A few months ago I dangled my feet over the edge of the roof that sat just above my partner’s apartment in the city – which can only mean New York – and listened as she told me she was worried about my smoking and my drinking. I treat my body an odd way. Each morning I wake up and run 6 to 12 miles. 50, 60, 70 miles a week. I pour it on, run hard, derail. I believe, often, that the path to transcendence worms its way through our fractures, that breaking is one of the few truths of existence.
Born to an alcoholic mother, I quite literally ran away from the problems that arose. I cradled a Walkman in my hand – delicately, so as not to scratch the CD – and ran circles around the houses to songs borne of running that no one should literally run to: Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.” I wrote letters to my future self, promising an early marriage, a drug-free life, nothing torn, nothing shattered. What we promise. Who we promise what to. When, and where, and how long we remember anything at all. What forever even means. I remember the bottles in the backseat, the basement, the bundled mystery of the past – how unfolding it, year after year, is the addict’s curse – the child of an addict’s curse – to wake up, finally, one day, not knowing what happened.
My partner was worried because she knows my history (what is anything without context?). And she was right. I run more now, try to do everything else less. Just yesterday, I ran 21 miles north of the city into a cold wind that burnt the tip of my nose. I thought of nothing but the carriage of my arms, the calm patience of my feet, the way the wind kicked off my nose’s curve and spiraled along my forehead before ripping past me, continuing. The word addict means to “award,” to “give assent.” I know we are born of this obsession: this want to say yes to ourselves, and this inability – call it bottle, call it basement, call it battering – to know how.
I have two books with me today. One, a print-out of Michael Schmeltzer and Meghan McClure’s collaborative book of lyric nonfiction, A Single Throat Opens (Black Lawrence Press). The other, Kaveh Akbar’s celebrated chapbook of poetry, Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press). Both deal near-obsessively with addiction. They breathe liquor and lyric.
Throughout A Single Throat Opens, Michael and Meghan play with the dueling meanings of the words “alter” and “altar.” They write: “Addiction mutates the very idea of tense. It alters identity, exalts a substance on the altar of the body.” The altar is a high place. The altered place is a changed one. There is so much striving in their work – striving to understand, striving for love, striving away from grief and all its wonder, how grief itself becomes a dwelling place that is almost, just almost safe. As I read A Single Throat Opens, perhaps because of its fragmentation, its jumbled and jagged assortment of words, I think of the word tense, how one of its meanings deals with time (the Latin: tempus) and the other, with nervousness, anxiety, being oxymoronically stretched tight (the Latin: tensus).
Addiction is like this conglomeration of words, like height, like change, like time, like stretching. Kaveh understands its height (“if he looked up he might see me / a sparkling”) and change (“Today, I’m finding problems in areas where I didn’t have areas before.”). Michael and Meghan understand its time (“The past tense is strange here.”) and such time’s ability to stretch (“If it is a continuance, it is not a past.”).
Both works transcend the common act of fetishizing alcoholism and addiction. They resist the bottle, both literally and figuratively. They resist the sheened lacquer of it and instead go for its glimmer, its dark, its shatter-shine – how Michael and Meghan write, “If our glass is always empty, we will be lucky to catch a shadow at the bottom.” They both, too, acknowledge thirst. See Kaveh: “So trust me now: when I say thirst, I mean defeated, / abandoned-in-faith, lonely-as-the-slow-charge-into-a-bayonet / thirst.” And see Michael and Meghan: “Even though I pulled away, inside me rises such thirst. Even now I want to throw myself like a rock into the depth.” In this, both books eclipse commonality, their writers dry, desert-clad, run ragged with their temptation and the temptation of others, and, as such, near miracles of both bearing and bearing witness.
Tangential Quote #1:
“I am convinced that human life is filled with many pure, happy, serene examples of insincerity, truly splendid of their kind-of people deceiving one another without (strangely enough) any wounds being inflicted, of people who seem unaware even that they are deceiving one another.” – Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human
There are few more beautiful and apt descriptions of what it means to be addicted and how difficult it is to understand and speak to the addicted than Baldwin’s masterful short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Though I would now add both Kaveh’s work and Michael and Meghan’s work to such a canon as well. In the tender, deft coda to Baldwin’s story – when Sonny is playing music on stage finally amongst his friends, absorbed in the wrought melodies, the soaking hymns – Baldwin writes, “Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.”
I could say such words about both Portrait of the Alcoholic and A Single Throat Opens. Both works begin, as Baldwin says, with the spare statements of their truths, the raw honesty of each situation, as if each person met or each scene entered is in and of itself someone or something we must hold to the light and speak kindly to, as if they (or it) are the only one alive in that one moment of our truth-telling. Kaveh does this with each poem – each poem an admittance, a scar, a wound opened then sealed – the letting-in that only comes after the pouring-out. And Michael and Meghan do this with each fragment – think: shattered, bits, shards, metal, gleam, shimmer – because what is truer than a fragment of thought? What carries more emotion and more rawness? Isn’t that how we think, in fragments? Isn’t that what we are, before assemblage, before putting ourselves together each day to show our bodies to the world? Before morning’s coffee and cigarette, before the walk to the car, the train, before the first breath of cold air?
Both works hover patiently – though sometimes not without angst – in that first step of Alcoholics Anonymous that deals solely with admittance. This is how the healing begins, with honesty. But even that, as Michael and Meghan point out – “Sometimes I believe that being honest with ourselves is telling lies” – is fraught with tension, new anxiety.
To go all the way back. To be a child again. To drink so much the Hudson becomes a blur that speckles stars. To vomit on those stars. To make the cabbie stop in the middle of the highway and rush around to open the door for you. To feel his fingers in your hair, pulling you halfway out the door, so as not to dirty the leather, the fabric, someone else’s property (isn’t a road someone else’s property?). To make yourself, over and over again, someone else’s child, another human’s burden – and who asked for this? Did you? To chuck a glass on the floor of the bar and walk out as it shatters. To huff down one, two, three, half a pack, a pack. To fall asleep somewhere in the city. To wake up, find the train. To tell a stranger to wake you up at your stop. To not feel shame until later. To forget how to find shame in your bones. To get up and run, not far, just away. To go further back. To figure out how you first came to believe in god. To know what faith was before it had a name – yes, I believe mother will stop drinking; no, I don’t know what makes this so other than the need for me to know it. To go even further back. To become a star. To become the universe before exploding. To become so small you can fit inside even the smallest thing. To hide. To drown. To know that you can drown in space, just as in water. To feel afraid everywhere. To try to breathe. To not be able to.
Tangential Quote #2:
“I was always longing to trust someone; I was making life a fiction, or writing fiction. I longed for people to not be who they were, another thing SL forgives me for, and shall always forgive me for, even when he has to deal with the fallout, which is often, God bless him…” – Hilton Als, White Girls
As A Single Throat Opens dances and mourns and grieves through the thoughts of both the addict and the victim of the addict – the child of the alcoholic – there is this stubborn refusal to give in to the beauty of the drink. “(Intoxication) is never platonic,” Michael and Meghan write, “Intoxication is a nudity, intimate and impersonal.” I stop here when I am reading and pour myself over these words, the oxymoronic quality of them, how, later, the two write, “I will always choose love, despite love.” A Single Throat Opens straddles that tender, nascent wound that seems to be forever bleeding for both addicts and their children, the one that screams, heal me, and the one that answers, with what? Both Michael and Meghan write with the fervent, blood-soaked lyricism that only comes when you are able to hold multiple truths in your head, despite their contradictions: yes, we are wounded; yes, we are worth fixing; yes, I want to fix you; yes, I think I know how; no, I don’t; yes, I will keep trying; yes, I know it won’t work; yes, I still love you; no, maybe I don’t; yes, I know love hurts; yes, I will keep trying anyway.
Through tests, questions, letters, steps, confessions, and poems, A Single Throat Opens navigates such tensions (remember: tense) in perhaps the most honest way possible, even when the book admits its own dishonesty. Children of alcoholics are almost always only left with fragments of childhood: broken glass, glint of blue sky through clouds, those forever-fading memories and the way they are each retold, over and over again, blurring truth the way a drink blurs vision. “I move through life with senses scrambled,” they write.
A memory: a dark room, almost black. Arizona. Shadowed faces of rehab patients gathered round the walls. Steel chairs, a table center stage. My mother – this memory so deep her face is like the sun: bright, blinding, harboring its own gravity, forever close to exploding. There’s something she promises me, and I accept it, believe it fully, because I am young. To be young again. To believe not even in the goodness of others, merely in the impossibility of hurt. To cry like I used to then, full-bodied, heaving. The memory like a vignette, the darkness imposing itself from each corner, the light cowering in the middle, so vulnerable. My brother there with me, and how I don’t remember his hands at all. His body a ghost. I crave relics. I want to know I was there. That it happened. If I remember the hurt as I felt it then, I think, maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t hurt now. Hurt myself. Hurt others. Temple of emotion, the body is. Religion of discontent. Two bodies in a room: a communion of yearning. Bring me back. Let me know what it felt like to be promised something I thought would change (think, again: alter) my world. And then, to have it broken.
Tangential Quote #3:
“I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe.” – James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
And then there is Kaveh. If the fragment is the best vehicle to convey addiction’s abuses, perhaps the poem is the best vehicle for transcending such abuses. What is a poem if not conscious breakage? The assemblage of thought, sentiment, want, and desire with the constant knowledge that there must be fracture here. Poem as glass shard held in palm, so close to bleeding. Poem as fault line. Poem as toothache, abscess. Perhaps nothing pays more testament to this than Kaveh’s poem, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),” with its jagged form – so-close-to-prose – and stutter of want, each breath a prayer, confession: “I am less horrible than I could be.”
But then sometimes Kaveh breathes and such breath lengthens the line into a rush of jumbled beauty. See: “Despite Their Size Children Are Easy to Remember They Watch You,” which reminds me of the sonnets of the should-be-known-better M.A. Vizsolyi, how such rushing – like a child looking out a train’s window and pointing at something so quickly left behind – gives quick life and light to the transcendent. “The better a life the more sadness it leaves,” Kaveh writes, and then he is gone, and we are left, going through his going-through.
To this end, there is a strain of thought that the word religion comes from the Latin relegere, or, “to go through again.” Kaveh’s Portrait of the Alcoholic is religious not only in its devotion to faith, but also in this sense of relegation, returning, revisiting. When I consider healing (think: to make whole), I think of this act of returning, that, in order to heal, one must return to the same place from a different angle and then stand there, changed.
This is why it’s important to recognize again the way in which Kaveh – and Michael and Meghan as well – resists fetishizing alcohol and addiction. The glamour of addiction is not lost on anyone, especially writers. As always, respecting the multitudes is important here, respecting the drink and that which drives the person toward it. If prayer is all things, then addiction is prayer, as well. There is a speaking there. There is an object of the speaking, whether it is listening or not. But the body is required in all things, as well. The body gives breath, gives action, gives love, gives sex. The body takes. The body receives. The body, slowly, with or without consciousness, kills itself, day after day. And when the body dies, the words die, too. Not the old ones, sure. But the gift of new ones.
When my partner and I sat on her roof, this is how she chose to frame her discussion. She said she was not worried about me now, not worried about me then. She said she was worried about the will, and if it will exist. She said it kindly, with generosity, full of what-I-have-come-to-call-love. As I read (and re-read) these books in front of me, I think of this moment, and how often I have forgotten my own body, and what a shame that is, in this world where so many are being killed for theirs. I owe these books for such access to my own acknowledgment, and the books of so many others, too. And I owe myself the act of returning, day after day, to the assemblage of my body, to the awareness of my fault lines, my fractures. Most days I feel we exist in that space between the end of one line and the beginning of the next, that space where the eye moves, the body leans, and so much is uncertain, and so much is expected to be beautiful, hurtful, or lost. We’re all here, though, as Kaveh writes – yes, “this cave is big enough for everyone.”