I no sooner say writing a memoir will be the death of me than—what happens? I write a memoir post that doesn’t come close to killing me, hoping I can access part of my story via a poem I wrote in December of 1990.
Here’s a bit of background—
Once I was admitted to Parkside Hospital in March of 1990, I never returned to work—mostly because the side-effects of anti-psychotic drugs left me largely unable to function. I can’t recall whether I was taking Navane or Stellazine at the time, but, regardless, the side-effects were debilitating—especially for someone who made their living teaching college English and was no longer able to read.
The medication left me feeling thick-headed in the extreme, dull, bored and boring—mostly unable to carry on a conversation. I couldn’t focus my mind. I could not concentrate—
Getting to my own thoughts and feelings felt impossible, like swimming in deep water, like fighting a thick fog to identify a single emotion, to trace a series of ideas as they added up to meaning.
And not being able to follow a conversational thread isolated me socially—as did my sudden removal from the workplace. I describe how this all affected my self-esteem in a journal entry from December 1, 1990:
I’m feeling bad about myself this evening because I seem so dumb and stupid and thick-headed. Everything about me is a struggle. I feel like I can’t even read—like I can’t write—all is awkward and clumsy and out-of-joint.
I greatly grieved this inability to read, as it left me isolated from the fabulous writers and thinkers whose company I had enjoyed my entire life—augmenting my sense of literal loneliness in literary terms.
However, even as I was lamenting my struggle to read on December 1st, I wrote a poem the following day, celebrating my first complete reading of a book in 8 months—a biography of Gertrude Stein by Janet Hobhouse, Everybody who was Anybody.
It seems appropriate that my first book would be about Stein, as I associated her attempt to create a “continuous present” in narrative terms with my own efforts to unravel the undermined sense of syntax I heard in the chorus of sing-song voices echoing in my own head.
So on Sunday, December 2, 1990 I wrote:
on reading gertrude stein
i am untangling the blue—
the dust ruffle and
the creased corner—
a book left open to the page
where we undo the circumstances
that have gotten us thus far—
into the forest, i should say—
deep into the thick of things,
where we eat orange marmalade
on thin toast, and when break-
fast is over, find ourselves
fast car out of the asylum.
To me, now, this poem makes less sense than it must have at the time. I don’t recall exactly what the images allude to other than the Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car” that I listened to obsessively at the time.
However, the poem marked a moment of triumph in the story of my illness, as I was finally able to read an entire book, to reassume the driver’s seat of my own literary life—completing the biography of an amazing mind—a slightly eccentric mind I surely associated with my own, a mind that unraveled language into a syntax of seeming madness—
—“fast car out of the asylum.”