Denial: It Only Leads to Bad Poetry

In January of 2006, I was under house arrest.

I had received a bone marrow transplant a few months before. Weak, bald, and lacking an immune system, I couldn't leave the rental apartment where my mother and I were staying except to go to the hospital. Even then, I had to wear a face mask and avoid touching surfaces.

The mortality rate for this kind of transplant was 30%. When I "went inpatient" in October of 2005, the doctors told me that I should prepare myself for one of the patients in the rooms on either side of mine—children, because I was in a pediatric ward—to die.

We all ignored the subtext that I was one of the 3 in that morbid math problem. As it turned out, they were right to warn me, though I wasn't told who it was until later.

Today, I try to imagine what that experience must have been like for my mom. I spent most of the first month heavily drugged and waking up only to vomit, followed by months of grueling recovery and isolation. For a parent, the worst thing imaginable must be to sit beside your child, unable to do anything while terrible things happen to her. But my mother is made of sturdy stuff.

Why am I painting this dismal picture?

Because on January 2nd, 2006, I wrote the following mediocre poem in the bedroom of our hospital-approved hypoallergenic rental apartment:

Cruel Shakespeare

Goodnight Sweet Prince,
and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Those words, in my mind
so clearly meant for a sleeping child,
warm and milk-scented.
Said for a dying prince, the sweetness is tainted;
Lady Macbeth’s spot on Hamlet’s last line--
The blood won’t come out.

Poems always reveal more than the writer expects, don't they?

At the time, I remember thinking that I was simply playing with literary references, but I clearly had death and children on my mind.

I'm often embarrassed about poems I've written. They make me more self-conscious than any other form of writing. Perhaps that's because they're so revealing; if you strike a false note, you lose your reader immediately (which is the problem with the one above—it's all pretense), while prose gives you a little more flexibility. On top of that, choosing poetry as a medium says a lot. Poems (and poets) tend to take themselves seriously. To be successful, they require purity of concept, of expression. You must be fully committed.

Now, here's a great poem about grief.

Funeral Bluesby W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I don't think anyone could deny the emotional resonance there.

Should I be ashamed of silly poems I've written? No, I think not. Even less-than-stellar work tells a story, and ignoring/hiding/drowning mine as I have regularly done impairs my understanding of my own history. That's not to say that I plan to publish my "lesser works," but I don't need to delete them either.

At the time I wrote that poem, I was still facing the experience from behind a barrier. In my journal from the winter of 2005-2006, I told stories with an emotional distance that is uncomfortable for me to read now. It was journaling as performance—a performance not for my future self, but for myself as I was then. I was demonstrating my composure. I didn't know how to feel, but I knew how to record.

In the first journal entry from that time, I refer to a 10-year-old cancer patient as "a native North-Carolinian" who was "mildly condescending about it all." I got to know that kid well over the next few weeks, and when he died a month and a half later, I was more direct. I recorded everything I knew about him, from his aggressive cheating at board games to his little sister's name and age. I'm glad I did; those stories are invaluable now.

What I couldn't fully do in my journaling, however, I was attempting elsewhere. I wrote another poem while we were in that apartment, and with this one I got a little closer to communicating how I was feeling.

Points of Light

If we were all points of light,
would we be able to touch?
Or would we pass through each other
like disembodied fireflies
free from skin prisons
but lonely for feeling?
At times, I am that light;
I cast my body into shadow.
But you bring me back to myself
bind me into one thing
make me be whole, make me one.

Auden it ain't, but I feel much better about it than I do the first poem. It's not my best work, but that's not really the point, is it? With creative work, you can't begin focused on the result. You begin by opening yourself up as brazenly as you can, and the art follows.

And then comes the editing.