Friday, November 02, 2007

The Theory of Heartbreak

If, as David Bromige says, poetry is the theory of heartbreak, when do we begin to theorize?

The person I'm thinking about has never had a problem with separations, barely glancing at his parents as they go out the door. But when he wakes up after a night away from them, a night (one can assume) full of dreams and confusions, surf's up in the feelings department.

This time, however, for the first time, he had a word to say, the germ of a theory about this unsatisfactory situation. He let my husband pick him up out of his crib but then (from this high perch) took a long, disappointed look at us and turned away. "Mama," he said, heartbrokenly, and let his body shake with sobs.

It started me musing. I came to poetry in my teens after losing both my parents, my father to divorce (when I was close to this guy's age) and then my mother to madness.

And poetry kept me alive. At ten, living for a year in Los Angeles, I'd decided I wanted to be a singer but that was actively opposed (while my mother was still relatively well). I wanted lessons but kept singing anyway, especially when everybody was out of the house. Still, as a dream, as a vocation, it seemed absurd and out of reach.

Poetry, though, when I stumbled on it, was just the solution. Who could take it away from me? One didn't need materials other than those one already had for school. It made no noise. It wasn't part of that feared and hated entity, show business (my father's first career path, before blacklist and economic reality set in). I could even take it along when, later that same year, my mother entered a mental institution and I was sent to live with a foster family.

I could be a poet and nobody would be the wiser. And so I was, really, for decades. Maybe that's why I've always remembered what John Logan said of Bill Knott's poems (on the cover of his Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans): that they "give asylum to the orphan in each of us." I'm sure that's also why I was so taken with the work of John Wieners, poet-waif of poet-waifs:

Rain today and rain in the self. Reign. Return
to the place of imprisonment. Reign of life, how many
years left to bury the old heart and give birth to the new?
Reign of years, with each day a marking place of what
happens in the universe, what comes into ken,
of the stars and their turning. What one does not know.
Will never know. The desire to pierce space and
be up on the moon. Doomed as fellow men to
walk this place with sweat on our forehead.
         That we are not given enough, must find
the means to fulfill our existence. That we are
given enough, too much as a distraction to pene-
trate the essential core of our being. And what is
that but a hollow place? No radiant outpouring
as stars of light. We have eaten away our basic
substance, fed it to the drugs, of days
when there was nothing to do. Too many on the calendar.
         And yet this is substance, this despair.
         To walk with it as a beloved companion, or
friend. See that as the broken leg we try to mend.
Cripples with no crutch, looking for the broken tree
to fashion into a stump.
         And yet this is not the true condition. There
are comedies and comedians. Flowers in blossom.
The same old dirge. Age-old. The curse of
"Adam" that each man is heir to, and equipped
for — interrupted by the doctor coming down the
hall — that each man is heir, and for which each
is equipped.

(from "A Series," Ace of Pentacles)


Cris said...

Very insightful and moving, this post! The story about the little boy's disappointment in looking for his mama, and your story of losing your parents as "theories" of poetry. Amazing. I have a theory about these theories (I like what Bromige says about being able to substitute the three nouns interchangeably (poetry, heartbreak and theory) and his sentence is still true) that pretty much everyone has them in some form-- but some people are better at denying that they ever happened than other people. The people who can't keep themselves in the mood for duration of the Lifetime Guarantee of Denial, which promises anaestheia in return for signing, may choose instead some form of sublimation of the suffering (as Freud describes in "Civilization and Its Discontents"), including, possibly, poetry.

My primary theory of heartbreak comes out of the loss of my sister when I was a teenager. It was a long time before I knew that I'd signed the Guarantee and that I could only get out of it by going back into the inferno and writing. The choice of poetry came out of a belief, backed up by a few million words of experience, that no other idiom would allow me to match the intensity of the event in the language I was using to describe it. Eleven years later it is not yet complete, but the process of its completion has been my poetry education-- and the fact that all my training (besides 8 years of literature in college) is on-the-job maybe explains why I'm so ignorant of what other people are doing.

Last night there was a party here where I'm staying in Brooklyn and I knew almost no one and the music went on and on, very loud, until 6am. I don't know what they call this music (Trance, maybe) but it's very popular here in NY for dances. It is entirely electronic (NO acoustic instruments, no human voice) featuring a steady WHUM-WHUM-WHUM of a single electronic bass note that vibrates all the walls and floors. The bass note never changes in pitch, rhythm or dynamics through fifteen minutes or more-- except that occasionally it stops, while some higher electric razzmatazz is going on, which creates "tension" (the only tension in the music), wondering when, exactly, the whum-whum will resume. This party proves nothing, but (another theory of theories) I think the cumulative effects of Denial manifest in the almost complete absence of social intimacy. It seems to me that most people in NY are asleep completely to this "problem", which, I guess, means it isn't a problem to them. Though I don't really think poetry promotes social intimacy either. Does it?

Thanks Rachel for the gift of this post.

Rachel Loden said...

Thanks, Cris -- I like what you say about the Lifetime Guarantee of Denial (and accompanying anaesthesia), which certainly maps to my experience of this plane. It's why we're okay with torture, or at least why we're not in the streets making it stop.

The life of poetry seems to promote everything from social intimacy to its dark underbelly in the form of contempt and loathing, which of course ricochets all over the blogosphere.

Poetry itself, though, promotes another sort of intimacy: I mean the bond between writer and reader, which seems to me to be as powerful as (and in some ways not unlike) the fierce, unconditional connection between parent and child.

Both are crucibles of soul-making and (for those of us whose parents fell by the wayside) poetry was perhaps the more important forge in that it was something we could choose, rather than something that hammered us into rough shape through experience.

Don said...

Great post! I love the "surf's up in the feelings department!"

Very interesting perspective on poetry making no makes no physical noise, but can be much more powerful than things that do.

Zo Hashim said...


You don't know me, and I happened across your blog almost purely by accident.

I say accident, but the truth is, currently I'm sat in an airport hundreds of miles away from where I would call home. I came out here to win back my ex-girlfriend. We both still have strong feelings but the long distance made it kind of difficult.

Ofcourse the concept of love renders understanding things like futility and unfeasibility quite inane, and we ended up making love again one last time before we said our long goodbyes.

Thats my story in a nutshell for why I'm sitting here now, googling, "Theory of Heartbreak", because to be honest, I don't understand this pain and this loss. I was fine alone before so why do I feel so dependant on a person who doesn't share the same feeling any longer?

The fact is that we only understand pain in hindsight. And once we understand it it devolves from the experience - if it is rationalised and affirmed it no longer hurts us because we are immune. But initially, to start with, one must first suffer pain, and that pain can only be felt through loss.

The loss requires there to be something there in the first place. So it creates a bit of a chain. At the end of the day, it feels like human beings are almost symbiotic in their nature - they survive on their own for a period but once they come into contact with a suitable other they attach viciously - letting go is almost too painful, often fatal.

So I'm sat here, trying to understand my pain, and I have to admit your theory makes a lot of sense. I just hope what I said adds a little to the value your argument builds.

All the best,


Rachel Loden said...

Thanks, Zo -- completely agree with you that "the concept of love renders understanding things like futility and unfeasibility quite inane." Well said.

I don't think the force behind our attachments begins in viciousness, although (alas) sometimes they appear to end that way. There is a certain ferocity to it, as one can see any time a baby lunges for a nipple. But there's no meanness in the baby's heart -- even when (as I can attest) such a lunge makes the nipple-owner wince. All of this is just a hint of the power of the engine of survival.

Amazing that we can be musing on the theory of heartbreak over all these miles. I hope you (and your ex-girlfriend) are soon free of pain and sailing on.