In the days from right before to several weeks after my latest breakdown, I was unable to communicate properly--unable to explain myself, unable to be consoled, unable to stretch the shell of myself. Additionally, I couldn’t gain the focus to read or write poetry, the one activity over the last decade that comforted my troubled heart & captured my broken brain. Sitting on my twin hospital bed at the psychiatric facility, staring at The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young, I kept thinking of two things: 1) Dean, in class, arguing that poetry is not a form of communication 2) How often even someone like myself, who seems to be personable, expressive, & polite, fails to communicate with others.
But dammit, do I insist on trying to get it right. As a species, we’re getting good at telling each other information, tossing out emojis & sharing links & recording our smart conversations. But I got quite a path to ponder down still, still learning to express fear & anger & madness in productive ways. Dean himself somewhere clamored for personal coherence through aesthetic coherence; let’s try that, I thought. In life, I’m troubled; in my work, I can be trouble, troubling, double-trouble. As the medication kicked in & I was able to read/write again, poetry has become the way to access & perform my own dysfunction.
I had the owlshit outburst Dean prescribed and where did it get me? Locked up for a week with his book. He said you can’t blame the brass for being shaped into a trumpet & I’m apt to believe him, but sometimes it is hard not to blame myself for the mess of a person, mess of a life I’ve made. So, I can’t communicate with poetry, not in a linear, intentional way. But, what if I use the gestures & postures, the tools & the fooling around of communication for poetry’s purpose? Surrealism was a revolution of the mind. This, whatever this thing I’m doing is, puts emphasis on unencumbered expectations of communication.
It borrows from Surrealism & 90’s country music equally, as much from ecopoetics as it does current developments in mental illness. If you just moseyed on up on Abraham Smith belting out a poem, who among us wouldn’t try to commit him? The epistle, the epigram, stand-up comedy. Here is something to know, something I’ve heard, a connection I made. Theater, collaboration, mistranslation. The late John Prine said writing songs is one way to explain things to the self, then he died from the coronavirus while I was in the nuthouse. Therapy w/ self, connection w/ others, the syllabus, the to-do list.
Songs in the key of the looney bin. Andre Breton saw a guy on the battlefield as the bombs dropped waving as if he were conducting it all, this horrible symphony. Breton saw inspiration; I see myself with no shoelaces & no exit date. My last night in the psych hospital, just moments after they said TOMORROW YOU GO, a weird worry washes over me, one I checked at the door: what if I’m not made for the outside world. The poetry community thinks I’m a danger. My wife is sick of dealing with me. Countless jobs I failed. Countless friendships I’ve fumbled. I see a guy named Michael pacing in the hall, begging to get out, & I try to imagine him buying groceries, reading a book, eating a meal he’s prepared himself. Then he punches himself in the head & someone somewhere yelps.
I go back to my room & try to meditate. Like poetry, these days meditation is an essential communication loop, the self talking to the self through not talking much at all. The head is another object in consciousness, says Sam Harris, no such thing as I. Okay, yet I speak here, whatever mushy contraption I am. “The blood may be fake but the bleeding is real,” Dean again, I think, not sure at this point. In the hospital, back in March, seventh shoulder dislocation, the Fentynal made me depersonalize; being inside a poem jams me back into myself.
What have the others said, relaying the experience of meeting this poet? How I spent a third of my waking hours reading? Probably the way my face melted back together as the days ticked away. This one guy, Kenny, who shot himself in the leg in a botched attempt to shoot himself in the face & the gal named Natalie with the single stripe shaved out of the side of her head spent my last night writing inspirational break-up R&B songs, pacing up & down the hallway outside my door. It’s like they’ve known each other for a hundred years. Who knows, maybe they have. This other guy, Josh, didn’t talk to me till he knew I was leaving.
For years, my illness was something I intercepted from afar, was reported back to me, became a wreckage to sift through, but eventually one was in midst of it & I had the option to flee or stay, fight or flight’s younger cousin, not the instinct within to the outside fear, but the heartfelt thirst of how much can you drink. Once it was the way of the switch, to flick off the light of the rational, the present, and rupture; I’d go yelling into the void. Now, thank you meds, I rupture in slow-motion, triggered still, but given time before the boom to consider, to sequence, to segue.
According to this word search, my life is chock full of coping skills, one of which is “keeping a journal,” which for me, of course, means writing poems. John Mulaney & Stephen Colbert recently had an exchange where they conclude what one does is not for people who hate it / them; it’s for people who connect to it, which could include oneself. Stepping out of the nuthouse, I whispered some Rilke--”you must change your life”--then tromped back into it. I’m not trying to perfectly reassemble the dinosaur skeleton; I’m just trying to play its ribs like a xylophone in the comfort of the museum.