It’s impossible not to revisit over and over and over and over and…..The trees are desperate to be heard before all they’ll have is the rasping of branch against branch, summer’s exuberant chatter fallen to gasp into gutters and trash bags with jack o’ lantern faces, if they’re lucky. My house was small, the carpet smelled and I left it with fleas, like a true impoverished champion. I slept on floors. Slept, angry in the car. Slept in a tree house. I always bring that one up. I could smell the ocean, cold and seasoned but we didn’t go. We were always in a hurry, rushed dully from one place to the next by discontent and a bubbling brew of mental illness I still refused to acknowledge or name. Only the dog was nonplussed, so long as she had trees to race between on a fairly regular basis. He didn’t stop me from drinking then, because everything was a fight, and I just wanted to be drunk and broken. I refused to lick my wounds because I deserved the infection. I was sure of it. He still tries to talk me out of that thinking. I didn’t celebrate Halloween that fall. I remember sitting on the floor, looking out the window at the glooming dusk and hating his back at the desk in front of me. If I owned the failure I would just kill myself. I tried. He was more willing to let me pin it all to him, nail him up and let him carry as much as I couldn’t handle, so long as I carried some, built up my strength and slowly let him return what was rightfully mine. I could never see what he was doing for me. All I saw was his unavoidable anger. I blamed him for how I made him feel. He handed me glory and I used it to slap him across the face. His heroes always die. There’s no place for them, for their wisdom, bottled like a pressured geyser that has to be opened with desire that never comes. Even while I was bleeding him out I was his place. When I kicked him, I kicked at the dirt crusted over the spring. Whole blocks of that autumn are missing from my timeline. I didn’t confess to him until last week that when I tried to kill myself it wasn’t so much defeat as it was poor impulse control. That phrase has always seemed so vague to me, but now I know it’s the name for the teeth in my soul, that won’t tell me what to put between them when they set to gnawing. Maybe they just need to chew through my guts; that’s the one thing I haven’t tried. And what’s with trying to turn the semi colon into some kind of hopeful pity party? I can’t look at them the same anymore. They used to make me think of cinnamon buns, but now I just see doughy girls who identify as the need to be seen as broken. It’s not an identifier that’s desirable. Most of us with that badge are trying desperately to tuck it under our tattered lapel. The lady who redefined the semi colon as an anti suicide movement killed herself. Why does every episode of my self expression turn into some kind of hate speech? Can I just own the hate without apologizing for it? I hate you. There. There it is. I hate your social media. I hate your attempts to mask your emptiness. I hate your false unity. I hate your lives; none of them matter, regardless of their color or pronouns you’d be mad if we guessed but you hate clarifying. I hate your bumper stickers and your willingness to pay five times the worth for a cup of coffee. There are plenty of things I hate about myself too, which began to crystallize that immortal autumn. I found the poems I don’t hate the very most. I got rid of three quarters of my shit and I don’t remember what most of it was. Then I tried to carry the rest of it around in a giant back pack and realized, to lose the attachment to that insurmountable weight I saw as need, this idiot sheep needed to be shorn. If you leave the flock do you gain the ability to shift forms into some other animal? Or were you always an “x” in sheep’s clothing, you just had to notice the clothes to find the critter underneath? There’s a lot of significance to goats that was lost on me before. The church picked them for a reason. Dirty little bastards. They don’t eat trash like people think. Well, they do, but moreso they figure out what things are like sharks- with their mouths. Capricious. Caprine. Did you know that’s where they got that word? Maybe you did because you know about that goofy sea goat that owns most of January. Also applicable because January owns my genesis. September owns my exodus. The first of many. Maybe it was just some inspired Jewish gentleman, but if it wasn’t their idea the church certainly ran with the concept of the evil goat. Cloven hoofed, behorned Satan. Did you ever wonder if there were things in Hell enjoying themselves? I got in trouble as a child for voicing curiosity on that subject. There are a lot of questions my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, but mostly the former, so they taught me how irreverent I was. I now know I particularly treasure things described as “irreverent.” Of all the word policing in our present “culture” how do I not hear all the religious colloquialisms being challenged more often? That shit is everywhere and a lot of it goes unnoticed. So much is ruled by pandering to religious sensitivity. We know more than ever that it’s pretense but it’s some sort of enduring obligation that sleeps under every political bed. It’s the brick wall someone can throw up in the middle of any road they believe has gone too far from their camp. There’s so much verbal exorcism, like sitting in the college computer lab, belligerently denying the role of the lab moderator when he told me to go at midnight, because I was realizing. In general. I was seeing. Everything and it came over me in enormous waves, filling my nose and eyes and lungs and I couldn’t possibly stop in the middle of figuring out whether to learn to swim or just be pulled out with the tide. I’m more in the camp of the latter lately but that fleet is halfway across the world now. So many ships. I decided to start, to begin the chronicle I’ve long been talking about, but now we’re at the point where I realize I will never be ready. I thought it was a sea but I have to withstand the tsunami before I can begin more oceanic metaphoric considerations. Every time I open the door I see more than I saw the last time, and this has been happening for years. The disease had to spread for me to admit its severity. That fall I decided to attempt a temporary surrender, but I can’t. And, the truth is, he was right. I said, “I’m not fighting to give up.” But that’s all I’m doing. I know it’s not an option and I keep focusing my energy on trying to find a way to make that less true because trying, REALLY trying and doing all that entails will break me and I know it. The liberation ended in death. We were listlessly watching I Know What You Did Last Summer and eating nothing but peanuts in the rooms where the shower water came in from the stinking lake. It wasn’t even a phone call, just a casual, “did you hear” text message and the next morning we’re running back to the city we spent most of our lives in to watch an empty body be surrendered after its owner ditched the brain with a bullet. Weird how entirely separate some bodies, minds and spirits conduct themselves. Not everyone’s though. I wonder if his new blushing bride got a semi colon tattoo before she started fucking his friends? He couldn’t find his place and he was too young to believe if he got older it could be better. Where were we when we heard about Maestro Mischief? Washington? We all sat in the van and there was that picture of him with the opposum and I cried when I read it was his wife who had to confirm his missing persons story ended in death. For some reason no one wants to say he did it on purpose. I’m listening to his music right now, and all of this started because I can’t not cry hearing everything he ever said now framed by his surrender. It was…what? Couldn’t have been a month after that the DSC died. Dead in the alley behind the liquor store and no one else seems to see the perfection in that. When a free climber falls to his death, at worst it’s, “What did he expect?” and at best, “That’s how he would have wanted to go.” But the guy that gave up family and beds and food to be drunk on the street corner outside the drive through coffee place- they all say it’s so sad. I will never be done. There’s always something else to say. A place is not so much a stationary location as it is a state of being. As in Your Place. A frame of mind. An emotional condition. A safe place. To be put in your place. To put into place. I am his concept. And he is mine and a lot of people never get to have that, don’t know where to look. I don’t think you can look, and some people get tired of drifting around, waiting for it to happen to them.
Love Song: I and Thou
BY ALAN DUGAN
Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it. I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
Alan Dugan, “Love Song: I and Thou” from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan. Reprinted by permission of Seven Stories Press, http://www.sevenstories.com. Source: Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry (Seven Stories Press, 2001)
I drink my coffee with heavy cream
like she taught me to love,
Every cup the perfect
And the art of the whimsically arranged windowsill
is a novelty I picked up
from her many eclectic homes.
We see sunlight in the same way,
Because of the unique darkness
Something only she
can understand with me.
This darkness is the cause
of our separation
despite being our common ground.
The strings between us
are razor wire;
We can follow them
to one another
but never make it
without bleeding fingers.
Once a sister
now a key
to reassembling a perfect portrait
I bury myself in caring for things
I may not be able to keep alive;
Was it my subconscious that wrote out “carrying” when I thought I meant
To say caring?
Do I focus my efforts on things
I see as redeemable?
another in the dime a dozen story
of released kittens,
I left her to die,
with a litter of flea bitten young
when I realized I could barely even keep myself alive.
Then there was the puppy
who showed me how my eyes gleam red
in the face of things
I can’t control.
I’ll never have my own dog
I did better with the bird
I found in the mouth of a cat,
dragging myself from bed at noon
to judiciously cut nuts and berries
into slivers, on a saucer,
and watch him eat
until every morsel had vanished.
He stayed with me until he was able to fly
and I was sad to realize
how badly I had wanted him
to stop depending on me.
There was another cat,
by the neighborhood children.
My daughter told them I had taken their pet.
I refused to give her back,
but she got out
and was pregnant before she was a year old.
There was nothing I could do.
They started keeping her inside.
There are dog packs here
eating trash in the ditches.
I leave them alone.
At least they have each other,
often just pairs,
one small, one pit- no surprise.
I killed the infant mice
out of laziness
and cried for two days
at my abhorrent behaviour.
I decided I hate mice.
Vicious little bastards,
worse to one another
than my awful feeding schedule and lack of warmth
could ever be.
Maybe I saved them, after all.
Now I have a starling.
She’s so afraid
and I just want her to know that I love her,
with her twig thin legs
and immaculate claws.
My heart melts when she gapes at me
and fluffs up contentedly in my palm.
I want her to live forever.
We fed her the caterpillar we failed to feed.
I don’t know why it wouldn’t eat,
like the fifty some caterpillars we watched hatch yesterday,
walked about hunting on behalf of,
for very specific leaves.
Four courses we provided
and they’re having none of it.
Their mother only lived five days.
They were her only purpose.
She was beautiful and I don’t want
to end her legacy.
We won’t even get into the pets I had
as a child,
under my parents’ regime.
Disclaimer: If I made it sound like I killed my puppy, I didn’t. I gave her to a guy who named her Lilly and apparently taught her to ride a skateboard.
I nearly drown
Way back then,
My head held under the surface
of your inability to cope with your own shadows.
You struck fiercely
Out of fury at your own brokenness.
You inflicted the kind of misery
That made eighteen years seem insurmountable ;
Absolutely not worth pushing through
To see what comes when dawn breaks.
For years afterward I would tell myself
What a childish fallacy
That perspective had been.
Life outside your walls was magnificent,
Smooth sailing freedom.
What I couldn’t know,
Recognized too late,
Was that my demons should have been faced immediately,
Not left in boxes in dusty corners of my mind
Into beasts that fill all corners,
Gaining strength beyond my own,
waiting, until their victory was guaranteed,
To stage their coup.
What I didn’t realize
Was that my demons would not simply pause,
Tamely allowing their vessel control.
They quietly pulled the strings,
Hiding behind all my seemingly innocent desires and motivations
Until it became impossible to ignore any longer –
That my younger self bottled up
And clutched tightly
On nights when the end seemed more promising
What I wanted to forget.
That some stains are set deep
In the fabric,
Can’t be chipped out of the foundation
And no matter how wide open
The future seems,
Sparkling before me like a crystalline sea,
You tied a stone around my being
That no matter how fiercely I paddle,
How desperately I try to stay afloat,
My soul will be drawn to the ocean floor
As if by magnetic force.
My younger self knew, too,
That survival was an option,
A definite possibility,
But unlike my featherweight counterparts,
I would require significantly more emotional muscle
To perform the same mundane daily tasks.
“Normal ” for me,
Would be a struggle,
A dogged attempt to keep my head above water
Across a never ending sea,
And to give in to exhaustion
Would be the end
Of all I worked so hard to gain.
You see, my younger self had a tangible enemy-
You stared her down with shifting eyes,
Controlled her every move.
Your opposition was obvious.
But your pitiful girl
Grew into a thing that forgot
I find myself wondering, was it worth it, after all?
Can I learn to see the unseen forces
Guiding my actions,
Enough to overturn the mutiny,
Like you never could?
Do I know who I am,
Apart from the demons?
Do you wonder the same,
As you stare at the phone,
Knowing it won’t ring,
On a day your daughters have only escape
Art offers the promise of entrance into some secret club, where minds are sharper, emotions both more raw and rich, and the word “we” holds a private magic, vague and exclusive. The written word especially, for me, bears profound enchantment, as though each letter was selected with me in mind and I want to tattoo all of them onto my soul.
Perfect poetry has that ethereal quality, each shimmering word carefully selected, like stars plucked from a decadent indigo canvas. I can get stuck in one of two ruts in my own writing, because they’re comfortable to me, but may become monotonous to hypothetical readers.
One is the pleasant dream/afternoon sunlight motif; a place of golden light and gossamer curtains. Hope and regret. Memory and slightly bored peacefulness. A place where cats sleep on warm wooden floors and flowers bloom in pots on the windowsill. Leaves, in their most majestic attire, flutter through crisp, cloudless skies that are always scented like something familiar, and snow transforms the world into a secret hideout, where only the brave venture.
The other mental room in which I often write is vast and cluttered, like a living trinket box. Floor to ceiling shelves, desktops and chairs are stacked with post cards and tattered envelopes, sparkling rocks, empty pill bottles, bones, half read books, journals with pages torn out, scribbled on and crossed out, burned and thrown to the floor. Photos of terrible memories and mementos of failed friendships hang on the walls and litter the floor. Everything is mania inducing inspiration; bittersweet, harrowing, unquenchable, eternal- these are the words that live here. This is a room I enter alone and cannot leave until something is exorcised, lest some part of me remain trapped there. I loathe interruptions when I am here, and what comes out of this place is for me and me alone, raw and uncensored because nothing can help me if it isn’t brutally honest. I share only because it may help others, or at the least entertain, and then my plight is less useless. The danger in this writing is recognizing the thin line between purging and wallowing.
Little hurls me headlong into one of these two spaces more than the change of seasons, or happiness; the latter simply because it has always been such a foreign concept to me that it is still nearly always bittersweet. All of this is the thought behind a new category, posts inspired by the change of seasons.
Now, with summer looming like an ominous wave, exciting only to schoolchildren and teachers, and our return to an old haunt (the place of the bus’ marooning), my mind spins through memories of summertime sadness. Thunder storms and the scent of lemons, old days on a dirty lake and my first whirlwind of freedom that nearly ruined me for good. There are older memories, of hedgerows and imaginary games, the “family rug” and treehouses I built for my dolls out of bamboo placemats on the rungs of bar stools (though my parents left out the word “bar.”) These are the most bittersweet memories, because my days of innocence and wonder were spent isolated in a dark and vile place, ruled by fear and contempt.
This summer offers second chances and triumph; malts and the rebirth of the M.U.T.S. bus. I have nothing to lose, and everything to remember.
It’s the oddest thing, but I wasn’t sure how to respond to today’s prompt until about 1:55pm when the doctor read the list of symptoms my husband and I worked on to prepare for my appointment, and she looked up and asked, “Do you think you’re bipolar?”
We discussed what that meant, technically and scientifically, and what that meant as far as my life. And I’m pleased to say, yes, yes I do think my wetware is malfunctioning.
I don’t think I’m impatient, bitter, spiteful, angry, clinging to my damage, ready to fight at the drop of a hat, lazy, unmotivated, reckless, contemptable and incapable of happiness. I think I have a problem that has been out of my control for years, buried under the rubble of an ugly childhood and a nasty relationship. It’s like being freed from prison after years served for a crime I had accepted guilt for. My parents never would get me help. Only mandated talk therapy, never psychiatry.
“We can’t teach a pill abuser that pills are ever the answer, ” my father said. What he meant was, if they” fixed” me they would have to find someone else to blame.
For years I believed medication was a bandaid, maybe even a crutch, but it wouldn’t help me deal with the real issues myself. I maintained this point of view through three nervous breakdowns and the collapse of the “successful life” I had built. Only after I got with my now husband did I pursue therapy for myself. My husband, my therapist and I laid rope over some treacherous slopes and I followed the lines through emotional frostbite and social amputation over summit after summit. I moved away from my therapist and my husband and I continued the painful process of rebuilding or, really, building for the first time, on a foundation of aforementioned rubble. And then we hit a wall.
A wall I try and try to rationalize. A wall my husband keeps insisting I try harder to break through. And finally, after all this time, after all the filth was cleared away enough to even recognize this long standing obstacle, we have a name for the last thing standing in our way. It’s no longer a vague and shapeless monster that rears its head every two or three weeks and hurls me headlong at my husband’s throat, fangs bared. It’s a creature with a face and a name and, like any demon, that’s all I need to know to banish it.
I have the information I need to make things right, for my whole family. You see, I can choose the lifelong uphill battle for myself, but that wasn’t my husband’s choice, and it certainly wasn’ t the choice of my children. I owe it to them to try another route, and I’m more than pleased to finally know the name of the road I’m on. Left turn up ahead.