Off The Shelf by Doug Holder
The “black dogs” of depression are never far outside our gate, as Winston Churchill once wrote. The euphoria of mania and the freefall of depression are known in the field as manic depression. This rapid cycling tornado of mental illness has affected (according to recent studies) poets and writers to a greater degree than the general population. In fact in the New York Times awhile back it was reported that poets and writers, but particularly poets, have a shorter lifespan than the rest of the masses. Could it be we are more prone to suicide or have we just forgotten to take our daily dose of statins?
Having worked at the renowned Boston-area psychiatric facility McLean Hospital for the past twenty-five years, I have witnessed mental illness in all its infinite variety, from the locked ward to the outpatient milieu. McLean Hospital itself has a history of “thoroughbred mental cases” as Robert Lowell put it in his poem: “Waking In The Blue” (A poem that is set at Bowditch Hall at McLean where I worked for a number of years.) Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and I am told, John Berryman have all been hospitalized at McLean. Anne Sexton ran her famed poetry workshops on grounds and later was treated on the locked ward for a short period. A friend of mine who was a counselor on the ward she was housed on asked Sexton why she always wore sunglasses indoors. She replied, “Because I am a poet of course.”
I have also interviewed the social worker to Plath and Sexton: Lois Ames. Ames is a poet in her own right and wrote the introduction to Plath's novel “The Bell Jar.” And more than this, I have a personal acquaintance with depression myself. And as a poet, I can tell you there is nothing romantic or poetic about depression and mental illness.
And if you have been through it, even if it has given you some good material, you wish that it never would rear its ugly head again. Unfortunately, especially among some younger poets, the “mad poet” has been lionized, and drug and alcohol abuse viewed as necessary as a laptop or pen or pencil in the writers' life. I say it ain't so.
So when the distinguished Boston University professor and poet Tino Villanueva handed me “Living In Storms”, (at a meeting of the Boston-area writers' group the Bagel Bards) a collection of poetry having to do with contemporary poets whose lives have been in some way touched by manic depression, I was intrigued.
And perhaps there is something about our dark natures that lends itself to art. In the foreword to the collection David Wojan quotes one of my favorite poets Philip Larkin:
“Happiness writes white. It's very difficult to write about being happy. Very easy to write about being miserable. And I think writing about unhappiness is the source of my popularity, if I have any-after all, most people are unhappy, don't you think?”
I was happy to find in this collection that there were many poets I have read with, booked for events or interviewed over the years such as: Lyn Lifshin, Daniel Hoffman, Robert Pinsky, Steve Cramer, and of course Tino Villanueva.
The poems in this collection capture the true tragedy of the illness through art not clinical reportage. The poems here capture the maw of the depression; with the poets' struggle with his or her self, the world-at-large; the claustrophobic tunnel vision, with no light in sight. And it also covers the sizzle and no steak that takes the poet racing to the heights, only to drop like a dead weight.
Hayden Carruth in his poem “ Depression,” captures the relentless cycles of nature, and depression itself:
“We have tried hard, have labored against the seasons/ like the geese, year after year, against mania, fear, / depression, death in the heart/ the endless mockery/of the children in our minds, we have hurled fat insults/ at each other/ have hurled silence, the same/occult and cloudy words over and over in the wet/ wind, we have persisted, tattered and worn out/ and sorry. / Thank God we love each other and can hold/ our tongues and go to bed, otherwise this/would be intolerable, traveling so far, so long, and never/ Arriving anywhere. Nor do the geese. / Nor the seasons.”
And in Tino Villanueva's poem “Shaking Off the Dark” Villanueva, like a dyed-in-the-wool pugilist fights through the tight wrap of darkness.
mad-eyed from told formulas
bound to rule my easy ways,
I look, I see,
but fail once more to know.
Such rites of life
can waste the wit;
can be like strictures
rushing to the head.
Mine is a palpable body
that cannot stand itself.
Yet, a rebellion overtakes the mind
the kind that breaks the
I ram a fist into the howl of the wind,
shake off the dark locked
within the hell of these rare depths.
The common street
and shifting sky become a song.”
Also in this collection are poems by William Matthews, Jane Kenyon, Liz Rosenberg, C.K. Williams, Leo Connellan, and many others.
This collection comes highly recommended.