Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.
WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.
Here are the poems; some discussion follows.
I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.
I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.
Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.
Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,
and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.
The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,
take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.
So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.
But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,
sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.
I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—
Lord, have mercy.
I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:
My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.
Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.
As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.
The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy!
I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.
“De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie.
Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.