“Write what you know,” said approximately 1.43 million nervous creative writing instructors. “You just go on your nerve,” suggested Frank O’Hara. In these poems, Shira Erlichman does not panic in an attempt to communicate what she has experienced in her journey with bipolar disorder, but rather, she turns attention to the very drug meant to calm her in a concerted, fruitful effort to capture the nature of the happening. It is important here to remember the words we use to label this journey--bout, battle, struggle. These are acts of conflict, aggression, & difficulty & we mustn’t forget it.
“What they don’t want of me lives. It sees through my eyes that they would prefer it dead. It knows better than to whimper, or show defeat. What they don’t want of me breathes.”
I’ve learned first hand how wild it is to attempt to convey to folks how it feels to be mad, to be drugged, to be blurry-between; you can say the who & the what & the why, but it doesn’t capture the visceral excess of the experiencing. In these odes, which also take the form of sonnets & prose poems & ghazals & etc., I kept remarking on how the poems show great skill in repossessing the language of mental illness in the container of poetry’s various forms. Dean Young would call it shoving fission material in a reactor; I would call it putting wolves inside a fence. Regardless what you call it, these poems succeed in capturing the visceral nature of mental illness & the shape of experiencing it.
“Have you ever seen the dark split / into two peaches? Sickness is a lot like that. / To the uninitiated it looks like fruit.”
These poems take a razorblade to the moments to carve something truly expressive & connective for the ill; for the allies & uninformed, these poems can make crisp the state of experience otherwise cloudy for them. As Dean Young said, “The great accomplishment of consciousness is the imagination, & the greatest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” I’m reading Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, in which he dismisses emotional empathy--the attempt to feel what another is feeling--though not necessarily cognitive empathy, the informed, rational understanding & sympathy for what another person or group of people is going through. These poems achieve a empathic middle ground of entry for readers.
“Chicken wire undulated behind my lids / & the sky looked beat to death.”
These poems use an inventiveness that might only be available to the mad, the variations & the twists, the jumbles & the jams that we have, in our own cognition, been terrorized by, dealt with, & hopefully managed. In “They,” Erlichman deals with the difficulty of being two days removed from a psych ward, attempting to navigate small talk & conflict at a friendly dinner party. In many poems, she lives with the sights, sounds, & flesh of the people she met in the psych ward, both of versions herself & others. Never do these poems ask for pity, but instead, earn witness with their honest & startled lens.
“I retreated to my small room to sleep / two days on a wiry bed frame on public sheets / that had belonged to others’ private sweat.”