Sunday, December 23, 2012



In the purple-tainted twilight
of the oil refineries,
I drove Orpheus late at night

while he sang his chronic hymn
in praise of suicide –
his urge to crash

into a concrete wall.
Something still smolders
from those years, nods over me

with the wheezing heads
of oil pumps on Signal Hill;
hisses pale burn-off flame –

reminds me how free I was then,
how I sang And that was life
from Tosca, the love aria

before the execution.
Those dreamless nights,
the terminal Orpheus in me

excited by infernal landscapes,
interrupting with the idiot question,
But without wanting to die,

is it really life? turning his
bird-bone back to me,
staring at that long-ago

concrete wall. That’s all right, Mama

I sing. I’m my own mother now, 
dead Orpheus in my arms as I sing.

~ Oriana © 2012


This is a confessional poem, though not only about me. There is a young man, now dead by his own hand, fused into the story. I’ve turned him into my inner Orpheus since I knew what it was to think about suicide almost every day. The suicidal depression was real, and the concrete wall was real. When you take the Cherry Avenue exit from I-405, you find yourself in Long Beach, a part of the Greater Los Angeles dominated by the Mobil Oil Refinery. Cherry is a fast street at first, running through industrial wasteland. Not far from the freeway, it veers to the left; on the right is a long concrete wall -- just a wall without a building, if I remember correctly. The years I lived in Long Beach, in my middle and late twenties, were the worst years of my life. I took the Cherry exist hundreds of time. Every time, the wall was an invitation: what if I accelerated and kept going straight --

What restrained me was not the thought of the suffering it would cause my parents (I was an only child). When seized by a suicidal impulse, I never remembered that I even had parents. Those are moments when you feel alone in the whole world, totally abandoned. No, what stopped me was the thought that I might survive, but maimed, doomed to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. That kind of failure -- ending up in a wheelchair through my own fault -- would have eclipsed the total sum of failures that my life consisted of.

One comes to America in order to be a success. I felt I was a failure at everything, but at least I could walk -- and I loved taking long walks, even if just in the streets of Long Beach (in some sections, with charming old houses with large porches, with old trees and overgrown oleander bushes, and lots of cats).

My car, the first one I ever own, was a solid Dodge, with a long hood -- lots of metal between me and whatever I might crash into. I didn’t know if my Moonbaby (the Dodge was baby blue) could accelerate to a lethal speed fast enough. I didn’t know what that speed would be. Let’s face it, I simply didn’t know how to do it right. (You needed a crash course, chuckles a naughty imp in my head.)

As for sleeping pills, Student Health dispensed no more than seven at a time. I had enough money to buy a gun, but had no idea -- this is embarrassing to confess -- how to load a gun. Did they come with a user’s manual? Besides, I was too vain. If I were to die at home, I wanted to be a pretty corpse.

I knew about running the engine with the garage door closed (this is how Anne Sexton committed suicide). The problem was: no garage. I had to park in the street. As for jumping, that also was a frequent impulse. But there were no nearby tall buildings with roof access. The one I mention in the poem “Surprised by My Own Breasts” -- that was later, when the suicide fantasies still kept me company, but my life wasn’t as desperate, and basically I already knew I wouldn’t do it. It was too late for suicide. That strange insight led to a beautiful breakthrough later on.

Thus, thanks to my practical incompetence and the lack of means, I managed to survive my youth. I also thank the gods (or call it an accident of fate, circumstances, or whatever forces govern our lives) that no one in my life said at a critical moment, “I bet you don’t have the guts to do it.” With my sense of being a failure, I was heavily into “proving myself,” and was particularly sensitive about the issue of courage (in part a legacy of coming from a family of war heroes and never-give-up survivors). (Now, if need be, I wouldn’t be ashamed to say, “You are right: I simply didn’t have the guts to do it. Isn’t that wonderful?”)

To reiterate: my incompetence saved me. I was a total failure at suicide, a klutz who didn’t know how to load a gun and was too embarrassed to ask, and vain on top of it, so no hanging myself either. Crashing the car meant a risk of mangling myself instead. I felt I couldn’t do anything right, outside of academic achievement and cooking, but excluding baking. I liked to improvise while cooking, and baking didn’t allow for that.

Stoves . . . Gas stoves are another illustration of how the method may be more important than the madness. The most famous case in point is 30% drop in suicides in Britain after the change from the use of coal gas in kitchen stoves to natural gas. Coal gas contains 10% of highly lethal carbon monoxide; natural gas, none (besides, modern stoves have a safety feature that prevents gas from escaping if no burners are lit). Take away a convenient gas chamber, and save lives.

What also comes to mind is the famous example of a would-be jumper off the Golden Gate Bridge. When he discovered that getting to the place he’d picked would require crossing six lanes of traffic, he gave up, since he was afraid of getting hit by a car (this is a real story).

You may wonder why he didn’t proceed to pick another spot, or even a different bridge. He just didn’t, and the impulse passed. Would-be suicides are fussy -- “I must do it my way” -- and certainly not logical. 

 Then there was a young man who fired a rifle to his head. Nothing happened. So he aimed the rifle at the wall, pulled the trigger, and saw the bullet hit the wall. He gave up on the rifle, though, and instead swallowed some Seconals. He was found in time, and woke up from his long sleep in a hospital. He felt tickling. The nurse said, “I’ve been tickling you for three days now.” He decided he might as well live. There is something to be said for being a failure at dying.

(A shameless digression: Last night I saw a coyote on J Street, not far from where I live. He had a loping sort of half-run, half-walk, without fear, without hurry. He ran down the middle meridian, then turned right into a small cul-de-sac. So skinny! How hard his life, how smart and fit he must be just to survive. I hope he had a pack to return to, a safe place where they could gather and laugh at the moon.)


Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

The shattering of dreams in terms of both work and love I think explains why in my late twenties I was constantly thinking about suicide. So why didn’t I do it? Practical incompetence is part of the answer. There were other factors. Not only was I suicidal, I was vain, and that meant sleeping pills, and I didn’t know how to get enough sleeping pills. Not only was I vain and suicidal, but also terminally intellectual. The life of the mind was my real life. I loved books. I instantly memorized Pound’s “What you love best shall not be reft from thee.” I also loved trees and classical music.

One time I felt particularly desperate and drove aimlessly around Long Beach -- just around and around, as if repeating the aimlessness of my life back then. Suddenly Mozart’s 25th Piano Concerto came on the car radio. All that beauty and harmony flowed over my agitation and worked its brain-healing miracle. Within minutes, I calmed down and simply drove home.

Later, actually past the worst years, I had a dream that I remember more vividly than any other dream. I’m walking around a campus that seems a generic college campus: the paved walkways, the tall buildings, the generic landscaping. I keep saying “Goodbye” to passers-by. I’ve made up my mind to commit suicide, but feel the need to say goodbye, be it to strangers (In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevski has a brilliant scene where Svidrigaylov wants to say goodbye to someone, anyone, before shooting himself).

In the dream I keep walking and saying goodbye until I come in front of the library. Through the tall windows, I see the endless library stacks under rows of fluorescent lights. I’m seized with astonished awe and start thinking: So many books. So many books. I wake up with that thought filling my mind.


Of course everyone knows about Plath and Sexton. But we’ve had some fairly recent suicides. In 2007 Sarah Hannah leaped to her death. Rachel Wetzsteon wrote a lovely tribute at the end of Inflorescence, Hannah’s brilliant posthumous volume. On Christmas of 2009, Rachel Wetzsteon took her own life. Also in 2009, Deborah Digges, whom I had met and adored, also killed herself. And those were just the poets who had some fame. In fact they had what many others would crawl on their knees to get: a dream academic job, adoring students, publications, awards.

Depression and suicide seem to be occupational hazards of being a poet and/or writer. The manic-depressive disorder, often compounded with addiction to alcohol, is known to be significantly more frequent among creative people. Even aside from that, the intensity that goes with giftedness, the difficult struggle for recognition, the difficulty of the craft itself -- it’s a virtual guarantee of a stressful life. This is best summarized in this little drawing:


Now that we’ve had a bit of comic relief, let me honor two of the women I’ve mentioned by sharing a bit of their work -- what they should be remembered for, not the manner of their death.

Here is a gorgeous short poem by Rachel:


Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.

~ Rachel Wetzsteon


In my previous post, I quoted Sarah Hannah’s “Macbeth’s Problem.” Her sense of humor wasn’t always dark. Here is something light-hearted:


My salad days, when I was green in judgment. . .
                          ~ Antony and Cleopatra

After the long chard season
We had a lot of chard.
Winter ran for miles -- stone
Fortress, struck leaves, frozen yard.
Even the dirt was dead.

But we had chard -- abundant bundles.
Forty days in snow drifts, eating stalks.
Eighty days, a stockpot, stirring.
And then an easing of bombardment,
A grocer rushing down a busy street,
Purposely, solemnly, carrying chervil --
Charein, from the Greek, to take pleasure in.

Who knew there were so many greens?
Chive grass, Boston lettuce pollard,
Elysian shade of parsley boughs.
It might just possibly be true
That all that was undone is through.
These are the salad days.
These are the salad days!

~ Sarah Hannah

Minor, but delightful: “forty days in snow drifts, eating stalks”; “Elysian shade of parsley boughs.”

(Another shameless digression: charein is also the root of “whore.”)

(An even more shameless digression: the pure light blue dawn sky through the widespread branches of a neighbor’s tree.)


And Deborah, the beautiful, loving, dazzling Deborah Digges. Her last masterpiece was this haunting poem:

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.
From the mantle smashes birds’ nests, teacups
full of stars as the wind winds round,
a mist of sorts that rises and bends and blows
or is blown through the rooms of my heart
that shatters the windows,
rakes the bedsheets as though someone
had just made love. And my dresses
they are lifted like brides come to rest
on the bedstead, crucifixes,
dresses tangled in trees in the rooms
of my heart. To save them
I’ve thrown flowers to fields,
so that someone would pick them up
and know where they came from.
Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.
Off with the clothesline pinning anything, my mother’s trousseau.
It is not for me to say what is this wind
or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.
Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead
the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,
no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.
It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

~ Deborah Digges


Alas, now we understand what all this letting go was about, the sheet music leaving, the dresses leaving, the dresses presumably still on their hangers, thus becoming “crucifixes.” The imagery is spectacular and mysterious, unless you already know that this was preparation for departure. It’s a very dark poem to end on, so let me quickly add a favorite passage from “Ancestral Lights”:

And though I know now that Heaven may be 

only the mind’s fear of the wonders it imagines,

the way our best thoughts surprise us 

and seem not to be our own, I like to believe

we turn into light around those we love,
or would have loved, had we known them.

~ Deborah Digges


~ or would have loved them, had we known them. I, for one, feel I could love more people, more trees, more animals -- but my circumstances are constrained. I had to learn economy: a lawn in a park has to stand for a mountain meadow. But the wealth of poetry is mine. Let me give you again Rachel's poem:


Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.

~ Rachel Wetzsteon



“Terminal Orpheus” is a wonderful blog. I love your accidental conflation of “exit” and “exist”: “I took the Cherry exist hundreds of times.” We all exist on the exit, obviously . . .

Your meditation on methods of suicide arrived before the news of these three holiday incidents in San Diego. During the worst years of my life, I reviewed all the options for suicide, and one thing that stopped me was realizing what a mess it leaves for others, like the people on the street who witness someone jumping out a window. Of of the three San Diego incidents this week, only the man jumping off the Coronado Bay Bridge was successful. And the police had to fish him out of the water to declare him dead.

The picture of the man perched on the freeway bridge -- so gray and desolate, and such an annoyance for the whole city.



It’s wonderful that you managed to think of the “mess [that suicide] leaves for others.” In my sane moments I thought at least about my parents and their potential immense suffering, and how I had no right to make them suffer that way. But when the impulse is very strong, sane thinking is gone. 

According to experts, most suicides are impulsive rather than pre-meditated. Having a gun in the house increases the risk of suicide five times. I have all kinds of theories about what saved me, and not having a gun or sleeping pills, or a high place to jump from, did play a role in that the impulse to end it all was not triggered in an overwhelming fashion. My practical incompetence was definitely a significant factor. I didn’t have the means, and when I thought of crashing into the concrete wall, I was too afraid I’d survive, except maimed and crippled and doomed to a wheelchair. Or, worst of all, brain-damaged. Though I felt like a failure in life, to fail at suicide in that manner was worse.

That is indeed a desolate picture in the link you sent, but it’s the comments of the readers that are an eye-opener: anger instead of compassion. And in a way, the angry are correct: life is difficult, but killing yourself is like deserting your post, or refusing the carry the burden of mortality that we all carry. Our greatest heroism is simply carrying on, in spite of existing on the exit.


I’m surprised at how our lives had so many parallels. I moved from Connecticut in 1944 to Long Beach and lived with my parents in housing. I was eighteen and got a job right away with the telephone co. which I hated but I found a skating rink  and had lots of dates. A and I were engaged but he was back East. I wanted to get an apartment with Catherine and go on to college (no money), but my parents were set against it. I despised Long Beach -- the constant reek of oil and water that tasted like rotten eggs. Probably why I decided to get married to get away to San Diego.

I still have trouble understanding depression since I have rarely been that down. And suicide-- why leave this world if it's all we have. I do know depression exists from reading Jane Kenyon and Plath, and observing friends and family who suffer from it. Who could welcome death when one remembers Autumn.

I wrote “Second Thoughts” about suicide after hearing about the suicide of the younger brother of my son in law. The police officer said, “I think he had second thoughts but it was too late.”

Digges has written so much that is memorable. My favorites are ones you quoted: the bleak  " wind blows through the doors of my heart" and "I'd like  to believe we turn into light for those we love or would have loved, had we known them."

The chard poem brings back  many memories. It's a good thing I liked it as my mother nursed the plants on and on. An aside -- I noticed  by the rose bush today the lush green leaves of a dandelion plant. We ate those too.


Thanks for this charming aside. Yes, dandelions are edible, and good for the liver too. Sorrel I never liked -- too sour. But it amazed me that you could go into the woods and bring back edibles of that sort. In Poland during wartime, even nettles were used for soup.

Depression often starts with some genuine emotional disaster, let’s say a bad break-up when you are still madly in love. But some people, including myself, have a gift for multiplying past disasters, even after life improves. As long as the sense of being a failure prevails, there are those times when it’s difficult to remember the beauty of autumn. Depression is extremely self-centered, so you can forget anything positive. The longer depression continues, the more positive memories are blocked.

The main thing is to survive one’s youth. After that, if you are lucky the way I was lucky, at some point you realize that you are going to die anyway, and life is really quite short, so you might as well make the most of whatever time is left.


This is the user’s manual for suicide. I was laughing with every paragraph.


I’m thrilled, since I meant to be humorous, though with an underlying serious message. Making access to various means of suicide more difficult can be very effective prevention, as the British example of gas stoves demonstrated. 


I love the shameless digression stories. Only a great writer can get away with such a shocking writing style.


I think it’s poetry trying to get in through the kitchen door, so to speak. The Muse of Weeping has departed, leaving me the beauty of nature, and nature imagery is the foundation of lyricism. Even writing about the weather -- a slight mizzle outside, so fine it’s invisible and doesn’t even wet the pavement -- I get a hint of lyricism, of the mystery of the world.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012


You may wonder why I chose a post on “hungry ghosts” for a poetry blog. How does it relate to writing? It does. Bear with me: explanation will follow the introductory excerpt.


Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The Buddhist Wheel of Life revolves through six realms. Each realm is populated by characters representing aspects of human existence—our various ways of being. In the Beast Realm we are driven by basic survival instincts and appetites such as physical hunger and sexuality, what Freud called the Id. The denizens of the Hell Realm are trapped in states of unbearable rage and anxiety. In the God Realm we transcend our troubles and our egos through sensual, aesthetic or religious experience, but only temporarily and in ignorance of spiritual truth. Even this enviable state is tinged with loss and suffering.

The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.

Some people dwell much of their lives in one realm or another. Many of us move back and forth between them, perhaps through all of them in the course of a single day.

My medical work with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has given me a unique opportunity to know human beings who spend almost all their time as hungry ghosts. It’s their attempt, I believe, to escape the Hell Realm of overwhelming fear, rage and despair. The painful longing in their hearts reflects something of the emptiness that may also be experienced by people with apparently happier lives. Those whom we dismiss as “junkies” are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves. ~ Gabor


How does this little essay relate to the art of writing? It’s an example of an indirect, metaphorical approach (in this case the Buddhist WHEEL OF LIFE) that relies on knowing an additional field (woe to poets who read only poetry). As Henry James said, “To be direct is to be inartistic.” Art is usually indirect: it tries to convey its message through unexpected imagery and metaphor. It is a special kind of “fused” thinking that uses fewer words, but makes the meaning larger.

Popular books on addition take the chatty “human interest” approach that relies on telling the story of one particular addict, and making general statements later on. The books meant more for professionals start with abstract generalizations and continue in that manner, with case stories here and there. But this Hungarian-born physician makes a wonderful leap, talking first about the Wheel of Life. Note, however, that the author does not go into excess detail about the Wheel of Life and each of the realms. He skips the realm of the demi-gods, and quickly gets to the Hungry Ghosts, adapting the metaphor to create an analogy with addiction.

Those of you who know my interest in “interweave” -- a skillful weaving of two or more realms -- will know what I am leading to: the importance, for a poet/writer, of reading in depth not only the work of other poets and writers, but also in some field that is of interest -- history, astrophysics, geology, botany, Buddhism, the life and writings of Saint Augustine, anything. Or it may be sensory and practical knowledge, the kind you gain from mountain-climbing, for instance. That “other realm” is likely to provide a wealth of metaphor and simile, and an unusual and more interesting angle to anything that you write about.

One example that comes to my mind is Sarah Hannah’s second book of poetry, Inflorescence. In it she combines the story of caring for her dying mother with, amazingly enough, botany. Hannah’s additional asset is her familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays. The layering creates a rich kind of writing to which the reader can return with pleasure again and again. Here is one of my favorites:


You never think it’s really going to happen --
That Birnam wood will come marching
Down to Dunsinane --

Until, suddenly, your wife’s got OCD,
And babies visit you in dreams,
Clutching eucaplyptus.

And then those trees start walking.
I mean downright trouncing, toward you.
They do not come in peace,

And they are not willows or any other
Delicate variety; they’re rowans,
Oaks, and ash.

And they will kick your ass to Cardiff.
Hello? You were so damn hot and ready
To jump the life to come,

You misread all the signs, and now it’s Act V,
And you can’t rinse out what you’ve done,
Can’t redeem the time

Like Prince Hal, and besides, this one’s a tragedy
Well into hour two; the place is packed with folks
Who’ve paid good money

To watch you go down bloody with a bough.

~ Sarah Hannah, Inflorescence, 2007

The “Birnam Wood” comes from the Weird Sisters’ last prophecy to Macbeth: “Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” In the literal sense, this seems impossible, and so Macbeth is lulled into a false sense of security. He doesn’t think metaphorically. But Birnam Wood turns out to the enemy camouflaged with branches.

But never mind metaphorical thinking. We prefer not to think at all. “You never think it’s really going to happen” -- that constant denial of death that is perhaps necessary to keep us going. This is a ruthless poem, unlike Sutton Breiding’s soothing

tell me, stranger,
. . .
are your days like shadows passing
and your nights a sweet taste of the longsleep?

No, this is no lullaby. Like Macbeth, we are crazed to defend our kingdom and our life. This is a battle that each of us is doomed to lose, so ideally we need to have an answer to the question that is never asked, yet central to each life: “So what are you doing about mortality?”

For me, the best answer was supplied by Rilke: “To work is to live without dying.” Of course Rilke meant meaningful, fulfilling work. I want to keep writing to the end.


To write means to have the courage to reveal more of yourself than at first feels comfortable. But that’s where lies your richest material. It would be evasive to say that I chose the opening the opening of Gabor Maté’s book on addiction strictly because of its stylistic merit, as a way to discuss the technique of interweave. As you probably suspect, I instantly felt a personal connection to the content.

I recognize my Hungry Ghost years very well: the years when I couldn’t get enough of the things I didn’t really want -- for instance, I was a  compulsive thrift store shopper. What did I really want? I don't care if Freud said it first: love and work. When you can't find reliable love and meaningful, fulfilling work, crazy substitutes emerge, often in the form of addictions. For me it was crazy behavioral compulsions rather than substance abuse, and that was my great good luck, since drugs and alcohol kill faster. 

My writing talent -- which I was first told I didn't have -- also saved me in the end, and that's where crazy persistence (this is a genetic trait) turned out to be beneficial. In addition, over the years I managed to soften "love" to affection, and that's easier both to give and get. Affection does not have the dark side that romantic love has -- though losing a friend can be almost as painful as losing a lover. Loss as a part of life cannot be evaded. But if we have something to fall back on -- doing the work you love, your other friends -- we have a certain “safety net.”

Another thought: seeing that having developed a writing skill laid a foundation for the rest of my life, making everything else fall into place, I suspect that everyone could benefit by developing some kind of "valuable skill.” For people in trouble in particular, the need is tremendous. Once I read that addicts are typically people who “have been trained to be incompetent.” 

Part of that incompetence is an absence of vocation and work skills. This is not always the case, but if it happens to be, then it would be wonderful if there were more places that teach various valuable skills. As I’ve discovered through my misadventures and eventual overcoming of the discouraging “curse” by someone I mistook for a mentor, talent is something that develops. And once you are able to use and expand your talent, the farther away you get from the realm of the Hungry Ghosts.


From Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

“Six realms of existence are identified in Buddhism: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells. They are each a result of one of the six main negative emotions: pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger.”

[Oriana: Ignorance is not an emotion, but let’s not be fussy; Sogyal means ignorance as a negative state of being -- hardly so for animals, but undesirable if we want to be fully human.]

Sogyal continues: “The main feature of the realm of the gods is that it is devoid of suffering, a realm of changeless beauty and sensual ecstasy. Imagine the gods: tall, blond surfers, lounging on beaches and in gardens flooded by brilliant sunshine, listening to any kind of music they choose, intoxicated by every kind of stimulant, high on meditation, yoga, bodywork, and ways of improving themselves, but never taxing their brains, never confronting any complex or painful situation, never conscious of their true nature, and so anesthesized that they are never aware of what their condition really is.

If some parts of California and Australia spring to mind as the realm of the gods, you can see the demigod realm being acted out every day perhaps in the intrigue and rivalry of Wall Street, or in the seething corridors of Washington and Whitehall. And the hungry ghost realms? They exist wherever people, though immensely rich, are never satisfied, craving to take over this company or that one, or endlessly playing out their greed in court cases. Switch on any television channel and you have entered immediately the world of demigods and hungry ghosts.”

It’s interesting that Sogyal chooses examples from the world of the rich, while Gabor Maté starts his books with examples of homeless street junkies as the Hungry Ghosts, trying in vain to escape from the realm of Hell. But hell is universal, and so is greed. The mob that trampled to death a Walmart security agent on a “Black Friday” was a crowd of Hungry Ghosts. “Greed is the failure to choose.” There are things more important by far than a flat-screen TV, but for this we need to stay calm for a while, until we are able to think at a higher level.

(A shameless digression: during a recent trip to Walmart in pursuit of a larger soup pot -- my soup therapy is working! -- C and I spotted a nun with in a peculiar headgear: on the cap on her head, there was a red dot that made me think of the Third Eye -- also called the Sixth chakra, Ajna, the chakra of forgiveness and compassion, of God the Mother, “beyond wisdom,” intuition.

On top of the cap was another red dot, which could symbolize the crown chakra, Sahasrara, the thousand-petaled lotus -- the chakra of pure non-dualistic consciousness, the union of the masculine and the feminine. But I noticed that there were dots also on the sides. Intrigued, C and I approached the nun. She explained that she belonged to the Sisters of Saint Brigid, and the dots stand for the  five wound of Christ. The order is dedicated to prayer and contemplation of the five wounds.

At the check-out, we ended up behind three of the Brigidine nuns, carts full of flannel pajamas, cat food, and an abundance of other colorful, practical objects. “Going to Walmart is probably the most exciting event in their lives,” C observed. “They don’t just have one sister go shopping. They travel in a pod.”)

I wish to end on a more joyful note: trips to the the realm of the Hungry Ghosts are  not the only way to gain respite from the hell of fear and despair. I discovered this through my experience of the Paradigm Shift that ended my depression. My recurrent dreams about being in a concentration camp also ended. This poem celebrates this liberation.


Only a year ago I finally understood
the kingdom of hell
is within you
and chose to walk out of
that concentration camp

The gate’s wide wings stood open
the guards diligently did not look
the road led through sunlit woods
past bride-like birches: the road to heaven
I must have seen in childhood and forever

Only yesterday I looked out the window 

and thought this is my country now and not
a Nazi camp or a Siberian gulag
astonished that after all
I wasn’t sentenced to hard labor

Only this morning I understood
my task is to keep on walking
reading sunlight and shadow
listening to birds in all their languages
singing the holy word home

~ Oriana © 2012

By now it’s been more than three years, without a single relapse. I take no special pride in this: “shift happens” and makes staying out of hell effortless. True, full recovery takes time. Memories of positive experiences are blocked at first; they can be gradually rebuilt (our memory is constructed; it’s not like a videotape). The capacity to experience pleasure also takes time to blossom again.

I’ve posted this poem before, I know. I’m doing it again because few things are as important as understanding that both heaven and hell are within. They are states of mind. We can choose to walk out of hell, and not into the brief artificial paradises of the hungry ghosts, but into the astonishingly beautiful world we live in.


The art work is beautiful and well chosen. Of course I loved "bride-like birches" and the  "nuns travel in pods."

"We haunt  our lives without being fully resent" is certainly true of all of us but especially the addicted.

"Hungry Ghosts": hungry  to be free of fear, rage and despair but lost in addiction.. trapped in the terrible guilt.

I enjoyed the reference to Macbeth's Birnam Wood. I always loved that twist, and especially after seeing it performed in the outdoor theater at the Old Globe. Eerie and magical.

The final photo of woods is perfect, the way the trail bears that intermittent light.


Thank you Hyacinth for that “intermittent light.” You made me see the beauty of it. Forest light is beautiful because it’s not “full blast”; it’s interrupted, softened, intermittent. The same way, we wouldn’t want our lives to be an eternal sunshine. We need to travel between realms.

Addicts badly need an alternative reward, a feel-good condition that's not destructive -- something that makes them feel content and like a good person in a lasting way: an entry into the kind of world that offers something richer than what addiction can offer. Instead of “escaping into drugs” (which are “never enough”), they would be able to “escape into life” -- into volunteer work, for instance. (Milosz spoke of “escaping forward” as his defense against brooding about the past.)

I think that dear old Sigi (Freud) was right: we need love and work. If we have those two, or even just meaningful work, the rest will take care of itself.

Half-way houses seem to offer “love and work” (especially if we substitute “affection” for love). We need more half-way houses. If some people need to live in a half-way house for the rest of their lives, that’s not a tragedy. The tragedy is not providing help. 


Loved Hannah's poem and that line...'and they will kick your ass to Cardiff.' Macbeth is my favorite of the Bards's plays. There's a great Macbeth allusion near the end of Moby Dick!

In Chapter 117 'The Whale Watch' Fedallah, Ahab's agent of his demise, tells him that before he dies, he will see two hearses and 'the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.'  Melville had been re-reading Shakespeare around the time of Moby Dick, especially Macbeth, and this was a clear allusion to the prophecy of Birnam Wood to Macbeth's end.


Thank you, Scott, for never ceasing to astonish us by finding references to Moby Dick in everything under discussion.


Seems to me that "the Hungry Ghost" phase is that period in anybody's life when one is in great need of change. Some people choose the pursuit of greatness and some people are chosen by addiction. Great goals and drug addiction are opposites.


That’s more or less what I read about drug addicts: they don’t have a vocation or any real goal in life. But then some great writers were alcoholics. Still, Hemingway had terrific self-discipline: he got up at dawn and wrote until 11 a.m., at which point he began to drink. Without writing, he’d have been drinking the first thing in the morning. 

It’s interesting that you mention being a Hungry Ghost as a phase in life. For me the main source of hell was romance with dysfunctional men -- it’s hard to believe how many of them are out there. Functional men are “taken” early, leaving behind the undesirables, often addicts.

It wasn’t until my late thirties that I could say: “Writing is the most important thing in my life.” Once that happened, once I had a clear sense of vocation and the excitement of seeing myself grow as a poet, romance lost most of its power to turn me into a hungry ghost. I remember the first time I turned down a date because I wanted time to write. The old joke about discovering something more interesting than sex -- it’s true. But hormone levels have to go down. 


Liked the hungry ghost post a lot. Those realms have always spoken to me. Did I tell you about my fairly recent visit with a friend when i fell asleep on the sofa and was woken by a voice saying "You are already dead! Do not look back! keep going!" Something like the announcements on the London Underground (Mind the gap!). My friend thought it was a good idea to put the film of the Tibetan Book of the Dead on while I slept.

It wasn't a dream, it was the actual voice in the film, reading the Tibetan book of the dead. It woke me up, but, not realising a film was on, I wasn't quite sure where I had woken into!


Thanks for sharing this fascinating story. So interesting about cultures sharing the prohibition on looking back while you are in the land of the dead. “Keep going!” is the imperative -- our eyes on whatever slender light is guiding us.

I immediately identified with the Hungry Ghosts. For many years I despaired of ever breaking free. I knew that if only I managed to drop ambition, I’d be happy just living, writing whenever I felt like it, for the pleasure of writing and sharing with whoever might come by, so to speak. And finally, finally, it simply happened. The grasping desire fell away, part of my insight that I am posthumous now, so I can relax and be happy. 

In fact, now that I posthumous in terms of the life of striving, I am in heaven. Or, to be precise, I am in heaven on days when I get to do whatever I feel like doing, no longer whipped by “hungry ghost” desires. I don’t have to achieve anything, I don’t have to prove anything -- not to others, not even to myself. It’s an imperfect heaven, with bursts of unpleasantness such as noisy neighbors, but still, that passes -- and there is so much beauty around me!



Monday, December 10, 2012

Frida Kahlo: Roots

This 1943 painting by Frida Kahlo is one of my favorites. She’s fused with nature. Note the capillaries that extend from her into the soil -- the artist nurtures the very land from which she arose. And that wonderful vine -- Frida feels already “recycled” and at one with the great leaves, which are a part of her. Mexico is a part of her, and she is a part of Mexico. 

I used to slightly sneer at people who undertook pilgrimages to “seek their roots.” Relative to them, I could never get away from my roots. I was always being asked, “Where are you from?” Sometimes I felt crucified on my roots, and sometimes experienced them as a place of return. In the poem “The Lost Name,” I imagine the time “when I sleep / in the cradle of roots” -- definitely both the roots of a tree, one of the great Northern trees -- a linden tree in June, buzzing with a million bees -- as well as the metaphorical “roots” of ancestral homeland.

Yet there was a time when I felt tired of the concept. Aren’t we all of mixed ancestry? And didn’t I leave Poland in part to get away from the Polish nationalism? Never mind the irony of having to get used to a much more megalomaniac nationalism. Didn’t I do it to get away from the spectacle of moronic politicians. Again, never mind the irony . . . No, that was not the surprise. The surprise lay in my own poems.

I don’t believe that we choose what we write about. We can’t avoid our central themes. And one of my central themes, perhaps the dominant central theme, turned out to be the loss of the beloved . . . in the form of loss of homeland, slowly but inevitably transformed into a holy land. It sounds ludicrous, I know; but that’s part of being an immigrant. At seventeen, I never signed up for being an immigrant. Who’d choose that? Sounds insane.

Nor did I sign up for becoming a poet. And I didn’t like what I saw emerge in my poetry, again and again, even after decades of living in California. Let me state right away: I love California. But in poem after poem, I kept writing about Poland in some way. The lilacs, the roosters, the chestnut blossoms. The wheat fields, the hollyhocks.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all my poems are about Poland, no. My poem about Kafka really is about Kafka and writing, and my poem about Freud’s mother really is about a mother’s idolatry of her son, the genius. This list could go on and on, and yet . . . I can’t deny how often I start writing about something, anything, but pretty soon it’s the mist of lilacs, it’s Warsaw, it’s the Warsaw clouds like billowing archangels. It’s the woods and fields and roadside crosses. I simply can’t help it: the landscape within me is not the landscape around me. The roots have pierced me forever, and everything I do in some way originates in that very problematic garden from which I exiled myself, and which was hardly paradise.

Someone said that homeland is not necessarily where you live; homeland is where you want to go to die. This rings true to me.


When God says, I could give you
the whole world, but would you take it?
he’s expecting No, since I am the alleged

immigrant at a feast, but I say Yes.
Go ahead, give me the world.
But that already happened at my birth.

Now I believe only in California,
dressed in flames each scarlet,
smoky year. A paradise cracked

with fault lines. Like my life, split
at seventeen. Like my soul,
a missing infinity sign. Not even

the body remains our native country.
Leaving me only the inaccurate
loss of homeland, a place where you go

to die. By nineteen I had a plan:
word by word I'd dissolve
into the thousand-year old 

town where I was born,
a Viking river port,

the river wide as history – 

wintry fortress-like cathedral,

even during summer heat --

and above the crown of thorns, 
me that shivering lost dove; 

me the bowing of the wind 

in the linden trees;
inside empty granaries,
the blinding dance of dust and light.

Meanwhile I’ll take the world.

~ Oriana © 2012

I realized I couldn't leave out the granaries, and the dance of the dust in beams of light, granaries being like churches that way, and almost the essence of my birth town -- like the width of the Vistula there, and the deaths of foolish young men who in spite of warning signs try to swim across to the other shore. That's in part why the “lethal gleam.” The other part of “lethal” is history, needing no explanation.


Speak softly, God! It could mean to someone
that the trumpets of your kingdom called;
for their sound no depth is deep enough:
then all times rise out of the stones,
and all the long-lost appear
in faded linen, brittle skeletons,
crooked from the weight of soil.
That will be a miraculous return
into a wondrous homeland.

~ Rilke, from “The Last Judgment”

That wondrous homeland is the whole earth. But we should also remember that most people used to get buried in the towns and villages where they were lived; the “wondrous homeland” was the familiar trees and grasses, the same river, the same meadows of clouds in the sky. 

In Wuthering Heights, Catherine didn't want to stay in heaven; she wanted to return to the moors. All readers understand this at the deepest level; the real heaven we want is the place we already love, or used to love in childhood and youth -- our first great love.

A miraculous return into a wondrous homeland . . . Even if I tried to ignore my poems, where was it that I found myself in my dreams? Never at my current home here in California, so dear to me in my waking life. 

Late night. I’m standing at the end of the pier with an infant in my arms (but there is no tactile or other sensation -- I don’t see the face or arms -- it’s a small bundle -- it could be a doll), and drop the infant/doll into the cold, black-gleaming ocean. Then right away I’m in the pine woods near Warsaw. I throw myself to the ground, hug the needles, the dirt, thinking, with immense love, Moje, moje -- mine, mine. I sense that the trees are saying, “We will not let them take you back.” 

Perhaps it was the false American self that I threw into the ocean, but at this point I’m a hybrid, and it would be difficult to separate out any “pure Polish” self versus the acquired hybrid Polish and American self. Perhaps it was an effigy of America, or “my success in America” (that incessant lie of almost all immigrants).

But let me not appear to evade the darkest interpretation: I take a newborn, presumably my own, go at night to the end of the pier, and let the child drop into the shiny darkness of the Pacific. I hand the newborn back to Mother Night. Would I be capable of such a thing?

The first answer I hear in my mind is Yes, absolutely. Give me liberty or give me death. A fraction of a second later I hear the rational response: the reminder that I am intelligent and resourceful, and would never allow the situation to become this desperate. Surely even my dreaming brain must know that . . .

All I can say for sure is that I’m getting rid of something unwanted that represents enslavement. The second part of the dream is much more clear: I return to a place I love, I hug the ground, and the very trees love me and protect me.

I’m reminded here of Cecilia Woloch’s poem about arriving in Carpathia, walking out into a meadow, and the ground calling out to her: Beloved, Beloved, Beloved. And Cecilia didn’t even grow up in Poland; her ancestors once lived in Carpathia, and she has traced back the village. The trees began speaking to her, I could tell.


If dreams are returns . . . It was about being loved, but it was self-love too. “Motherhood changes you,” said the women who knew, and I didn’t want to  lose who I was. I’d miss me. Like Emperor Hadrian mourning himself in advance, I’d miss my playful animula.

But becoming an immigrant changes you tremendously. Where is this young girl at the Warsaw airport, trying not to tremble, afraid to turn around and look back, as if the very sight of the poplars would draw me back to them, never to be separated? Within minutes of landing in Frankfurt-am-Mein, my first airport in the West, I felt I was already a different person. And somehow there was no going back. And that was only the beginning.

At first you are so bludgeoned by the new, you can’t reject anything. Then you gain some balance and -- huge surprise -- you are homesick. And you were determined to be the only immigrant in the history of the world who would not get homesick! You were not supposed to cry. Not night after night for two years, and then at unpredictable intervals.

My crying fits began with a strange thought that drifted through my mind a few weeks after the arrival: There is nothing real here. The plastic grass was only one icon, a minor symptom.


I had this dream in mid-August, after two computer crashes and a switch to a Mac. One friend commented, “It’s called going over to the Dark Side.” I had to learn a huge number of new things all at once. But it’s possible that it was already after I read the account of a near-death experience by a Polish woman who lived in the United States for a long time -- was it in Baltimore or Pittsburgh? She had the NDE while still living in an American city.

She did not go to heaven. She was back in the countryside near Warsaw, hovering above it. Every blade of grass, every tiniest leaf was lit by transcendent radiance. Birds were singing, and she found herself envious of the birds because they did not have to leave Poland. She envied the trees because they were rooted and would be staying in Poland, while she knew she’d soon have to go back.

If you think that maybe I am an extreme case of nostalgia, please remember  this woman’s NDE. By the way, the NDE was indeed changed her life. She moved back to Poland, and now lives in the countryside near Warsaw. 

(Here I simply have to tell you, startled reader, that the countryside near Warsaw is far from spectacular: it’s totally flat, mostly fields, some average woods and streams.)

Maybe it’s mainly the question of familiarity. Changing countries causes acute emotional distress because it’s what the psychologists call the “loss of the familiar.” And there is of course the loss of the sense of belonging to a particular place, and owning it. I used to own Warsaw. I owned the river and all the bridges; I owned the royal gardens and all the swans. I even half-owned even the American embassy, and, reluctantly, the Soviet embassy. It wasn’t even a question of beauty, but of ownership. It was all mine.

In the end, the most astonishing thing about the dream is my attachment to the land itself, after so many years. Any lost homeland becomes the “holy land.” It will always be with me, that cradle of roots.

But if you live somewhere else long enough, then the actual homeland (unlike the homeland you carry with you in memory) is no longer yours. Still, after my second trip to Poland, I wrote this poem: 


For a moment I had it again:
greenest fields and wildest clouds,
horse manes and cathedral domes.
I could live in Warsaw, I thought –
but only if on Sundays someone
took me to the fields and woods,
swampy streams with forget-me-nots.

I remember, when I was twelve,
an older cousin sermonizing
on the blessedness of giving.
Standing on the cliffs, still safe,
my joy just looking at the river,
I exclaimed, I don’t want to give.
I want to take and take and take.

There’s no memorial to the honey hue
of that lavish July
when I pronounced my heresy.
Nor to the desert
noon when I knew
I had to live on because
I had not given enough.

The European countryside
is a prayer you don’t profane
with regrets about your life.
Maybe it’s the millennia
of manure-fed humus
when people gave and gave,
and the nourished earth

gave back. For a moment,
looking at the fields,
so ancient yet each spring so new,
I had to live on because
I needed to be given to.

To be loved.
To be seated before
a big bowl of barley soup.
To be driven to concerts
and meadows, naive bridges,
sentimental willows.

To breathe in the scent
of moist woods. To squish
on the slippery muck of leaves
returning to the roots.
To hear no one ask,
“Where are you from?”
From this earth, underfoot.

~ Oriana © 2012

At the same time, if I were asked, “What’s your country?” -- assuming a context that does not involve a passport -- I’d reply, “I have two countries: Poland, where I was born and grew up, and the United States, where I’ve lived all my adult life and where I became a writer.” And it feels rich, to have two countries, two interesting cultures, two fluent languages. I am happy to have had the excitement of Warsaw and, in summer, the beauty of the Polish countryside; and I am happy to have the beauty of California when I look out the window. Ich grolle nicht -- I don’t complain (I have a bit of German too, thanks to Warsaw). No life is perfect, but it would be ungracious to complain. There are worse fates.

Recently I had this exchange with an accomplished Polish poet, Ewa Parma, who lives in Katowice, Poland. 


I don’t know if I could write poems in Polish because the language is so intimate, and the secret of poetry, as Milosz said, is distance. English gave me that distance. 


I'm sure you could write poems in Polish, but as a totally different person, lovely schizophrenia, you know.


Yes, as a totally different person. I’ve tried to imagine that other self countless times, and know it’s fruitless. In terms of personal happiness, I might be happier. When my cousin wrote me that each summer she visits a different Greek Island, I thought, oh, maybe I’d have a similar project. And I’m sure I’d have more people in my life, and be more “communitarian.” I didn’t exactly choose my current reclusiveness. Like practically all the important things in life, it “just happened.”

If I’d stayed, I might have become a language poet. As a child I loved playing with words. Polish words can be morphed in wonderful ways -- I can imagine a kind of Finnegans Wake (not as long -- that would be boring), but not polyglot, strictly Slavic (of course we need to acknowledge German borrowings, like durszlak (the word for a colander)

But then, assuming writing in Polish -- if sufficient suffering hit me, who knows . . . I might swerve into meaning. But my poems would probably not be the lyrical narratives they typically are, influenced as I was by one of the main currents of contemporary American poetry. And, given that I write for the lost beloved, and my most important lost beloved was Poland, I’d have to acquire a different lost beloved -- or a different “motive for metaphor.” 

The schizophrenia of being Polish in Poland is nothing, I think, next to the immigrant schizophrenia, a true pathology in some immigrants who become terminally bitter to the point of delusional thinking.


I can imagine the immigrant schizophrenia, that's what I wanted to avoid and came back.


I was close to succumbing to the immigrant schizophrenia and entering the delusional terrain of totally rejecting the adoptive country. Then I managed to achieve a balanced view: there are things I like about America, and there are things I don’t like -- just as I could list things I don’t like about Poland, and the things I like. And that would be true of any country; no country is all good or all bad. All countries are holy places to those who were born there and grew up there -- this is what some would find out only by leaving their country of origin.

Every Polish child memorizes this simile, the most famous one in Polish literature: “my fatherland, you are like health. / Only he knows your worth, who has lost you.” I never thought I’d experience the truth of those lines.

At this point, I feel “sane” -- balanced in my feelings toward both Poland and America. What has remained unchanged is the sense of non-belonging and isolation. The people around me were molded by the American popular culture; I can’t begin to “relate” to the Howdy-Doody show.

There’s also the isolated feeling of being an atheist here, while in Warsaw after the break with the church (still, I repeat for the twentieth time, the most courageous act of my life), I felt finally at home, leaving the darkness and stench of the Middle Ages for the light of reason, poised to enter the ranks of the intellectual elite. That was my manifest destiny -- in either country, I thought. But life rarely works out the way we imagine in our teens. Actually, I have to admit that life is a lot more unpredictable and interesting than we could possibly imagine at fifteen or seventeen. As I also keep saying, I live in continual astonishment. 

Later Ewa remarked that it’s “easier to be an immigrant because you know what you miss.”


I never thought of it before: the specificity of missing something. I miss Aleje Ujazdowskie. I miss being on a train that's going through Koluszki. I miss pierogi. To people who haven't lost Koluszki there is nothing transcendent about that station; it's vaguely comic, that sweet name. But no, it's not easier, because you miss Koluszki on top of the universal problems with love and work. You miss what was familiar in the early years of your life in addition to having to deal with the universal human dilemmas.

I miss the little front yards with sweet-peas and peonies, and not the Warsaw Botanical Garden (though I can understand why some people adore the Botanical Garden). It’s not that I’m indifferent to the splendor of the Tatras, but I miss the gentle hills of Pomerania. It’s all about the familiar.

Do you know how I imagine heaven? As the ultimate country of immigrants. They say things like, “This is a wonderful place, the weather’s perfect. But what I’m thinking of is that bar in Pittsburgh . . . “ and “off they go again,” missing the familiar.

In a different vein: Poland has a warm culture, comparatively speaking, and people aren't as isolated. But things are changing, I noticed: traveling by car rather than by train, where you can have fascinating conversations with total strangers; streets seemed emptier to me, more people indoors watching TV rather than enjoying the city).


If you had stayed in Poland, do you think you’d write about Poland?


Thank you for assuming that I’d write at all. I have a vague feeling that one way or another I would indeed have become a writer. A poet? That’s a bigger maybe. I still see poetry as basically trauma-driven -- or, in less drastic terms, as written out of “wrongness,” as Christian Wiman puts it in Poetry and Ambition. 

But back to your question: no, I wouldn’t write about Poland, unless peripherally. I might mention a street, a river. Just mention them, without that holy hush. If I’d stayed, I suspect I’d write about Italy, Greece, France; I might in fact be a travel writer, as I sometimes imagined my future when I first even dared to think of becoming a writer. I’d also probably write about culture in general, about literature and theater. About history, and I mean world history, which always interested me more than Polish history per se.

I might write about motherhood. Or about forests and animals. Who knows? Anything is possible, but the one thing that seems impossible is that I’d have written about Poland the way it happened when I started writing in Los Angeles. I became a poet in Los Angeles. And I was quite fond of many places in Los Angeles, but I found myself writing about Carpathia and the Baltic. It was not a choice; all of a sudden, it seems, I was writing about the chestnut trees in bloom and the wooden bridges over the Raba, or the Prince Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw. I was writing about the streetcars. If I continued to live in Warsaw, I doubt it would ever enter my head to write a poem about streetcars.

But then, as Ewa pointed out, I would now be a completely different person, and there would be no oriana-poetry blog. Would there be a different blog? Maybe. About what? I don’t know and I can never know.

That’s one of the strange things about being an immigrant: you try to imagine the person you’d have become if you’d stayed, you desperately try to imagine her daily life, her apartment, her mornings, her nights -- and you can’t. You want to call to this invisible twin sister, talk to her, cry and laugh with her. And you can’t. In spite of what the poems want, she doesn’t exist. 


I don’t remember seeing this painting by Frida and it's by far the best in my opinion. The way she is entwined with the earth in a prone position looks as if she is putting down roots. Speaking of details: those roots and vines!

The concept of: if god gave you the whole world would you take it? -- that would be  overwhelming and too mind-boggling  to get your thinking around.

Liked the soul wearing an infinity sign. Considering all the "souls"  in poetry I've been writing about--hardly a poem that doesn't contain"soul."

Favorite lines: the river wide as history and about barley soup. Details.

I think your youth saved you coming to a strange country. You eventually adapted but all the older immigrants I've know including my great grandparents found it almost impossible to assimilate to get over mourning the old country. Some I remember never learned English and the women never left the house.

About reclusiveness -- I read recently that Emily was not always a recluse but fell into the well of poetry deeper and deeper until the outside world  didn't exist except in what she made of it in her poems. I find the older I get the less I want to be anywhere but writing or reading poetry -- an occupational hazard?


This painting is certainly one of Frida’s masterpieces. I’m surprised that it’s not more famous. I can’t think of any other painter who paints so metaphorically. Dali’s surrealism seems pretty shallow next to this.

By “I could give you the whole world” I meant “anything you might want is yours.”

Age is definitely a factor, and I’d likewise not advise anyone, well, “older,” to even try to change countries, especially if acquiring a new language is a must. The first years can be extremely stressful. And America is extremely complex: the many kinds of insurance you have to have, the weird tax system, having to have a car, with all the complexities and responsibilities that involves . . .  If you didn’t grow up with these complexities, they are truly overwhelming.

At the same time, the “happy immigrant” myth also makes it more difficult to make a realistic adjustment and not feel like a failure. You go to America in order to be a success . . . “started by cleaning restrooms and ended up a millionaire.” That’s true of maybe one person in the history of the world. Maybe. Usually it’s rather “you can’t get there from here.”

In Europe at least the fate of the Russian aristocrats after the October Revolution set a prince-to-pauper pattern that seems unknown in America. But here too you encounter the prince-to-pauper stories. And becoming declassé is a special kind of emotional disaster: the sorrow when you know you can’t give your children what you yourself had.

Poets and writers have to have the gift for staying alone in one room for hours and hours. Without that solitude, no great work can be done. But there is a need for experience as well, so it’s always a difficult balance. Poets need to do a lot of “gazing at the world,” as Larry Levis called it. They are naturally reclusive and introspective, so they need to remind themselves to “gaze at the world.” That leads to prose more so than poetry, I know. There is no perfect solution. 

Friday, November 9, 2012



That last Polish August that glows
like a last ruddy pear in my mind,
my mother would point and say,

“Take a good look: you may never
see it again” – a river valley
kneeling in the greenest green,

or a birch grove touched by the wind,
so delicate it seemed
about to tremble away –

while in school we learned by heart
My fatherland, you are like health;
only he knows your worth

who has lost you
-- but we hadn’t lost
health or fatherland, and the scent
of wild mushrooms was a prayer –

what if a prophet, a seer,
were to rise from the spilled moon,
a black boat on a Baltic bay,

were to point to everything
and say, “Take a good look:
it’s the happiest year of your life.

You will never see it again.”
And I was seventeen
on the stroke of fate.


Later, like a good-luck charm,
I carried these words in my mind:
The worst has already happened.

Then I chanced to read the reverse
of my amber amulet:
The best has already happened.
What, no more great love?
Only the bitter sage who taught,
Life is a cruel joke

no greater lover and seer?
Where are my palaces of clouds?
Where is my will to believe?


Now I don’t even care to travel –
I say, too many stairs to climb.
I want to sleep in my own bed.

After the summer when I thought
I chose a larger destiny,
no sleep has seemed deep enough –

not the deepest granite cradle,
the High Tatras’ bluest lake,
the Eye of the Sea. Dear
wisdom, what I’ve paid for you –
My fatherland, you are like health.
But I sing that gilded August

before wisdom,
before the wasps flew in
to feast on wounded pears.

~ Oriana © 2012


The Happy Posthumous versus the Depressive Posthumous:

I hope this poem can be read “beyond nostalgia,” because I mean it to be mainly about "great expectations" and growing older: the shock of discovering that life has basically already happened. There were actually two years in my life that I see as the happiest: my last year in Poland, and my last year in Los Angeles. The irony of that “lastness” is not lost on me.

More to the point, the perception that much of my life is already behind me has awakened me to being posthumous. My best poems are behind me, my greatest love (wasted of course on the wrong man), my hiking in the mountains (when it was possible just to take Advil afterwards), the various jobs I’ve held, what little traveling I've done -- is it possible that once I was certain I’d get to see both the Himalayas and the Amazon jungle? As I say in one of my late poems, “Horizontal Rain,”

Mountains I haven’t climbed
I would no longer climb.
The arson of passion
lay smoldering behind me.

Can I know this with absolute certainty? No, but 90% probability is as good as certainty. Now if only I had “After Wisdom,” a happy-posthumous companion poem to “Before Wisdom.” The good part, which I managed to perceive only fairly recently, is that now that I've gotten over the shock of seeing that my life has already happened, I'm in the position of being happily posthumous. I don't have to wait for anything, strive for anything, hope for anything, achieve anything.

I remember when I was eighteen, and my mother said, “The difference between you and me is that you are still waiting for your life, and I am no longer waiting.” Now I’m not only “not waiting”; I regard my life as already posthumous. It feels great. Do not wake me from this dream of life after life.


Waiting was difficult enough, but the real torture used to be ambition. Striving -- I've done plenty of that. I didn’t think I could ever shed ambition, but look! a miracle. Now I can finally enjoy whatever happens, and bless my great good luck. I do wish I could write “After Wisdom,” a poem to celebrate the “marvelous posthumous,” but I'm pretty much past poems (and besides, the best poems are about loss, not about gain).

And I agree with Cecilia that we don’t choose IF we write, or WHAT we write about. Why so many poems about a lost love rather than happy love? We don’t get to choose. Hardly anything is as inspiring lost love. In the case of poets who become immigrants, their greatest love is the lost homeland. But as Milosz wisely warns, you run out of nostalgia (he never quite did, but then his real homeland was not Poland, where he spent his last years, but Lithuania; he chose Kraków because it reminded him of Vilnius).

But before I reached the Happy Posthumous, I did my time in the Depressive Posthumous. The dying of expectations is notoriously painful.

I confess: it wasn’t really the loss of Poland. It wasn’t the loss of a great love. It was the loss of the future. Like thousands of other poets, I was once full of hope that I’d become famous. Not for the sake of the ego; for the sake of having an audience. A poet wants to be read and read. My great dream was having a real audience.

And I had some reasons for hope. Instructors praised my work. Friends praised my work. Strangers would approach me after a reading and ask where they could buy my books. Told I didn’t have any, they’d try to reassure me that it was just a matter of time: “the cream rises to the top.” And of course I wanted to believe Szymborska’s famous lines:

The joy of writing.
The power to preserve.
Revenge of a mortal hand

Those lines proved true enough for Szymborska, who has gained world fame. Will her work still be read a hundred years from now? We can’t be sure, since trends are bound to change. We live in an age of irony, but maybe a new romanticism is around the corner. Stranger things have happened. Regardless, Szymborska’s best poems deserve to be read for many generations to come. 

But many other excellent poems by less known poets are quickly forgotten, before they even truly find their audience. Poetry is a marginal art, and that’s simply how things are. The joy of writing? Yes, but only in the moment of writing. Later, moments of joy when someone who’s heard the poem during the reading still remembers it ten or more years later (twenty years has been the record so far -- perhaps the limit of my “immortality”).

Yet there is an even greater joy when someone tells me, after a reading, “Your poem really helped me.” I know the poem may not be remembered for long, but at least it reached someone, and had a positive impact. So, the joy of sharing in the moment. The joy of writing (forgetting the agonies; anyway, the best poems come quickly; they write themselves) and the joy of sharing. And the joy, when the poem is good, of knowing that it’s good, even if never gets published. Once I got introduced as “the best least-known poet in America” -- and that still was a true compliment.


This past summer I read and re-read Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival, a book for which I was ripe, having come to an end of belief in poetry as a way of life for myself. One chapter in particular affected me profoundly: “In the Flux that Abolishes Me.”

Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine, becomes a veritable Ecclesiastes when he writes about the vanity of the hope for a literary afterlife:

Sometimes at Poetry we get manuscripts from dead people. I don’t mean the living dead, though we get those too. I mean the dead dead, who are by this point either singing with choirs of angels or sitting in the eternal workshop that is Hell, but in any event have no access to stamps. The manuscripts come to us by way of the poet’s friends or family, who are occasionally following some last directive of their loved one but more often acting on their own. They want to honor or understand all those hours that John or Mary or Sam or Jane insisted on solitude and silence. They want it to mean something.

 . . . We haven’t yet found anything to publish in these submissions . . . It is very difficult to predict what the readers of the future will choose to preserve, but one thing is certain: they won’t choose much, and they will think we chose badly.

That’s the downside of a life spent trying to write poems. The upside is that no one believes in the downside, not really, not wholly, and not at all in the moments that matter most, when one discovers a poem that seems to speak right through the centuries, or when a new poem of one’s own lights a fire in the mind. What is one believing in then?

Wiman goes on to quote Ruth Pitter (“an English poet who lay down in the dust in 1992, and whose work, it seems, survives in the minds of fewer and fewer people every year”). Pitter wrote:

The mind has suddenly become a great soundboard, echoing far beyond its accustomed range into its own vast borderlands, where lost paradise and hoped for heaven have betaken themselves;l and we are shaken by a cosmic wind, and know ourselves for creatures of a far greater range than we are commonly aware of.

The creative process, especially when the poem rolls out as if we were taking dictation from the unconscious (some poets actually believe they are channeling god), is indeed an exhilarating experience. Doubt as to the wisdom and beauty of the words freshly on the page sets in only later. But even if the new poem survives that stage of doubt, Wiman reminds us that it will not be for long: “If it’s eternity you’re after, verse isn’t going to get you there.”

Wiman cites the magazine’s standard reply to the “manuscripts from the dead”: “We have been very glad to read these poems. These poems have moved us. But we’re not going to be able to use these poems at this time.” I can almost see someone sweeping away autumn leaves, tossing them into trash no matter how beautiful they are. And there is no arguing with Wiman that writing poetry [or any kind of writing] has to be its own reward.

And there is still something else: some of what we said or wrote will live on in an anonymous fashion, since we are really a collective mind, and even something as seemingly personal as a poem is to a significant extent a collective creation.

That’s why I don’t revoke this “pre-posthumous” poem of mine:


On the Baltic, where my life began,
white beaches banked
by dunes and pine,

at the margin of foam I found
a crumb of amber –
a reliquary of an unknown life.


Wet shadows ripple the sand.
Seagulls spiral like greedy angels.
Tamed by the grass, the hills

have forgotten granite.
Between the blond grass
and late sun,

at the margin of a dream
I found,
I am suspended in amber.

This is how I want to survive:
lace of a leaf,
shadow of wing –

begun on a Baltic beach,
a dark alphabet
pressed into syllables of light.

~ Oriana © 2012


Anonymous, yes. The ripple effect, the immortality of influence. Even if I won’t have any consciousness of it, there is some solace in thinking about continuing to touch the lives of others in a helpful way, however slight – “lace of a leaf, shadow of wing.” 

This larger vision of being anonymous and collective extends far beyond writing. If you don’t like the word “collective,” substitute “connected.” What we do and say does matter because it's not just our own small story, but part of the great story of humanity -- how we manage to sing even under the most difficult circumstances. How we don’t give up. 

Wait, you may say, but haven’t you given up poetry? Yes (or rather: poetry gave me up). But I haven’t given up writing. I shifted to what for me is a larger music.

Issa's most famous haiku is regarded as a great metaphor for human life:

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.

~ Issa (1763-1827)


I wish to acknowledge Danusha Goska for having said, “It’s not just our own small story, but part of the story of humanity.”


I like the"greenest green" gives me permission to describe a color as what it is rather than dredge up an image every time. Especially love the ruddy pear image so perfectly fitting to the subject. And the"crumb of amber" -- that is so visual, and the word amber has so many associations.

I think poetry or any writing has to be its own reward. Anne Sexton said that she wrote poetry instead of committing suicide. I'm working on a poem about where and why I write, and I picture the finger of god (Michelangelo) and think I would like to touch someone (just one) with my poetry (much more humbly of course).


When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I also wrote poetry instead of committing suicide. And even now I can’t imagine life without writing. I considered becoming a hospice volunteer or maybe a wildlife center, taking care of animals. That might be emotionally satisfying. Like every woman, I have a nurturing side. Nature made us to be mothers. But I also know that I need an intellectual outlet, a life of the mind, of ideas. Poetry did not quite satisfy my intellectual side. Now that I mingle the two, and feel I am incredibly lucky. 


When I first started reading seriously, I felt that the kind of concentration I was doing was like nothing else.  I would read a poem or a paragraph in a novel with so much intensity, trying to get to the heart of it and all its wisdom and complexity, that it felt like time was slowing down, that somehow I was creating with my mind a machine that would let me stretch time so that I could pack more and more feeling/thinking into it.  There was reading time and there was real time and real time (with it's everyday, "passing" concentration) was never where I wanted to be.  It's like your experience with Chomsky, I guess.  Your mind working over and through and into a puzzle until every word is linked with every other word and all of it is simultaneously present to you.

The best explanation I ever read of what I felt when I was reading came from Henri Bergson, his sense of Duration, all time interpenetrating all time, time as a rich soup rather than a straight line.  


Yes, the sense of time spent in deep concentration is totally different from the time that's scattered on now answering the phone, now sending a quick email, browsing Facebook -- whatever it is that simply doesn't have depth. It feels like having an attention deficit disorder. Whenever my attention span becomes short, it's like the clutter of life being dumped on my head. Concentration is healing; distraction is destructive.

I suppose meditators and mystics achieve that depth in their way, while intellectuals just reach for a "difficult" book. Up to a point, the more difficult it is, the more satisfying it is. For me: Nietzsche yes, Heidegger no. The meaning must be graspable.

But some of it is simply slowing down, reading very slowly and with total absorption. I'm sure brain imaging would show a different average frequency, and different brain regions involved. Deep concentration is healing. It's very difficult for me to get there by the usual methods described on meditation websites, but sitting down (sometimes lying down -- lotus posture is out of the question, bad for the knees and circulation in general) to demanding reading and being totally with the text, in tremendous quiet, without distraction or interruption -- that's my paradise.

When Joseph Campbell was asked about his spiritual practice, his reply was that he underlines sentences in a book.