My Girl Wears Long Skirts

A long time ago, now, in 1991, I was on rotation in an adult psychiatric inpatient unit in a far away medical center, where I met a young woman—Wanda—who had several monstrous knife wounds to her throat and face. She was stitched up with black surgical thread, and resembled one of the female golems in a Frankenstein movie. Part of the fascination in seeing her, and noting the wounds, was to imagine how on earth she had managed to survive. She had tried to cut her own throat with one of her mother’s butcher knives, but it wasn’t sharp enough, so she started stabbing herself instead, and almost succeeded in hitting her right carotid artery before someone nearby—maybe her mother or another family member—was able to wrench the knife away from her, and call 911.

When I met her, she had just been admitted onto the unit, and was being watched 24/7 by an aide hovering nearby, but she nevertheless one afternoon, with no warning whatsoever, leapt out of her chair, sprinted as fast as she could run, and threw herself head-first through the window at the end of the second-floor hallway. However, because the window was fitted with unbreakable plexiglass, she didn’t go through it to plunge to her death, though she did break her nose and further bruise her poor face. Hospital staff got to be pretty twitchy around her, until the shit-load of Haldol she was given began to have an effect, and she was sedated enough to allow less impulsive people to keep up with her.

She was serious about her self-harm. From her own point of view, she felt she had reason to be so deadly in her attempted suicide: she had caused the Second World War, and she was simply unable to bear the excruciating pain of her grief and guilt. Those terrible years of wartime anguish and physical suffering were entirely her fault: 60 million soldiers killed, 4.5 million Jewish people—and uncounted gypsies—sent to the death camps, Japan bombed with nuclear warheads. Most of the northern hemisphere ran thick with blood, and fried in a radioactive fire because of her.

Her diagnosis was schizoaffective disorder, and she was heart-breaking to be with, when she didn’t terrify you with her potential for another lethal gesture, so staff bound up their anxieties as best they could and tried to alleviate, somehow, her mortal sorrow. In 1991 she was 22 years old, having been born in 1969, which—if you do the math—was 24 years after the conclusion of the war in 1945, and 30 years before it began in 1939. The favorite strategy among us, therefore, was to choose a time when she seemed receptive, and point out in a kindly way that, since she wasn’t yet alive when the war began, she could not have been the origin of it. This seemed to be an unanswerable refutation to the basis of her emotional torment. She could not possibly have caused the war, so be of good cheer.

Although I don’t know that any of us actually thought about it this way, we all in fact shared a two-fold assumption common to well-meaning people the world over: a. that emotional turmoil was refutable (i.e. that we could talk Wanda out of it); and that, b. common sense would be the source by which the refutation prevailed. Neither assumption proved to be true. Despite her long stay on the inpatient unit, Wanda never was reconciled to happiness, but simply became less violent in trying to relieve herself of her psychic pain. She became more stoical, or at least became used to living with her sense of personal responsibility, and inured to everyone else trying to cheer her up.

Our argument was never persuasive either. I was, of course, one of those compulsive explainers trying to set her right. I was fully committed, I admit it: her passion was supported by no more than the merest bubble, it seemed to me, just the frailest sense drifting away from humane connection, and so I talked with her. I listened as hard as I could when she tried to convey her deep conviction of her causal guilt. She had started walking, she told me, on Church Street when she saw the foil wrapper of a piece of gum, and she knew that the foil was reflecting God’s thoughts to her about cast off people because the wrapper was in the gutter near a mailbox with the American eagle on it which meant war, and war was WWII, and so she caused it because there she was.

Actually she said a considerable amount more than this, but I couldn’t follow it all. I was in truth able to follow hardly any of it. What I have represented here are only the few details I could remember long enough to write them down, and I remembered them that long chiefly because, out of the welter of things she said, these items were those that I could make sense of for her. That is, because I thought I saw coherence in the sea of verbal production, I was able to remember these details, but not any of the others.

In its actual presentation, none of her thinking was coherent. She was far less organized than what I have represented in her tangential logic because I cannot disorganize my mind enough to reconstruct the brute chaos of hers. She could not sequence her thoughts, could not put them in an order that made sense, even to her. She was over whelmed, prostrate before fragments and huge ungated emotions, and therefore she was terrified: there were no conventions of meaning, all mental structure was sundered, she had no fundamental recognition of cause and effect, or even temporal series. She couldn’t tie her shoes, couldn’t manage her hygiene, would eat only sometimes if food happened to be placed in front of her. Like I said, she was heart-breaking.

Lately among scientists studying the human mind, there is a temptation to see in this mental place of Wanda’s a freedom from conventional restraints of thought that is promoted as a model of the creative process. Dr. Nancy Andreasen’s article in the current July/August Atlantic Monthly is a case in point. Science is always interested in isolating the important variables (and as a corollary, ignoring those that it construes as unimportant to its theory), and in studies of creativity, the favored candidate is a concept of freedom, an escape from conventional thought, the ability to avoid the usual grind of daily associations, to make something new, and thereby elude the standard conclusions of a “average mind—with one thought less each year,” as Ezra Pound imagined it. From this point of view, Wanda represents a class of people who are about as free from conventional standards of thought as anyone science could hope for. If you want a group of people whose thought lacks customary, middle-class organization, then schizophrenia will do.

Accordingly, once exemplars of freedom have thus been identified, the interest then is to discover whether creative people have a higher incidence of mental illness among their families than the average banker has occurring in his. The general logic is that creative people find their creativity because they are just a little mentally ill–not entirely whacked out like Wanda, but just weird, a-typical, eccentric, flaky but not funky. They “think different”, like Steve Jobs. They had rather spend their time playing with words, or drawing pictures, or like Georgia O’Keeffe painting large images of flowers that look like female genitalia—all instead of making money the way rational, non-weird people prefer to do. This theory works best if you do not really know the details of psychotic life–which science gets around nicely by preferring to ignore individuals, and instead to look at the class as a whole to isolate apparent similarities among them as a group. It is easier to construe mental illness as a model for imaginative freedom if you do not actually listen to individuals like Wanda, do not spend time with them to uncover how their minds are actually working, or failing to work–and do not bother much with empathy.

It is also easier to generalize across individuals to reach group commonalities if you do not have a concept for creativity itself. Why bother to define creativity, Dr. Andreasen reasons, if you can just look instead at people who are supposed to embody creativity, whatever that is? As she points out, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” And besides, if you accept analogies about ducks in place of logical argument, then her problem is now much easier: she just needs to identify who the creative people are among us. Fortunately for Dr. Andreasen, there are various literary awards that do this work for her. Creative people, she tells us, are those whom academic professors have given prizes to.

I am going to assume that the naiveté of this reasoning is self-evident to everyone who is not a tone-deaf neuroscientist–though I will permit myself to point out, irritably, how this ceremonial process has somehow failed to recognize the likes of Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and virtually every person of color writing before 1993–none of whom were awarded anything, certainly nothing like what Pearl S. Buck received (Nobel Prize), or even Antonio Egas Moniz (another Nobel laureate), who ‘invented’ lobotomy, which was understood to cure mental illness. Dickinson, of course, couldn’t even manage to get published in her lifetime.

And though I am sorely tempted, I do not want to spend too much time here with the weaseling details of Dr. Andreasen’s peculiar argument. I am after much bigger game: the impulse itself to romanticize mental illness as a prodromal feature of creativity–which is at once an unfeeling injustice to people suffering with psychotic spectrum psychosis, and a cynical misunderstanding of the nature of creative activity. Wanda’s mental flights out of organized thinking were not redeemed by imaginative insight into the nature of war, nor into the trauma of violent death, nor the social tragedy of senseless slaughter. Nor was there insight into her own mental processes, no exposure of underlying psychic conflicts, no understanding regarding the nature of her sense of guilt and responsibility. Nor did she produce anything that an outside audience might find edifying. She was, in short, not creative. She was psychotic. Big difference.

I suppose it could be argued that we should not be too hard on Wanda for failing to create anything memorable since she was not an artist to begin with. But I want to mention an occasion I had to study the transcript of a Rorschach that had been given to a famous writer (whom I shall not name) when The Famous Writer (TFW) had been hospitalized psychiatrically in an institution that I shall also avoid naming. (I do not want to be publishing protected medical information). Unlike Wanda, who was not and never will be considered a creative person by Dr Andreasen’s standards, TFW would fit her definition. So I read the Rorschach transcript with fascination. The Rorschach is a test designed something like Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: the ambiguous image encourages the subject to project whatever structures are inside his or her mind to organize that visual ambiguity into a coherent percept. Some things may be more common than others to see.


There are ten cards, and to my surprise at the time, there was nothing in any of TFW’s responses that was artistic: no startling imagery, nothing of intelligent word magic, little that was coherent, and even less that was memorable–apart from the one line that I happen to recall, with which I have titled this article: My girl wears long skirts. And in its context, that one sentence wasn’t even a pertinent response, but represented a moment of tangential thinking–the mind drifting away from its subject. Upon recovery, TFW also said the same thing that I am saying: there was nothing redemptive about the episodes of mental disorganization that was suffered, no depths plumbed that were useful to subsequent creative projects, no lines resurrected from the chaos that were ever used in subsequent written products. The periods of illness were life wasted. What TFW created when he wrote was of an order entirely different than what his mind did when it disintegrated. There was no lesson to be learned from his own mental illness, certainly no general theme to be promoted about creativity at large.

The creative act does not arise out of a freedom from restraint, or an escape per se from conventions. As my instance of Wanda can attest, psychotic escape both throws away conventional meaning, and in fact destroys the principles of meaning itself. Creativity, on the other hand, is better understood as a freedom to perform among a multiplicity of choices. It is the mental compass to digest the whole range of worldly features, the discretion to select among the play of cultural, social, and natural fragments, the comfort with randomness within shapeless substances. Creativity invents out of chaos, not out of the void–as Mary Shelley noticed in her Introduction to Frankenstein: Invention, she writes, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.

Creativity is no more associated with psychotic illness than it is with alcoholism (which also disinhibits the mind), or personality disorders (which filter social data through a non-standard perspective) or lung cancer (because creative people smoke) or congestive heart failure (because writers, at least, sit at their desks all day and get fat). There may be correlations among all these things, but of course correlations are cheap. Did you know, for example, that when I was born, there were earthquakes in Chile and 40 people died in China?—which, sad to say, do not attest to the worldwide influence of my birth. Three things (my birth, earthquakes, the death of 40 people) just happened somewhere at the same time. But there is nothing causative here.

The impulse to pathologize creativity is part of the present cultural drive to find pathology everywhere within our daily, usual, precious mental life–so that sorrow is now depression, physical energy is now hyperactivity, mental energy is now mania, flights of imagination are now psychoses, shyness is now social anxiety, individual differences are now personality disorders. The collusion between science, medicine, and money makes a compelling horror story, but that narrative is beyond the scope of my work here. Let me suggest that, if you want to be frightened, don’t watch Shark Week, but instead read Blaming the Brain, by Elliot Valenstein, or Anatomy of an Epidemic, by Robert Whitaker. Both will disturb your sleep.

You Are the Only Thing in My Life

So here’s a question: Do you know how old your soul is? Mine, evidently, is 28–which for obscure reasons I am glad to have learned. I have in fact been happy to learn the answers to other intriguing puzzles this summer, too, simply by going on Facebook and participating in the convenient quizzes offered there. For instance, What City Are You? (I’m Barcelona). Who Were You in a Past Life (Buddhist Monk). What 60’s Stereotype Are You? (Vietnam Protester). Which Mythical Creature Describes Your Personality? (Unicorn. Go figure).

It has occurred to me to wonder whether these quizzes are further instances of those unethical, sly manipulations the brainiacs at Facebook have introduced to learn secret things about those who participate. Accordingly I have been careful about the questions I have answered, and misleading about some of my responses. I think that I am much more likely to have been a Hippie in my past life than a Buddhist Monk, but I don’t necessarily want some unprincipled researcher to know that.

Nonetheless, I’m waiting for the quizzes to raise further important questions–or at least questions that I am in need of understanding. When Are You Going to Die? might be a good one, assuming the future is not irrevocably set, and I might therefore alter bad outcomes. The newest X-Men movie suggests the time ahead of us is indeed malleable and plastic, and since that vehicle is about as scientific as Facebook, I’ll consider the question settled. Fate can be changed, if you know what you’re doing.

I bring this up in part because the question of past events, and their potential to influence the future of things that matter most to us, are particular interests in Robin Becker’s new collection of poetry, Tiger Heron, which I want to spend some time praising. Becker has always been a poet interested in understanding intimacies, broadly conceived: why one person is erotically enticing, but not another; how to cultivate friendships and sustain them; how to appreciate the time spent with other people in all their variabilities. In this new collection she once again explores the ways in which past decisions continue to influence the future of her personal life, and how old patterns contribute to the scope of psychological change. What is now at stake for her, however, is whether redemption is possible, whether she can revisit the past–with parents, with friends and lovers–and alter outcomes. It’s the difference between reviewing your life with regret, or with hope.

The stakes are especially high because, as she admits in “The Middle Path,” she is now of a “certain age”:

all my friends had sons, of the sort
we couldn’t find to save our lives.
We saved ourselves instead.
Which brings me to
this certain age, this mortgage application,
this recycling bin, this ferry reservation.

The details to which she is brought at her age are selected here with particular resonance: the responsibilities of mortgaging one’s present to insure a future (You’d have to own a house to know what that feels like. Try reading V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas), a vision of being ‘recycled’ (She is in this poem “brooding about running out of time”), and my favorite: the ferry reservation. In this context, the ferry for which she is making reservations is as likely to be Charon’s as any other, waiting to convey her across the Styx, whether she likes it or not.

Because “The Middle Path” situates the poet in the midst of a life that has started some time ago. Becker is not at the beginning of her journey, she is not verging at the innocent spring of miracle and discovery, but instead she has advanced some considerable distance in the temporal exploration of her vital, psychological landscapes. Accordingly, we as readers are dropped whole into the activity of her established circles: friends and their children, lovers past and present, parents. Like a good Greek tragedy, the subjects she writes about begin In Medias Res–in the midst of things–where events are already structured. The players are established, we know who everyone is: indeed, one out of every four poems in the book is dedicated to a specific, actual person in Becker’s life.

The web of interconnecting roles and relational identities is likewise well-known, which means that Becker’s reconnaissance of her affections is a matter of deepening insights, the pleasures of long affinity, and of established warmths. In “Listening to Bach on Rt. 89”, she celebrates the scope of her varied community of beloveds:

In a humidity of Baroque proportions
I compose the faces of my friends,
the interweaving themes of our lives.

Banked barn, borscht garden beets,
the dogs’ extravagant greetings
play in counterpoint

to highway berm, median strip, loosestrife–
classic elements of a summer’s drive
to visit. Such joyful improvisations!

‘Improvisations’ is a lovely concept here, a resonant metaphor that captures her range of responses to the histories of her variable pleasures and shifting intimacies. Her friends have independent themes, and interweave among themselves.

All that motion–the separations and realignments–requires a continued poise to negotiate the passions, as well as the comforts, of intimacy. We learn in “Threesome Interval” that her one-time lover now has “a new man,” but the poet nevertheless reports that together the three of them have kept their ‘composure’:

In Shelburne Falls, from the viewing platform
we admired the glacial potholes

ground from granite by snowmelt and gyrating
stone. Swirls marbled
the rock with a natural patina. We kept
our composure,

despite hundreds of millions of years’
of whirlpooling abrasions.
Arriving at the Walt Whitman party, in great spirits,
I wondered: might we try a trip to Rome?

There is a practical virtue in remaining composed, instead of sundering in the rash fire of disappointed possession. There are other communions to be shared, such as pilgrimages together to Rome, or a joint reading of “Song of Myself” at the July 4th Walt Whitman party each year, amid their membership in a thriving, supportive community.

Becker has other poems as well in her collection in which she examines her preference for composure over the risks taken in youth–in which there are terminal break-ups with lovers and partners, discomposed scenes and impassioned chaos, all because there remains the expanse of a lifetime to remedy mistakes, find alternative partners, or trade up for intensities if familiarity blunts erotic excitement. As Becker observes, this is a very privileged–and temporary–attitude in which to hazard everything of value. The poet observes in “Our Best Selves,” that there are other losses in life besides those relational subtractions and additions we choose to play with. The poem is dedicated to a friend, Miriam Goodman, just before her death:

Miriam hailed
and embraced summer
and winter people
in the annual

June convocation
at the beach, updates
and invitations

all around:
they could see
she was sick, bewigged,

but she was here,
now, steadying herself
against the piling,

going in slowly ,
the burning chill
on her thighs,

on her hips, her waist,
as she studied the familiar
lake,…the cabin’s manifest,

the list of essential linens
and batteries and cast iron
pots passed on each year

for her beloveds.

Miriam is not the only one immersed in the flux of elements. Everyone has assembled, not because Miriam is ill, but because this is the ecology of friends, the divine family that meets at the cabin every year to reconvene the holy rule of their society. Paula, we are told, plays Bach suites on her cello, fathers are off teaching sons how to cast for the lake trout, Leslie is swimming with “a rhythmic voluptuousness”, and when it is time to eat, the nine of them grill vegetables to go with the corn and beet soup, then sit around the last supper table playing Scrabble. Look off into the yard where

the boys undress,
and we see their limbs–
animated cave paintings

against the tent fabric.

The poet wants us to understand that this is the archetypal affiliation, the principle society illuminated here against a backdrop of lost time, life lived, irretrievable chances–all of which is both finite and precious.

The understory weaving through the individual poems in Tiger Heron is twofold: the poet is “running out of time” (“The Middle Path”), and she needs a vision to sustain her through the forthcoming poverty, the absolute loss of love and value. In her poetic tribute to Maxine Kumin (“To a Poet”), Becker imagines another supper, another illness, another friend recently deceased:

a gorgeous May

afternoon enters every window of the house
where someone is sick
and someone is reading to the sick

and someone makes supper using
every language available to say nourishment,                                                                                mystery, wisdom,

and I will sleep on the floor in your room.

Here is a compelling vision for a poet: we need every language available–all vocabularies, tones of voice, gestures and affective demonstrations to express the continuities of value. Becker does not find a sufficient range of speech among the abrasions of erotic irritability. It is not the climactic highs that sustain a person over her life, but the steady loving nourishment given daily, quietly in love for a long time.



My Life With Skunks

A friend of mine–Bruce–had a pet skunk that he kept in his apartment, where it was about as house-trained as a cat. It had its own kitty litter thing in the bathroom, and we would feed it raw hamburger and eggs, and it was relatively affectionate like cats sometimes are. Occasionally at night, though, it would get territorial with Bruce’s new friends coming over to visit, and at such times it would stamp its little feet in a cute way, then spray you in the face with this incredibly foul, noxious fluid that would burn your eyeballs out. Then we would all live on the beach for a couple of weeks until the apartment aired out. That’s how we rolled in Southern California in those days. We were pretty laid back.

I mention this as prologue to the afternoon years later, when my beeper went off, and I was paged to the ER to evaluate an adult who had just been brought in by ambulance. My office was in another part of the hospital, and while I was walking through the corridors I was reminded of my sunny adolescence as I met the unmistakable essence of skunk rolling like an awful fog up the hallway. Once I arrived in the ER, I didn’t need anyone to point out who I was supposed to be evaluating–which was a good thing, really, since the place was pretty much empty: patients, doctors, family members, nurses, social workers, orderlies, receptionists–everybody had cleared out.

Except two unhappy EMT’s from the ambulance, and this emaciated guy wearing a sort of breech clout and vest that he obviously made himself out of maybe a dozen skunk skins. He hadn’t tanned them, so of course they were rotting (this was September, the end of summer), which only added to the flavor of the encounter. It was memorable. The first thing I did was order the three of them outside into the courtyard, and tried to get up wind of him. I wasn’t worried that he would try to escape: there was no place on earth he could hide, and besides, you could see he was starving. It’s true he was also floridly psychotic and paranoid, but he was tamed by the lethargy induced from his long want of food. He was actually in a bad way.

He had spent months out in the woods, and the woody terrain bordering the farmland of a nearby town. It turned out that everybody knew he was out there: farmers spend a lot of time outside in the summer looking at their crops, the weeds, the weather, rain clouds and so on, and folks noticed this young man in various stages of nakedness roaming around in the miles and miles of forested countryside. He wasn’t harming anyone, and so in the egalitarian way of stoic New Englanders ever since Robert Frost, they let him do his thing. Also, they were really busy this time of year.

Whatever crazy, fearful thinking first led him out into the woods, after he was there a while the most important thing on his mind became food. It is hard for a person in a disorganized, disheveled mental state to find and capture enough edible materials–whether animal or vegetable–to keep his body sound for months on end. The only things that he could find to eat, and that would not try to run from him, were the skunks. They don’t run: they stand their ground and warn everything else to get away, fast. So he could kill and eat skunks–and then after his fashion, he made clothing from their hides once he lost whatever he was wearing when he first left his civilized mind in whatever place he once called home.

I suppose it’s true everywhere, when you think about it, but in the part of New England I’m talking about, skunks are in finite supply. There’s just not that many of them,
not enough to support a large and clumsy predator forever. So after he had killed and eaten all the skunks he could find, the only other thing that wouldn’t run away were the cows out in the pastures. It must have taken a while for him to figure out how to attack a cow, or to get hungry enough to try, but he eventually shot one with a bow and arrow he got somewhere, and that was too much for the area dairymen, who had a tough enough time trying to make a living without having people shoot their best milkers with toy arrows. One of them called the police, and that in the due course of events led to my chance to meet him. It was as natural as breathing: find someone in skins shooting arrows at cows, and bring him to the Emergency Room to see me. I’ll sort things out.

This time, however, I wasn’t given a chance. No community can afford to have its ER shut down, so while I was outside with him, a team of people with a large van came to collect him and bring him to New Haven, where there were facilities that could handle the particular challenges my guy presented. They bundled him up in some sort of cloaking fabrics, and off they went. I never saw him again.

Over dinner one night I mentioned the encounter to a friend of mine, Gary Young, who was as moved as I have been by the passions stirring my scared hunter. So Gary wrote a poem, which is published on page 225 of his book, Even So: New and Selected Poems. You can also read it here (It is a prose poem):

In Western Massachusetts, a man wandered into the woods to live alone. He tried hunting, but the only animals that stood their ground, the only animals he could catch were skunks. The man was sprayed, of course, but he caught them, ate them, and dressed in a cloak of rancid pelts. When he was found, the scent was on his breath, his skin, and when I heard his story, I thought, comrade.

The Death of Garcia Marquez


When Garcia Marquez died recently, he took with him not only the whole of his life, but a major portion of my own life as well into whatever absent world he entered in death. If I had known in time that his dying was imminent, I would have given him letters to bring with him, as Amaranta Buendia brought letters with her to distribute among her friends and relatives in the underworld when she died—except my letters would have been those to Marquez himself that I never wrote when he was still among us.

Because, I mean, if people are now having sex with ghosts—the pleasures of which movie stars and pop singers are now proclaiming—then why not start something a bit more modest, like a literary correspondence? In this way nothing may ever be too late.

In particular I’m curious about the life of his characters—their unique verisimilitude—which he used to explain by saying that what he wrote in his novels and stories was not so different from other events occurring in Aracataca Columbia in his childhood. I get that. I can imagine the     similarities between the Biblical rains that cascaded on both Macondo and his own home town, and how flower petals may fall from the heavens to carpet the roads, and commemorate an    especially important funeral. Melquiades’ youthful appearance is restored by a good set of false teeth, I can see that, and ice is indeed a miracle in the tropics before refrigeration—which is a recent invention, just like the invention of the magnifying glass, and the miracle of the     player piano.

So what did it take out of him to destroy those fabulous people, inhabiting worlds of remarkable beauty, vitality and color? That’s what I want to know. There was a time when I was dead certain it would destroy me to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was an undergraduate when I discovered the book. I always parked my VW camper under the eucalyptus trees in a  distant parking lot on the UC Irvine campus, and between classes I’d lie on the bed there with the door open to the Southern California light, and shriek with laughter when Jose Arcadio       explained that the gold ingots fused to the bottom of Ursula’s cooking pot looked like dog shit. All of you who own a dog know exactly how apt that description is.

I’d be hooting over the disassembled player piano, taken apart to discover the ghostly pianist making all that music, and the photographs taken surreptitiously to capture the image of God. Other students would be coming out to reclaim their cars, also parked there in the lot, and a part of my mind would register the bizarre looks I’d get as they peered into my van, hoping to avoid the madman howling in there, and just get to their own car without incident. But I was transported: they weren’t as real or nearly as compelling to me as the time Remedios the    Beauty was lifted body and soul away with the Percale sheets, or when all the ants in the world carried off the newborn Aureliano into their nest to feast on.

So when that Old Testament wind started, and blew off the first of Macondo’s roof tiles, I couldn’t stand it. I had the same premonition that Aureliano did, and whereas he raced ahead to finish translating the encyclicals written by Melquiades, which were the text of the novel itself, I couldn’t bear it, and closed the book. I also closed the van door because I didn’t want anyone to see me sobbing and call the police.

And, well, yes, since you asked, I know I get carried away by fictions: novels, poems, in the theater, in the movie house. I’m the kind of guy that Plato wanted to protect by banishing all artists from the Republic so they would not seduce people like me into believing in illusions. In general, he didn’t much approve of illusions, particularly persuasive ones, which he believed just led people further into material error. I was in error to be so upset.

Aristotle, on the other hand, as Plato’s student, found the fictional actions of art—and drama especially—to be much more useful. He argued that we get sucked into imaginary pains and distresses in order to purge ourselves of our own real ones—the term for which is catharsis, as I’m sure everyone already knows. So okay, that was it: I was purged of my extreme feelings.

Saint Augustine sided with Plato, and thought that the figments of imagination led a person away from God to contemplate worldly affairs, especially sex, which was bad, bad, bad, bad. Freud, let it be said, thought sex was pretty good, certainly influential, and found the           phantasmagoria of art to be restorative, repairing psychic traumas.

I could go on about this, but already the topic is getting boring. All kinds of writers, philosophers, Church fathers, poets, psychologists, and movie producers have at various times weighed in on the nature of artistic agency—the take home message for which is, probably, that it is a personal matter. One’s relationship to the artistic world is intimate, unique, yours.

For my part, I think I am often beguiled by stories because they play upon my empathy. For instance, although neither of my babies was ever eaten by ants, I can readily imagine the horror if they were. I cringe along with Don Apolinar Moscote when the tall, solemn Aureliano Buendia asks to marry his 13-year-old daughter, who has in fact yet to reach puberty. O man, I have all kinds of misgivings about that one—even though, in truth, no such event ever occurred in my life, or in my daughter’s. So why am I cringing?

Good question. I am moved beyond expression by the chimeras in Marquez’s novel, but am left cold by the actual dramas unfolding everywhere around me. It’s final week, and my wife’s crazy students are turning their papers in late, each excuse more inane than the last. One of my     colleagues at work goes on and on about her son’s latest piercing, this one through his eyebrow, while I try to extricate myself from the break room: I don’t want to hear about it. Unfortunately, I can’t help but hear the neighbors shouting at each other, arguing over a bounced check, it sounds like, so I discreetly close the windows that I just opened after the long, long winter. God dammit. Someone from work has called again to ask if I can give him a ride in the morning, for the second day in a row, because his car still isn’t running. It should be no big deal, but I’m   irritated nonetheless because I’ll have to talk to him on the drive in, rather than listen to one of my audiobooks—this one Jacob’s Room, read by Nadia May in a truly lovely performance.

What does it mean to prefer the theoretical lives of a novel to the actual mess people create around me? To favor the idea of people having phantasmal problems, over the bulky, every-day persons around me inhabiting their tangible dismay? Well, for one thing, I have more control over the imaginary passions because I can always just close the book, or turn off the iPod. It also occurs to me that I appreciate the presence of meaning in the fictional events, which is not evident in the surprise of real life. In literature there is the idea of the story, the narrative theme, the way sense is made.

Marquez punishes those who like structure to their contemplations, because he ties up the loose ends of his plot with a brutality that runs like a bloody thread throughout the course of his family chronicle. Melquiades doesn’t just die, he is washed down river, and is found 3 days later with a vulture perched on his stomach. The 17 sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendia are all executed in one single night, the last by an ice pick driven through the cross of ashes smeared during Holy Mass on his forehead. The last in the line of the Buendia’s is eaten by ants—whose mother hemorrhages to death immediately after childbirth. No one is given a second chance.

That is such a harsh judgment on a marvelous world—an unforgiving sentence passed upon his unforgettable creation. It has weighed on my mind all these many years, and with renewed   emphasis in light of Marquez’s own death after the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. I wonder if he would have approved of his death: the relentless disassembly of his mind, the tortuous       collapse into indignity and oblivion. That’s hard to face. I think I’d rather drown in the river with Melquiades, even with that vulture. I think I’d prefer a clear threat, an obvious deadly chance, a fatal moment. But I wouldn’t want to be lost, so hunt for me.

Please hunt, just like I am for Garcia Marquez. That is, after all, what my letters to him would constitute: a link to a distant faint voice, a bond against bereavement, the preservation of value. We may have a chance yet.


I’m Just Saying

that if you knew someone who could read minds, say someone named Sarah, and were good friends, then this is what it might feel like:


Women, I bet,
have the harsher roles, especially Sarah,
that’s why I bring it up. Think of what
she might get wind of when she listens to
your inner privacy instead of minding
her own business: like you’re sitting in
the privy when she visits, maybe. Whoa.
Sarah’s very compromising in
her presence, even if she’s wise about
the provocations of the body, and
prefers that you at least attempt to shield
your demon lust from public radiating
broadcast on the psychic waves. Damn.
When I am near, or if I ever slip
around her in my self-control, I feel
her sneak inside my recess, slide into
the flowering and blue abyss of secrets
to release my best celestial thoughts,
my peaceable securities, which
in general oppress her less than all
the squeaks and brags of my enchanting personality.
In the end, between us, we can keep
the noises out.




Of course, if in fact you don’t know anyone who can read your mind, then you’re probably safe from these, or similar indignities. Thank God, I suppose.

The End of the World

A dear friend of mine from Holland has a son who, during his latency years, unexpectedly developed a seizure disorder. One evening years ago, after riding yet again in the ambulance to the hospital emergency room, his dazed son in his arms, he blurted out a Dutch proverb: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” The context added particular weight to the emotional vision. I had come along afterward bringing extra clothing, mainly pajamas and underwear for the hospital stay, and at the moment it seemed possible to me that, given the proverb, no one in that family would be happy ever again.

It was a sobering thought, and it put me on alert. I had children too, younger than my friend’s, but they had their vulnerabilities as well–they had desires, and the frustrations to desire. So I hunted around for things to do, clearing a path, smoothing the way toward their futures. My daughter discovered early on that she wanted to play the piano—not a violin, not a keyboard, but a piano. So,well, okay, that was easy enough: we found her a piano.



I mean, seriously, I couldn’t even get the instrument out of the truck before she was all over it.

My son, for his part, basically needed room, an exit from the strictures of developed social play into the boundlessness of an unconstructed world.


From the beginning he has pulled me outdoors, enticed me out from behind my desk and onto frozen dog sleds, into kayaks floating among whales in the Pacific Ocean, on treks in arid Southwestern mountains photographing petroglyphs–and then he has gone to places where I could not follow, so that his safety did not depend on me, but on another father–this one Kenyan, who sat outside his cloth tent at night with a wooden club to whack any marauding hyena that came too close. The lions, apparently, were no problem.

I have wanted to risk all this personal detail here in order to bring each of us, in our minds, personally, onto a certain pathway that leads in the end to M.B. McLatchey’s new book, The Lame God. It’s a book that pretty much requires a personal response from us, because the core of its themes centers around a person: 16-year-old Molly Bish. It is possible that some of you may have heard of her, insofar as her plight unfolded for months in the national news. In fact, it is entirely possible that a few of you may actually have known her, the real Molly Bish—maybe as a high school student, maybe as a neighbor— before in June, 2000, she was abducted from her lifeguard tower at Comins Pond in Warren, MA, and subsequently raped, tortured and then murdered.

Whether McLatchey herself knew Molly is unclear: she does not disclose what, exactly, her relationship to Molly Bish and her family has been. But she does reveal that she has, at a minimum, spoken with the mother, Maggie Bish, to obtain permission to write explicitly about Molly, and about the attending horrors that ensued after she was found to be missing. McLatchey writes in her Introduction “This book is offered in memory of Molly Bish and in homage to her mother, Maggie Bish, who encouraged me to ‘keep talking about this; keep writing.’” McLatchey adds that “The story that this book tells is true. No names have been changed to protect the innocent—the innocent have already seen the face of evil, smelled its breath, learned its customs.”

This is a unique introduction to the poetry. We as readers are explicitly denied the usual aesthetic distances from the events depicted in the stories because the events are not fictionalized. McLatchey’s artistry here is working with brute facts—among which is the troubling recognition that the perpetrator, whoever he is, has not been apprehended. The man is still at large out there. Accordingly, there is no sense of justice in the book, no comfort derived from cosmic symmetries, no vengeance exacted, no eye taken for an eye, no recourse. Just horror.



She came home bone by bone. First her shin bone, then her skull. In the end, 26 of Molly’s bones came home to us.        –Mother of 16-year-old Molly Bish

For the rape of Chryssipus, King Laius suffered.
The gods saw what he took–
a young boy’s chance

to play in the Nemean Games, to make his offerings
to Zeus, to win his wreath
of wild celery leaves, advance

the Greek way: piety, honor, and strength. He raided
their heaven, not just a small boy’s frame.
Their justice

was what Laius came to dread: a son that would take
his mother to bed,
a champion of the gods, an Oedipus.

We called on the same gods on your behalf, asked
for their twisted best:
disease like a Chimera to eat

your Laius piece by piece; a Harpie, who might wrap
her tongue around his neck
and play his game of breathing

and not-breathing that he made you play.
Medusa’s curse in stone–and a Golden Ram
to put you back together bone by bone.


The quotation alone is hair-raising—though with that said, I am struck by the poet’s lack of overt drama in the poetry that follows. On the one hand we have the sensational, flat enumeration of the number of bones that were, over time, returned one-by one to the grieving mother—and with the manner of that return left unstated. How would you do it? Did they come in a box? Labeled with an evidence tag? Did a policeman ring the doorbell, and hand over her skull? What kind of protocol could even be possible here?

However, before we step out into that emotional darkness, we hear the poet’s measured voice avoiding hysteria by invoking a classical myth, and with it organizing a parallel narrative of divine retribution to help her metabolize her raw feeling. Because contemporary explanations just feel petty, just lame excuses offering a simplistic cause-and-effect model to rationalize the behavior—something like ‘bad parenting creates bad boys’, or these days maybe it is a defective neuron causing the problem. Bullshit. It takes the scale of mythology to begin to convey  the    goliath male evil that descended upon Molly.

The poet’s task is, essentially, to figure out how to express the full weight of the violation without screaming. It is a delicate matter. Often in the book McLatchey combines classical figures with traditional poetic forms to allow us perspective with which to view the scope of violence, and the depth of the insult to Molly and her family. In Little Fits, for instance, the poet composes a sequence of Petrarchan sonnets to organize her thoughts and feelings, and to secure a mental space in which to arrive at insight, emotional clarity, and decision. The formal restraints allow the emotional matter to be pitched very high, but without ever sounding bathetic. And look at the graceful formal movement in this sonnet:



A portly man on TV says he’s eating jelly donuts
since his doctor recommended more fruit. My head
tucked beneath your chin, I feel you grin. A welcome joke—
what Aristotle called catharsis: the comedy channel in bed.

A piecemeal purging meant to clear our minds, a chance
to graft, like patchwork, the wreckage of our lives
onto a campy figure, cheer for him; love him for dancing
when the gods single him out, pile on the twisted trials.

As if—for a few moments—we are watching someone else’s
life unfold. Pizza and beer, you my armchair, tucked in our sheets.
As if—for a few moments—we have climbed up from some well
to lounge on sun-baked stone, take in the Dionysian Mysteries:

lore of the vine—seasons, grapes, wine. Nothing ever truly dying.
And us, tender initiates, laughing so hard we’re crying.


Fortunately for the book—possibly for the poet herself—McLatchey moves from her contemplation of the brutish facts of murder, and toward a reprieve, toward a respite that acknowledges other continuities besides those of abiding anguish. Here we find an intimate pair coupled, which is to say, linked in their common association that, for the moment, includes humor and catharsis. Here we are offered an image of mutual purpose, and shared pleasures, as well as their doubled purgation expelling together the poisonous, unacceptable affects.

The purgation signals an emotional transition out of trauma and into sorrow, and to a generalized sense of both vulnerability and promise. The transition is an essential point of the poet’s vision. She discloses that she, too, has children—two sons, we are told—and she has to wonder what she has let herself in for. Having children is a sort of biological vote for continuities, a tacit endorsement of future, continued participation in the social morass. Like it or not, she as a parent is compelled to be party to a world that has its disgusting matters, its truly fearful possibilities, against which she tries to civilize brute desires, and ward off threats to naked innocence. But there is only so much she can do.


Always in the distance
burnt brown combines sweeping up
spools of wheat. My sons sleep
in the back seat—the younger one
bowed over; the other up straight
like a sun-drenched sheaf.

Up ahead, one sheer pool after another
that the heat lays down. Day stars
(the older one calls them) spring up
from the pools and usher us on,
then flicker and steam.
A Dakota we’ve never seen…

I reach back to wake the older one:
solicitude, or a favoritism
that I had thought might pass.
Or a reckoning of our lives
that comes when the light slants
like this, as if we are looking through

more than window glass. I pat
his leg to comfort him, or to bless him,
or to brush some divination off.
But he is already looking out….

from Joseph Dreams Two Dreams   


There is only so much any of us can do, and who knows if it is ever enough?


POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me that an interesting mirror image to McLatchey’s book —or at least to the events composing the detonating first cause of the book—is a poem found in Frank Bidart’s first poetry collection, Golden State. I’m thinking of Herbert White, which is the first of Bidart’s poetic attempts to inhabit the psyche of various historical persons—Vaslav Nijinsky, for example, the anorectic Ellen West—and convey through them his own matching torments. Herbert White is, or was, a convicted murderer, child molester, and necrophiliac. Bidart’s poem, with its monstrosity, can be read as a companion piece to McLatchey’s traumatic abhorrence. I have written about Herbert White elsewhere:


I Want To Say Something About Pumpkins

Because it’s about that time of year again: I have trays of soil that I have seeded with various kinds of vegetable, summer promises–one of which is pumpkins. There are other things I grow, of course, like the basil and tomatoes I love for the aroma they broadcast into the air around the garden. But I love pumpkins for their magical, transformational energy. I never see a pumpkin on the ground, one of my big ones, without thinking about enchanting it into a coach. I swear, one of these days I’ll do it. To have my giant pumpkin vines dashing out of the garden plot onto the lawn, and down toward the street, is to be invited to a foot race. I want to sprint alongside of them.


Maria Hummel, in her book House and Fire, has a poem that captures something of the hyperbole of pumpkins–something of that need, once you have really looked at pumpkins, to invent legends about them.

A Thousand Faces

In the creation myths of pumpkin,
bellies grew first, billowing out
before the light, the sea and flowers.

And the bellies commanded the void:
let there be hollows in this darkness
and arches hung with pulp as soft

as the inside of a cheek; let there
be a cathedral for seeds, a favorite
purse in the garden’s green closet.

So the pumpkins grew into portly
multitudes that try not to trumpet
their superiority, each laden

with irreplaceable burdens,
each shape original and derivative,
the plump bulge of matrons,

taut barrels of elderly generals–
and what of that color? Is there
a wish in this world that can blush

as beautifully as the pumpkin?
Gold for secrecy, red for richness
and blessing, a yam paint

mixed with the flush on a girl’s
face the first night she realizes
how to possess her body, then

darkened by rain, autumn, waiting.
The love affairs of pumpkins
are always long, full of slow kisses

and vacations postponed
in favor of staying on the mound,
savoring some peace and quiet

for once, this fragile forever.
In the lame stories of pumpkin
heroes, the bravest line up at dawn

to be carved and shattered for the glory
of harvest, but the waning garden
refuses to cheer for them, or perhaps–

like the sea and its waves, or a mother
watching her sons ride away–it merely
calls too softly for them to hear:

Come back, let me open
for you again, you are mine,
you would never break inside me.

I couldn’t resist this, it’s one of my favorite pictures: a small, mystical life amid the pile of other lives with their orange glow. The little girl pictured here is now 28 years old, and has grown exquisitely into herself. But the photo reminds me of other of Maria Hummel’s poems. She will break your heart, and then heal it again, with her poems about her very ill infant son. For example:


Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.

As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.

I read you books on dinosaurs,
their lost hungers, fallen bones.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.

I once loved words, their
fat red flesh, their roar and moan.
Today your arm eats strawberries

and what it tastes can never
be named or held or known.
The tubes go in, thin and clear,

sewing your skin to poles and air.
I once loved a meadow,
its clear little stream, lying there
on my arms, eating strawberries.

Her poem is a villanelle, which she brings off without visible effort. I have to keep going back to re-read it to see how she does it. The formal repetitions and cascading refrains remind me of the kinds of repetitions you find in early children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss, or maybe Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice–though here that reminiscence brings little joy, but instead conveys a wistful longing for an innocence neither she nor her son are allowed. Here the form, with its fragile order, must contain all sorrows, and bind the chaos of all fears. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to live through.





%d bloggers like this: