Thursday, June 04, 2009

When Poets Dream of Angels

“When the poets dreamed of angels, what did they see?
History lined up in a flash at their back.”
~ David Sylvian

I do not have the kind of bipolar that you see in movies. I don’t run around like a mad person, talking a mile a minute and then become catatonic. I have brief highs and then slide into depression and ennui. The depression is more persistent and severe than the high.

My manic probably looks much like someone else’s normal, at least to the outside observer.

Internally, it’s a firestorm.

I become entirely focused on something, usually to the point of obsession, perhaps for a couple of weeks. Then I falter. The obsession starts to evaporate, and I keep trying to hold onto it, because once it’s gone, the landscape is gray and uninteresting pointless. I drag myself around the drab landscape for a while until something new and shiny attracts my attention. For a while it was learning to knit. Then I dropped that. When we moved it was decorating – I spent a lot of time poring over books and paint colors – and then I lost interest. Recently it was summer camp.

Last weekend I could think of little else but poetry. I ransacked the house until I found my old papers and journals and dragged them out. I reread and shuffled and sorted. I began transcribing my old poems onto my computer. I drove Dear Husband nuts because I barely moved. Poems I didn’t remember writing. The dissertation reviews. Wow, I thought, my 22 year old self is just a fascinating mess. I can’t believe I stopped writing, blah blah blah. I’ll type it all up. I’ll put it all out there. Why not? This is kinda exciting. This is great!

At the same time, I’ve developed a strange and rather embarrassing obsession with Misha Collins and the composite of faith, doubt, rebellion, and wordspinner that he’s come to represent. I know far more about him than I will give a crap about in a month. I follow him on Twitter, which is itself the perfect haven for the frantically distracted and obsessed. There is always something new, always a reason to check. Misha happens to be very clever and amusing, spinning whimsical stories, which you wouldn’t think possible in Twitter. He's charming and at ease (of course, he's an actor) and everyone thinks he's just adorable. He is gifted and I am jealous. He writes poetry, and it's good poetry. Damn. He's bright and cheerful and good natured. He has thousands of followers. He doesn’t interact, but Twitter creates the illusion of giving you access to someone’s thoughts in real time, access to their daily life, or in this case, access to their creative life.

I’ve begun to falter.

The utter ridiculousness of being enthralled by some actor is a daily affront to my common sense. I feel ridiculous. I feel idiotic. I feel every one of my 43 years admonishing me to get a grip and pay attention to real life, my children, my husband, my job. It's not as if I can sit down with Misha Collins and pick his brain about poetry and the creative process. He plays an angel, but he's not carrying a message from God to me.

And the poetry. It seems so long ago and in another country. Far away. An island. I think I wrote to get high. It’s like being high. It must release endorphins. Each poem was an obsession. Nothing else was real until the poem was real. The world didn’t make sense without it. When I wrote the world was a bit sharper and I was a bit more buoyant, a bit more purposeful.

And I lost it.

I mentioned in a previous post that I have some ideas about why I crashed into a major writer’s block. But I’m not really so sure. I can’t untangle all the factors. The collapse of a relationship, the start of a new one, changing my persona for the world of jobs and careers, the desire for normality and stability, a dominant boyfriend/husband, antidepressants.

And, a not uncommon experience for me, feeling like a fraud.

I wrote confessional poetry. Much of it was filled with bitterness about my childhood, which sounds so passé and clichéd. I’m sure it bores the hell out of a lot of people. When you write confessional poetry you can’t really hide behind a persona. You’ve dumped your life out for all to see. Your demons are prancing on the pages. Everyone’s walking around in your psyche.

Near the end of my time in the writing program, I was sitting in workshop one day going through the hell of having one of my poems critiqued, when it dawned on me that my fellow poets and my instructors were talking about my poem as if I had been physically and sexually abused. I was dumbfounded, taken aback. I didn’t say a thing. I wasn’t sure whether to protest or pretend. Good God, I thought, how did I manage to screw this up? I went back through my poems and squirmed with discomfort. So many violent images, so many with sexual undertones. Taken alone, not so much, but together, bewildering. I was baffled and kind of horrified.

I didn’t experience some sort of aha moment, a revelation of a long buried trauma. I was never sexually or physically abused. I have to assume that the combination of verbal assaults, mental illness, extreme repression and shame engendered my sometimes over-the-top images. I felt that I had miscommunicated my entire life, that I should take out an ad or make a speech to set the record straight. It didn’t help that later one of my brothers told me a female cousin had accused my father of inappropriate behavior. I don’t believe that accusation. It doesn’t seem to fit. My father has many infuriating and undesirable traits, but I can’t think that is one of them.

But, you start to think, don’t you, that if it quacks like a duck, and so forth. There’s just that little bit of uncertainty. No, not possible. I would know. I wasn’t that good at disappearing.

Did that stop me in my tracks? Or am I just grasping for an explanation? I stopped trying to think about my past. When I went on antidepressants, I felt great. I felt so great that I eventually dropped both the antidepressants and the psychiatrist. That should have been a warning sign. I now know you don’t give a bipolar person Prozac – it triggers erratic behavior. I married an extremely ambitious man and hid in his shadow for years. I was thoroughly sick of hashing over my poor sad childhood. What did it matter? It didn’t help. It was getting boring. It was self-indulgent. Lots of people had it worse. I filled journals but I couldn’t write poetry. I struggled and flailed, mourned and grieved and finally stopped trying. Divorce, pregnancy, another marriage. I didn’t seem to be angry at my parents anymore. They were so remote, so harmless. I had children. I had things to do.

So here I am. I realize that I am still furious. Or rather I don’t realize it – it just comes out when I write. It’s obvious to everyone else. I mean, I know I have a temper and that I’m irritable, that I’m often moody and depressed, but I guess when I get going I fairly reek of brimstone. I’m still dogged by anger and self-loathing, and it can’t be medicated away. I haven’t a damn idea what to do about it. My therapist says I have to find some way, but she has no idea how, or maybe she just won’t tell me. Maybe she thinks it’s therapeutic for me to find out myself.

Meanwhile the world is starting to get that blunt look. Poetry, a clever actor who also happens to be a poet, hunger for that sort of creativity (Why can’t I be like you? Tell me how to be like you.) – what does it all matter? What do I think will change? My thoughts are shifting and settling like dust after a building collapses.


  1. I wish there were things I could say or do that would free you from all this, but sadly there aren't. And just typing that seems to me unkind in its clarity, like waving to a prisoner as you walk away in the sunshine...perhaps it's time to resort to blog stones, building a cairn that shows you that whatever it feels like you're not alone.

  2. A blog cairn is a great idea....I know so many people, adults and children, who live life as you do...hugs for you...

  3. Wow! Alice, what a post! I stuck around and read it all. Now that I'm here, I don't know quite what to say, except that I hope and pray for a way forward for you.

    Somehow, some way, although I had a miserable childhood, I have arrived at my dotage with my ego pretty much intact. No real self-loathing, only disappointment at myself sometimes, and a tendency to pop off at people, which probably means that I still harbor anger about my shitty home life as a child, with an alcoholic father and a mother who was emotionally not there.

    I suppose that folks looked away, because what you wrote here is so very intense, and they couldn't take it.

    I wish you good things Alice.

  4. Your post leaves me somewhat speechless. I love the power and clarity of your words.

    This is a most generous offering and is the sign of someone who is far along on the journey, even if it does not feel that way to the journeywoman herself.

  5. I wasn't sure what to write; it doesn't seem right to offer a "there, there" kind of comfort.
    I am in a similar position, though without the diagnosis of bi-polar, but not without the symptoms.
    For me, I simply try to accept that this journey of mine has already brought extraordinary experiences of life and will continue to do so.
    With love and prayer,

  6. Thank you, everyone. It's encouraging to hear your different voices.:)

  7. I'll be back to read this later, but not enough time now. I also need to find out who Misha Collins.