Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Poetry, memory and self-loathing

Years ago, I helped a friend memorize a number of T.S. Eliot's poems. While doing this, I discovered that I enjoyed poetry. I must confess to never having appreciated it before. Reading poetry, with the exception of Haiku, which is quite short (to say the least), I found myself always drifting away whilst reading. I find myself doing the same with Proust, who I've tried to read at least a half dozen times in my life, but I never get anywhere. I would discover that I'd forgotten the beginning of a sentence before I reached the finish of it, and had many urges to throw his books against walls and out of windows.

I wonder if I read Proust out loud if it would be different. I suspect so. This is how I discovered my love of poetry. Even though I can hear my voice reading inside my head, somehow uttering the words out loud make them come to life.

Funny, I alway snobbishly disdained those who "read out loud" (to themselves). What was there to disdain about these people? I was taught they were "bad readers", but c'mon, at least they were reading! And why should one disdain anyone for their quirks or "deficits", especially ones that don't effect oneself in any way at all? It's snobbery. Pure and simple.

I've always thought I had a bad memory (and I do). I can't recall song lyrics of music I've heard hundreds on times. One of my brothers has a natural ability to memorize poetry and lyrics. He knows the lyrics to almost every Dylan song by heart and he knows many an Emily Dickinson poem. For him, it is nothing. He reads. He remembers. For me, it is a struggle.

It's not only poetry, but books and movies, that I forget. Take the movie "Taxi Driver", for example. I've seen it at least eight times. I saw it four times when it first came out. I felt it was almost a part of me. Years later, upon learning a friend had never seen it (and I consider it an important film) I agreed to watch it with her. I was astounded to discover that I didn't remember much of it. I remembered a few scenes, like the "You talking to me?" scene, and the one in which Bickle kicks over his TV set (or does he?) Ah, it's astonishing how much I can't recall.

So, when my friend suggested I memorize a poem, just for fun, I said "I can't do it". But I wanted to accept the challenge. I chose Carlos Drummond de Andrade's "The Dirty Hand" (which you can find in "Traveling in the Family" in the Amazon list at the bottom right).

This poem spoke to me. I felt that if I had been a poet I would have been compelled to write the same exact poem. Now, that is a rarity, finding a work of art that feels so essential that it could be a part of oneself. If you do find such a thing, cherish it.

Memorizing this poem was a chore that I enjoyed. Like using mantras or sitting with Zen koans, I lived with that poem for weeks, speaking it out loud in my car on my daily commute (two and and a half hours a day), murmuring it to myself whenever I was alone, and continually re-reading it to make sure I was not getting it wrong. To this day, I remember "The Dirty Hand".

It is a poem about self loathing, and personal (not sexual) impotence. At least that's my take on it. Though meant as a metaphor (I presume) the "dirty hand", for me, was not. Here is where we get into a serious kind of craziness, which I am game to start talking about. I have been plagued by the desire to cut my arms since who-knows-when. I have done so, not seriously, but haven't for over a decade. Some of it was classic self-harming urges, but another part of it was different. It was an urge to be rid of the hands that could make art, but didn't, or could make art and couldn't. I needed to punish them.

And there was also this, a dream I had when I was very young, which has haunted me my entire life. It is a dream of a person who has no power, who is invisible and who will die as a result of this. In my dream, I am in high school, sitting at the back of the class. Suddenly, the artery in one of my arms bursts open. Blood is spurting everywhere, on the desk, the floor, and even on the walls. I try to staunch the flow, but it's an artery, it's not possible, and I need help. I can not believe the teacher doesn't see the blood that is copiously spurting around me, so intensely that, even though it's a dream, I can feel it pooling in my sneakers. Finally, I raise my hand to get her attention, while trying to hold the wound in my arm. "I need to go to the hospital!", I cry out. She looks at me with a level gaze and says in a calm voice "You'll have to wait until the end of the period."
I will die. Then I wake up.

This is the arm, the hand, the part of me that is ruined for life, that I must rid myself of. It will be the death of me.

It is illegal for me to post the entire poem (I believe) but here is a bit of it. If you're curious, get the book. In it, too, is a poem entitled "Don't Kill Yourself".

So, from the "Dirty Hand" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade's:

My hand is dirty.
I must cut it off.
To wash it is pointless.
The water is putrid.
The soap is bad.
It won't lather.
The hand is dirty.
It's been dirty for years.

I used to keep it
out of sight
in my pants pocket.
No one suspected a thing.
People came up to me,
wanting to shake hands.
I would refuse,
and the hidden hand
would leave its imprint
on my thigh.
And I saw
it was the same
if I used it or not.
Disgust was the same. . .

Photo note: Joel-Peter Witkin "The Poet" (2005)

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