Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shh, Shh, Shh


Went to a reading last night: a book-launch event for J. D. Schraffenberger's new (and first) book Saint Joe's Passion (Etruscan Press, 2008). The reading was part of the University of Northern Iowa's "Writers Talk" Reading Series . . . and a welcome to Jeremy, who is a new faculty member at UNI.

Jeremy made a sweet gesture at the reading: along with his own poems, he read a poem by James Hearst as well as one by me. That poem was "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside," from my third poetry collection, Fighting Kite (2007). (By reading poems besides his own, Jeremy was also furthering the cause of making poetry relevant to our everyday lives, a là Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" — a now-iconic essay from 1991.)

Jeremy's reading was simply marvelous, a hint at the scintillating career that lies ahead of my new young colleague. Congratulations on the new book, Jeremy. And thanks again for performing my poem. For those in the audience who might like to see that poem after hearing it last night:

Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside


Vin, that psych ward is Dante's Inferno — circles
within circles, you climb and climb. The sons
of bitches in white, they're monsters and devils.

You see, son, you're paying for your sins
while you're there. Each circle a privilege
you purchase with blood and bile. It starts with seclusion,

the innermost circle. Almost a jail, but your bed's
made up with wet sheets and you become Satan
on ice &mdash the teeth chattering inside your head,

stones rattling round and round in a can.
Then once a week, they take you down for shock,
the mouse killed again with an elephant gun.

First time was '46: the bed just like
an electric chair &mdash electrodes, colored wires &mdash
That's all I can remember. Except for that shock,

vibration, a lightning flash dead in the eyes.
And on your tongue a taste like bitter almonds
or wet pennies. A buzz in your ears like flies.

Closest to outside is the circle called grounds
privileges,
they let you walk all the way out
to the high, black, wrought-iron fence surrounding

the whole hospital. Air, trees, grass, flowers,
the sky. Only the fence, your blue pajamas,
saying you're different from real people. But how

do you get there? Between is a tortured drama:
wide, sloping stairs of kowtow and kiss-ass
&mdash mixing with real lunatics, the gamut

running from rapists to certified pigstickers,
manic depressives to schizos. And always the devils
in white, those sadists and macho bitches. But, Vin, it's

always the walk I'll remember. The Thorazine shuffle.
We're all diviners doomed to Dante's Eighth
Circle: our heads on backwards for time eternal.

We shuffle like mules rounding a millstone, wish
it would end . . . we shuffle in line for lunch, we shuffle
in line for meds, in line to piss, we shuffle
in line . . . our slippers whispering shh, shh, shh.

Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Kenyon Review (1991).
Also published in the collection Fighting Kite (2007).
My father was a schizophrenic. This doesn't mean he had multiple personalities — the layperson's usual (mis)understanding of schizophrenia. It meant, among other things, that my father sometimes heard voices, saw visions. In the Philippines, this meant Martin Avila Gotera was considered a visionary man. In the US, it just meant he was crazy.

During my childhood, my father was often in and out of psych wards. In "Newly Released . . ." I imagine Papa telling me what life is like inside the psych ward at the VA hospital. Some of the material in the poem comes from things my father did tell me, for example, about his being given shock therapy at Letterman Army Hospital, though the details about that in the poem are wholly imagined. The wet-sheet treatment is also something Papa endured.

I suppose some readers of the poem may think of the Dante connection as arising out of my literary background. Well, first, my father was himself a fiction writer who studied literature avidly and so quite likely could connect with Dante. In fact, he was quite an aficionado of The Divine Comedy. Second, my grandfather, Papa's father, Tatay, had in his sala (the formal living room), a copy of The Divine Comedy, an edition with the Doré engravings; as a small child, I used to sneak into the sala (I think now that maybe that room was off limits to the grandkids, because I remember sneaking) and pore over that huge volume. Not for the text so much — I didn't really read Dante until I was in college &mdash but for those illustrations. I remember vividly the one that showed people walking with their heads facing backward, a punishment for the sin of foretelling the future. There was also another showing sinners rending their chests open . . . for what infraction I have no clue.

This poem is also the result of a one-sided competition with my former teacher David Wojahn at Indiana University, where I earned my MFA in poetry. "One-sided" because I don't think David knows about "our" competition. I remember one day in an MFA workshop, 20+ years ago, David had us read and discuss Craig Raine's poem "In the Kalahari Desert" which ends with this striking line: "Shhh, shhh, the shovel said. Shhh . . ." At a poetry reading some months later, David read a poem that also featured the word "Shhh" in the last line, and he may have even mentioned his own competition-of-sorts with Raine. Not to be outdone, I eventually produced my own poem with "Shhh" as an ending, however petty and unpoetic that might sound.

In terms of craft, the poem is written in terza rima, Dante's rhyme scheme: aba bcb cdc, etc. Of course, as I suggested was my frequent mode in the previous post, I use slant rhyme, very slant rhyme. For example, "sons" / "sins" / "seclusion" or "kiss-ass" / "——stickers" / "Vin, it's." Quite distant rhyme in some places, then . . . in the case of those last three words given in that example, the two similar vowels, the trochee stress pattern, and the ending /s/. With regard to meter, perhaps predictably, a "roughed-up" pentameter (again, see the last post).

When I was in the Army, my MOS ("military occupational specialty" or job) was Military Pay Clerk. For a time, I worked at Letterman Army Medical Center, where I helped mentally ill patients (all military service members) with their pay problems. This was where I learned about the system of privileges (that we see also in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). In the poem, I have my father use as a metaphor for that system the concentric circles of Dante's Inferno. (Ironically, my father was also a mental patient at Letterman Army Hospital three decades before I worked there.) It was also at this job that I witnessed what everyone called "the Thorazine shuffle," the way the drug Thorazine made patients essentially catatonic.

As far as larger thematics are concerned . . . that's your call. I didn't have any axe to grind, I don't think, when I wrote the poem. At some level, I guess, I hope you are getting some idea about how the mentally ill have been treated, historically, by American medicine. Though I'm not on a crusade or whatever. I do wish my father had had available, during his lifetime, medicines like Prozac and other contemporary anti-depressants. They would have made his life easier. Nevertheless, he held down a job; he toughed it out, as men in his generation were supposed to do; and he held on to his dignity. What more could one ask for?

6 comments:

Trevor Jackson said...

Hey, Vince! Thanks for the poem and the explanation behind it. The choice of form would never have occurred to me as an echo to Dante. Very cool.

A quick Google later: people who created division in religion or politics ("schismatics") had their chests split open. Mohammed was among them.

Vince Gotera said...

Trevor! Thanks, my friend. I hope you're well. --Vince

Oliver de la Paz said...

Awesome post, Vince! Great to see how your mind works.

Will you be in Chicago this coming February?

Vince Gotera said...

Oliver, thanks so much. I don't know if seeing how my mind works is "great," but I appreciate your comment. And yes, I will be in Chicago for AWP. You will too, I gather? See you there.

Jennifer said...

I love them poem, and I too thank you for posting it and your thoughts on it. I think it's really great when, as Dana Goia has suggested, we make poetry readings more about poetry than about furthering our own careers.

Vince Gotera said...

Indeed, Jennifer. Thanks so much. Best of luck to you and your poems.

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