The Black Dog Speaks – Poetry and Depression – The Robin Williams’ Aftershock

 

 

Robin Williams 1951 - 2014

Robin Williams 1951 – 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depression in Winter

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green….

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness–
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1996

We’re going to miss you Robin…Rest in peace, man.  This is not me speaking although it could be me and thousands of others. No, this is Marc Maron, the comedian, who broadcast a tribute to Robin Williams the day Williams took his own life on August 11th, 2014. Maron’s tribute consists, mainly, of the interview he did with Williams in 2010. The humanity of Williams, his vulnerability, pours out of that interview. It is in a strange way a glorious self-tribute to Williams, remarkable actor, comedian and, most of all, human being. To listen to Maron’s tribute click here.

What makes the interview almost unbearably poignant comes near its end when Williams is discussing his triple recovery: from a relapse back into alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety, heart surgery and divorce. The subject of suicide comes up and Williams dismisses it with grace and self-deprecating humour. He responds: First I don’t have the balls to do it and then he gives a remarkable riff on an inner conversation with himself where at one point he says to himself in response to the impulse to kill himself: Can I put this one here in the ‘What the Fuck” category?

It is clear in Williams’ interview with Marc Maron that taking his life was not an option. But a week ago that changed. What the Fuck became somehow Why the Fuck Not. And now so many of us grieve his passing. And I am reminded of the title of a remarkable book my friend Donaleen Saul wrote after her brother took his life: Did You Know I Would Miss You? 

The epigraph poem for this blog post comes from the American poet Jane Kenyon ( 1949 – 1995) who struggled with depression ( what Winston Churchill called his black dog) for many years. Kenyon in her poem finds a way back, finds a place of refuge from her black dog. Williams, last Sunday, could not. When I heard of William’s death last week when I climbed off a flight having just watched Williams’ last film The Angriest Man in Brooklyn I immediately sought solace in poetry. I thought first of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called six Terrible Sonnets, his poems of black despair, especially his poem: No worse, there is none. But then I thought of Kenyon and her poems on depression.

Jane Kenyon 1949 - 1995

Jane Kenyon 1949 – 1995

For Kenyon her poem Winter Depression is no glib bromide. She earned it. Can any of us who haven’t suffered from it understand depression? No. But thanks to poetry I can come closer to its rank breath. Thanks to an astonishing poem by Kenyon, Having It Out with Melancholy, I can smell the isness of it.

I share this poem below as a tribute to Williams, to the enormity of what he faced and to all those who have fought this black dog whether or not they lost or won. In particular, I dedicate it also to my friend Rory Holland who writes so movingly about his struggle with depression in a blog he posted last week. Kenyon’s words words strike me like slaps in the face: you lay down/on top of me, pressing/ the bile of desolation into every pore; and A piece of burned meat/ wears my clothes, speaks/ in my voice…Now, here is the complete poem ( it is a long one but bear with it; it will take you inside depression’s black heart):

Having it Out with Melancholy

If many remedies are prescribed
for an illness, you may be certain
that the illness has no cure.

A. P. CHEKHOV
The Cherry Orchard

1 FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

2 BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

4 OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

6 IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

7 PARDON

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying”
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

8 CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

9 WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

14 Comments

  1. Liz McNally
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Richard
    “no glib bromide” indeed, we have seen so many of those since Williams’ death.
    I had not seen Kenyon’s poem and am better for having read it; so achingly familiar and feels in some way like walking a short distance with a friend who knows me well and understands.
    Thank you once again for being out curator of poetry’s power to heal … or help.
    Liz

  2. Richard
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Dear Liz: Once again so many thanks for the feedback. I feel so heartened when a poem talks to a reader the way Kenyon’s did to you. It’s why we must write as poets. Let others know they are not alone. By the way I just re-read your Migration poem form my last retreat. Gorgeous!

  3. Rosemary Griebel
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Another great post. Thank you, Richard! I have long been a fan of Jane Kenyon (and Donald Hall, including his book “The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon”.
    Thank you for your blog and the healing beauty it provides.
    -Rosemary

  4. Richard
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Dear Rosemary: Thank you for the lead on Hall’s book. I don’t know it. The more I read Kenyon the more I am gob smacked by her craft, and her clarity that still holds the mystery so important inside a poem. Again< I am so glad my blog helps us to stay in touch! R

  5. James Eret
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful blog and great poems about depression. Jane Kenyon should be read even more than she is right now. I remember reading William Styron’s book “Darkness Visible ” and how he disliked the word “depression” and preferred “shipwreck of the spirit” instead. I have written many poems dealing with depression and anxiety and how they can wreck one’s days and nights. Indeed.

  6. Richard
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Dear James: Thank you for the Styron quote. A much better descriptor. The power of the particular vs the abstract. Thank you again for that reminder. Would love to read one your “shopwreck” poems! All best, Richard

  7. Posted August 18, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The depths, the heights — we cannot have one without the other. Without the darkness how could Jane have heart those rare tones of the bird?

    I appreciate finding you, Richard, through a friend who has benefited from your retreats.

  8. Richard
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Dear Christin: Thank you for popping up out of the ether! Your comments took me instantly to a quote from the Jungian analyst Alan McGlashan to his friend Laurens van der Post in part of a letter used as an epigraph in van der Post’s book, Night of the New Moon. “The depths of darkness into which you can descend, and still live, is an exact measure, I believe, of the height to which you can aspire to reach.” And Christin maybe one day you could come to one of my retreats! Just looked at your webpage! Inspiring! Your books! All best, Richard

  9. Posted August 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    “and still live…” Ah, Yes. That is the risk.

    Will you have a retreat in the Pacific Northwest again next summer?

  10. Nancy
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Jane Kenyon’s words are as soft as a pillow / as precise as a needle / as honest as a tree. I love her. Thank you for this post, Richard. I am always glad when I see your updates in my inbox. A lot of poetry and food for thought and I appreciate it! Obviously, I did not know Robin Williams, but I have been surprised at the heaviness and slight devastation I have felt over his going.
    Rest in Peace, RW. You will be missed.

    Do we all get to enjoy Liz’s poem “Migration?” I’d sure love to read it! 🙂

  11. Nancy
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I love the line “greedy for unhappiness”

    I thought of this poem.

    The Thing Is by Ellen Bass

    to love life, to love it even
    when you have no stomach for it
    and everything you’ve held dear
    crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
    your throat filled with the silt of it.
    When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
    thickening the air, heavy as water
    more fit for gills than lungs;
    when grief weights you like your own flesh
    only more of it, an obesity of grief,
    you think, How can a body withstand this?
    Then you hold life like a face
    between your palms, a plain face,
    no charming smile, no violet eyes,
    and you say, yes, I will take you
    I will love you, again.

  12. Richard
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for reminding me of this poem! Its in my Recovery Work binder but I hadn’t used it for a while. I will use it tonight! Looking for it I found Bukowski’s Laughing Heart! Here it is:

    The Laughing Heart (Charles Bukowski)

    your life is your life
    don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
    be on the watch.
    there are ways out.
    there is a light somewhere.
    it may not be much light but
    it beats the darkness.
    be on the watch.
    the gods will offer you chances.
    know them.
    take them.
    you can’t beat death but
    you can beat death in life, sometimes.
    and the more often you learn to do it,
    the more light there will be.
    your life is your life.
    know it while you have it.
    you are marvelous
    the gods wait to delight in you.

    Thank you for your interest in my blog! I so love communicating this passion of mine with others!

  13. Jan Beattie
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this site, which i chanced upon having arrived at work with a black cloud descending for no earthly reason, it helps to know i am not alone.
    I would add a poem that is always in the back of my mind at times like this: By Emily Dickinson – who else!

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers –
    That perches in the soul –
    And sings the tune without the words –
    And never stops – at all –

    And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
    And sore must be the storm –
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm –

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
    And on the strangest Sea –
    Yet – never – in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb – of me.

  14. Richard
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jan:So glad you found the site. Hope you keep dropping by.Poetry can be such great medicine. Thank you for the Emily! Best, Richard

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*