Monday, March 21, 2011

How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying?

(More from The Anemia Diaries:)

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.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

If you’re a writer (and, as I’ve stated many times, I define a writer as someone whose natural response to life is to write about it) and as dying is a part of all our lives then the only natural thing would be to either write about it or use it as a jumping-off point; I’ve never written directly about my depression, for example. My mother was “dangerously anaemic” all her life – a blood count of 4 comes to mind – and she took iron pills every day of her life but it was pneumonia that finally killed her which is just as well because she developed cancer and we were expecting a long, drawn-out end.

My wife as you know has been ill for some years now, chronically so. It’s degenerative and although a new set of hips when the time is right will give her a breather – she currently walks with crutches outside the house – it won’t cure the underlying problems. Everyone has something. You’ll be pleased to know that my wife is not a complainer and she clings to her independence for dear life. But when she needs someone to play fetch-me-carry-me I’m there and I think that helps her cope, the fact that she has options, but I have no doubt that she would cope far better than me if I was similarly disabled. She’s an engineer and delights in finding workarounds to practical problems.

Imagine though if you lost the ability to make art. Carrie’s not lost that completely but she hasn’t been able to write in a long time. She edits my stuff but I have to wait until she can concentrate on the work which is why I keep such a stockpile of articles so she never feels under pressure to have something ready for me. Things that should take hours take days. But at least she’s not alone. And this is where I worry about you because I feel you are alone a lot of the time, probably too much of the time. I know you have family but I’ve never felt it was my place to pry as to how they fit into your life and I’m not doing now.

Of course here in the UK we have the National Health Service and although it may not be what it once was you still get a lot for squat and, of course, now that Carrie is of pensionable age here (women have been able to retire at sixty for a long time), there are other benefits like free travel, glasses, prescriptions (although there are plans to scrap all prescription charges in Scotland) and dental work. I’m always appalled when I think about healthcare in the States and I would have thought that the reforms they’ve been talking about making would have been welcomed with open arms.

I’m also not working and I don’t expect to for quite some time. I’m perfectly capable – have been for months now which is why the novel’s finished – but Carrie is starting to need me more and more and so I’ve accepted that my role for the foreseeable future will be that of carer. And you can do a lot of writing in between all the caring especially if you have a patient who doesn’t milk it.

When a storm is coming people batten down the hatches and pray. There’s not much else to do if you can’t get out of the road of it. Prepare for the worst. I used to tell people I was a pessimist. I used to say, “That way I can never be disappointed.” The worst very rarely happens and so there’s always something to be pleased about. It’s the optimists who constantly face upset. You think you’ll never write another poem again – how many times I’ve thought that! – and yet a week, or a month, or three years later they start up again; all they needed was a wee rest.

It’s easy to say, “Don’t worry, Art,” but, seriously, what good does worrying do? It doesn’t solve anything and it only makes waiting more uncomfortable. Do what makes you feel comfortable. Indulge yourself. And if you want to write about it then I’m happy to read about it.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Julie Jordan Scott said...

I am so grateful a mutual love of May Sarton lead me to your blog today. The last two paragraphs are a brilliant summation.

Love the power in "And I'll keep making art. Keep making poems."

I love the Letter Poems series. I love letters, I love poems. I love art like you make, like May Sarton made.

This blog post reminded me of pilgrimage as well.

Breathing deep. Grateful.

For you and your words.

I'll be in Nelson in April and I will send love your way.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, thanks for the comments. Those are on the mark, actually, with what I feel I need right now. I now you and Carrie are going through what I went through, well not exactly but sort of, when I was my parents' caregiver.

You're unfortunately right about the relative level of health care between the US and the UK. I'm one of those people who have fallen through the cracks. You're right about me being alone much of the time; that is a problem. None of my closest friends live less than an hour away from here. My sister lives in Holland; although she will be coming to stay with me in the time during and after the surgery itself; she can't stay long, but she'll be here to help me with the initial worst of it. After that, I hope I can recruit other friends to stay with me for periods of time till I'm recovered.

I was wondering if posting this was too over the top—but I realize too that I really needed to vent, to work it through, to make some art out of it all, to give myself some process-oriented distance. And since I've vented, I'm sitting with it a little more calmly. Nothing's really changed except that I'm more calm and focused. And I've been using the energy of frustration/grrrr to organize the house and do repairs, and today I went out into the garden and ripped out some shrubs that I had been planning to rip out last fall, but wasn't able to. It felt really good. The nit started to rain again, and I stopped. When it warms up in a few days, I'll rip out those other shrubs that need to go, and then I'm going to replace them with more flower beds, all with prettier flowers. I still have some tulips I didn't get into the ground last fall; they'll go in now. So I'm USING that energy, not letting it rot.

Thanks for reading, as always.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Julie, thanks for stopping by, and for your comments. I'm glad you like the Letters series; it seems to want to keep going.

Pilgrimage is very much an appropriate word for it.

Do please say "Hi" to Nelson, and thanks again.

9:32 PM  

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