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.

The Cherry Orchard


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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. . . .


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.


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.


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.