her living to write more fiction is almost as exciting as thinking of the poetry she might have written. She was a wicked satirist.

The Arrival of the Bee Box

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

Sylvia Plath

Always on my Mind

March 22, 2009 § 1 Comment


Death has been on my mind. Natasha’s Richardson’s accident was heartbreaking; a close friend of mine was working with a member of her family, which is not much of a connection but it lit up my own memories of her performances. I also saw Liam Neeson on Jon Stewart a few months ago, and went through the requisite envy—Natasha Richardson has everything—that one remembers at moments like this.

The flip side of that is I’ve been feeling desperately unhappy about my own life: a stalled career, no money, a 9 year love affair that is a perpetual misery machine shot with moments of transcendent joy, hours of quiet happiness—the seductions that keep one from turning off the machine.

I have health, loving friends and family, brains and talent. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that thinks: I know nothing of Natasha Richardson’s inner life, but if it matched what one saw from the outside, 45 years of that seems better than 145 of my own life.

This isn’t about fame or a sexy movie star husband. It’s about depression, which has systematically wrecked the many opportunities I’ve had. It’s about my father, who taught me that the way you deal with severe pain is to kill yourself. My mother taught me that you deal with it by tapping your inner strength, and that’s what I’ve been doing for 54 years. The appeal of my father’s way is you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. I remember a little wooden placard he had, the kind you buy at a tacky gift shop. Written on it was, “If at first you don’t succeed, to hell with it.”

I was struck by that not just because it appealed to a kid’s natural anti-piety, but because it seemed so in character for him, and I hadn’t consciously recognized that part of his character before. My father rarely talked to me so any tidbit I learned about him was powerful. Any connection was powerful. I didn’t believe in that slogan, and still don’t: I’m more of the school that if you don’t succeed after trying for 54 years, you should strongly consider saying to hell with it.

I’m not talking about my particular goals. I know I didn’t try hard enough in my career, didn’t do what people told me to do and what I told myself to do. I didn’t try hard enough to walk away from a hopeless romance. (No, not hopeless. I can’t even say that now. Seemingly hopeless.) But the reason I didn’t wasn’t laziness, though I have more than my share of that, but depression. I’ve never liked that word, but none of the good words—despair, anguish, terror—carry the same implication of longlastingness. I have to trust you know the ferocity and multi-dimensional nature of the beast. I’ve spent at least half my life’s energy fighting it. When I read about women juggling family and career, I relate. Tending to the demands of relentless needy creatures is wearying.

Everybody’s beast is different, though, and what I can say about mine is that it’s never been that flat, affectless grey goo that so many people describe. I’ve been in that place, now and then. It was restful. Not pleasant, but restful. But I can see why it results in suicide so often. If nothing is reliably differentiated from any other thing, even death loses its mystique and becomes as harmless-looking as a sleeping pill.

Death has never looked harmless to me. I first encountered it as a murderer taking those I loved. I’ve never gone a week without moments of joy or contentment, without appreciation of the beauty of the world that death will steal from me, sooner or later. So I have to do things my mother’s way and manage to enjoy life even though the demonspawn upstairs are going crazy and may soon erupt.

You know language is inadequate when this translates as ‘hope.’

Dead Is The New Black

March 11, 2009 § 3 Comments

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

A guy from Philip’s company jumped out the office window yesterday. Philip didn’t quite know how to talk about it. He’d never met the man. He seemed to both of us more of a casualty of war than an individual meeting his private fate, though the two can’t be separated.

I thought perhaps he was shorting financial stocks on the day of the big rally. It’s just as likely something in his personal life deteriorated over the weekend. But there are so many suicides lately. You can’t help thinking of the people who jumped from the twin towers. Maybe one of them woke up that beautiful Tuesday planning a dive, but you kind of doubt it.

The last person I knew who killed himself that way did have bad things happening in his personal life but was also a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic (he worked for The New York Times). My mother is certain he thought hostile forces were coming for him and he was trying to escape. Of course all suicides think hostile forces are coming for them. The only difference is that some of us realize the forces are in our minds.

No, I’m not a suicide. I’m writing this, aren’t I? The dead don’t write. At least, they don’t write to me. I’ve never even come close except for the night of my first date with my husband—I was suicidal before he asked me out, not after—but I have suicidal ideation, as the shrinks call it.

“I’m going to jump out the window!” I said to my doctor several years ago.

“Go ahead,” he replied. “We’re on the first floor.” Smug little bastard…I forgot we were in the new office…

I like that phrase, though, suicidal ideation. It rolls off the tongue. You could use it to name a child. Suicidal Ideation Jones. Or Suicidal Ideation Napalm, if you want the correct initials.

My father used the car-in-the-closed-garage method, classic for the time and place (mid-60’s suburbia) and his character type (pain-avoidant, fastidious about his person). Two  teenage brothers I knew from Texas shot themselves while on LSD, my friend Susan’s father hung himself, and the others used pills.

You know all those life insurance policies that disallow benefits in the event of suicide within three years? I bet the ones past the three-year mark are all being yanked. Check the fine print. And keep in mind that your kids would probably prefer it if you pulled them out of their too-expensive schools and organized a family bank heist gang, or drove to Cleveland and squatted in an empty house.

Suicidal ideation isn’t meant to lead out the window. It’s like those sexual fantasies you have about…you know the ones I mean…you’d never really do that. In your mind, you’re allowed the most extravagant depravity. Keep it there.

John Berryman

Dream Song 127

Again, his friend’s death made the man sit still
and freeze inside—his daughter won first price—
his wife scowled over at him—
It seemed to be Hallowe’en.
His friend’s death had been adjudged suicide,
which dangles a trail

longer than Henry’s chill, longer than his loss
and longer than the letter that he wrote
that day to the widow
to find out what the hell had happened thus.
All souls converge upon a hopeless mote
tonight, as though

the throngs of souls in hopeless pain rise up
to say they cannot care, to say they abide
whatever is to come.
My air is flung with souls which will not stop
and among them hangs a soul that has not died
and refuses to come home.

Dream Song 29

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing


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.

Money, Honey

November 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

We’re all scared about the economy, some more than most. I’m not an auto-worker or single mother; I’m in no danger of being homeless. I’m a member of that unlamented breed, the formerly privileged—having always depended on money from inherited stock to keep me barely middle class through a life of writing, depression, chronic illness and a deep-seated terror of men with angry voices. In my youth, I thought every job came with a boss like that. Recently, my boyfriend Philip assured me that, in fact, most do. 

My mother is in the same pickle, though she won’t admit it yet, and it’s a little worse when you’re 83 and not really qualified for phone sex jobs. My brother thinks we should all move in together in her big, unpaid for, not-worth-what-she-owes-on-it house. I imagine a second childhood—hers and ours—where we’d learn the character-building truths somehow neglected in our education. Either that or set upon each other with axes.

My neighbor, also in financial distress, tells me that he’s going to kill himself soon. He tells me this often. People confide their suicidal thoughts to me because I listen without recoil. My father killed himself when I was 10, and in the next decade I knew half a dozen people who killed themselves: two husbands of my mother’s close friends; two teenage brothers I’d met a few times while we visited their home in Houston, and lusted after; one I’ve forgotten; and my schoolfriend’s aunt, who used to drift around the dinner table of her father’s elegant house, neither eating nor talking except once when she halted behind my chair and touched me on the shoulder, pronouncing, ‘watch out for this one.’ I doubt anyone heard her but me. I was spooked by how she knew, without ever having a conversation with me, that I was also profoundly disturbed.

Philip’s wife once said to me, “Nobody kills themselves for love.” I looked at her incredulously. “Well, unless you’re depressed; that’s different. Then you need help.” Indeed. It’s easier to imagine dying over money. There’s no niggling feeling that the bastard isn’t worth it, no pathetic transformation into the martyred lover. There are just numbers and though numbers do lie, frequently, you can’t really take it personally.         

My neighbor and I discuss methods. I remind him that overdosing on pills can leave you brain-damaged. He’s more worried about who’ll take care of his white cockatoo. I consider it a good sign he’s not planning to take her with him, perched on his shoulder in the coffin, ready to sink her wicked beak into any welcomers on the other side.

Philip  called me just now to say Obama had announced his Treasury Secretary, exciting Wall Street. He thought maybe my stock had shot up to the moon, and when I told him I’d sold some this morning, he asked if I could buy it back. Yesterday he was infuriated with me for not selling it sooner. Charles left a message on my machine telling me he was watching the market news, and the woman anchor was wearing an ugly necklace. One of my handmade pieces would look much better. “We’ll have to work on that. I bet she’d pay more than $45.00.” 

My mom says, “You should ghostwrite for Sarah Palin.” 

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