Every time a professor asked me or my peers what my poems meant–I never quite knew how to answer. They’re comments led me around and around the center of how I always felt about it but couldn’t word, I just acted like I already knew. That’s why it was written–those were the words to what it was, what the truth to me was. It’s not that I didn’t know but that my body or mind seems to piece things together with words and images before I can catch up. My first poem I ever wrote was Vapor in 2005. And I’ve held onto it. It’s even been published. That poem still holds true–it’s some kind of core belief I have but I didn’t have a rope down into that well to truly grasp it. I am writing to you guys tonight because this is happening again in a way–I don’t know what I am thinking until I write it down; I have to write to a someone, and I hold you guys with affection, because I am not willing to write to just myself. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my honest attempt to stop escaping myself. Because I try to be as honest as I can on nights like these. I’m so tired, but I can’t stop feeling words that are coming that I am trying to prepare for. I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. This is what happens every time before something real is written, and I don’t know what it is but I know my fingers will type it out for me.
Everything I have written so far–planning my grand, tragic memoir–is/was really, I am realizing, a desperately structured narrative so I could validate it the events, find order in the chaos, and so I could actually feel for the girl in the story because I have a hard time doing that for myself. Or I did. That’s changing. I am changing, and everything I’ve written–none of it is going into whatever it is that I am compelled and pulled to write. What pulls at me has been pulling for almost a decade, but it’s even stronger now, the words waiting, because I have been watching it unfold and the words only gradually come. Call those vignettes, that attempted narrative structure, a healing process, call it a coping mechanism, call it a perceived truth (as all truths seem to really be), it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because how I write it and how I remember it has been two different worlds. The memories and images, feelings (mostly physical, body feelings, frozen emotional states of the past, etc.) and events of course are as true to myself as I can be. But my life is not a linear, chronological tale-it is a history of flashes out of order. And the flashes are what I look to when I write, involving my one fail-safe–my senses and body memories. I’m more tied to the smell of lilacs, tractor oil, Old Spice, the weeds along the path to the baseball games I went to all summer when I was a girl, the milkweed, trains, the iron ore at the dock, old books, the perfume I wore when I was being abused, the feel of water and wet skin on me, physical alarms and instinct, than I am tied to actual happenings or events. And that is a blunt truth: dissociating your whole life–you live in fragments, just like how I remember it. And I have changed and do so constantly into something that makes me feel alive–and I never really felt alive before, not for this long of a period. I am in love with the simplest things like blue, deaf mornings in the winter, the way the telephone wires reflect in puddles, the smell of a storm coming, white seagulls on dark clouds–I actually stopped my bike on my way down to the shore to watch them-and all of these are very simple and right in front of me. The colors and sounds and smells and sights don’t have intentions. They just are. And I can relax my mind around things like that; nature is like a fact, an unwordable cause and effect that has rhythm even in its own chaotic events-it’s all one thing sliding into and around the other. Motion. Repetition. Change. Recycle. Like music.
As humans we try to master outcome. We try to master choice and effort and even failure to make sense of the things we cannot hold, of the things that happen to us. “Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did,” Lidia Yuknavitch writes. And that’s true right through my gut–life is fragments and patterns and repetitions that do not hold true to the words we use, to the scenarios we build, words are just metaphor; we are of an imperfect nature-we don’t have natural disasters, we have trauma and loss and all those kinds of events at random, no one is picked out and chosen, and we’ve spent millennia trying to prepare our reactions and behaviors for these things. And it isn’t possible. What is inevitable though is that we will come out of it changed–“to something new, something strange,” (Longfellow? Not sure). But before we understand and are aware of that change though, somehow our natural systems undergo a small microscopic atomic evolution–or what I think of as the nightmares during the sleep of adaptation. Also called, in a flimsy, whimsical word, “healing.” And that is the perfect part of our ourselves–we’re part adaptation and evolution, but the rest is a blank slate.
I believe I am becoming who I am because I scribbled on a blank page my words and crossing-outs of what others had scripted on that slate-who I used to be, and becoming anything but her, for me, is a gigantic relief and forward motion–not towards anything, there is no goal, but into something I can’t describe yet. Into what–myself? Is it predestined that I would find this? Is this who I was before I hid away in my mind as a girl? Or did she all together vanish, and that’s why I had the breakdown and it took seven years to repair–because as an entirely naked being I had to start over? I don’t believe in destiny. I used to with a sort of romantic twist on it. I believe I am almost atheist in my perceptions. Or views. Or…something. Scientific facts, math, denominators, constellations, physics–these are things with solidity. They cannot be moved. And maybe people are afraid to be moved; people are afraid that what they base themselves on in the private parts of their minds is illusion, and it can be terrifying-even if you are used to a lot of change inside. We find religion. We find atheism. We find addiction. We find facts. We find knowledge. We are constantly looking. We seek other people, looking for strands of ourselves to keep aligned inside–a shared bit of the stars we come from–so as not to feel alone. Connection. Gravity. We think we need it. That it is necessity. Maybe it is, but going without it opens up a world’s worth of information. Gravity, connection–losing that is to study yourself as a microbe. When all connection is cut, when you lose your belief system so ingrained in you, when you find yourself no longer cursing a god for damning you but beholding something much scarier-that seemingly factual, unmoving reflection in the mirror of you dead inside–these are the facts, these are the equivocations of what you’ve totaled into, of who damaged you–all you felt, all you did, all you endured and you just weren’t able or built to survive that way at that age. You see yourself as just another product of a common tragedy all over the world–and it is not a pretty thing to see. Being out there, weightless in space and only time will help you get used to, it’s fucking terrifying, losing that person. That illusion. It’s Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” —…pinned against the sweating wall/a man goes far to find out what he is/Death of the self in the tearless night/Dark, dark my light …It is, as he says, a death of the self. I never forgot that poem. But after the terror, after time-the only thing that keeps you-you gain so much more.
Maybe I poetisized the stars all along, because I no longer believe things happen for a reason. I was not destined for this, I was not, as so many people say “becoming the person I was meant to be.” I no longer believe that my dead father is the middle star in Orion’s Belt. He is gone. His body is part of the elements now, back to where it came from-into the patterns and rhythm of nature. But his essence is inside me, I have, from him, his voice telling me I’ll be okay. I remember many times looking up into the night and trying to rationalize with my brain what Catholic school had been teaching me, but at that age all I got out of it was an old man up there watching me to make sure I didn’t fuck up, and to make sure I loved. The contradiction was as easy to believe as it was believing all the other contradictions that were around me. What isn’t contradictory to me is that death, be it of the self or of the body, does what nature tends to do–breaks down the matter, recycling parts and pieces into different directions, different things, new things, and each finding a way.
I was afraid of suicide-of the actual act itself. I believed with all I had that my body would commit the crime against me. So they tranquilized me on Seroquel for a year and a half so my body wouldn’t die. But it’s not how it sounds. A sort of mental or more-so a spiritual death is not specific, it’s not a quarantined moment. It’s sort of like the way dammed water floods. That time is a fragment to me now, but it’s quite concrete compared to other memories but it only has a linear order for a brief period of time. So. It is, after the frightening adventure of losing everything, including faith in religion, it’s an awakening. It’s a cold, cruel way to get to it, but it is an awakening.
I am not going to force my words into a frame anymore. My mind certainly doesn’t work that way.
I’ve known that Roethke poem almost by heart for years. Once you experience it, it is only understood by others that have. And their are easier ways I’m sure. But I’m going to add that poem, so that you can see. He describes it better than I can.
Theodore Roethke: IN A DARK TIME
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
and here is my poem, VAPOR:
This body’s breath
caught sharp and held
I hold it and like water
it escapes my fingers and spills
over my toes
when I am thirsty
asking too much from my body
when I am not enough
I give it tea and fruit and poisons
I exhale the fumes of the vices
herbal or smoky and fine
licking at these wet fingers
that let a pen scratch
let a word be plucked
from a curl of steam
this body’s breath
will learn it can’t hold what is borrowed
and maybe then stop
cupping and drinking
hold and take nothing
it’s enough just to breathe
let the vices unthread from the seams
of the spine into origami wings
taking flight in paper vees
and leave me in the water