What I’m calling the blahs may be the blues, or maybe a cousin of the blues. It presents itself as a general abatement of interest, gratification, and faith in the offerings of the world. It is a state in which the monotony of equivalence holds sway. Roethke in his poem Dolor talks of “duplicate grey standard faces”, as well as the “endless duplication of lives and objects”. Pessoa’s word for the blahs is “tédio” (tedium). Sometimes when I think I’ve got the blahs quite bad, I read a few entries from The Book of Disquiet, and accede to virtuosity of the Uber Blahmeister:
It’s not only the emptiness of things and living beings that troubles the soul afflicted by tedium, it’s also the emptiness of the very soul that feels this vacuum, that feels itself to be this vacuum, and that within this vacuum is nauseated and repelled by its own self.
THE PRESCRIPTION: CHARLES SIMIC’S MYSTICS?
Here’s how Simic takes a crack at the blahs:
Help me to find what I’ve lost, If it was ever, however briefly, mine, You who may have found it. Old man praying in the privy, Lonely child drawing a secret room And in it a stopped clock.
Seek to convey its truth to me By hints and omens. The room in shadow, perhaps the wrong room? The cockroach on the wall, The naked lovers kissing On the TV with the sound off. I could hear the red faucet drip.
Or else restore to plain view What is eternally invisible And speaks by being silent. Blue distances to the north, The fires of the evening to the west, Christ himself in pain, panhandling On the altar of the storefront church With a long bloody nail in each palm.
In this moment of amazement . . . Since I do ask for it humbly, Without greed, out of true need. My teeth chattered so loudly, My old dog got up to see what’s the matter. Oh divine lassitude, long drawn-out sigh As the vision came and went.
If the poem speaks to you in some way, you might decide to take it for a walk and start learning it by heart, this could take up to a week or more, but even if you memorise just a few lines of the poem, its medicine will begin to take.
If you want to do some making in response to the poem, consider using its DNA to fashion your own blah-beater. Notice how the opening lines of each verse offer footholds for this slippery, empty wall of blah we might also be wanting to scale.
STANZA 1 – SUPPLICATION
STANZA 2 – TUNING INTO HINTS & OMENS
STANZA 3 – MEDITATING ON THE ETERNALLY VISIBLE
STANZA 4 – EXPRESSION OF GENUINE NEED
Here’s how the self-cure works: take a sheet of paper, or your notebook and copy the first three lines of Simic’s supplication:
Help me to find what I’ve lost, If it was ever, however briefly, mine, You who may have found it.
Now, without looking at the poem again, connect with some of your past and future selves, noting the thoughts and images that come up. Remember, in a quantum universe, all the various iterations of us, past-present-future, exist in a kind of eternally present “superposition”, accessible at any moment. The poem is offering you a chance to step into this moment. Think about a future you, which is to say an older-person-you (what are they doing?); now you as child; also a younger-you, every iteration standing outside the blah-oppressed self. Write a line or two about each of them.
Now copy the next prompt:
Seek to convey its truth to me By hints and omens.
Again, without looking at Simic’s response to this, think of hints and omens you may have had, or might need to be more aware of.
Now you’re going to meditate on “what is eternally invisible/And speaks by being silent”. Write down these lines and then let your imagination respond to them.
Or else restore to plain view What is eternally invisible And speaks by being silent.
Finally bring your own supplication to a close in a way that feels right for what you have written. Simic asserts the legitimacy of his request. Maybe we can do something like this too?
In this moment of amazement . . . Since I do ask for it humbly, Without greed, out of true need.
For days I’ve had that 80s schlockmeister Robert Palmer intoning his insidious little mantra into my limbic system: “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your will is not your own… / Might as well face it you’re addicted to love.”
I blame my culture I blame everyone but myself intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss
Wherever we sit on the spectrum of compulsive behaviours, are these not the justifications we all use on a daily basis? I know I do.
Here are some poems you might want to self-prescribe (learning by heart?) for whatever compulsive behaviour has got its claws into you at the moment.
THE DAY YOU STOP
One day will be tomorrow. The day of truce and socket and beaten. The day you shrink into stopping, the day threadbare and pain- shamed and limit. Until then, you might be continuing because that is what you do until the last moment when you must stop. Still everywhere the shiver is slow on the tongue, insistent. You will stop for some weeks, your body taking body from your blood and the back of the throat, and those weeks will be thank-you-God acres of erasure and resurrection and the clabber of other small prayers you stoop to collect. You will be diligent because you have paid good money to be taught how to stop, slanting off from queasy transgressions, those clutches and source. Even so, we shouldn’t fool ourselves; resolve cannot liquefy need. You will probably start again soon after you have completed the stopping, the unwashed swell of rapture taking your face through teeth to heartbeat, every beaten moment on the couch. Every relief: have hereafter and clamor. Have nothing worse. You’ll follow the mumble through that ache that is tincture. Is rule and bundle. Is famished inside you and thrumming. You understand there are two types, and you are the type to release. If you had to choose between settle and suture, you know what you’re after. You’d pour yourself hitches and battery. Pour yourself each subsequent time. It will become impossible to believe you will ever stop for good. Stopping is not counter or suspect, but easing back is all that is left, the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives.
You have decided to live. This is your fifth day living. Hard to sleep. Harder to eat, the food thick on your tongue, as I watch you, my own mouth moving. Is this how they felt after the flood? The floor a mess, the garden ruined, the animals insufferable, cooped up so long? So much work to be done. The sodden dresses. Houses to be built. Wood to be dried and driven and stacked. Nails! The muddy roses. So much muck about. Hard walking. And still a steady drizzle, the sun like a morning moon, and all of them grumpy and looking at each other in that new way. We walk together, slowly, on this your fifth day and you, occasionally, glimmer with a light I’ve never seen before. It frightens me, this new muscle in you, flexing. I had the crutches ready. The soup simmering. But now it is as we thought. Can we endure it, the rain finally stopped?
I HAVE ROADS IN ME
winding within my arteries into distant hills of memories, where dreams float like dandelion fibers on bright, chill, breezy mornings under a canopy of cottonwood branches. Where leaves glimmer sunlight roads turn. I have roads in me where drums pound a sacrifice and beckon to again believe in life’s wonder, where I learn the intense passion, seeing the sparkling, dewdripping leaves upon moist, pine-needled ground. My heart restored, I am guided by stars and a raging desire to live.
-Jimmy Santiago Baca
Vodka, whiskey, gin. Scotch, Red wine, cognac, brandy—are you getting thirsty yet?—ale, rye. It all tastes good: on the rocks, with a splash, side of soda, shaken not stirred, triple, olives, one of those nutritious little pearl onions, a double, neat, with a twist. Drink it up. Let’s have a drink: dry beer, wet beer, light, dark and needled beer. Oh parched, we drank the river nearly to its bed at times, and were so numb a boulder on a toe was pleasant pain, all pain was pleasant since that’s all there was, pain, and everything that was deeply felt, deeply, was not. Bourbon, white and pink wine, aperitif, cordial (hardly!), cocktail, martini, highball, digestif, port, grain punch—are you getting thirsty yet?—line them up! We’ll have a drink and talk, we’ll have a drink and die, grim-about-it-with-piquancy. It was a long time on the waiting list for zero and I’m happy for the call out of that line to other, less predictable, more joyful slides to ride on home.
Can we stifle the old, the lingering Remorse, That lives, quivers and writhes, And feeds on us like the worm on the dead, Like the grub on the oak? Can we stifle implacable Remorse?
In what philtre, in what potion, what wine, Shall we drown this old enemy, Destructive and greedy as a harlot, Patient as the ant? In what philtre, in what potion, what wine?
Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know, To this spirit filled with anguish, So like a dying man crushed beneath the wounded, Who is struck by the horses’ shoes; Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know,
To this dying man whom the wolf already scents And whom the crow watches, To this broken soldier! if he must despair Of having his cross and his grave, This poor, dying man whom the wolf already scents!
Can one illuminate a black and miry sky? Can one tear asunder darkness Thicker than pitch, without morning, without evening, Without stars, without ominous lightning? Can one illuminate a black and miry sky?
Hope that shines in the windows of the Inn Is snuffed out, dead forever! Without the moon, without light, to find where they lodge The martyrs of an evil road! The Devil has put out all the lights at the Inn!
Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned? Say, do you know the irremissible? Do you know Remorse, with the poisoned darts, For whom our hearts serve as targets? Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned?
The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth Our soul, pitiful monument, And often he attacks like the termite The foundations of the building. The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth!
— Sometimes I have seen at the back of a trite stage Enlivened by a deep-toned orchestra, A fairy set ablaze a miraculous dawn In an infernal sky; Sometimes I have been at the back of a trite stage
A being who was only light, gold and gauze, Throw down the enormous Satan; But my heart, which rapture never visits, Is a playhouse where one awaits Always, always in vain, the Being with gauze wings!
-Charles Baudelaire, tr. Aggeler
From mind to mind I am acquainted with the struggles of these stars. The very same chemistry wages itself minutely in my person. It is all one intolerable war. I don’t care if we’re fugitives, we are ceaselessly exalted, rising like the drowned out of our shirts…
AMERICAN RIVER SKY ALCOHOL FATHER
What is pornography? What is dream? American River Sky Alcohol Father, forty years ago, four lifetimes ago, brown as bourbon, warm, you said to me, “Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.” Then: “You’re killing your mother.” And she: “You’re killing your father.” What do men want? What do fathers want? Why won’t they go to the mothers? (What do the mothers want.) American River Sky Alcohol Father, your warm hand. Your glass. Your bedside table gun. The dock, the water, the fragile, tough beach grass. Your hand. I wouldn’t swim. I wouldn’t fly.
i checked him every night mixing the landing light with the slow mucous of his snores
if he was quiet I would press two fingers on his arm until he breathed again
children need so little air but i wake every hour gasping for yesterday
choking on the things i did not do the times i did not listen
i check him still opening his old room like a tin beneath my bed–
Eat the shrooms and desire me. We tag the car, our tailing Fs and Ss rising off the rusted side. You say the paint cans hiss like the king snake curled up under your porch. I laugh and jake, vodka gunning. The highway is a distant thrum. When you smash the caboose window with a rock in your fist I know the drugs are working. We nimble along the tracks back to stashed bottles filled with gas and oil. When the train rolls by we toss and laugh and streak as fire consumes the side of the cars. It’s a dragon you brag, and high we rise up over crappy lives we knuckle drag. We drink and smoke and tag and dodge the railroad cops bobbing for our necks. It’s just after midnight and the laughs still come. I’ve got a scheme to avoid being caught. When you touch me I know you want me forever.
In a state of chortle sin—once he reflected, swilling tomato juice—live I, and did more than my thirstier years. To Hell then will it maul me? for good talk, and gripe of retail loss? I dare say not. I don’t thínk there’s that place
save sullen here, wherefrom she flies tonight retrieving her whole body, which I need. I recall a ‘coon treed, flashlights, & barks, and I was in that tree, and something can (has) been said for sobriety but very little.
The guns. Ah, darling, it was late for me, midnight, at seven. How in famished youth could I forsee Henry’s sweet seed unspent across so flying barren ground, where would my loves dislimn whose dogs abound? I fell out of the tree.
IF THERE’S A GOD
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of wrecked lives, and it’s only he who can explain how my doctor father, with the gift of healing strangers and patients alike, left so many intimate dead in his wake. If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of recklessness, and I ask him to answer. He’s the god of thrills, the god of boys riding bikes down steep hills with their hands over their heads. He’s the god of holy and unholy chance, the god of soldiers crossing a field and to the right of you a man falls dead and to the left also and you are still standing. If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of diet pills, who is the god of the Fifties housewife who vacuums all day and whose bathroom is spotless and now it is evening as she sits alone in the kitchen, polishing her chains. He’s the god of the rampant mind and the god of my father’s long monologues by moonlight in the dark car driving over the dusty roads. He’s the god of tiny, manic orderings in the midst of chaos, the god of elaborate charts where Greg will do this chore on Monday and a different one on Tuesday and all the brothers are there on the chart and all the chores and all the days of the week in a miniscule script no one can read. If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was his hopped-up acolyte who leapt out of bed one afternoon to chase a mouse through the house, shouting, firing his .38 repeatedly at the tiny beast scurrying along the wall while Jon wailed for help from the next room. If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of subtle carnage and dubious gifts who lives in each small pill that tastes of electricity and dust. If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was its high priest, praising it, preaching its gospel, lifting it like a host and intoning: “Here in my hand is the mystery– a god alive inside a tiny tablet. He is a high god, a god of highs– he eats the heart to juice the brain and mocks the havoc he makes, laughing at all who stumble. Put out your tongue and receive it.”
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy. Gravy, these past ten years. Alive, sober, working, loving, and being loved by a good woman. Eleven years ago he was told he had six months to live at the rate he was going. And he was going nowhere but down. So he changed his ways somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest? After that it was all gravy, every minute of it, up to and including when he was told about, well, some things that were breaking down and building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,” he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man. I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.
I don’t think I realised how nourishing a single poem might be until I started learning them by heart. Just a couple of lines of language, returned to, day in day out, engaged with earnestly, like prayer, or telling someone you love them.
We’re not very comfortable with earnestness anymore, are we? Maybe because blinkered zealotry often tags along with it, the kind of zealotry that brings big buildings with lots of people in them crashing down to the ground. Only the very uncool are allowed to be earnest: the religious and religiose, teenage outcasts, birdwatchers, vegans and the like. But one cannot pray or love ironically, even if you’re not exactly sure what either of these enterprises entail. A certain amount of conviction is required to do these kinds of activities.
There’s much solace in this recognition of how “little” one needs to be happy. How the right amount of little can seem a lot. I feel this solace every time I pick up my oft-folded, timeworn 3 x 5 card on which I’ve written this week’s poem, and set out for a walk around the block, or even a pacing session in the garden, committing a few more words to memory. And in doing so: hearing, seeing, feeling certain lines anew.
David Whyte affirms that everything is waiting for you, but if this “everything” happens to be the entire language lode of the human species, not just waiting but ever-available to us, through a split-second Google search at any moment of the day, on almost any device, are we not going to gorge ourselves silly on information?
And in that gorging, will we at times (if not almost always) forget to taste, to savour, to chew? To pause? To put down the fork? To honour, experience and enjoy? All the things we do when we’re learning a poem we love. It’s incredibly simple, we’re just putting down the fork between each mouthful and giving ourselves as fully as possible up to pleasures of language and what it can do for us, or we for it.
I am incredibly greedy for information: “new” ideas, mental-kicks and tricks. This doesn’t sound like a problem until you rephrase it as my brain, through the use of technology, is becoming more and more quick-click stimulant- searching, and less and less able to go deep, to get truly to the heart of a poem, or a story, which only a very close, time-invested reading of a text will provide.
Larry Rosen gets to the nub of it, for me, when he diagnoses chronic screen-grazers (that would be all of us then) as having a variant of ADHD. The “deficit” comes from the misconception that we are able to multitask:
Research tells us there is no such thing as multitasking – that all we can really do is task switch. In other words people lack the ability to pay full attention to two tasks at a time.
Recently, “just for fun”, I’ve been trying to track the amount of task-switching I do during an hour online. The hyperlinked internet is of course designed almost entirely for task-switching and thus mind-addling. It is an ADHD-generating media. Are the costs of multi-tasking ever equal to their benefits? Here are the costs, you tell me:
Poor decision making
Lack of depth of material
Poor sleep habits
Overuse of caffeine
It don’t look good. But thankfully, there is always language for us to use and be used by. Poetry seems to have become my Ritalin, what’s yours?