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« Poetry Forum: Edward Mendelson Wednesday, November 20 66 W 12th St., Rm. 510, 6:30 PM, FREE | Main | 269 Words, 150 Years »

November 18, 2013


It's almost three in the morning and I've sat now for a half hour trying to find the words to respond to your words, in which there is such pain and bravery and cost. Conversations consist of deep silences, too, in which one absorbs what the other is saying. Please continue to say what you need to say. And thank you for this, though my words pale in response.

I found this through Elizabeth McCracken; I'm glad I did.

1) Many of my writer friends loved your class at Stanford. You probably already know this, but you had a truly beloved reputation there as a wonderful teacher. Though I minored in creative writing, and went on to get my MFA, you were already gone by the time I had transferred there.

2) I would have appreciated this at any time, I especially appreciate it now — I had an ECT consult yesterday, as I am currently in the throes of a particularly bad episode of schizoaffective disorder, a condition that I write about on my website as a mental health advocate.

3) "To have this not be the start of the end of me" perfectly sums how I've been feeling lately. Twenty years of living with mental illness has not prepared me for this. But reading writing like yours assures me that there is art, and there is something that looks like hope. Thank you for that.


The last line made me close my eyes and shudder, for you, for her. After reading this I felt the need to respond, to respond and to respond. Then I realized that is one of the gifts this essay gives us, you the writer gives us, the desire and the example to respond to you --with compassion--and to say or write "Yes, yes I have trembled, I have considered, I have wanted dearly to die. And I have not." We have not.

Somebody called after reading my book about horse racing written so many years ago that I don't even remember to remember it and he wanted to talk about how he had been on the track, too – gyp tracks, mostly – the way I was in all those same places at the beginning of something that took longer than I ever thought it would take in life. Especially in my life. And he wanted to know the real names of people in the book. Some of them. The daredevils. And, most of all he wanted to know whatever happened to Richard, my racetrack lover – the man who got me hitched to that dying star in the first place. So we talked a little and eventually I was feeling sort of put upon because – here comes the reason for the call, which is always the reason for a call like this – he’s written a book about the racetrack, too. And he's not really a writer, etc.,etc. And before he could officially ask, I said, of course, I'll read it – but only the first 20 pages. And if I like it, I'll finish it. Is that fair? And he said, yes, it was fair. And then he said, I just want you to know your book blew me away. And I said, how sweet of you to say. And, then I said, as though I was looking into a beautiful room I hadn’t been in for years: God, that was a long time ago. And then I said it again in my mind until I couldn’t really hear what he said next. Finally, I said, I really appreciate the call. And I did appreciate it. I heard in the man’s must-have-been-75-year-old Tallahassee drawl the soul of someone who was in love with a kind of life that wasn't there anymore. And he was my brother there, in that ago life, no matter what racetrack he was working on or what bar they had to kick him out of because last call had been called and called and called. He was my brother in life, calling to tell me that he stayed alive, too.

Lovely post. That photo is not, however, of Emily Dickinson.

Dear Gabby,

You were my teacher one summer at Stanford, while you were a Stegner fellow and I was all of 16. I remember you in a Rodin sculpture garden, explaining to someone something about the turn of a sonnet, and I remember you and Brian teare with us and all of our youth at half moon bay. The brain is a weird thing, and I look forward to reading about the year your life stood, loaded. But I just wanted to say, as a former student, thank you. I'm still writing poems because of what I learned from you.

Mario A. Ariza

Your intention seems primarily to be the question of what keeps us alive. On a secondary level, your discussion of a struggle with severe anxiety also resonated with me. And, lately, my anxiety has become a force unto itself--an amorphous thing--that strikes without warning, that engulfs, that paralyzes. That's extreme anxiety. Low-level anxiety is a state of indecision, the recognition of contradictions, a daily course of living with uncertainty. My own severe anxiety comes ultimately, I think, from an actualization of what so many suppress: that very terrible things do in fact happen, can happen without reason or justification, and may happen again.

So, in an odd way, that anxiety (low or high) keeps us alive may be one answer to the question. Anxious, we do not act. We live with uncertainty, are willing to accommodate uncertainty, like Keats' negative capability. Paralyzed, we do not move, act, do, perform. When someone becomes certain, that provokes action. Certainty, while a virtue of right action in texts like Beowulf, myths, heroic stories, is considered a generator of right action, certainty may also be the driver for wrong action, zealousness, conflict, strife. Beowulf and Grendel are both very certain--one stands for goodness, the other evil. Everyone else at Heorot is anxious, uncertain, afraid. Certainty itself creates violence, perhaps.

But at a personal level, outside the realm of literature, severe anxiety can be a turning upon the self: the experience of amorphous terror so severe that any escape seems preferable to enduring it, even death. That's the kind of anxiety Plath writes about. Her poems about motherhood and her children are filled with uncertainty--especially "Tulips" which seems to me an expression of the anxiety and fear of motherhood, a genuinely terrifying poem. However, her work is so often dismissed as "crazy." Bidart also writes about anxiety and fear.

The question might be for writers, how to express the human concerns of anxiety, terror and fear? How are those communicated or universalized or given place or decentered (pick your theoretical drive) and yet keep them from stereotype connected to destruction and death?

Thank you for starting this conversation. I have 4 varied comments to share:

1. Thank you. I will be sending this to a beloved friend for whom I think it will be of great value. She was just teenager when she found her older brother after his suicide and some of her days are much like you describe yours here.

2. I myself was suicidal regularly when I was younger and for over 25 years now, I have only to look at my daughters to KNOW why I didn't!

3. I think it bares noting how very lucky you are to have found such a wise and truly useful analyst. The words you quote are so unlike what is voiced by many professionals in similar circumstances!

4. I wonder if you think it is true that "we probably all have" a year we didn't kill ourselves? I don't think it is a universal human reality. I do, however, believe it is often true for great artists.

Many blessings to you, brave artist. Thank you!

Never took a writing class, but tried my hand at an autobiography. Your shared experience, I believe, can enlighten all who read it.
D.Cross, Silent Screams

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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