I just knew they had to be silent… the pain is not out in the room, the pain
in ourselves is invisible, inside ourselves.
–– Bill Viola
Picasso once said that what engages us in Cezanne is his anxiety…[everything]
becomes explosive. Such a thing simultaneously destroys and saves you
through its constant anxiousness. ––Julian Schnabel
I am reading a book on the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and he is reminding me “memory is a spiritual concept!” I have memories as far back as infancy; clearer memories that brighten from the age of three, and more recent ones that make themselves known like some personal neon sign’s propaganda ad for things we need to ingest in order to live better. Do we enter each wakeful hour of memory, in order to generate a new, revised idea of the self in a revised concept of time? “All of our past is like a kind of threat,” Tarkovsky echoes. Today that seems to be true. My emotional weather system tells me today is going to mimic the same overcast forecast as yesterday, but tomorrow will be different. spring-posthumous 2010 was yesterday; 2010 was the year of dying: My marriage died, my godmother/my namesake died, my best friend’s mother died, and my own mother died. These monumental milestone-losses broughtback the weighted memory
…in my case a picture is a sum of destructions.
of an earlier loss that transformed my life: Around the time everything changed when my half-sister Lynne died (Her car washed off the Topanga Canyon cliffs during one of those famous rare heavy California rain storms)–– when Lynne was only twenty-six., and my brother fourteen, and I was nine-and-a-half years old, during that the pre-teen, pre-sex (grief desexualizes) nature world of darkened mystery and
yes and yes, then no… more alone.
allure, when fear, and hidden knowledge, all come together, compressed between silence and language, intuition and logic –– everything changed. Father, with his first son Nick, searched more than a week for Lynne. Night after middle-of-the-night, the police came to drive my mother to the LA County Morgue to identify bodies ––none of which were her step-daughter
Morgue, among several definitions, originally meant searching for expression.
Lynne’s. From the top of the stairs I saw her standing in the mouth of the front door, whispering to the policeman. I walked back to my bedroom window, only to see the unending rain lit white by a streetlamp, its black puddles running down the gutter to where Lynne must be buried, deep in the mud-darkness, somewhere in the howling forest. From the insomnia of forced intimacy with death, my child mind knew this. I knew what was happening to my parents during that time, and understood far more than my parents were willing to tell me. But the unknown was a combustible cluster of flowers burning in my gut. It was an assault upon reason. What was at stake: I was a child who would have to become an adult, but couldn’t because I was a child. I couldn’t resolve the terrible the front door was glass and they could see in mystery of how and why Lynne had disappeared. Eventually, she was found thrown from her car, at the bottom of a wilderness gully by the ocean, washed completely naked, her lungs full of tiny branches. The wood floorboards creaked. My mut-dog Rocky’s collar tinkled as he rose from his afternoon sleep. Father went to bed all day for a week; mother stayed up most nights; my brother Stephen only appeared for meals; and I was gasping for familiar air in this new and terrible version of home. I would no longer be the same girl after that. The emotional landscape changed and this loss
I’m going to have to get up and open that window
commanded my imagination. Like any repeating nightmare, I “saw” my half-sister over and over and over and soon, I saw myself at the bottom of that gully, broken branches and rain and river water entering my own body. I would have to do something to save myself. Death was no longer anonymous.
The nine-year-old “me” was simply terrified and alone in my own confusion of grief. I would have to cross the street with more care, chew my food slowly, look out for strangers. Looking back as a stranger in my own life, I realize now, I had to re-orient myself in relation to life’s day-to-day unfurling of events, good or bad. Without knowing it consciously, I would now have to be one of those to “Bear those ills we have” (Hamlet) with imagistic energy, with discourse’s energy to survive. Like some dark treasure, I had a secret. Gaston Bachelard declared, “ He who buries a treasure buries himself with it.” I was buried with Lynne. It was as though I woke in exile in a foreign country (memory) where I could not speak its language, but a night-flowering, earth-fisted language nevertheless began to grow in me like dark branches in the lungs. It now seems Lynne’s death meant that gorgeous, she had a sullen beauty, a full mouth in a perpetual purse I had to take action in order to change the uncharted course of my life: to take reflexive action, to know the world differently despite its terrible sameness: The flowers still remained a bright quiet against the house; the neighbor opened and closed his car door; the dinner plate remained expressionless on the table––as if I would have to see these in my imagination in order to recognize them, know them, and believe in their existence again. That testing of my belief system and the unforeseen process of perception, of crossing the subjective (subjunctive) slipstream, crossing the lyric memory-threshold, forcibly brought an unforeseen world into view. Fact, artifact, fiction? Grief was now universal. What later became a personal intuitive power channeled, turned into an obsession that continually propels my poetry to this day. Nevertheless, despite the assertion that language contains transformative powers, poetry, for the inconsolable, provides neither true solace nor cure––only indirection.
Under the dominion of this indirection, one interrogates the poem for something the way one might interrogate a god for an answer. Of course, any answer we seek is self-created as poetry becomes the intermediary between the poet and the treasured things “lost,” now desired to be found…or sublimated, re-created, replaced. In this intimate, animate process, language enters Black milk of morning, we drink you at night. –Paul Celan
the body and occupies it as it creates a new dark body of consciousness. This new body-otherness, which of course incorporates the unconscious mind, creates a dismembered being
intended for re-assembly, to be put back together, part by recognizable part. Pain and anxiety wrangle in this bed of profane “otherness,” for identity there’s a grotesque figure in Francis Bacon’s painting there is at stake every time something is taken away from us. Unrecognizable in that loss, I found myself trapped in its embrace.
But that’s not the beginning of the story, the starting point, nor the original
leap of faith off the cliff of cruelty with your Mary Poppins umbrella opened.
Remember the group of boys in the play yard circle, stunned into submission
as you showed your panties, eyes closed, years of men in their wild insomnia of
the heart, breaking the rules for you so you didn’t have to? Out of reach and nearly
underwater. Nowhere else and nothing so sublime as the lost doctrine of faith,
failing health, plums wrapped in paper, death, the photo of familial silence…
one yammering blue T.V. screen like the unmarked grave you cried over.
In times of tragedy we seem to stand next to ourselves as a replica-duplicate, a replacement, an after-thought, as a disembodied figure. Amy Newlove Schroeder’s fractured self takes physical/psychological credence to task by bringing it into the universal realm: what angst contributes to, what creates our authenticity? Here’s one seized moment of angst that comes from personal darkness in “Stolen from the Night Factory” (Witness Vol. XXIV No. 3):
I was not hollowed out—I was belled
gazing out the window at the empty branches of the imago tree
my brain a rising sun over a blasted horizon
the steel-wool conviction of it
interrupted capital, interrupted stream—a dam in my mind
all closed, all fired, all friendless and stupefied
The dam in the mind is ready to surge and drown a whole sleeping town in order to resurrect its new geography, a fresh context of “days to come.” The apt words blasted, hollowed out, interrupted, stupefied and friendless all activate the lines forward toward the final juxtaposed nothing. In another of Schroeder’s poems, “Via Negativa,” the speaker begins by telling us “The light is bankrupt” and ends, after ecstasy, with two stopped breaths: “woke depraved.” The lines are measured-out in seemingly unrelated increments, tethered by her weighted nuance of feeling. Emily Dickinson measured this same theme with “narrow, probing, Eyes” and found, among the many reasons’ motives for grief, “There’s Grief of Want ––.” Want, like grief, suspends time and defies the passage of all other every day mundane moments. So,
Pain comes from the darkness./ And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
suddenly you ache and yearn and you can’t sleep….
Cathy Colman’s new work includes poems that view illness as this unwelcome force that also creates the exiled “other” self. The second poem in her book Call Me When You Get There, “Half the Landscape Standing in for the Whole,” opens the metaphorical trap door, not to the basement or attic, but to the sky:
Cadillac radiance of everlasting earth…
I’ll tell you what I’ve inherited: years that go in both directions.
There is no salt divinity here, no rain.
All night I dream of a new body,
not next to me, but my own.
Time, in its temporal display of action becomes inaction. The resolute discovery of an unexpected outcome, of a divided self, shifts the weight of her poem. The by-product of this emotional struggle is eloquence. Illness, like grief, creates loss and affects how and what we see, including ourselves. Colman then addresses trauma’s dilemma by giving us this antidote in the next poem, “Not Next To Me”:
with the soft guts of crushed oranges and nearly plums.
Have you noticed how neatly water mends itself?
Maybe you are your own rescuer
and you’re calling to yourself
before you die of exposure, “Over here,”
just over this bridge’s sudden amnesia,
“I’m over here.”
The line “I’m over here” reminds us that the “you” must call out to herself in order to find herself as her “own rescuer” that loss and grief interrupt this dialogue and the things that might empower it. The strategy of the poem mimics the search for an outside haven, but the bountiful beauty of the orchard is already abandoned and the bridge’s amnesia is the faltering memory of the past, the inability to recognize the future, and is a ghost connection between the two places, here and there. Even water, mending itself, shows no signs of a past shape. There is no visible respite, as often there is no real solution to loss. I think many of us will agree that, when the worst of pain strikes at the heart of who we are, simple,
…she is at this moment
all the more perilous as she is more silent, more secret.
direct language securely embodies a poem’s power. Colman captures these terrible rhythms of the mind reclaiming what has been lost with head-on directness, and the compelling effect is that you can’t look away.
The best way out is always through. ––Robert Frost
In this strange fertile darkness, “breaking through gorse” with Virginia Woolf toward some kind of unaccountable inspiration, you wave the page in front of your face like a white flag of surrender. But there are those times when the unconscious mind betrays you, and can no longer operate as the fail-safe for your art; instead (in steed), it wakes you in the middle of the night, gallops through the unknown,
then press your face, your harm, into the mud.
and darkness tells you everything you don’t want to know, takes you into the dying language, the rising clover fields, over mossy rushing streams, through trees the color of dried blood. One past image after another haunts your present tense self, “conjugating here” (Forrest Gander) as if here were the spiritual void, the purgatory of loss, even the new truth.
Yellow cannot readily ingest grey. It clamors for white. But blue will swallow black
like a bell swallows silence ‘to echo a grief that is hardly human.’
So, what is the truth? The truth is not always synonymous with reality. Speaking the truth is not easy, according to Kafka, since “the truth is alive and therefore has a lively changing face,” which gets us off the hook when it comes to poetry dishing out some of the very best lies and recounting truths we like to quote. Keat’s palindrome-like equation, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is like telling yourself you are dreaming as you are dreaming. A poem may convince us dislodge rhetoric dirge with music and imagery; a poem may woo us from prejudice, echo a moral imperative, ignite empathy, and, occasionally, surprise us in its accidental wisdom with some new “fact.” But I’m not very interested in fact or fiction within an individual poem; I am interested in how it speaks to me: the truth of the emotion, the intellectual truth that still carries an image with a real heartbeat…even the illusion, earnest, searching. Illusion rears the unfaithful lover, the warring neighbor, the delusional mask. With body/mind mnemonics, we conjugate experience felt, but perhaps not yet seen. Can the created illusion, our half-truth, rescue us from the mayhem of our own circumstances? I’m not sure illusion can grant see artist Sophie Calle’s Count Up To Unhappiness forgiveness for our own misnomer-guilt, or provide the compass that gets us from the lost to the found, but, certainly illusion paints vivid portraits of salvation in the realm of the unknown. Poetry seeks out these unknowns and, seduces them into the light. I had a blue night light as a child So, when Shakespeare called, “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom,” we answered in our dream-cast revision. When the Inuit poet said, “That’s the way it was,” that’s the way it was. When Dana Levin cautioned us, ” Don’t, don’t–– ,” the monarch butterfly cocoons stayed at the back of the throat. Fresh truth and illusion move forward and back in time’s metamorphic parabolic curve.
The irrational appears as pure fetish of the future and yet poetry’s irrationality becomes a great bedfellow with past loss–– (Loss is starvation. Loss is this ellipse, pause’s nail in the tongue. Loss is betrayal. Loss is vertigo.) ––what captures the undefined, the out of place, the missing part, the
No one sees me changing. But who sees me? I am my own hiding place.
unsolved equation. Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem-excerpt from “How Can It Be I Am No Longer I,” energizes what is lost by what is found and becomes a body-palpable entity that endows the fabric of emotion with action:
To bliss & barbarous, a bristling
Of tracks like a starfish carved on his inner arm,
A tindering of tissue, a reliquary, twinned.
That I would be— … fanatic against
“Bristling,” should we also re-animate ourselves, “forehead against the wall” (David Foster Wallace), and be fanatical in our writing, to “bliss” ourselves through language, “barbarous,” make efforts to gamble against all things vanishing? Embrace the vertigo?
I try to make my art about what I’m concerned with, which often tends to be survival.
Leave it to us to discover something unacknowledged from the end’s abashed remoteness. Oh, remoteness woe, wear me, there’s a child standing by a glass door From poetry’s “instant metaphysics,” where it “proves, it invites, it consoles,” (Gaston Bachelard, Intuition of the Instant) I am still looking for my sister Lynne in the ambivalence of ellipse… James Wright tells us he “wasted” his life; Sharon Olds knows the sorrow of family, its wounding condition, the soul like a tiny hotel soap slipping between her ribs; Claudia Rankin marries poetry, prose and image in the investigative onslaught-experience of racism; Sappho’s love shakes her heart, “without warning / as a whirlwind / swoops on an oak.” Agha Shahid Ali declares “ the heart is awake it keeps on breaking…” Without warning, life’s deliberate accident happens and a walkabout begins, even for a child who has become the darkness. This personified dark doesn’t walk, it runs after the ineffable horizon’s edge,
No worst, there is none. Pitched
past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at
forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where, is your
––Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “No Worst”
equipped with desire and pain, pitted against the disbelieving, harsh terrain of the future.
Former Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America and and Executive Director of AVK Arts, Elena Karina Byrne is an editor, Poetry Consultant / Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club and one of the final judges for the Kate/Kingsley Tufts Prizes in Poetry.
A Pushcart Prize winner, her publications include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Verse, Kenyon Review, Volt, The Dublin Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly and Denver Quarterly. Her books include: The Flammable Bird (Zoo Press / Tupelo Press), MASQUE (Tupelo Press), and the forthcoming Squander (Omnidawn 2016); she’s just completed Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry, Art and Desire.