Chance, Synchronicity &
Experiment: Write About a Non-ordinary State
Poet Chase Twitchell published a fascinating biographical essay in an issue of Poets&Writers (Toys in the Attic: An Ars Poetica Under the Influence. March/April 2001). Twitchell has suffered severe depression throughout her life, and part of her way has been to use medication: She writes about this with complete candor and lack of apology: "For 55 years I’ve lived with psychoactive drugs in my brain, among them Ambien, Celexa, Desyrel, Effexor, Elavil, Pamelor, Paxil, Serzone, Triavil, Valium, Wellbutrin, and Xanax, my Knights of the Round Table."
In my mid-thirties, which happens to be the average age of onset for clinical depression, I began shooting in the dark, as my doctor put it: searching through trial and error for a drug that would cure what ailed me with as few side effects as possible. Some of them make you dream, every night, the kind of dream you hate to wake from, rich and important feeling. Others keep you skittering along the surface of sleep as if a car alarm were going off somewhere in the neighborhood, but not in your street. Some make you black out if you stand up too fast, or glue your tongue to the roof of your mouth. One cures migraines, another exacerbates them. All of them affect the way in which the brain processes language. It’s not something a person uninterested in words might notice, except for maybe a bit of tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, but to me it’s obvious that my relation to language has been subtly affected. Before the long parade of drugs, words were like water—all I had to do was dip my mind and it would come up brimming with new excitements. I always thought of this ability as a “gift,” a part of my being. Now, the river of words flows around me as it always has, but I write as a translator trespassing outside the boundaries of my original language, fluent but no longer a native speaker. It’s hard to explain. It feels like a new part of my brain has learned language, and the old part has atrophied. Maybe this sensation is just a physical metaphor for what the antidepressants do, I don’t know, but I’ve come to see that this death of imaginary self (along with its language) is not necessarily a hindrance to my work, though it took me years to stop trying to call my “gift” back from its grave. Its loss functions exactly as form does in poetry: If the door’s locked, try a window.
[Notice the use of verbs in the piece above.]
WHEN MY MOTHER DIED, I STRIPPED HER NAKED. Plush round belly and her pale breasts rising above. Her arms were black and blue from all the needles going in. Needles with clear liquid and needles that only the nurses had a hold of and other needles gripping constantly into her, held tight with tape to the translucent skin of her hand or the silk skin of her wrist. And not one of those needles trying to save her. I picked her dead hand up, the arm slack and draping below. It did not want to be held. Her skin was dry and cracked and stabbed. When she died the nurse took the needle out forever. But I wanted it back, and eventually I would get it.
The day they told us my mother had cancer I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. My mother had sewn this outfit for me. I did not like such a themed look, but I wore it anyway, to the Mayo Clinic, as a penance, an offering, a talisman. We found a vacant wheelchair, and I got into it and raced and spun down the hallway. Cancer, at this point, was something we did not have to take seriously. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine, beautiful, I would later think, alive. It was just the two of us, me and my mother. There were others, too, my stepfather working his job, wondering, my grandparents waiting by the phone, wanting to know if it was true, if perhaps the oncologist in Duluth had been mistaken after all. But now, as before, as it would always be, it was only me and my mother. In the elevator she sat in the wheelchair and reached out to tug at my pants. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers proprietarily. “Perfect,” she said.
I was twenty-two. I believed that if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. This was not so. My mother sat with her shirt off on top of the table with paper stretched over it. When she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. She wore a pale yellow smock with strings meant to be tied. I could see her soft back, the small shelf of flesh that curved down at her waist. The doctor said she’d be lucky if she lived a year. My mother blinked her wet eyes but did not cry. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. She’d asked the doctor if she could continue riding her horse. He then took a pencil in his hand and stood it upright on the edge of the sink and tapped it down on the surface hard. “This is your spine after radiation,” he said. “One jolt and your bones will crumble like a dry cracker:’
from Heroin/e, by Cheryl Strand
Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better. - Jack Kerouac
Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut. She earned her BA from Trinity College and MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A practicing Buddhist, she is the author of several books of poetry, and her work often reflects her spiritual practice. In an interview Twichell notes that Zen is said to be a "mind-to-mind transmission." The best poems are exactly that: they leap from one mind to another without stopping to explain exactly how they did it. Poetry cannot be paraphrased because it can't be apprehended by a purely literal mind. I think this is why so many people are afraid of it, or think they dislike it. In our culture, out of necessity, we're used to living in a mostly-literal mind, and poetry demands that we enter it with another kind of mind.