Alan Shapiro | Virginia Quarterly Review| Fall 2006 | 20 minutes (4,928 words)
Alan Shapiro published two books in January 2012: Broadway Baby, a novel, from Algonquin Books, and Night of the Republic, poetry, from Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt. This essay first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review (subscribe here). Our thanks to Shapiro for allowing us to reprint it here, and for sharing an update on Nat’s life (see the postscript below).
We parents signed in and entered the waiting area of the boys’ ward that doubled as a family room during visiting hours. We migrated to the far corners of the room, as far away as possible from one another, as if afraid of contagion. Maybe it was easier that way for us to think, “My kid is different from theirs; he isn’t really fucked up or suicidal, or violent; he’s just going through a rough patch, a phase.” We sat in silence, waiting for our sons; under bright fluorescent lighting that gave us all a sickly pallor, we looked anywhere but at each other; we looked at the rubber furniture, the grimly cheerful yellow walls, the message boards here and there scribbled over with institutional graffiti: goals for the day, prayers, bromides, warnings, rules. We were seeking some measure of privacy in a room whose every feature declared No Privacy Allowed.
Then the kids straggled in. They looked dazed, as if wakened too abruptly from a deep sleep. Nat waved and smiled weakly. After we embraced and he sat down, I noticed he was holding a black journal, cradling it in both hands like a hymnal. This was my first visit, the first time I was allowed to visit since he was transferred here two days earlier. He’d been on suicide watch, which meant no visitors and no leaving the ward. He couldn’t go down to the gym for exercise or to the cafeteria for meals. At all times, he was under someone’s eye, even when he slept in the doorless room new patients had to use. This was his second hospitalization in the last six weeks.
He wanted to know when he could come home. He assured me he’d learned his lesson, he’ll never try to harm himself again. “I’m not crazy,” he said, “I’m just sad, and this place is making me sadder. It’s making me crazy, Dad. You gotta take me home.”
As he spoke, I thought about the last few months. Nat had been out of school since early December, when an unrequited love with an older girl, a senior at his school, triggered an obsessive downward spiral that included binge drinking, blackouts, late-night delirious messages, and even threats to the girl’s boyfriend left on her answering machine. He was hospitalized in January when he became temporarily psychotic from the medication he was put on. And then again in February after a genuine suicide attempt. I thought about the weird, terribly isolated life he’d fallen into: apart from biweekly visits to his therapist, and two hours each morning at the Hill Center, a remedial program for LD kids, he was alone all day with me and my wife, Callie. I could rarely get him out of his room. I’d stand at his door and call his name, shouting to be heard over the rap or hip-hop on his stereo. Usually he wouldn’t reply. Then I’d enter without being asked, afraid he might have hurt himself, and he’d explode. I was anxious about leaving him alone and equally anxious about intruding. From time to time, his mood would briefly lift, and we would play pool or work in the garden, or go to the Y and shoot baskets. But mostly, he spent his days holed up in his room, the music blasting out a barrier of sound.
One morning as we were driving home from the Hill Center, I asked him what he wanted to do today. “How about we go straight to the gym?”
“No, Dad,” he said, “I just want to go home. I have a lot on my plate.”
“What do you mean you have a lot on your plate? What do you have to do?”
“Well, I have to do my Hill Center homework.”
“That will take, what? Ten minutes? Maybe half an hour?”
“Well,” he said, smiling one of his rare smiles, “it’s a small plate.”
In the evenings, when his sister and stepbrother came home from school, he would rally for a little while, and pretend to be okay, but eventually he’d return to his room, the door closed, the music cranked up high so none of us could hear him weeping. I thought about his inaccessibility, and the anxiety that all of us felt at all times, Izzy and Aaron especially.
I thought about the two nights I found him dead drunk in his room, ranting about the girl and that if he wasn’t such a loser she would love him, and that this was God’s way of telling him he didn’t deserve to live. I thought about those long nights sitting up with him till dawn, till he finally slept, and how when he woke a few hours later he remembered nothing of the night before, and anyway didn’t give a shit whether he lived or died.
I thought about the first time we had to hospitalize him. Early that evening, he seemed just fine, playing pool with Aaron. Then sometime after dinner, Aaron came into the kitchen while Callie and I were cleaning up and said, “Do you hear that?” Nat was downstairs in a manic rage, trashing his room. He’d hurled everything on his desk—pens, papers, notebooks, laptop, printer—all over the room and knocked over all the furniture. By the time we got there, he was beating the wall with a standing lamp, paint chips and plaster scattered everywhere. He stopped when we told him to stop, but then he began to hallucinate. He was staring at Callie, saying her nose had fallen off and her face was bleeding. He said he had to get out of here and tried to run away. I held him down while Callie rushed upstairs to call the police. Nat broke free and bolted into the woods behind the house. I stumbled after him, afraid I’d never see him again. I had never been so terrified. The police found him some forty minutes later. Nat was insanely furious when they brought him home, not wanting to be touched, telling me to get the hell away. Later in the ER waiting room, when his manic anger suddenly lifted, he was like a little boy again, head resting on my shoulder, asking me if he was crazy, his voice utterly demoralized.
Most of all, I thought about my inability to keep him safe, and my overwhelming sense of having failed him, which mirrored his overwhelming sense of having failed himself as well as me and everybody else who loved him. I’d become so disheartened in recent weeks that I took to picturing Nat inside a coffin, as if to ready myself for what I couldn’t keep from happening.
* * * *
We should have realized that Nat had been depressed for years. I mean, we knew he wasn’t as happy as most kids were, but we thought his depressive tendencies were intensified, if not produced, by his learning disabilities, which have made school such a trial for him. Now we realize that we had it backward, that his academic struggles were a function of a chronically depressed state of mind. He’s a sweet, empathetic, deeply intuitive child. An old soul is how I would describe him. Years ago, his first-grade teacher tried to soften the news about how poorly Nat was doing academically by saying, “But he does possess a real genius for friendship.” And that is true. He has always been a charmer, someone older and younger kids alike are drawn to and admire, not so much for anything he does as for his emotional openness and sensitivity.
But these admirable empathetic qualities in turn have made him overly concerned for others, too much at the mercy of how other people feel. Emotional intelligence and imagination, so central to moral decency, if taken to extreme, can lead to a disabling vulnerability, a sense of self too unfixed or fluid for the kind of stability daily life requires. The chameleonlike, Keatsian imagination that can project itself into any other minds and hearts may be an ideal on the page but in the world it can be a liability. Or as George Eliot says in Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
Nat has never walked about well wadded with stupidity. He’s never achieved the animal insensitivity that often passes for a healthy sense of self. He’s always been too much at the mercy of everybody else’s psychic weather. And so despite his genius for friendship, or maybe because of it, as he got older and his circle of friends widened, it became more and more exhausting for him to bring together friends who didn’t know each other—for fear they might not get along. Among other things, this has made his birthday parties over the years more of an ordeal for him than a pleasure.
And then of course there were the devastating family losses. While he didn’t really know my sister, and was only six years old when she died, he saw and still remembers keenly the toll her dying took on me, and on our family. Three years later, my brother fell ill with brain cancer and moved in with us. Over the next thirteen months, Nat watched his uncle decline and his parents’ marriage fall apart. Three years after that, I collapsed while playing basketball, on the day of Nat’s thirteenth birthday. Callie, he, and I celebrated in the hospital where two days later I’d have surgery to implant a pacemaker. Only fifteen, he’s already had a lifetime’s share of death and sorrow. Clinical depression may be caused in part by nature, not nurture, by genetic bad luck, hardwiring, chemical imbalances in the brain, but what Nat has also had to live through has deeply shaped and even justified the blackest of his moods.
* * * *
“So, can I come home?” he asked again.
I told him that at this point it wasn’t our decision to make. There was nothing we could do but get through the next week or so, until we could figure out what the next best step for him would be.
“But you’re my dad. Can’t you get me out of here?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I gestured toward the black journal in his hands.
“Nat, have you been writing?”
“Sort of,” he said. “I’m mostly freestyling, making it up in my head, and sometimes I write it down.”
He leaned closer to me, and whispered, “Dad, I snuck a pencil into my room, I’ve got it hidden under my mattress, and I write lines down at night when no one’s watching.”
From time to time over the years, Nat would write poems that were always interesting and sometimes very beautiful. When he was really little, he used to say that when he grew up he wanted to become a poet like his dad. But as he got older and found reading and writing such a frustrating and joyless chore, his literary aspirations waned. I don’t how old he was, maybe six or seven, when he came into my book-lined study, and looked around and said, despairingly, “Dad, if I want to become a poet, do I have to read all these books?”
In times of crisis, though, he turned to writing without any prompting from me. In 1998, while my brother was dying, Nat, nine years old at the time, wrote this:
The Winter Air
For my Uncle Dave
The Flowers bloom.
The shadow of death is in the snowy air.
The flowers die away.
I feel scared and alone.
I want to be in bed.
A blue deer runs across the forest with leaping strides.
Around this time, it may have been a year or so earlier, Nat and his fellow classmates had to write and present a story to the school. The titles of the stories the other students wrote were just what you’d expect: “Cary’s Cat,” “My Trip to the Zoo,” “Why I Love My Teddy Bear.” Nat’s story was called “The Problem.” As I said before, the boy has an old soul. As a father, I found his precocious sensitivity to death and loss disturbing, almost unnatural, as if he grew up too fast, as if the accidents of fortune had robbed him of his childhood. Nine-year-old boys aren’t meant to be haunted by “the shadow of death in the snowy air.” As a fellow poet, though, I was and am astonished by the way that sensitivity is captured in the mixing together of spring and winter imagery. And what do you say about that Stevens-like blue deer leaping through the last line of the poem except that it makes you feel like the Muse has come down from Olympus and given my son a big kiss on the poetry part of the brain.
I read the poem to Robert Pinsky. He was poet laureate at the time. Robert admired the poem and joked that as his father it would be unethical of me to steal those lines but as a family friend he’d have no trouble doing so. One night, a few days later, Nat couldn’t get to sleep. In those last hard months of my marriage to his mother, with the household rife with sorrow and mostly (but not always) unexpressed resentments, he often had trouble sleeping. On this night, though, he was running himself down for being stupid at school, for not being tall enough, or good enough at basketball, and so I told him that I shared his poem for Uncle Dave with Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate, and that Robert said the poem was terrific. Nat sat up, hugged himself, and sighed, “The most famous poet in America thinks I wrote a good poem!” He fell back on his pillow and went right to sleep.
“Would you show me something you’ve been writing?” I asked him.
His eyes widened with an excitement I hadn’t seen in months.
He said, “Tell me what you think of this, I’m still working on it, but what do you think?” Then without opening the journal he recited this:
My insane brain can’t contain
This hospital. This is the capital
Of hell, a spell
To compel me
To do nothing well.
Like most of his generation, the genre of poetry Nat knows and loves is rap. One could argue that rappers such as Tupac, Eminem, and 50 Cent have given to rhyme a vitality that most poets, the so-called New Formalists especially, who by the way aren’t so new anymore, can only envy.
My response to the poem, of course, was complicated. It broke my heart to hear Nat express such misery and despair, such anger. Yet the tone isn’t merely despairing or angry, or if it is it also takes incredible pleasure in the anger, and gives pleasure in the expressing of it. I was, I don’t know, elated, exhilarated, and profoundly encouraged by the eloquence and tonal energy of the verse, the lively almost sixteenth-century rhyming, and the powerful control—embodied by those proliferating rhymes—over powerful feeling. The poem is athletic in its formal poise, even hopeful and affirmative, even while the subject matter refuses hope or affirmation.
The poem made me hopeful. For the first time in a long time, I could see Nat actively resisting the very despair he was articulating, a despair that off the page, outside the poem, seemed to have complete control of him. The poem exemplifies Wallace Stevens’s notion that poetry results from imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality.
“Nat, that’s a wonderful poem,” I said. “I mean it, it’s really wonderful.”
“It’s just something I made up,” he said, shaking his head, sadly, as if to suggest that because he made it up, because he was the one who wrote it, it couldn’t be any good.
“Let me hear another one.”
He flipped through the pages of his journal. He read a couple of lyrics in the style and idiom of a black rapper, his chameleon imagination assuming the identity of his favorite artists. These were poems mostly about the other kids in the hospital, the vast majority of whom were African American, as well as a couple about the staff, in particular Mr. Stanley, a black counselor Nat came to love. There were rhymes I loved and memorable phrases (“the sound of rage make you live in a cage”; “But now the feeling feels like forever, the weather ain’t never goin’ to change”), but overall the poems seemed like exercises, or unassimilated borrowings, too conventional in language and detail, even down to the “niggas,” “glocks,” and “AK-47s.” At the same time, I could see and appreciate the psychological and artistic work they were accomplishing. Young poets learn by imitating, and they imitate the work they know. And rap music is the Beat poetry of Nat’s generation, though it’s more popular in the general culture than Beat poetry ever was. In Nat’s case, in his homage to rap he appropriates the rage and violence that is so much the staple of rap music (and that in the best of it both reflects and protests the violent world of the ghetto); he turns that rage against the hospital, against his own depression, against the older girl who failed to return his love. In these poems he gets to be the bad boy he for various reasons never got to be at home. He gets to strike back at the very depression that he was otherwise passively suffering. Rap gave a powerless boy a feeling of power. It also gave him a feeling of community—a community of outcasts and victims—in the midst of extreme isolation.
Then he read me this epigrammatic poem about the girl:
I no longer
To be my hunger;
I need somebody
J. V. Cunningham, my old teacher, and one of the great epigrammatists of the twentieth century, would have loved this. Ben Jonson would have loved this. It’s tight, efficient, lean; with a dancer’s agility, the sentence leaps gracefully from line to line, and the phrasing is both startling and plain, which is an ideal of the classical plain style that Jonson and Cunningham perfected. The comedic timing of that witty last word, younger, is, in my humble, unbiased opinion, completely pleasing.
“Nat,” I said, “I mean it, this stuff is just so—”
“Listen, Dad,” he interrupted, “I know it’s your birthday tomorrow, and, well, I want you to have this.” He handed me the journal.
“Nat, this is an incredible gift, it’s the best gift anyone’s ever given me, but you could give this to me when you get out. Don’t you want to keep the journal with you so you can keep on writing?”
“No,” he said, “I can still freestyle in my head, and I’ll remember what I come up with, if it’s any good. Anyway, I’m mostly writing things down at night in my room when I’m not supposed to, and I’m worried about them finding the pencil.”
Mr. Stanley came into the common room to let us know visiting time was over.
“Okay, Nat,” I said, “I’ll take it, it’s something I’ll cherish, but if you need it back, you’ll tell me, right?”
He said he would. We embraced, and I told him I’d see him on Saturday.
“Promise?” he asked, so much like a little boy.
“Promise,” I said.
When I got home, I read straight through the journal. I could tell from the handwriting—so wild and jagged with the ghost of erased lines hovering behind and between the lines he kept—that Nat had done most of the writing at night, in secret, with his contraband pencil. On some pages there were fragments of phrases, new words he’d learned that day from the black kids on the ward (“New word DOLLARS = friends”), transcriptions of dreams, poems x-ed out, under which in one case he scrawls: “I don’t wanna continue—this rhyme sucks anyways.” In his conversations with me Nat denied having any problems severe enough to justify hospitalization; in the poems, though, he speaks directly and unflinchingly about his misery and his wanting not to live. He wouldn’t allow himself to bullshit on the page. For him, poetry was and is the place of truth telling. The most stunning expression of his despair came in one of the later poems. Underneath it, he wrote a note addressed to me, instructing me on how to read the poem. The note read: “dad when you read this one you have to read the rhyming parts like you’re in a panic, and then read the last line as if your son died right then and there.”
For it to last.
I feel a blast
Running through my breath . . .
My tears see more than my eyes . . .
The “blast of death” could have come from Herbert’s “Church Monuments” (“the blast of death’s incessant motion, / Fed with the exhalation of our crimes”) though I’m pretty sure Nat has no idea who George Herbert is.
Reading it over now, I wonder if my desire to appreciate this poem as a poem isn’t partly a defense against Nat’s pain and helplessness. It’s easier, after all, to analyze its formal poise than to imagine my own son feeling such emotional desperation. At the same time, I do believe that that control, that shaping—the way, for instance, the opening stanza strikes an impressive balance, with two rhyming couplets framing or holding in place the panicky triple rhyme of fast-last-blast—does represent a kind of victory over pain, however momentary; at the very least it enables me to think some part of his imagination is holding together what he otherwise experiences as falling apart. Besides, the switch in point of view from desperate child to grieving father in the last line refuses any such separation between the personal and the artistic. The poem, the care with which it’s written demands (as does his note to me) that I respond as a fellow poet even if I also happen to be the poet’s dad. Of course Nat, being Nat, would be aware of, all too keenly, the suffering his suffering was causing all of us, his father especially. Their mutual suffering connects son to father, on the one hand; but on the other, that connection only deepens the pain that both father and son experience, since it cannot save the child.
As I sat in my study, staring at the poem, stunned by its beauty and heartbreak and the sudden widening of attention from self to other, from son to father, an empathetic leap of imagination rare for anyone to make at any age, but especially so for an adolescent boy, I remembered the night that Nat was born, the first time I held him. I remembered looking down at him and thinking, This is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. Then I thought, Maybe I think this because I am his father. So I took a step back and looked at him objectively, as if he weren’t mine, and I thought—This is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. Maybe I’m less than objective when I talk about Nat’s poems. But I don’t think so.
That last line (like the poem itself) holds up under scrutiny. The transference of agency from eyes to tears, does more than just refresh a tired figure (tears for sorrow), it also compresses into a single line a tradition of thinking about art and suffering that’s as old as poetry itself.
I’ve always resisted the notion that artists need to suffer in order to write. It’s a foolish and dangerous notion because let’s face it: even the happiest or luckiest life is fraught with sorrow. Nobody gets out of life alive. Or as the Greeks like to put it, “Count no man happy till he’s dead and buried.”
Artists don’t have a corner on suffering. And they don’t need to engineer their own disasters in order to feed the poetry machine. Life is more than generous in that department.
No, artists are artists because they make art; and just like the rest of us, they suffer only because they’re human. But that said, I do think art is inconceivable without a world of pain and struggle; art arises as a response to suffering, even if suffering alone isn’t quite enough to turn anyone into Mozart or Picasso. If scientists ever find a cure for aging and death, I think we poets would be out of business. I think we’d all live like the hypothetical lovers in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” devoting thousands upon thousands of years to courtship and foreplay. We’d be like the gods who do mess around with art, that’s true, but only because they envy us our hard-earned excellence, our skill, our ability to work creatively within the inescapable limitations of time and space, of gravity, death, and loss. The gods have no capacity for excellence, no real talent, aesthetic or otherwise, because they’re limitless beings. When LeBron James leaps from the foul line and dunks the ball with one hand, we watch in amazement because he’s redefined what we thought was possible within the rules of the game, and the physical laws of the universe. When Apollo does it, we say so what, big deal, he’s just a god.
Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, Aeschylus wrote that suffering is our best and most reliable teacher. The well-wadded stupidity that insulates us most of the time wears thin in times of crisis and we are hurt into deeper levels of awareness; we see more keenly into the mystery of things. If nothing else, suffering teaches us the value of not suffering, and it makes us painfully aware of the fragility and evanescence of everything we love. In the Republic, Plato says that the pathos of tragedy speaks to a part of the soul that is by nature predisposed to weep for itself. In other words, we’re hardwired to want representations of unhappiness. One of the reasons he would banish poets from his utopian Republic is precisely because poetry teaches us that even genuinely good or just people can be and usually are unhappy, whereas philosophy, at least in his ideal state, would teach us that it’s impossible to suffer if you’re good or just. For Emily Dickinson, suffering and deprivation are synonymous with human consciousness, which she describes in one poem as a “sumptuous Destitution.” She prefers failure to success, comprehension of desire to consummation, because to truly “comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need.” No one knows more urgently the value of air than someone dying of emphysema. Dickinson would rather be aware of the world and all its beauty, than at one with the world, even if the price of that awareness is separation or distance between the self and what it yearns for. “[E]asier / To fail—with Land in Sight—” she says, “Than gain—My Blue Peninsula— / To perish—of Delight.” She would have understood down to her very nerve ends exactly what Nat means when he writes, “My tears see more than my eyes.”
Where there is suffering, which is to say, where there is human life, there is art. But art doesn’t merely mirror the bad things that happen to us. It shapes what happens into meaning. And there is always great joy and pleasure, even happiness, in the fundamental human act of shaping. It’s not, as Plato believed, that some part of the soul desires to weep for itself; it’s rather that the soul possesses a stubborn need for pleasure; it urgently desires to convert weeping into laughter, the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form. It is a uniquely human instinct—to bring the greatest degree of childlike exuberant playfulness to bear upon the harshest and most difficult realities, answering the tragic gravity of life with the comedic grace of imaginative transformation, shaping life into a vitally clarifying or comprehending image of itself.
In his poems, Nat confronts his situation and also resists it or momentarily transcends it. He becomes a maker, not just a sufferer. He turns his suffering into an occasion for play. I can’t read his poems and not feel an animating joy. His poetry, like all good poetry, despite how grim or sorrowful it is, projects and affirms an image of human flourishing. He may write about extreme depression, but there’s nothing depressed about the writing. In his poems he may even say he wants to die, but the vitality with which he says this contradicts the very thing he says. One could make the same claim about Sylvia Plath’s last poems. Or any good work about despair. Writing a good poem about how bad you feel doesn’t protect you from that feeling or release you from it. My only point is that the mental energy that Nat’s poetry embodies and enacts is healthy, life affirming (whatever else may be at work inside him), and not just for the writer, or the desperate son, but for the reader, too, the desperate, if hopeful, father.
After Nat’s stint in the psych hospital, and the next four years in a variety of residential treatment facilities and therapeutic boarding schools, he applied and was admitted to Pace University in New York City. Everyone connected with his education and therapy warned us that the transition from a highly structured tightly controlled therapeutic environment to the chaos of New York City would be more than Nat could handle. We were told that the chances of a relapse were very high. But Nat was determined to prove everybody wrong. And in fact he did. He went to Pace, and while he struggled academically that first semester, each subsequent semester his grades improved. This past June, he graduated with a B average. He now lives in Chapel Hill with three close friends and works full time at a local movie theater. In a year or two, he plans to go to graduate school and pursue a career in social work, specializing in helping troubled teens. He hasn’t been on any medication in several years. He no longer writes poetry.
Image: Zelfportret, Gerard Jan Bos, 1882