A Logbook about some New Poems
When I wrote this introduction, I was down and heading further down. It was a bad time, medically, emotionally, and psychologically. Now, some weeks later, thanks to having started an IV drug treatment program, which has its own stresses and charms, I'm physically better overall, if not exactly cured or emotionally over it. I dodged a few bullets this summer, and I'm still not settled in mind and heart about how close to dying I actually was. It was something like a close approach to an unkempt, unmanaged airport, coming in with one engine on fire and the other stalled, your instruments are failing and you can barely see through the rain. And yet somehow you land more or less safely.
People get very weird ideas about chronic illness and recovery, and how you’re supposed to behave when seriously ill, and recently I've lost friendships over this. Maybe they experienced burnout; I'd been very ill for a long time, and it takes its toll on everyone. Some friends have just disappeared. Perhaps they fear contagion of some sort, the contagion of depression if nothing else, and don't want to hear about it. A few others no doubt prefer not to hear about anyone's problems but their own; there is always a narcissistic component to creating personal drama, as it's often a plea for attention, a call for recognition, a demand to be noticed. I don't pretend to be guiltless. On the other hand, I mostly keep my dramas to myself, quite rightly believing that no one really cares. Or rather, no one cares but those in my inner circle of family and friends who would care no matter what, no matter when, or why. Those are the people one loves, who love you in return. Those are who one relies on, lifelong, no matter what, and those are who one would do anything to help in return. We make our family circles by choice as often as by genealogy.
What follows is an edited, excerpted version of scraps of journal entries, emails, and answers to questions, gathered into a hopefully coherent if non-linear narrative, with the worst redundancies removed. Let this be a summary, then, if not a complete tale, of the inception of the current series of new poems. Actually, that’s still not quite accurate. Since what inspires writing is not always directly connected to mundane events, or literal, or immediately traceable, say rather that this serves as background to when and, perhaps but only perhaps, how the gates of dream reopened. Or let this stand as notes on the current state of the creative process.
Introduction to the New Series of Poems
I've felt the worst I've felt in a long time, post-colonoscopy last week, and post blood-transfusion-number-two two days before that. Anaesthesia knocked the stuffing out of me, and I am only now feeling even halfway not-crappy. I see the GI doctor in a week so we can talk about my options for ending the distraction of my chronic illness, and getting my life back. He's recommending a course of IV drug therapy (Remicade), which they also use for other inflammatory autoimmune syndromes like rheumatoid arthritis. I don't know yet know what a toll it's going to take on me, but I've already given up most of my summer plans on the probability that I'm probably going to feel worse before I feel better.
There, I've already broken one personal rule, which is to discuss any of that. I'll break the same rule again briefly to say that I believe I have every right to focus on my own needs first right now, and tell everybody to go focus on theirs, without my assistance, thank you very much. I'm too tired and sick to have anything left over after dealing with my own crises at the moment. Keep it in perspective, folks. Life-threatening medical issues trump personal emotional drama any day of the week.
Nonetheless all through this current medical crisis I've been making art, writing poems (surprise! I haven't been writing anything for literally months), and yesterday I woke up from vivid dreams with ideas for two pieces of choral and piano music in my mind, which I immediately sketched out before breakfast.
A few days before the second blood transfusion (and there will be more), I started writing in my journal a series of elegies, aubades, and other longer forms of poems and prose-poems. It's become a series of Elegies, with some Aubades and other poems breaking up the sequence. I never did think in straight lines. The blank pages in my journal are filling up fast with these poems; and there have been a few drawings made, too. I feel the pressure to make art as much as I am physically able, right now.
For no other reason than that it's what I'm supposed to be doing, and I refuse to give into being a total invalid any longer. I figured out, sometime in the hospital last week, something that really makes a difference to me right now:
I am not making art to distract myself from the chronic illness.
The illness itself is the distraction.
Everything I am doing right now is about getting my life back, so I am no longer constantly dragged down by this pissant frakking illness.
And there's no point waiting.
Some folks have been advising me to take it easy and stop making the art, poems, music, etc., till I feel well. They really don't get it. It is not about saving my strength, or marshalling my energy; that’s invalid thinking.
You cannot wait for some possible day when you might feel better; you cannot wait for anything. Anything in life that's worth doing is worth doing right now, and not putting off. Life is too short as it is, to put off the things that really matter. The medical crisis I'm dealing with right now is the distraction: it matters that I deal with it, but it doesn't own me, and I will not let it control my life. Do not let your illness become your identity: I do not identify as an ill person, but as a person who at the moment is ill.
Some days being sick and tired all the time just pisses me off. I have to watch that, because anger can tire you out badly, too, if you overdo it. But frustration-inspired anger can also be used as fuel to keep oneself focused past the frustration, the annoyance, the pain, anxiety, and worry about the future. Folks who haven't had a chronic illness, or been around other folk who did, often don't understand this. Probably on some level it's a spiritual law: "This isn't a waiting room, this is your life." Right here, right now, no waiting, keep it real.
As for anyone else, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
There now, I've broken another taboo. I've spoken plainly enough to no doubt offend some former friend. I've told people I have no remaining tolerance for anyone's time-wasting personal drama. So be it. Life's too short.
Anyway, I've been writing these poems.
I don't know if they're any good, as yet. Some of them are going to need more work, later, when I feel like it. Many seem formless, still fragmentary, just feints towards something new; many don’t even have titles. Some seem to be more like prose-poems, even if broken into long lines. I am typically writing them in my handwritten journal, and only later typing them into the computer.
One or two of these new poems, though, came out of the pen rather at white heat, and seem pretty good. (As often seems to happen when I write at white heat.) Some poems have revealed their titles immediately, and even if they are Elegies they carry other names. One of the Aubades is overtly erotic in a good way, I think. I have no idea where this series will lead me, and no one is more surprised than me to be writing poems again, after a long hiatus and a longer disgruntlement with PoetryWorld in general. The worst dramas and flame-wars and bad attitudes I've ever seen online, without exception, have all been on the online poetry workshop boards and blogs. Steering clear of those is all about not wasting my limited strength on things that don't matter.
What sometimes happens is that you get ignited by an encounter with other art. You become susceptible, when you are open, to all of life that streams by. You respond.
Whenever I read Rumi, for example, I feel the urge to write a couple of short poems in response, and I usually do. Whenever I read Rilke, the same thing happens—which was probably where the first of these Elegies came from. I was reading about translating Rilke, in William H. Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the problems of translation. There on the page was a comparison of several translations of the opening lines of the Duino Elegies. Those poems are ones I have often returned to, finding more in them each time.
And I was reading in one of the great prose-poems of the past 50 years, Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin. Originally written back in the 70s when Harrison was in a particularly bad place in life, he began writing daily Letters to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide in 1925 after writing his last poem in his own blood. What a gesture for a poet! I may sometimes feel like writing has drawn blood, but I've never gone that far. What commitment. Anyway, Harrison's Letters are really incredible; fortunately they were republished recently, and are still in print.
My own new poem, “Letter to _____,” is not an imitation, and it is a response. A response to the past week, to how I've been feeling, and to the Letters. I don't know who my own Letter is addressed to, so I've left that blank for now. Titles can always change later.
Also, I’ve been reading a book of poems by a poet new to me, Oliver de la Paz, Furious Lullaby, about which I eventually wrote a review-essay. There is a fire in this poetry, a supple erotic life-force undertone throughout. The poetry in this book is alive. Many of the poems come at life from surprising and original directions, cracking open the usual ways of looking at things and giving them new life. There are several startling Aubades in this collection, which have reminded me of the genre of the aubade as a poetic form, and has frankly inspired me to write more explicitly and erotically again. I have written morning-poems and morning-after poems before, in some instances inspired by Cavafy, without explicitly labeling them as such.
I am overtly aware at the moment that, during the process of this long illness, that there have been times when the erotic for me functions in its, purest, most fundamental sense: eros as life-force. The force that underlies all life, that powers life and living. Mitochondrial eros, if you will. I have not been feeling personally very interested in my own erotic life, which is a function of not having enough energy for anything, so the erotic for me lately has been an affirmation that I am still alive, a validation that I am still here, a reminder that at its deepest level eros is life.
From my journal, late June.
Last night, feeling the need to Make something, feeling that pressure that you’re about to burst, that you have to get something out and down and done; and tired of the toxic glare of the computer screen; I lit some candles on the porch and sat down to write in my handwritten journal. What came out was two Elegies, or the beginning of a series of short elegies, so far no more than two pages in the book; and half of a third elegy so far this morning. I still feel that pressure.
I rarely set out to write like this. The influence of Rilke is perhaps too obvious on these poems. I have to acknowledge it, even though I don’t want to: I want no comparisons, and I want my voice to be in these elegies, no one else’s.
The entire Kestrel chapbook was written as a response to Rilke; of the 24 poems in there, maybe one or two are any good. The ones with the strongest vision, the strongest images. The rest of them are playing with words. Just etudes.
These new elegies probably no more than etudes either. Most often, when I set out to write a set of poems, consciously knowing what I’m doing, they go astray. I’m not a strategic or deliberate, planning writer. The best things I’ve ever written have emerged at white heat, fierce and fast, and with no stopping them. It’s too easy for my ego and its expectations to lead astray anything I consciously set out to write. I respond better than I propose. Trying to force a poem to conclusion always makes for bad poetry; at least that’s how it’s always worked for me.
I don’t know if this creative urge will peter out, leaving these unfinished. Maybe to be picked up again later, maybe to be abandoned. I don’t know if they’re any good.
So I’ll keep my inner ears open, and the journal book with me, and pay attention. If something happens, it does. Otherwise, I have to go back to waiting. We’ll see how this unfolds.
From my journal, early July.
I’ve tried, in between everything else, to write some more on the Elegies. But my heart and mind aren’t in it, today, and I’m writing consciously rather than at white heat, and I feel like it’s all going to come to nothing. Didactic, pedantic, polished but dead. I’m not giving up, but I think for now I need to stop. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I felt this way writing Kestrel, and most of those poems turned out fairly bland and dull. I just don’t write well when I think about it too much.
I like the ideas coming forward now. But maybe I need to just let them percolate, and come out later. Never try to force a writing practice, never try to force a project. This is why I don’t do what so many head-oriented poets do, which is to sit down and write two or more hours a day; for me all that produces is prosaic, bland work, nothing special, nothing extraordinary. It’s not my own voice when I do that, at best it’s some other writer’s voice I end up imitating. I usually don’t like the results. Some readers I might share such poems with do like them—but I have to wonder at that. I am used to my poems being rejected rather than embraced, I suppose.
Have to trust my instincts on this. Have to stay loose, and let it go.
I really want to focus on music and photography at the moment, anyway. These Elegies just appeared for no good reason. After a long dry spell. Kestrel came at the end a long dry spell, too; and was followed by another short dry spell. If this current moment just repeats that pattern, so be it. We do the best we can, and we abandon what we don’t think is our best work. Meanwhile, plenty of photographs and music to work through.
From my journal, early July.
Now I’ve written two Aubades as well as four Elegies. I’ve written something every other day or so, with gaps and pauses, but coming back to them after a day or two of rest in between. I still don’t know where these are coming from, and I don’t know why just now.
No, I do know why now: because the circumstances of my precarious life right now make me want to make something, anything, to create, to bring new life into the world at the edge of my fear of dying. It’s a way to remember I’m still alive, for now. It’s eros rising, the life-force speaking up and saying, no, not yet, I’m not done yet. Here’s more life I throw out upon the stones, see what it is and where it lands. I bleed life, I bleed poems, I bleed music. I need to be filled up with this life-force, to sustain myself. So that’s why.
Are these poems any good? I still don’t know, and I’ve decided that I don’t care. That’s not what I need to concentrate on, at the moment. I need to think about letting it happen, encouraging the flow without getting in its way. The Aubades seems to come smoothly, without feeling forced. One of them has in it the ghost of Lorca. I’ve been reading his Collected Poems again, of course, along with some other poets. I find myself drawn to the ecstatic poets of praise and life, right now, and backing away from the bland and pedantic and intellectual. There is no comparison. What life-force is keeping me going is drawn from the poems of life-force, of the erotic movements of scorpions and owls and trees. Everything alive is making love to the world, and sparkling with energy.
I have no clue if these poems will sustain, or continue, or stop, whenever they stop. I’m not going to try to edit them till later. Just go with the flow, for now. That’s always best.