There are some conversations that no one should have with their mother, especially if that no one is a poet, and especially if that no one is a poet four months into her third stint of group therapy.
Anxiety always engenders punctuality, and I had arrived a little early to the café where my mother and I sometimes meet for a mid-week breakfast, across the road from her Ultimo office and a crisp, half-hour walk from my home. I still always order the same thing, and eat it a bit too slowly, and we still sometimes argue about whether my coffee should be made on skim milk or full cream, but we both know that barely two years ago even turning up at all would have been impossible for me. I was reading as I waited, curled up at a corner table, and when my mother arrived she asked:
“What’s that you’re reading?”
“It’s a novel I found. By a poet, about group therapy.”
My mother wanted to look and turned the book over — away from the bespectacled, magnificently bearded man scowling on the front cover — to read the blurb on the back.
“It’s unfinished?” She looked at me. “Did he decide it was too hard to write? Or that he shouldn’t write about the other people in the hospital?”
“He threw himself off a bridge.”
My mother is the only member of my family with whom I talk about my writing; we’ve spoken about how strange and difficult it has been, at times, to write about my illness. I hesitated before answering:
“He threw himself off a bridge.”
The book is called Recovery/Delusions; it’s written by John Berryman. There’s something maddeningly perfect about that title, something that sits right at the heart of the problem of the brain, the knots it can tie itself into through illness, or when trying to bear what it otherwise can not. Untangling these knots, untying recovery and delusion, is a messy, tentative process, and one that may well lead to other snarls as it progresses. How can we ever know, after all and at any time, how much of our own mind is rational, how much is operating in the fantastical, the mad? At what point does narrative slip from being the best system we have for making sense of the world into nothing more than delusion? When is it, that is, that the mind takes on a mind of its own?
A different American poet, Wallace Stevens, puts it like this:
“The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems…to have something to do with self-preservation.”
The imagination sounds remarkably similar to delusion.
He adds that poetry is simply the expression of the mind, this violence within, which is why it “helps us to live our lives”. But even in this formulation, the imagination, as it presses back, sounds remarkably similar to delusion.
The psychiatrist in charge of the clinic where I’m currently admitted, in this, my third stint as a day patient, loves poetry: thinks metaphor might cure us all, quotes Walt Whitman at every opportunity.
“You are large, you contain multitudes,” he says to a room full of bony women, many clutching cushions in front of their stomachs, some so underweight that the outlines of their teeth are visible through their cheeks. “You contain multitudes,” he says. “There will never be any more perfection than there is now.”
I only realised later that Berryman’s unfinished novel is actually only titled Recovery. Delusions is the title of his last collection of poems, and in the edition I have the two works are published together, as if in composite they might offer some kind of complete — and completely morbid — picture of the poet’s mind in his last days. I can’t pretend this isn’t part of the appeal.
John Berryman began writing Recovery in 1970, a year in which he was hospitalised four times for alcoholism. His first hospitalisation occurred in 1958, and not one of the remaining twelve years of his life passed without at least one readmission. Nonethless, he continued to teach — often giving lectures while on short passes from various hospitals and programmes — and to write. His best known work, the Pulitzer Prize winning Dream Songs, was written during this period; my favourite line from this work is “my psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist”.
The main character in Recovery is Alan Severance, an illustrious and famous scientist, a man of high intelligence, creativity, and rigour, at times as severe as his Dickensian name suggests. He is, of course, a fictional stand-in for Berryman – it is impossible to read him otherwise, especially as the novel’s epigraph states, “The materials of this book… especially where hallucinatory, are historical; all facts are real; ladies and gentlemen, it’s true.”
There’s something wonderfully appealing about the concept of an historical hallucination.
Read the piece in full in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue.
Fiona Wright’s poetry collection, Knuckled, won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award in 2012.