And There Is No More – But Lots More of Poet, Christopher Locke

Christopher Locke

Christopher Locke

In January 2007 I was preparing to lead my first Recovering Words poetry writing workshop at The Orchard, a drug and alcohol recovery centre on Bowen Island, offshore West Vancouver. I was looking for poems on addiction from an addict’s point of view. I had found a chilling one called Half-Hearted Moon from the section The Addiction Poems in Patrick Lane’s book Go Leaving Strange (2004) but I wanted to find another. (At that time I had not found what has become an invaluable resource: Last Call – Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction and Deliverance published by Sarabande Books in 1997.)

Since I didn’t have a chemical dependency I was feeling vulnerable about trying to convince recovering addicts about the power and relevance of poetry for their recovery. I was afraid I might be laughed out of the room. (Somehow I had managed to ignore the devastating impact of alcoholism and food addiction in my own family.) As a diversion I picked up a copy of The Sun, the literary journal from North Carolina, that had arrived that day. Without thinking I opened it up and read this poem:

New Weather

There is no horse,
smack, h, tar, heroin,
china. No more oxy, percs,
Percocet, Vicodin, Vikings,
V for Victory. There is
no more coke, blow,
white, cane. There are
no more raves, parties,
throw-downs, shindigs,
soirees, or get-togethers.
There is no bliss, blissed
out, stoned, fucked up,
higher than a mother fucker,
nod, nodding, passed out.

There is no more vomiting,
bile, dry heaves, drool, spit,
cursing, clenching, blood,
crying, weeping, shaking, sweating,
sheets wet as a full bandage.

There are no more highs,
exquisite lows. There are
no more evenings collapsing
into morning, the horizon
rolling up its sleeve
to bleed pink and red
against the kitchen window.

And there is no more
me looking at you
from the doorway, trying
not to sway, defiant,
insisting I’m not gone,
I’m fine, OK, no problem,
got it together, straight, sober,
right as rain.

Christopher Locke, The Sun, January 2007
(With permission)

I was gob-smacked. Life had dropped what I needed right into my lap. A poem of such visceral intensity from someone who was obviously writing from a first-hand experience. This was as good an example of synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) I had ever encountered! All I remember from that workshop is three of the poems I used: Lane’s Half-Hearted Moon, a poem of Rainer Maria Rilke from the Book of Hours (III, 1) and Locke’s poem. And a line one of the participants wrote: An addiction is loving what will never love you back. Yikes, the horrifying truth of that.

For a number of years Locke’s poem was a mainstay of my workshops. (For Locke’s background for the poem see the interview with him below.) I used the line And there is no more as a prompt for participants to write from. And so many wonderful and varied poems have come from that prompt. And many of its lines haunt me still. Especially these ones:

There are
no more evenings collapsing
into morning, the horizon
rolling up its sleeve
to bleed pink and red
against the kitchen window.

The contemporary American poet Tony Hoagland  claims in a wonderfully provocative essay  in Harper’s (Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America) that real live American poetry is absent from our high schools. He adds later: This is more than a shame, for poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, it’s willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plantive truth-telling about the human condition…

Heck, Tony,  it’s absent (except in songs) from huge areas of our culture and perhaps because it was never made relevant and alive in high school for many. But when I read a poem like Locke’s to participants in my recovery workshops a lot of the glazed-over looks break and bodies move on their chairs. Something bigger moves into the room. People will often exclaim: we never keard a poem like that in high school! For sure!

Hoagland says: We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak. I have seen the truth of this time and time again in my recovery workshops. A gritty, real-life poem like New Weather packs a punch to the ears and heart! Some part of the participants moves inside a poem and the poem moves inside them and something shifts. They feel known and seen through the experience of another. They can begin the journey back into the world. Yes, poetry can change and even save a life!

For a number of years I tried to track Locke down on the net but I couldn’t find him. But when I tried again in 2012 I found his website and his book End of American Magic published in 2010 by Salmon Poetry out of Ireland. And we connected by e-mail. In recent weeks I have found his poems everywhere it seems and his website says he has had poems accepted in a 100 magazines! He has a poem in the most recent issue of Canada’s ArcPoetryMagazine; in the Northern Cardinal Review, on-line from Canada; and in Rattle’s daily on-line poetry feature. And he has a new book out – Waiting for Grace & Other Poems!

locke[1]I asked Christopher a few questions by e-mail a few days ago. Here are his responses:

RO When did you write New Weather? What triggered the poem?

CL: I wrote “New Weather” about seven years ago, maybe eight. A few
years prior to writing it, I had come back from shoulder surgery and had a real
tough stretch of what I refer to as an oxycodone free-for-all. I began taking
true inventory of my life, and started looking not only my post-surgery struggles,
but all the other drugs that had haunted me through high school and into
college, post-college, grad school, you name it. I realized in my 30’s it was
about either growing up and being the father and husband and man I wanted to
be, or it was about dying. It’s as simple as that. And I decided I like very
much being on this Earth, I liked loving and being loved, and that, especially
now that I had two daughters, I had a contract with them—it was my sworn duty
to protect them, and I could never do that until I protected myself.

RO: What role has poetry played in your recovery?

CL: Poetry has allowed me to decipher my past choices, and it also allows
me to reinforce, or keep in check, those healthy choices I have not yet made
but plan to. And I think this is all possible because poetry scrubs raw the
things drugs keep gloriously hidden; exposes them without the mute button of
daily distraction getting in the way. To stand unvarnished and process yourself
more clearly is pretty darn refreshing.

RO: How would you describe your poetry?

CL: It’s narrative free verse, if you want to get technical. But I
view poetry really as a “felt-thought”, if that makes sense. My work has its
surreal moments; I like metaphors that recast our views and perceptions of this
bent world. I always hope it’s at least interesting. I struggle with that doubt  on a regular basis.

RO: Who have been your major poetic influences?

CL: It’s a varied list: Martin Espada, William Blake, Lawrence Raab, Tony Hoagland, Carolyn Forche, Frank O’Hara, Sherman Alexi, Edward Hirsch, Gary Soto, Pablo Neruda, Anna Ahkmotova, Audrey Lorde, Li Po, Brian Turner…Whitman, Plath, Ginsberg, Lowell, et al. Also, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Gibson Fay-LeBlanc and Kerrin McCadden are three current poets in need of your careful attention.

Christopher was born in New Hampshire and went to the Goddard College but recently moved to Maine with his wife and two daughters. He is writing there full time.

Here is the title poem from his new book:

Waiting for Grace

Waiting for my daughter’s school bus, a March
afternoon brushed haunted and grey, I keep
company with the clouds, their gaunt reflections
charcoaled atop our pond, the wind tugging its iron
cloak around trees standing nude along the shore,
as if between acts and someone has stolen their
beautiful gowns. I feel feral and alone, slouching
in my black coat and sipping a Pepsi One, thinking
again I’ll never shake my lust for pills, narcotics
which have unknit my life so completely. I close
my eyes and concentrate on something brighter,
take another swig off my harmless soda. Above
me, a small abacus of birds fills a telephone
wire, and I smile when I think of her, my daughter
Grace: ten-years-old and sunk deep in a harem
of gossip as she navigates fourth grade; deciding
at lunch which queen is ripe for the plucking. And
if it isn’t hysteria wrought by the Jonas Brothers,
then it’s the complaint her arms are too fat, holding
them out, incredulous, for my wife and me to inspect.
But what she doesn’t know is that every day she saves
my life—drilling the science quiz together at night,
or just by asking that I pass the ketchup at dinner
is what keeps me here, awkward yet alive. And
now, the yellow cube of her bus rounding the corner,
stopping in front of the driveway. I see her through
the windows laughing, popping gum at her friends.
It’s only when she steps onto the pavement, crosses
the street toward me that I realize we’re both moving,
both in the process of leaving something behind.

Christopher Locke from Waiting For Grace and Other Poems, Wortech Communication, 2013
(With permission)


But what she doesn’t know is that every day she saves/ my life -. Yes. How the extraordinary ordinary can keep us sane and alive. And how poetry can save a life. What grace that is. And no matter how long you might wait for it it is only a page or mouse click away.