I was finishing up a draft of a new poem the other day, just as Sabrina popped her head into my studio to say she was heading off to work. So I said, “Do you have a couple of minutes? Can I read a poem to you?” “Sure.”
I read the poem, and turned to face her. She looked devastated. “I wish you would find a new topic.” Topic? Oh. Oops. I had done it again. The poem, titled Stones, is about suicide. The problem is, there is a huge gap between my wife and me when it comes to tackling some of these harder issues. If we, at my suggestion, go to see a play that ends up being about grief, she is consumed in the feelings of grief, and doesn’t enjoy herself. I am able to sit one step removed, to examine how grief is being portrayed, in what ways it is playing out in this family. So when I write a poem about suicide, I am caught up in the how of it, the nuances, the intricacies. Sabrina sees only the pain. It is exacerbated, of course, because she fears that my writing about it means I am thinking about it. That I am returning to that place of depression and loss.
The winding path of the creative process — it can be so labyrinthine! Here’s how the poem actually came about. I had been thinking for the past several weeks about water, which had been given as a theme for the local Redwood Writers’ club’s 2014 anthology. My immediate water image was “bubble bath.” Bubble baths, not because I enjoy them, but because I detest them. And the irony is that during the years when I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, calling crisis lines, attending outpatient clinics, part of the whole mental health system, well-meaning professionals repeatedly offered bubble baths as a respite from my depression or anxiety. It eventually became a joke – how long would a therapist or counselor last before saying, “Have you thought about taking a nice bubble bath?” So the initial impetus for the poem came from that memory, and at first, I anticipated a more humorous response.
My friend Christi celebrated her birthday in late March, and we had a belated lunch get-together and gift exchange at a taqueria. I gave her, among other small presents, a copy of The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano of Two Sylvias Press. The book contains a poetry writing prompt for each day of the year. Christi said, “Oh, how fun!” and began flipping through it, excitedly reading off a couple of random prompts. Then she said, “Let’s read today’s.” She turned to the March 28 entry. It said, (paraphrasing), “March 28 was the anniversary of the day that Virginia Woolf committed suicide by walking into the river near her home. Write a poem about drowning.” Not exactly your birthday-lunch-type of topic.
But, it added to my musings on water. Virgina Woolf has always been a touchstone figure for me. Her struggles with mental illness and her life as a writer resonate. At my women’s writing retreat at AROHO in New Mexico last summer, poet Nicelle Davis placed river stones underneath all of our chairs one night when we were on a break. When we came back, she said, “Look under your chair. There is a stone. Virginia Woolf drowned herself by placing stones in her pocket, walking into the river. I like to think that if we had been there, if each of us had been able to help her bear the weight, carry one of the stones, she wouldn’t have had to make that decision.”
I went back to my studio, the studio where my river stone still sits on my bookshelf, and when I sat down again at the keyboard, the piece took new form. No longer humorous, it began to be serious. I juxtaposed images between Virginia’s life, that walk to the river, and one day when I went to the ocean, feeling suicidal, ending up on a pay phone somewhere on Highway One. That’s the poem which I read to Sabrina.
Later, when we had more time to talk, I also found myself able to elaborate on something else about the nature of poetry – at least something that is true for me. When I truly lived in the depths of that despair, in my depression and suicidality, I did write. I journaled profusely, but the journaling simply took me into circling repetitions. I never seemed to escape. I also wrote poetry. The poems, though, were sticky with hopelessness. They dripped emotion, oozed self-pity. Quite simply, I was too close to it all.
I find that it is only now, in this place of safety and happiness, that I am able to return to those darker places, and render them truthful. I can strip them of their sentiment to approach the actual core experience. And this is important work. It as if I am an emissary, sent back in time to transmit these messages. Because I know there are others who must hear this news, painful as it is at times.
Whether or not I am always successful, that is my intent. To shine light on the path. To carry some of the river stones.