40 – Dodging the Magic Bullet

A version of this piece was published in Transition, a Canadian magazine on mental health.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

In 1980, the year I was born, the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association voted to allow pharmaceutical companies to offer paid symposiums at its annual conference. Thirty years later I was sitting on coarse beige upholstery in a doctor’s surgery in Glasgow. “Are you sure the results are normal?”

He sighed and repeated that my blood, hormones, iron level and thyroid were all fine.

Disappointment lodged in my oesophagus. Please tell me something’s wrong: hypothyroidism, Vitamin D, anaemia, hormone imbalance, anything.

I had moved to the rain-wracked west coast of Scotland to do a Master’s degree in writing but, after a few weeks, I could barely read. Obsessive thoughts snarled and snapped: you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re a failure. Glasses leapt from my hands at my part-time waitress job. Burns crept up my arms as my reflexes slowed. My boss reprimanded me for being “snappish”. I craved sugar, wolfing my flatmate’s ice cream and cereal then slinking out the next morning to replace them. I slept 12, 15 hours a day, exhausted by the weight of my body.

One more test. The doctor gave me a single sheet of paper. I tend to score well on tests; this was no exception. The Beck Depression Inventory1 is a common screening for depression, intended to “identify [its] presence and severity”2. He skimmed my responses about sadness, guilt, irritability, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts.

“I’ll write you a prescription.”

“Is there someone I can talk to?”

Referral in hand, I walked to another basement office.

That doctor cut me off after ten seconds: “Do you want a prescription?”

He huffed audibly. “If you want to talk to someone go to the counselling service. All the other American students are on meds.”

***

In Anatomy of an Epidemic award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker describes how the “notion that [pharmaceutical] ‘magic bullets’… would bring miracle cures”3 became psychiatric dogma — despite the fact no one fully understands the organic processes of mental illness. Do psychotropic “bullets” hit their target? If so, what happens? No responsible physician would prescribe thyroid and hormone treatment without a lab test. But nobody checked my serotonin or dopamine levels. My doctor had never seen me before. He knew nothing of my family, temperament, or situation, but on the basis of 21 questions offered a drug that would dramatically, maybe irreversibly, alter my brain chemistry.

Photo by Aliane Schwartzhaupt on Unsplash

The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)4 like Prozac. As it happens, I spent several years toying with a fast-acting antidepressant. Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine, like SSRIs, boosts serotonin levels in the brain. It obliterates unhappiness in a rush of euphoria, confidence, clarity and empathy. Everything is better: music, lights, colour, conversation, friendship, sex, and cigarettes.

Until the comedown.

“Suicide Tuesday” was a semi-serious joke among club kids. We compared notes on nightmares, hallucinations, and memory loss. We counted the days till jaws stopped aching and appetites returned.

Prozac is legal but brain chemistry is no respecter of legislation. Trials on SSRIs show that “rats fed high doses… ended up with neurons that were swollen and twisted like corkscrews”5. The human evidence is compelling: the Food and Drug Administration received 39,000 complaints about Prozac in the nine years following its approval, including reports of suicidal and homicidal outbursts, “psychotic depression, mania, abnormal thinking, hallucinations, hostility, confusion, amnesia, convulsions, tremors and sexual dysfunction.”6

***

Instead of antidepressants I took the second doctor’s advice and went to the student counselling service. Every Friday afternoon between three and four (after dark, for most of those moths) I went to a basement room where a white-faced, gold-rimmed Seth Thomas clock sat in a disused fireplace. A tiny glass pitcher and two small glasses stood on the hearth beside a box of Tork tissues. I had fold them in half to blow my nose.

“I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“I feel like I’ve lost control.” I threw another fistful of sodden tissues in the bin. “You know the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’? It feels like that.”

Words that come to mind now are no less true for being clichéd. Nouns: storm, cloud, void, chasm, maelstrom, black hole. Verbs: choke, crush, frighten, smother, horrify. Adjectives: miserable, catatonic, helpless, damaged, trapped, angry, sad, frustrated, lost.

***

In 1988 the United States Food and Drug Association green-lighted Prozac and America’s National Institutes of Mental Health set up the Depression Awareness Recognition and Treatment (DART) program. Its mission was to promote “greater acceptance of depression as a disorder” and, perhaps not incidentally, spread the word that “antidepressants produced recovery rates of ‘70% to 80% in comparison with 20% to 40% for placebo.”7 Eli Lilly, which held the patent on Prozac, helped pay for eight million DART brochures that highlighted the merits of serotonin-boosting pharmaceuticals.

***

Photo by Wherda Arsianto on Unsplash

If you’re trying to dodge the magic bullet you need other weapons. I’ve been running since age 13, hooked on the peace and clarity that follows the effort. In Glasgow I got up at 5:30AM, pulled on ski socks, leggings, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves and battered Sauconys then ran for an hour. I swapped my restaurant job for a coffee shop and found comfort in the routine of making espresso, toasting sandwiches, and gossiping with the regulars. At home I baked caraway rye bread, bagels, and lemon cookies to combat the chill seeping through the single-glazed windows. I bought kilos of oranges and taught myself to make marmalade; experimented with vegan mac-and-cheese and coconut milk smoothies. On black afternoons I tiptoed up the ice-slick hill to the gym and did squats, bench presses and seated rows. I used holiday photos for bookmarks and saved quotes on index cards: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside you,” wrote Kafka.

***

“In a [1998] World Health Organization study of the merits of screening for depression,” writes Whitaker: “Those diagnosed and treated with psychiatric medications fared worse – in terms of their depressive symptoms and their general health – over a one-year period than those who weren’t exposed to the drugs.”

***

One year is 365 days of wondering why am I still breathing? It’s a long time to resist the temptation to drag the tip of a knife down your arm just to see how it feels. I scurried and feinted but depression was a patient cat to my mouse. There were still tears in writing workshops, still mornings huddled beneath the espresso machine gnawing my fingers, still cake binges followed by penitent cups of vegetable broth.

Depression is a black-hearted octopus tenderly, insistently probing for weakness. Resistance is the only secret to survival; fight the beast with every cheap, inadequate weapon at your disposal. Work and running were my best allies. I got better at snatching pleasure and being selfish about delight. When insomnia chipped at my fragile defences, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills. At the end of the year I left Glasgow, bruised but stronger. A magic bullet might have been swift relief. But the grit, patience, and humility I learned on my way are side-effects worth having.

Photo by Nathalie Désirée Mottet on Unsplash

37 – Atropos

A short story originally published on Medium. Atropos is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, the one whose decision is final — her name means ‘inflexible’.

“First, I want to thank you for the invitation. All the invitations. Thank you for asking until I said yes.

“The first year, I was too angry. The second year, I was too angry. Last year, I was afraid of what I might say. My gratitude to the faculty and administration — especially Dr. Harnett and Dr. Walsh — who persisted in asking without expectation. They were close friends of my father, meshed in their own grief, but they reached out again and again.

“I didn’t appreciate it to begin with — and by that I mean, for years. I was angry with this school, with them, with the students who survived, even — a little — with the ones who didn’t. I wanted my father. If I couldn’t have him,
I wanted to hoard all the grief in the world.

“But the world is adept at delivering low blows. Even in my depths of my deepest wallows, it was hard not to know how easy it is to be sucker-punched by fate.

“It has taken four years since that day, which some of you remember all too-vividly, for me to be able to stand here and hope to say something that is not untrue. Many of you, mercifully, only know what happened second-hand — as do I.

“You didn’t see the gun. You didn’t hear the shots. Didn’t smell — as I’m told they would have — the propellant. It wasn’t your hair that stood on end, or your body that shook with the adrenaline rush. You didn’t have to make a life-or-death decision, without knowing which was which.

“Dammit. I’m still angry. At everybody, everything, every minute that added up to the moment my Dad died because some warped asshole had a bad day.

“Forgive me, fellow family members, survivors. I mean no disrespect. But let’s not give what happened more credit that it deserves. We lost our loved ones to an act of madness. I don’t want to credit their killer with reasons.

“Sorry — I should stick to my notes.

“I thought hard before saying ‘yes’. I didn’t want to come here and pretend to have reached a resolution. Yet, it was time. Those of you who were lucky enough to know my Dad, to study with him, know the only thing he loved more than making wine was teaching future winemakers.

“He treasured education and when he retired from his first career as research scientist to start the winery, it was the teaching he missed. This program gave him a chance to combine the two great loves of his life. I wanted to honor that. It’s what he would have wanted.

“So I said ‘yes’, not knowing what came next. Knowing what to say was one of Dad’s gifts. It’s not one of mine. But my mind kept turning back to one story — one pivotal moment.

“Most of you know the winery, or will have at least driven past and seen the acres of vineyards spread across the hills. If you can, erase all that. Picture those hills with nothing but brambles and stones. Picture a decrepit clapboard house with clothes on a line out front, and a tractor parked next to a beat pick-up truck. Picture my Dad, humping that rusty machine along those hills ten hours a day. My Mom tending hundreds of tiny scraps of vine nestled in cardboard milk cartons. After school, my brother and I put to work planting, watering, propping, tying.

“It takes about four years to get a crop, as you know. I was 15 by then, sick of the dirt, convinced nothing was going to come of this stupid experiment. That first year changed my mind. We didn’t get a lot of grapes but they were good. And the wine Dad made was great — award-winning, in fact. Suddenly, my pea-sized teenage brain saw the potential.

“I was almost excited for the second harvest. A handful of friends from schol were coming to help pick at the weekend. The Friday night was warm and hazy. Sunset hung on forever — the sky turning from fuchsia to rose to powder pink. Mom and Dad were on the porch, drinking wine. Toby and I were playing checkers, which is this weird old thing that was invented before the internet. I was completely content — a rare emotion for me at 16 — everything was right.

“The next morning I woke up to Dad shouting, crying really, roaring. I was terrified, I’d never heard anything like it. There was something else, this sort of whirring, rustling noise in the background. Running out of my room, I collided with Toby, and we both staggered into the living room.

“That house overlooked the main, the only, vineyard. Through the open front door I saw this dark thing — this moving mass. Dad was running towards the vines, arms flailing like a Laurel & Hardy skit. Mom on his heels. After a confused minute we realized it was birds.

“Hundreds, thousands, who knows. More birds than we’d ever imagined. Hitchcockian levels, swarming our ripe grapes.

“That was break point for Dad. He had an academic job on offer. He had no harvest. We were broke. You’re familiar with the taut economy of wine-making so you can imagine…. I, in my adolescent wisdom, was convinced, determined this was a sign. Like, “Dad, we tried, we failed, now can we please go back to the city and a job where you can afford to buy me a car?”

“Instead, he remortgaged the property on terrifying terms, and went back to planting and pruning. I was furious, livid. What was going to stop it happening again? What were we going to do then?

“‘We can always start again,’ Dad said.

“It was a few years before I forgave him. My last two years of high school I wore clothes from Salvation Army and ate packed lunches. If a person could die of embarrassment, I wouldn’t be here.

“By the time I went to college, though, things were on an upswing, and just kept swinging. Suddenly, it was the coolest thing in the world to bring friends and boyfriends to visit. Mom and Dad built the new house and I had this huge, beautiful room and studio space overlooking the vineyards. They were winning awards, hosting dinners, giving lectures, appearing in magazines.

“They threw me a 21st birthday dinner at the newly built winery. I sat at the head of the long oak table in the library, surrounded by my friends, drinking amazing vintages Dad had saved especially for the day. I remember hugging him and saying, ‘Daddy, I was wrong when I told you to quit. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.’

“Rightfully, that should be where the story ends. The triumph of courage over cowardice, optimism over pessimism, fortitude over adversity.

“I lived with that smug, comfortable morality tale for my whole adult life — until four years ago. When I heard the news, I literally fell over. My legs gave out. Lying there, howling, I thought, ‘Why didn’t he just quit?

“Once again, I was furious with Dad. If only he’d heeded the warning, if only he weren’t so stubborn, if only he’d given up. I didn’t give a shit about the winery, his accomplishments, his pleasure in it, I just wanted him back.

“I still want him back. But I’m no longer sure he should have quit after the birds. However, I’m also not sure he shouldn’t have.

“God knows, I’ve tried to weigh it up. Tried to find some scale to balance my Dad’s pride, joy and satisfaction in the winery against the fact of his absence. Increasingly, I don’t think such a scale exists. His life was infinitely precious. Missing him is wound that doesn’t heal. But his life was inextricable from what he loved, and how he chose to live.

“Would he do things differently, if he could have seen the future? I don’t know.

“Not knowing, I can’t offer you a comfortable morality tale. Doing what you love can save your life. It can also cost your life. Every day, you make life-and-death decisions without knowing which is which.

“So you may as well follow the deepest, truest impulse of your heart. You don’t know when or where the journey will end, but you can choose your path…”

35 – Is Marrying Absurd?

An unpublished essay.

Photo: CW

The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?

“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”

His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?

On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.

I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”

Sure, I said, why not.

A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.

“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.

Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.

Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.

Photo: CW

Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.

Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.

Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.

Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.

Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.

Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.

And.

Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.

Photo: CW

Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.

Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.

Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.

Chris and I took forty-eight hours.

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?

The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.

My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.

“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”

“I will.”

Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.

‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”

Photo: CW

Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.

Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.

Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett

Poem of the Month – Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem Dulce et Decorum Est speaks for itself.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poem of the Month – A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

I first encountered Jack Gilbert’s poetry in The Sun (American literary magazine, not British tabloid). A sentence from ‘A Brief for the Defense’ stuck with me, nagged me through summer: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”.

As one blessed with much comfort and satisfaction, I wonder at my privileges, wonder at the randomness of life, wonder why millions suffer through no fault of their own, and others live in shocking luxury through no virtue of their own. Gilbert’s taut, evocative, defiant poem comes the closest of anything I’ve read to elucidating the tension between grief and high delight. Gilbert doesn’t moralise or draw conclusions. Though he refers to both God and the Devil, for me the poem is Zen. Ultimately, none of us is in control. The secret, if there is one, is to laugh anyway, to listen for sound of oars in the silence and watch the island sleep. And to refuse to allow our lives to be defined by the worst of times.

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A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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Poem of the Month – Barter by Sara Teasdale

For August’s poem of the month I wanted something fresh, something by a woman, something I wasn’t familiar with. Browsing a poetry anthology, ‘Barter’ hooked me. Sara Teasdale’s imagery reminds me of home (“blue waves whitened on a cliff… scent of pine trees in the rain”) and I like its two-fold charge: find beauty in the quotidian and be brave enough to grab it.

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Barter

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Treed

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A poem in progress

TREED

Suspended in your limbs the
sky shatters to dancing fractals.
Height makes me dizzy.
Pressed by gravity to your
contours
corpuscles shriek.
My heart screeches
out of control.
Refusing to
fall
I
will
climb
(down).

Wood against flesh.
Taut, anxious;
mute and clumsy; bones
rattle against every
branch on the way. Till I

f
a
l
l

and tangle in your roots.

Bruises rise like
sap. Sunshine
sears the skin your fingers warmed.
Wind dips to kindly whisper:
Let go.

Lit Crit: Tom Wolfe and the Art of Mau-Mau

I wrote this in 2009. Tom Wolfe is still a twit. Hence the re-blog. Enjoy!

The Wolfe in his lair

The Wolfe in his lair

Tom Wolfe’s famous new journalism is nothing but an abdication of the traditional journalistic ideal of objectivity. What makes him so beloved of white, middle-class, status-quo lovers is that he presents the ‘freaks’ of society exactly as they wish to see them. Peering out from his WASP bubble he offers no insight; only his own prejudice, funkily punctuated. Far from being revolutionary he is reactionary.

His 1970 essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is Wagnerian. He plays every finely tuned instrument of white middle-American fear and loathing with masterful aplomb. It starts with a statement: “the poverty programme encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing.” You don’t know yet what ‘mau-mauing’ is, only that it is encouraged by “the poverty programme” – a vague bureaucratic entity endowed with a definite article. This is a beautiful piece of disinformation. There is not now, nor at any point in American history has there been, anything that could be described, accurately, as the poverty programme. Governmental attempts to succour, redistribute, endow, benefit, aid, or otherwise un-disenfranchise its economic laggards are desultory, peculiar, and limited. Wolfe knows this because he isn’t quite brave enough to give “poverty programme” the initial capitals called for by that “the”.

Over the next few paragraphs a rough sketch of “mau-mauing” begins to emerge. His breathless sentences tap-tap into the brain. The ones doing the mau-mauing are: “hard-to-reach hard-to-hold-hard-core hardrock blackrage badass furious funky ghetto youth.” Not like you and I, whispers beneath the shout. Them. People who mess everything up with their hard-to-hold hard-core hardrock. Hammering chunks out of language itself. I’ll show you how they do it, he beckons.

“There was one man called Chaser. Chaser would get his boys together and he would give them a briefing like the U.S. Air Force wing commander gives his pilots in Thailand before they make the raid over North Vietnam.” This, people, is war. Those furious funky ghetto youth are an invading army, they are braced and coming at you, in your suburban homes and Lay-Z boy recliners and apple-pie-and-ice-cream Sundays. Beware.

Chaser “used to be in vaudeville. At least that was what everybody said.” Old journalism couldn’t get away with substituting “that’s what everybody said” (Who is ‘everybody?’ When and where did they say it?) for fact checking. Did or did not Chaser used to be in vaudeville? Why not ask Chaser? That would ruin the rhythm. What matters is not where Chaser learned his gift of the gab but the image caught up in that word vaudeville. Cheap light entertainment. Minstrel shows. Something tacky, tawdry, archaic. Like Chaser, who “always wore a dashiki, over some ordinary pants and a Ban-lon shirt. He had two of these Ban-lon shirts and he alternated them.” Wolfe pulverises Chaser’s credibility with every phrase. He wears a dashiki over ordinary pants (he’s inauthentic) and he only has two shirts (he’s poor). By the time Wolfe describes him as a “born leader” the words hum mockery. Born leader to dumb ghetto youths too high on their blackrage badass to know you don’t follow men who alternate their shirts and might have been in vaudeville.

The putative ex-vaudevillian wing commander exhorts his troops: “when you go downtown, y’all wear your ghetto rags…see… don’t go down there with your Italian silk jerseys on and your brown suede and green alligator shoes and your Harry Belafonte shirts… And don’t go down there with your hair all done up nice in your curly Afro… you go down with your hair stickin’ out… and sittin’ up… looking like a bunch of wild niggers.”

Wolfe’s phrasing lingers in sweet, heavy warning notes. Ghetto rags are a fiction perpetrated by slick-shod, Italian silk jersey-wearing, chocolate-coloured con artists trying to separate the God-fearing white taxpayer from his money by mau-mauing the poverty programme. Don’t even consider for a minute there might be real poverty down in that ghetto. Turn your back and they’ll all be in their Harry Belafonte shirts sporting nice curly Afros. Be wise to their jiveass. If they look poor it’s because they want to look poor. Don’t be a sucker.

It isn’t just the shifty slick-talking bloods leeching on: “before long everybody in the so-called Third World was into it.” The “so-called” (like “everybody said” before it) permits the double-barrelled phrase: Third World. These people aren’t even from here. You, dear reader, belong to the First World. They come from somewhere else, belong somewhere else. They aren’t your problem, the “Chinese, the Japanese, the Chicanos, the Indians” and especially not the Samoans who “were like the original unknown terrors… everything about them is gigantic…. They’ll have a skull the size of a watermelon, with a couple of little squinty eyes and a little mouth and a couple of nose holes stuck in, and no neck at all. From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner.” Hang on a second and listen while the nuances whisper out of those words: a skull the size of a watermelon; little squinty eyes – like pigs; not even a nose but nose holes like a fright mask; big yoyos; one solid welded hulk. They might be vegetable, animal, monster, mineral or machine but they definitely ain’t human. Not like you and I.

We know, now, who does the mau-mauing. Enter the flak catcher. This passage calls for subtlety. Tamp down the hard-hitting rhythm section, let the woodwinds carry the next segment through on their modulated breath. The “blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, and about ten Samoans” confront (in all their oil-burner sized, “Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants”-wearing glory) a single man who has that “sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV.” Read between them lines: you’ve never worn hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants, but you sure as hell know what Ed McMahon on TV looks like. That’s someone you can recognise and root for. The levee holding back this colourful flood wears “wheatcolour Hush Puppies [and a] wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt.”

We know the bloods have “brown suede and green alligator” shoes at home; time to learn that “wheatcolour Hush Puppies… cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles.” Don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t be a sucker. Look down again. The Samoans are wearing sandals and the straps “look like they were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses.” Dear god. Someone, or something, has to keep a check on these massive animals. Just as white America shifts anxiously on its sofa, half-hearing terrifying trampling feet Wolfe plays a silken note of assurance: “Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration… to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl… but nobody ever follows it up.” They, the Third-Worlders. Huge. Threatening. Noisy. Ultimately harmless. Foiled not by the obfuscation of wheatcolour bureaucracy run by gray cats but by their own ineradicable indolence.

There is more to mau-mauing. Plenty more. A virtuoso teardown of sucker whites slices through the: “middle-class white intellectual women… with flat-heeled shoes and big Honest Calves” and their students who “would have on berets and hair down to the shoulders… and jeans, but not Levi’s… jeans of the people, the black Can’t Bust ‘Em brand, hod-carrier jeans that have an emblem on the back of a hairy gorilla” (Wolfe overlooks the subject-object confusion in his rush to hang the words black and hairy gorilla together).

He is wise to it, and he wants you to be wise too. Don’t get hoodwinked by those twinkling alligator shoes. “Boys don’t grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job… because there weren’t enough people who had such jobs.” Don’t think he’s gonna dwell on the whys and wherefores of there not being enough people who had such jobs, though. Your honour, the witness refuses to answer the question in the grounds that it may incriminate him. Slide fast to the details about “$150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora” and the men wearing them who slid into neighbourhoods peopled by “the bums, the winos, the prostitutes with biscuits & gravy skin, the gay boys, the flaming lulus, the bike riders” and got “a grant of nearly $100,000”. That’s what happens when civilisation gets mau-maued by the Third-World; the ghetto youth get their grasping – “hanging limp at the wrist with the forefinger sticking out like some kind of curved beak” – hands on “a $937,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity.”

Any do-gooder, white middle-class intellectual fool who thinks any of this makes a difference ought to think again. Give them jobs? What for? “The jobs themselves were nothing…. You got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office… all you learned was how to make work, fake work and malinger out by the Xerox machine.” Moreover, Wolfe can explain why “Nevertheless, there was some fierce mau-mauing that went on over summer jobs”. Not because the community needed those jobs or even wanted those jobs but because “the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organisation by organisation, according to how heavy your organisation was. If you could get twenty summer jobs… when the next only got five, then you were four times the aces they were… no lie.” Your taxpayer dollars at work: propping up the egos of pimp-swaggering furious funky ghetto youth.

There is one final movement, a violin-swelling, cymbal-clashing, curtain-call guaranteeing flight of earlicking fancy that makes the Ride of the Valkyries sound like a lullaby. There were so many groups mau-mauing, see, “you had to show some style, show some imagination.” Like Bill Jackson, who calls himself Jomo Yarumba and marches on City Hall with a “children’s army… sixty strong, sixty loud, sixty wild they come swinging into the great plush gold-and-marble lobby… with hot dogs, tacos, Whammies, Frostees, Fudgsicles, French fries, Eskimo Pies, Awful-Awfuls, Sugar-Daddies, Sugar-Mommies, Sugar-Babies, chocolate-covered frozen bananas, malted milks, Yoo-Hoos, berry pies, bubble gums, cotton candy, Space Food sticks, Frescas, Baskin-Robbins boysenberry-cheesecake ice-cream cones, Milky Ways, M&Ms, Tootsie Pops, Slurpees, Drumsticks, jelly doughnuts, taffy apples, buttered Karamel Korn, root-beer floats, Hi-C punches, large Cokes, 7-Ups, Three Musketeer bars, frozen Kool-Aids… a hurricane of little bodies… roaring about with their creamy wavy gravy food and drink held up in the air like the torches of freedom, pitching and rolling at the most perilous angles, a billow of root-beer float here… a Yoo-Hoo typhoon there.. a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts… every gradation of solubility and liquidity known to syrup – filling the air, choking it, getting trapped gurgling and spluttering in every glottis – ”

The words scamper around like that hurricane of little bodies with their perilously angled food and drink. There is a racing pulse to the rhythm, ecstatic as a sugar high. You feel giddy just reading it. Every name snaps on your synapses like bubblegum popping. Without really knowing why you feel your throat filling with the solubility and liquidity of the syrup filling the air choking it getting trapped. You can feel the tide rising. Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood, only this time the savages are going to drown you in creamy wavy gravy Yoo-Hoo typhoon acid red horrors.

Thirty pages ago you didn’t know to be afraid. Didn’t know how the furious funky born leader pimp true artists of the mau-mau are just waiting to rise up out of the ghetto and wash over your hallowed gold-and-marbled halls in “purple sheets of root-beer” but now you do. Because you “didn’t know where to look…. Didn’t even know who to ask” until Tom Wolfe came rolling through your door in his white pimp-sharp suit with his fedora and silk handkerchief and (probably) Italian-style socks. The man is a “rare artist” of the mau-mau.

Wordsworth ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’

William Wordsworth’s sublime ode to London. Thanks Alice!

Westminster-Bridge

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Share your favourite ‘place’ poem in the comments!