Reading in end times


The poems began rolling in when I was chin-deep in the end of a relationship. I was miserable, but not succinctly or definitively miserable about the relationship's exact ending. Rather, I was dramatically miserable at an accumulation of losses — relatives, old friends, and old loves who had slipped and passed away over the years leaving roles that could not entirely be filled out again.

Murukami's Norwegian Wood coverI was miserable yet I fluctuated between relishing the misery and keeping it together: eating 'clean', slashing through to-do lists, shaving my legs with pizazz. I only let the queen of weeping loose when I had an afternoon to spare.

And the poems peeked into my inbox, just a few at first, part of some chain-letter-style poetry project that a less miserable person might relegate to their trash.

I sent out Frank O'Hara's 'Having a coke with you' to someone, because although in this moment of life I was mainly having a coke with myself and my loose ends, the poem buffers a region in my romantic heart that is saccharine and soft. The poem is appealing, and this is about the limit of my bibliotheraputic creativity. Part of this email project's dictate was to forward on a poem that's changed you in some way. 'Having a coke with you' simply made me smile.

Documents entered my usually work-oriented email account saying 'I stumble over my words. I just don't know how to explain.' 'I am not done with my changes.' 'Nobody can buy my time absolutely.' '& the whole garden will bow.'

This project was, again, appealing. But it did not alleviate the sense of disorder awash in my life. I mean, how could it? What are you supposed to read when the trickle of things drains out your plumpness, your fullness? When the accumulation of disappointment leaves your skin a bit loose?

Redeeming oneself through literature seems up-itself and futile, really, when your body just wants to walk up to the wall and quietly bang its head against it.

A region of reality is untouchable by art. The one that's a bit close to the bone, where art seems frivolous, offensive, even. A lot of people think that to spend time on art is to take time away from the material difficulties of the day — and that if a day is not difficult to get through, you must be a prince!

This distrust of art is, I think, a fear of what art can reveal. Why, if art is so frivolous, do fascists and their ilk want to hinder its conception?

There's a part in Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I said to my friend, where the main character loses someone, his lover has killed herself, and so he walks for days, weeks, around Japan until he reaches the beach, and then he stays at the beach and just stares out to sea and sleeps between the sheets of sandstone. I said to her, I feel so desolate now that that's what I want to do.

I don't know for sure that that's what really happened in the book — the details are misty, plot points are missing. And I'm not sure I was really that desolate, either. I was lapping it up a bit, definitely.

What I remember from the novel is probably not what Murukami described at all, but the image that resonated in my mind of swirling sandstone, and the feeling of self-absorbed despair. The utter self-absorption of this form of grief (which cannot be total, if you want to keep living in the world) feels liberating in its decadence.

Maybe that's what reading is for; it's to build up a repertoire of emotional and social situations in order to connect with feelings that don't have words, that only have images like swirling sandstone.

You're going through your Saturn return, my friend said to me, to explain the excessive leg-shaving, the weeping while washing the dishes. Things are going to feel shaky for the next three years, she said.

Three years, I thought, is a long time to bank on the logic of a shaky (at best) science. So instead of seeking cures for the problems of my chart, shifting planets, I read into the poems sent to me; I analysed the reading pile by my bed. I wondered if it would be better to read some bleak Russian, or whether it'd be more therapeutic to seek out books with moral certainties and polite endings.

My instinct said to follow whatever seemed appealing. Reading the news was out of the picture.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, grief, depression, Murakami, Norwegian Wood



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Existing comments

We can only speak from personal experience. Reading requires concentration, and concentration is very difficult when depressed. I'm not sure about miserable. Books don't have to be about reading. My latest purchase was Collins World Atlas Mini Edition as I like to look at maps. And this book is small and easy to carry. I like your fourth paragraph from the end, Ellena.
Pam | 18 February 2016

I think your recollection of Toru Watanabe's journey to the sea is pretty accurate. But remember he was "rescued" by the kindness of others.
ErikH | 19 February 2016

When we are rescued "by the kindness of others" who bring us an appropriate book or story how lucky we are. When we are ill or depressed maybe receiving one of those colouring books that are currently popular and a set of pencils may also hit the spot. Ellena , the idea of sharing appropriate poems with friends seems a great idea,; a bit like reading a passage from scripture every now and then!. The ability to read is surely a gift and a lifetime joy. I doffs me lid to the teachers some of them dedicated nuns who taught us to read and who shared their love of literature with their students.
Celia | 19 February 2016

Ellena, I suspect that writing this aricle was the best therapy of all. I hope you enjoyed the writing as much as I enjoyed reading. Keep those tears flowing into the sink. It productively cools the emotions. Maybe dishwashers aren't as good an invention as we think they are. Thanks.
Margaret McDonald | 19 February 2016

Ellena I think you were blessed to know what was making you miserable - an accumulation of losses. When I feel miserable, the feeling usually comes out of the blue, suddenly like summer storm clouds sweeping into an azure sky. If the music of life were to be written to scale I could see the black and white notes but I would hear only the discordant blue notes. I would have an attack of the blues. My conditioned reflex would be to play my Blues CDs and wallow in my misery. Usually after a while I would have catharsis. I agree with Aristotle when he compares the purging of the emotions in a person's mind when he/she watches a tragic play to the purging of unhealthy food from the stomach. I don't think simply reading the script of the tragedy would do the trick for me. When I'm feeling blue reading novels, poetry or inspirational writings seems too much of an effort. Music is my panacea.
Uncle Pat | 19 February 2016


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