From the depths I called You, Lord.
Master, hear my voice
May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea.
(tr. Robert Alter)
So this at last. Face to the ground, balls to the wall.
- I am 64 years old.
- I have high blood pressure, early-stage emphysema,Type II diabetes, bipolar disorder, and am a recovering alcoholic. I have been in a psychiatric ward because I wanted to die and I have been in a county jail because I chose to stay alive long enough to have alimony arrears thrown in my face.
- But I haven’t had a drink since January 2000. Big whup. I’m not impressed anymore.
- I worked for a real long time.
- I hate working but I love the money it brings me. Or brought me.
- I discovered that if I cannot have the career I truly believe God vocationed for me–university teaching–I would in fact go after money instead. That mostly worked for a lot of years.
- But in 2002, after the WTC attack and the economic crash, it stopped working. Over the last two and a half years, with one exception, I have worked what I call “Barbara Ehrenreich jobs” in supermarkets and in a call center where, if they only called you motherfucker, you were way ahead of the game. A black female co-worker in the call center told me that a black woman customer on the phone called her a “black bitch.” Racial self-hatred, anyone?
Now, about that Vocation thing. I absolutely believe I was supposed to be a college professor of English Literature. “Supposed to be” is not me projecting my will on my Creator. It is fact. It was put inside me when I was 16 years old and it left me twice: first, when I turned 32 and made my first mistake (profound impatience) of not wanting to wait; then again when I was 47 and turned down an Associate Professorship in the upper Midwest in the name of Everyone Else. So I’ve heard “Put it behind you, live for today, look forward.” Oh please. Toward what? The deli counter? Mes amis, I’ve got a Ph.D. that I have to omit from job applications. Literacy is a threat. “Duh, gee, youse gotta real gud educashun there, yez ever try teachin’?”
I should go into interviews talking like Jethro Bodine–I’d probably get further and become a greeter at WalMart.
My last really paying job came and went from January to end of May this year. It went away and for the first time left me both physically ill (how’s 21 nights of insomnia grab you?) and spiritually destroyed. Somehow, age 64 dictated to me the terms of engagement. “Welcome to the world the the working poor.” Well, it’s a new designation anyway. So right now I work a few days a week in a supermarket again. The work is making my various physical and emotional illnesses worse. But I can’t quit without jeopardizing the Unemployment I get which pays better than the job.
HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
9 WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
I broke down on the train because this was no longer a poem by someone else. It was my life, and has been as long as I’ve been breathing. “Identify, don’t compare” say the recovering drunks. Right, so I totally identified with irrecoverable sadness and madness. I recognized–probably forever–life as a place of disconsolation enlivened by the occasional orgasm, moments of getting one over on other people, or of schadenfreude when God takes it out on someone else for a change.
That is ugly and horribly, horribly wrong. It’s sort of like watching the cartoon for non-kids, Happy Tree Friends, where the cute cartoon characters amputate their own limbs or are flayed by a slicing machine. If you laugh, what does that say about you?
Kenyon herself died of leukemia at age 48. She did not recover from her depressions, but few people have written about them so forcefully and–unlike me–without self-pity. Oddly, or not so oddly, and from what her husband the poet Donald Hall wrote about her late days, she was not relieved to anticipate release from the cage around her mind. Life was more important.
So I left the train yesterday feeling oddly cleansed. I still do. I still do not view this as a place of joy. I doubt I ever shall. I didn’t even when I made $144,000 in 2000, so it’s not all about money, is it? But I looked down the barrel and today at least the chambers are empty. I feel oddly neutral.
I ask those of you who read here to pray for me. Hold me to the light, think of me in prayer. For restoration for one day. Help me to get through the minefield.