Poetry born out of horror has a rough go of it. Some of the things we do to one another are so damaging, it’s near-impossible to wrap words around them. Yet, poets try, and sometimes they even succeed. But behind one poem that works, there might be a couple dozen that failed.
Sometimes I think “Horror” is the only word for horror. Those who have suffered it, who have survived brutality and who will spend the rest of their lives learning how to keep alive, know the desperate need to fill the black hole someone cut into them, which will never fill.
But a lot of those folks survive, and, with lots of sweat and determination and defiance and the love of others, thrive.
A poet who wants to take on the nightmares of her past and put them to verse—that is, who wishes to take aesthetic rigor to chaos to create literary art—has set a hot, smelly, putrid task on her writing table.
Walking through the mind where the horror dwells so as to write about it, is a risk. It’s upsetting. It can stir up the hot swill. The perpetrator rips through time and slits his victim’s cerebrum wide open. A poem that works, that succeeds, that might even get published, may free up the writer from the pain, but just for a while. In fact, getting it published might throw her into the asylum. Or, it can liberate her. Or both.
Let’s take the worst as an example: continual, incestuous rape of a five year old child. There are studies on how early childhood trauma hardwires itself into the brain cells. I imagine clean, pliable synapses, pulsing with five-year-old innocence, until the hands of hating kin grip and twist and snap them like dry twigs.
She has suffered a most diabolical act. And she’s a poet. She knows that, to go once more into the breach of a timeless evil, she’ll need to latch onto images upon which she’ll build the poem. The stronger the image–one that at least appears to capture the violence, even for a moment–the better the possibility of a successful poem.
I’ve been working on a poem born out of a specific childhood wound. It’s a strain; it’s always a strain. But from time to time I try to take a baseball bat to the damn thing and beat the shit out of it. In other words, write about it. I usually fail. But, it’s an important failure; it means I’m staying in the game.
I didn’t wake up one morning, stretch and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll take on the Evil today,” and head to the writing table. No, it came out of one of those dark nights of the soul, when the pricks and stings of daily life cut too deeply, the stress of work or lack of sleep shakes the thing awake and leaves me alone with it. It was a rough four days. I got better. And then–I shit you not—a locust flew into my brain.
I grew up in a place where locusts (a.k.a. cicadas), ate everything. Think the plague in Exodus—that poor Pharaoh lost every single crop because he pissed Moses off. I can still hear the locusts’ ubiquitous scream, as they ate the entire territory of Appalachia Tennessee.
I haven’t thought about locusts in, well, I can’t remember the last time. No need. I live in Los Angeles. But here I was, in one of the funkiest of funks, and right then bam a locust appeared. One locust, not a swarm. And specifically, the shell it leaves behind.
I was going to write just from memory—when I was a kid, I played a lot in the woods and, during locust season, picked the perfectly-bug-shaped shells off the trees. Fascinating: a hull of a life, stuck to the bark. Ugly, yes, but, perfect.
But memory wasn’t enough. To write this one, I did a little research, and ran into a fascinating word: Imago.
Definition: an Imago is 1. The final and fully developed adult stage of an insect, and 2. An unconscious idealized mental image of someone, which influences a person’s behavior—a type of god.
A newly-born locust crawls out of the nest of eggs, eats, grows, then, when he feels he’s gotten too big for his exoskeleton-britches, latches onto a tree. The thing inside bulges against the outer skeleton, and splits it down the back. The bug crawls out, pushing and fighting against the hull, until it’s free. Its god-awful green-pulsing wings spread. It’s twice the size of the shell. It is the Imago.
In the poem, the Imago becomes the perpetrator, and I am the shell.
That may sound awful. For me, in writing it, I felt freedom, a reprieve, a certain Fuck-you defiance that has kept me alive and kicking–because, for a brief moment, I locked the Devil up in verse.
Does the poem work? Well, I’ll post it tomorrow, so feel free to workshop it.