The poem below appears in What's My Zip Code:
And now John stands sun
struck in Phoenix, thin, shaggy,
fierce eyes hooded by greasy hair,
as I climb from the rental car.
We watch each other.
A Mexican girl, about six, asks,
"Are you his probation officer?" No,
only his brother. "Is he retarded?
He moves his feet and laughs."
At dinner he picks at black crack
blisters on his hands. "It's from how
we take it—the matches." Showered,
dressed in my clean clothes, skull
shaved to a buzz, he orders
the biggest dinner at La Cucaracha.
"Dachshunds. I shape-shift into
a dachshund. Sexually. All over Phoenix
they are disturbed. My energy. I'm
a healer." The waitress, pouring coffee,
tips over the catsup. "She's a spy.
They're watching me. Susie paid
some guy 400 bucks to beat me up.
He beat up the wrong guy. A luminous
being, just out of prison. Who'd
been baptized there." Baptized?
"Baptized. Butt-fucked until
he broke free."
We drive to his old neighborhood.
Rayjan, a hippie carpenter clean
as Pat Boone, tells a laughing John
he will kick the shit out of him,
stomp on his head like a melon,
should have already, if he doesn't
stop scaring his wife. Making her cry.
He means it. John, hunch shouldered,
shuffles and grins, spins to cosmic
humor, apes the Indian dancers on tv.
John asks me to buy him a gun.
If I love him. I am his brother,
aren't I? Or am I a spy sent
to test him? "Tell Mom to get me
a gun. If she does I will heal her.
Physically and spiritually. The gun
is not for killing people. No,
I can do that mentally. Think
them dead and they die.”
Hi Mr. Stringer, I don't know if you'd remember me, I was class of '96 at Huron and was in your poetry group senior year.ReplyDelete
I looked you up a while ago and was sad to hear about the tragic loss of your brother. Your brother touched my life through your writing and sharing about him. I remembered him as frankly a little scary but I remembered how you observed him so well, you just *looked* and were interested in him with a detached love. It impressed me to see that someone could take that approach with a mentally ill family member. It was very helpful to see that.
My impression is that in our poetic exchange years ago there was a wondering whether John's illness and mine had something in common, whether his fluidity of language and mine shared something for instance. In the spirit of that exchange here's a poem I wrote after my first hospitalization in 2004.
At the Hospital
I read to restore plot and narrative,
to give my mind something to grasp.
Austen, Kipling: old books, safe books
in any quiet corner.
At first the symbolism is dizzying
references to the Bible
and sometimes, still, to me.
But better than the television
or the magazines
which are bright, and shiny, and scary.
I read until my eyes give out
and then am left to my own devices.
My self and I normally get on well
but we had a serious break.
I was terrified of what my self might do
if left to itself.
Terrified, at first of the symbols,
and then of the silence.
A meltdown at the core.
The soul-consuming loneliness
of playing God.
My moment of insight?
A man named Paul, or John
(good Biblical names)
told me which trash bin to use.
It’s arbitrary, he said.
Arbitrary. That was the key.
I could spin meaning out of anything.
That stopped me spinning.
I walk, when allowed.
Fifteen minutes five times a day
On a paved track
round a courtyard
with a dirt mound, a few wildflowers
and, of course, high fences.
Outside, I am sure, it is brilliant.
There is a hint of ocean
and distant beacons blink.
Once a fellow patient
a woman, Russian,
laid some wildflowers on the ground.
Look, this is my grave, she said.
I knew just where she was coming from.
She was chronic.
I thought at the time she was there
to help the others through.
I write, a little, when asked.
Everyone likes my poem
(the grass under your bare feet).
They ask me to read it twice.
I didn’t write it as a poem
but that’s what they called it, a poem.
Made me feel competent.
That and a bead necklace, a bead lizard
were my small accomplishments:
Stringing together words or beads
that was reality
that was as much as I could manage.
And all through it
of returning to earth.