A big literary conference is probably not the best place for a poet dealing with a mental breakdown. But there I was at AWP, skittishly perusing tables at the book fair, under the garish lights of the Minneapolis Convention Center. For two years, paralyzed by depression and anxiety, I was barely able to leave my apartment. Staying inside was also a problem because the TV, phone and microwave seemed to be emitting high-pitched whines. I’d contemplated suicide. But with the help of my husband, a good shrink and poetry, I was slowly recovering. I still wasn’t 100% myself, but just being in that crowd felt like a great victory.
At the Tavern Books table, I picked up a poetry collection with a striking title: The Fire’s Journey. As I paged through it, I read these words:
I cast myself in a hollow of shadow
from the highest contour of the blood
from the skin to the light entering through dawn
climbing up through the syllable
The voice, a combination of Sappho, Dickinson, Whitman and Blake, felt both ancient and contemporary. The poet told how creation began with sacred speech from the mouth of a poet-god. Then, like a shaman, the deity embarked upon a perilous Underworld journey to bring back wisdom and healing to humanity. I was especially attracted to the idea of descending into darkness for the benefit of others. I’d walked my own painful path; what knowledge could I share?
I looked at the cover again: The Fire’s Journey by Eunice Odio.
I’d never heard of her. A quick search on my phone revealed a stunning, movie star face: long dark hair framing a high forehead, eyebrows like black wings above fierce, luminous eyes. A visionary. However, her biography told a different story. Born in 1919, Odio was “the mother of Costa Rican poetry in the twentieth century.” But her work never saw publication in her home country until after she’d died, alone and undiscovered for days, in Mexico City at age 54. There were only a few examples of her work on the Internet, despite an impressive publication record. The book I’d just been reading was making its English language debut, the first volume of a 456-page epic that Odio had completed in 1957. As a poet myself, I felt desperate to know this brilliant, neglected woman — and how she’d come to that tragic end.
Back home in Brooklyn, I obsessively Googled. I ordered anthologies of Latin-American poetry and source books of Spanish-American women writers. As I researched Odio, I was shocked to discover many other talented female poets who’d suffered similar fates. Paging through one anthology I found the work of Delmira Agustini, shot by her estranged husband (who then turned the pistol on himself) in a hotel room in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1914. She was only 27. She’d published her first collection at 21, and was praised by critics of the time (for her beauty as much as for her work). Her poem “Lo inefable” (“The Ineffable”) struck me:
Have you never endured a star like a white dwarf
inside you that gives no light but entirely consumes?
Those lines described exactly how I’d felt during my breakdown.
In the same book I came across this biographical note for Alfonsina Storni:
“Depressed and in bad health, she walked into the sea in October 1938.”
She was 46. Born in Switzerland in 1892, she’d come to Argentina with her Swiss-Italian parents when she was three. Her first book was published when she was only 24. Like Agustini, she’d frankly depicted female desire and depression. Pages later, I read the lyrics to “Gracias a la vida” (“Here’s to Life”) by Violeta Parra, born in Chile in 1917. The version in the anthology was co-translated by Joan Baez. An activist like Baez, Parra had collected and performed Chilean folk songs. She toured Europe for four years, introducing her audiences to regional singers and local customs. In 1963 she founded a performance space in Santiago called La Carpa de La Reina — the Queen’s Tent. The following year, she became the first Latin-American artist to have a solo exhibition of her paintings, sculptures and arpilleras (patchwork pictures constructed from scraps of cloth and burlap) at the Museum of Decorative Arts of the Louvre. Unfortunately, the public’s response to the Queen’s Tent was not positive. Feeling abandoned, Parra shot herself in the head in 1967, in the space she’d created.
I had to close the book. I was reminded, of course, of Plath and Sexton, but I’d personally known poets like that. My best friend Lydia Tomkiw passed away in 2007, alone like Odio, of alcoholism. We’d met in a college poetry class, back in Chicago. Together, we plotted our rise to literary fame, sent work out, and gave readings. We’d even hatched a scheme to kidnap Allen Ginsberg, to get ourselves on the cover of Time magazine. (When we met him at a reading, and told him about our idea, he was all for it. Too bad we didn’t have a plan.) But we grew apart when her drinking began to consume her life. I’d always wondered whether it was artistic sensitivity that created the conditions for depression, or was depression the gateway to great art. And why did women seem to succumb more than men?
I also wondered: How had I survived, when they hadn’t?
The answer was obvious. I had things they lacked: monetary resources, medical information, love. I wanted to embrace these lost sisters, tell them they’d never be forgotten because they’d managed to flood the world — or at least my world — with beauty. During my breakdown, poetry had sustained me. Now, I realized, I had a debt to repay.
I got up and Googled Delmira Agustini’s face, printed the image, and pasted it in the anthology next to her selection. I did the same with Odio, Storni and Parra. I read their work, stared into their eyes, and made notes. I compiled everything I could find on the Internet about them, and ordered more books. I felt like I was following a breadcrumb trail: the more I read, the more women I discovered. Soon, I had a growing stack of books next to my reading chair and a list of “under known” women poets from throughout the Americas, from Canada to Uruguay. I wrote in a fever pitch — poems that incorporated details of their lives, that spoke directly to them. At times, I could feel my language blurring into theirs. It was the only thing I wanted to do, and I rose at dawn every day and wrote for hours. I hadn’t written that much since before my breakdown. One day I realized I was creating a new manuscript, one poem for each woman. I decided to include their biographies and call it (after a line by Agustini) Even Living Makes Me Die. I would honor them using the art form we shared. Because they’d descended to the depths and never returned. Because I did. Because through their work they’d brought back knowledge that speaks to us in difficult times — that poetry is a long conversation with wise friends over time, a kind of justice, a kind of peace. Because they never knew they had done that.
The Poet’s Decalogue
— after Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga), Chile, 1889 -1957
1.) Be always conscious of your wings. Darkness is overtaking, churning, and even tension is tired. In the house of keeping still, all is hollow-eyed, and groaning.
2.) Shiver and tingle outside the automobile. Grandma is on life support. The nuns and nurses found her, and called you a wanderer. They know nothing of your wings. Or do they?
3.) Disrobe. The holiest were often required to be naked. Under the dome of the winged serpent, all was stillness. In those days the sun door stood open, and all of creation flew through it,
in radiant rounds of joy.
4.) Is your chimney warm? Is the air in it warm, and the air in your room? Is your hearth redolent with the scent of flesh? If so, fan the flames to produce a cooling jewel. Use this jewel to scry only the most necessary knowing.
5.) Make a pilgrimage to the Mountain of Butterflies. Love descends on those defenseless.
6.) The ocean-born virgin is nicknamed “Fishy Smell,” but her real name is “Bird.” Find her in the nick of time. Her vagina is enough; you don’t need the legs. Remember that initiation takes a lifetime and transpires purely by accident. Soon, a triangle of morning light will come pouring through the porch.
7.) Take the mantle of an earth-colored insect and make a wand with twigs and leaves. Use it to replicate the cunning beauty of certain corpses. In the end, your face should resemble a luminous, apricot-colored cloud.
8.) Soon, you’ll stall. Your coverts will beat to no advantage. You may choose to sacrifice your happiness to restore what was lost, but the sacrifice itself is a privilege. How long will it take you to forget this?
9.) Everything that torments and suffocates, everything that imparts sorrow and despair, is the moving water that turns the wheel that transforms air into tree into prayer into air. Breathe deep. Make scribble pictures of the stain on your ceiling and try to sell them. Very few will buy.
10.) Now recall the glory of your wings.
The Changeling Husband
— after Jane Johnston Schoolcraft/Bamewawagezhikaquay, US, 1800 –1842
Far from me and star-like, twilit with amplitudes of stars, Sir Somebody is somewhere with arms akimbo, wet with dead tobacco. My thoughts of love grow young and I go forward in the mornings to greet the supple water, jiggle the particulars — roses, dresses, rugs and vases — from the center of my mother’s maple sugar cake. Night-bound still, and wire-folded, my feelings cramp around me neatly as I rise around the rooms, a bateleur of the taste of plain water. In old days, one set down to compose in best clothes, with manicured hands, and told of seas that move along the world’s shores, through all hours, the seasons called into being by the moon and sun. But soon, all things lose their form. Nations loll and wane, or are cut down. Light drops its coins on the eyes of the dead, the dead rest in their bloated foam. My man-venus, alive, flies between those high and low tides, in darkness between those same seas and their sands. When he finally arrives he seeks only the shape of sleep; oh, the danger of allowing myself to be coaxed back to his cocoon. What is the sound the stars make, rushing through the sky? what is the way of the sacred acre? who speaks to the tree that holds the morning sun in her arms? In vestal luster lie longing and grim limitation. Oh, this rough hour. In beauty may all things be accomplished.
Given To Fire
— after Elise Cowen, US, 1933-1962
Not from nowhere
not the consort of a river —
what I remembered best
of quiet brightness
Allen’s arms around me
and if he said I was standing
in the middle of the room
at dawn all in black
high on mescaline
more beautiful than the poem
then I was
And now I am
passing back into the rocks
into the god of the rocks
Betty said it was birds
who first fitted witches
while fir trees
of great antiquity
sang lays they’d learned
from their mother
I say it was too easy to love
the leggy one.
He made me run up and down
the Statue of Liberty
until I learned to fly
past the frosted skylight airshaft
thru the closed window
like an arrow cast
without a bow
without an owner
but borne on feathers
just a cool stream of air
— after Olga Orozco, Argentina, 1920-1999
All I need is my heart
fashioned in the image
of a god of girls.
All I need is to be
its boon companion,
to never release it
to the gravity climbing
up my spine.
There’s no breathing in
a change of season,
no comfort in watching
winter wheeling into spring.
There is only this one sun,
my secret star.
Somehow this brackish cavity
became its home.
And if its love must be won
or in battle,
let my talisman be
the thin rivulet
etched in my wrist —
evidence of long years
to be a girl.