How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying?
March 21, 2011
There was a poetry anthology published a decade ago, titled How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying of AIDS? (London: Cassell, 1993. Ed. by John Harold) The anthology collected poems written by people who were, in fact, dying of AIDS, responding to ads the editor placed in the UK LGBT press. Not that the question asked in the title is rhetorical; rather, that the contents of the book answer the question. Indeed, how can you not write such a poem?
The anthology takes its title from a poem by James Sykes, an impassioned rant that starts out in metered, rhymed verse, then in the third stanza explodes into free verse of varying line lengths. It's quite striking to see a poem begin formally, then blow that up in rage: a clear example of form following function, of a poem's form reflecting and repeating its contents. It's a poem that takes things very personally. Sykes' inarticulate rage grows throughout the poem, through various stanzas of responses to the title question: the medical details, the inability to talk about a lover already gone, a rage-filled appropriate response to the absurd question "how do you feel about dying?" The poem ends by asking the title question one last time, with a final reply, paradoxical and personal as it is; I can't . . . can you
I'm taking things very personally at the moment. I have now had a chronic illness of major proportions (ulcerative colitis, with anemia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other complications) for several years, in active phase and in relapse for going on two years now of continuous treatments, medications, blood transfusions, debilitating exhaustion, IV drug therapy, and more, with all the fallout one gets from all that. Fallout equally physical, mental, spiritual, and psychological; indeed, the whole person is a synergistic system encompassing all those modes, and others. The past few months, it seemed as if the IV drug treatments were working, and I was finally making some progress, feeling better, getting stronger; only to discover this past week that that has been an illusion, and I've only been dying more slowly. From the existential philosophy viewpoint, of course, we are all dying slowly, all the time, and we will converge on that end-point of the void between, each unavoidably in our own good time. Most people spend most of their time avoiding thinking about that, or distracting themselves away from that fatal truth.
This past week, it was discovered after yet another blood test that I am still dangerously anemic, only it took months to get there instead of weeks. So I had another blood transfusion, followed by a CT scan, to figure out what's going on. My hemoglobin and red blood cell count did go up, but not much, not as much as I would have thought. Still, there's been no apparent bleeding for almost two months, so if the blood is draining away, where's it going? There's no obvious sign, no reason why I should be anemic. They also drew more blood for more tests, the third time in a row within two days, leaving me by week's end with band-aids covering multiple needle-points. I'm getting tired of so many needles. My veins are getting stiff and scarred again. I've got all kinds of track-marks everywhere on my arms, like a junkie.
I'm looking out on the robins hopping around in my beloved back yard pear tree, which was almost destroyed last fall by a wind storm. What was a huge full covering canopy has been reduced to three smaller trunks and a few branches. But the branches and twigs that are left are beginning to bud out with new leaves. The March weather is temporarily warm now, accelerating the greening. Daffodil shoots are beginning to emerge from the ground, and the crocus in the sunny corners are already up and blooming. So are some of the striped exotic tulips I've planted beside them. The crocus bloom first, the daffodils second, followed by the rest of my garden. Spring is returning. Of course, March is the most difficult month, here: we're bound to have at least one more snowstorm, or at least a week of very cold temperatures, before winter withdraws completely. March is the hardest month to endure because it yo-yos around between spring and winter, tempting you to relax, then slamming you down again.
I feel like my entire life these past few years has been like the month of March, because my illness operates on exactly the same yo-yo temptation principle. I've learned not to trust feeling better, because it inevitably gets slammed back down. I don't know what to trust, what to believe, what to do. I am completely at sea about to think or believe. Who do you turn to for answers, for solace, when every new piece of news adds to the confusion rather than the clarity?
This leaves me feeling furious, frustrated, annoyed, continuously enraged at a subsurface level, short-tempered, and impatient with the complacent stupidities of those surrounding me who are in denial of their own eventual mortality (which is just about everyone). I find myself not knowing what to think or feel, how to act, what to do next, completely unable to decide if anything I have been doing or ought to be doing in future is worth it. I've tried everything; it doesn't matter what I do. I can "think positive" and the slam-down is the same as when I was depressed. I can do everything right, and it all still falls apart. I follow the advice of my doctors and other supporters, and it doesn't make any difference. Every setback ruins my attitude, because each setback reinforces the truth that I'm not getting better, or stronger, or healthier. This most recent setback, this past week, has set me completely adrift. I don't know where to turn, or where to go, or how to proceed. I feel completely lost? How can I write a poem when I feel like I'm dying? I readily admit that I am not coping well with setbacks of any kind, right now.
There's a ground-level, biological urge to survive. For life to find a way, somehow. To go on living, no matter what, no matter how bad it gets. A stubborn clinging to life even in the face of inevitable loss. Like my wounded pear tree behind the back porch, damaged last autumn, almost destroyed, yet this spring putting out new buds. The tree says, I will grow back, I will survive, no matter what. There's a similar animal tenacity in us, the root-level urge in our very DNA to keep going, no matter what knocks us down. The coyote will gnaw its leg off to get out of the bear-trap that caught it. The eagle with the broken wing will still try to fly away to safety. When natural disasters happen on a large scale in populated areas, people gather together, the survivors immediately begin caring for each other, rebuilding shelters, looking for food and water.
We all want to live.
I talked over my frustrations with a friend during the medical test days last week. He said to me that he thought the anger I was feeling—I was too numb to feel anything else anymore: I'm bored with weeping, self-pity is boring, thinking positive is boring, all the usual emotional cycles I've been through so many times that I'm sick of all of them—was an expression of that same tenacity to want to keep going, to keep living, no matter what. My friend is probably right. I still feel that anger, today, sustaining me, keeping me sharp and hot.
But there are quality of life issues involved. I am simply not having any fun right now. The chronic nature of this illness, its continuous gravitational tug every day, its daily grind and demand for attention, have all worn me down to the point where I have nothing left to give. I take no joy in life. I take a little pleasure, in food, in sex, in reading, but it's an hour stolen from a day and, often enough, a sleepless night. Insomnia has become a real problem, as I'm too tired to discipline my racing worries, powerless to push them away, so I often lay awake at night, taking a long time to get to sleep.
In the midst of all this I suddenly find myself writing poems again. It's purgative. It's a formalized, restrained means of expressing the incoherent screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and punching my fist through the wall that I really want to be doing. it's a pressure-valve letting off the steam.
I don't know what to do, what to believe, what to think. The only thing I can do is keep moving forward: without hope, since hope leads to desperation; without expectations, since expectations lead to anger and depression when they're never met; without any idea if this bad time of life will ever end. I don't really believe, right now, that this illness will ever end—every time I think it's getting better, instead it gets worse—or that I will survive the proposed radical surgery described as a cure, at the end of June. I don't really believe the surgery's going to be the end of this, it's all been going too long. I can't really see any light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel has kept getting longer and longer as time has gone by. I don't really imagine I'll come out of this, even if I'm finally cured, with any money left to my name: I still can't work, I'm depleting my savings, since I have only minimal insurance the surgery is probably going to bankrupt me and leave me homeless and destitute. There are no guarantees. Even if after the recovery from the surgery I am able to work again, there's no guarantee that my depressed part of the country will have any work I can do before my money runs out and I have to sell everything anyway.
That's the emotional reality; that's what keeps me awake at night. It doesn't matter if it isn't logical or rational. This is the emotional reality. I'm scared to death. The surgery terrifies me; even if it goes well, it is life-altering, and things will never be the same afterwards. I'm told they will be better, but all I know for certain is that they'll be different. The alternatives to surgery are undeniably, eventually fatal. It's a question of how fast you go, and how miserably. The aftermath of the surgery could leave me still unable to earn an income, destitute and homeless. I am really, truly freaked out by all this. This is the emotional and psychological reality I have been living with for a very long time now. This is Big Stuff. I have a right to be freaked out, to be scared, to be terrified.
I tried to put all of this emotional reality "on hold" while I dealt with losing weight for the surgery, regaining my strength in preparation, and also writing music—but then this most recent setback happened, and it's all back, weighing on my mind. I try to put it back on hold again, and it's a struggle. No part of me really believes this long-duration ongoing hell will ever come to an end. Not until my death, that is. Maybe I'll die on the operating table. Maybe I won't. But at the moment, I really don't care. That's the level of "quality of life" I'm dealing with right now.
So I find myself having zero patience for the whining of people who are addicted to their personal dramas but don't really have anything to complain about. I have empathy for people who find themselves in dire straits genuinely worse than mine. I have no sympathy for complainers who just complain to complain, but there's nothing really wrong with their lives.
The only means I have to cope with any of this is to make art. So I find myself, surprising myself in the doing, writing more poems when I didn't expect any. I continue to work with papier-maché, just to have something to do at night when I can't sleep. I am trying to focus on the music writing, but honestly I'm too angry just now, and need to vent. Writing poems can be palliative, even though they''re not a cure. Writing poems, journalling about my situation, talking to friends about my troubles: all necessary and useful venting.
I look at the origin of the current form and style of poem I'm writing, what I've come to call the Letters form, after the initial poem in the series. I cannot help but think this poem-form is directly connected to my chronic illness. Inspired in part by Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, a masterful book of poems written in a dark period of the poet's life, written in a form that inspired this one. Re-reading Harrison's Letters last summer, at a point in my illness before the current treatments began, where I almost bled to death, where I had a near-death experience I still haven't been to fully integrate, I guess triggered these new poems. My own Letters-form poems are connected to the process of this illness. They are a response to it, I suppose. Without trying to be too glibly simplistic about it, I guess these poems are a result of my illness. They certainly help with the emotional reality. The poems are, as I said above, a very restrained form of the incoherent, panic-laced screaming and shouting I feel inside. I am not a fan of raw process in art: I appreciate a little aesthetic distance. But again, don't read too much into that: it's not a statements about poetics, or how I believe art "ought to be made." I carry no beliefs of any kind about how art "ought" to be made, other than those I've acquired through personal experience. I have not critical axe to grind about art-making, only that art will always need to be made. We all want to live. Making art is what keeps me alive, right now. That, and forward momentum.
Who am I writing these Letters to? I left the name-plate blank on purpose. At first I just didn't want to say. I didn't want to be derivative. In truth, I don't have a specific person in mind, living or dead. I could answer glibly by saying, if the letter feels like it's addressed to you, feel free to write your name in. I could answer more thoughtfully, saying that I don't know who the Letters are addressed to, it's a mystery even to me. This in response to a plausible questioner wanting to uncover yet another biographic authorial mystery (the usual fallacy of thinking we can know about the art by interrogating the artist's life): Who are you writing these Letters to? The truth is, there's no big mystery to it, only a little one. I really don't know. I am content not to know, content not to have specific person, place or thing in mind. That the poems are connected to my personal process is evident; some of the poems even sample bits of what's going on right now, bits of dreams, bits of significant moments in my medical trajectory, bits of emotional reality.
The only thing I can do, short of gnawing my leg off to get out of this trap—remarkably, that's just what the upcoming surgery feels like—is keep going forward. no destination in mind. No sense of an ending, either the when of an ending, or the how. Going forward with no hope, no expectations, no anticipation of an ending. Going forward like driftwood on a river, not knowing what's around the next bend.
And I'll keep making art. Keep making poems. I never expected these new ones to appear. I thought I was done with them. I guess this is a multiple relapse: a medical setback, a poetic relapse. I'm not overly interested in the why of that process: I merely notice that it keeps happening. If I don't survive this, and I cannot say if I will or won't, if nothing else, I've left a pile of art for my survivors to sort through. At the moment, I find it hard to give a damn about anything else.