Choosing Pain Any Day: Reflections on poetry and recovery

Choosing Pain Any Day:
Reflections on poetry and recovery
by Josh Huber

There’s a certain Slant of light, 
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar, 
But internal difference – 
Where the Meanings, are – 
None may teach it – Any – 
‘Tis the seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 
When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
- Emily Dickinson

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In the essay “Notes on Poetry and Spirituality,” Robert Hass, writing of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” remarks that for the speaker of the poem “the choice is between a kind of pain and a kind of deadness, and she would choose that pain any day.” Hass’s discussion of this choice reminded me of the work I do teaching poetry to people in drug recovery. In the case of recovery, the individual in treatment is asked to choose a good deal of pain over a good deal of deadness—the pain being that of life chemically unaltered; the deadness being that of addiction, of obsession and compulsion. 

Yet, it’s not all that simple. Relinquishing substances forces the individual in recovery to grapple with unfiltered reality. Poet Joshua Mehigan writes in Poetry Magazine of his own experience, “Quitting alcohol boldly foregrounded my prime reason for seeking oblivion: reality. Everyone occasionally feels dissatisfied with reality, but some people are born with a vicious jones to break free from it.” 

Indeed, reality to some recovering individuals is defined by the deadness of an ordinary, sober day after day after day. When the potential daily dullness of a sober life is held up against the sweetness of the many brutal sacraments and rituals of getting high and staying high, this simple dichotomy of choosing the pain of the recovering life over the deadness of addiction grows rather more complex.  

As a poet and teacher of poetry to those in recovery, I wonder whether that “certain Slant of light” Dickinson describes in her poem might somehow be borne through poetry to those in recovery. Might such a light help the recovering individual make the hard choice of sobriety and somehow mediate between pain and deadness? 

Reflection I  

In one of the first poetry groups I led for young people in recovery, I talked about Anne Sexton’s poetry. The lesson was focused on how a poem is organized. For some reason, I decided a fitting poem to help me model these concepts was Sexton’s “You, Doctor Martin,” the first poem in her first published collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). So, there we were, ten or so of us, in a small beige room with the poem cut into several dozen white slips of paper (I had snipped it up line by line) and spread out over the brown carpet. My charge to the students: put it back together again. 

“You, Doctor Martin, walk” stumbled into “tomorrow. Of course, I love you...” 
“from breakfast to madness. Late August” fell into “in school. There are no knives…” 
“I speed through the antiseptic tunnel” whirled right into “of dinner. The shibboleth is spoken…” 
“where the moving dead still talk” married “they used to work. Now I learn to take…” 
“of pushing their bones against the thrust” pulled up “of death. We stand in broken…” 
“of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel” slipped naturally into “here. All over I grow most tall…” 
“or the laughing bee on a stalk” rhymed with “and we move to gravy in our smock…” 

I want to believe that after this general jumble, they still stuck the ending: 

And we are magic talking to itself, / noisy and alone. I am queen of all my sins / forgotten. Am I still lost? / Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself, / counting this row and that row of moccasins / waiting on the silent shelf.

“Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself…” This is devastating. I believe that, in bringing poetry to recovery, I am attempting to teach this correspondence, this awful tension between beauty and self. 

Certainly, in terms of recovery (albeit not drug recovery), poetry was vital for Sexton. Maxine Kumin in introducing the The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (1999) goes so far as to claim: 

“I am convinced that poetry kept Anne alive for the eighteen years of her creative endeavors. When everything else soured; when a succession of therapists deserted her for whatever good, poor, or personal reasons; when intimates lost interest or could not fulfill all the roles they were asked to play; when a series of catastrophes and physical illnesses assaulted her, the making of poems remained her one constant.” 

“Poetry kept Anne alive.” I don’t know if I am bold enough to aim that high, or to face the desperation of the corresponding low. But I don’t think I can deny that this is somehow my best hope as I teach poetry. As the years move on, time continues, and our lives wax or wane, poetry can help us choose a certain kind of pain over a certain kind of death—help us choose it in such a way that life might potentially result, that death may in some small way depart, be driven back, if only for a few moments more. In a personal essay, “Ecclesiastes as Witness”, Alicia Ostriker writes, “This is what poetry does: ready or not, it blesses whatever it touches.”

Reflection II

It is Wednesday evening, just before five. It is almost time for group to begin. I wait in the cool basement of a local treatment facility with dinner smells wafting down the staircase from above.  The walls are fragmented with handcrafted posters and motivational quotes like, “The universe is made of tiny stories” and “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” The wall behind my seat is painted a serene blue-green, nicked through to a yellowing ivory in many places. The north and east walls are cement. The south and west are plaster. There are no windows, and the carpet is darkly colored, yet through the southwest door the sun makes small inroads. 

As I wait, I tidy up the rows of long white rectangular tables and gray plastic chairs facing the whiteboard at the front of the room. Then I write the lines for the evening, the poem of the week, in whatever dry-erase marker is darkest colored and still functional. I sit down and wait for the group to thunder down the stairs and bless again this hollow with their voices. 

Under a cheap plastic clock is a list of male-female restrictions: Josh cannot talk or look at Bethany. Bethany cannot talk or look at Tim. Tim cannot talk or look at Tina. Tina cannot talk or look at Dan. Upstairs, after dinner, the group begins to sing “Let It Go” in unison. 

In group, we write poems beginning with a line by John Samuel Tieman and Walter Bargen: “Once my father drew the face of the moon.” We take turns adding our own lines to this. And so, line by line, we create a word bank, a repository of set phrases we might finagle into our own poetic arrangements. 

“Once my father drew the face of the moon.” A girl named Reese culled that line from a copy of Rattle Poetry two weeks before when we were exploring works of poetry in search of lines we could use to create cento poems. It’s really an exquisite line, one that at once evokes poetry’s indebtedness to ancestry, mystery, the natural world, craft, and made images. 

We speak lines, both garbled and clean, rhymed and chimed, and inexplicable, mundane and mystical, lines both expected and unforeseen.  “Once my father drew the face of the moon”: 

—and put me in a stunning daze 
—as a light flicked through the sky 
—on the stain glass 
—that’s when I said goodnight 

We write and speak these words in addition to the line, “Once my father drew the face of the moon,” much as someone watching her father draw a face would, much as someone staring at the moon might—not because it’s needed but because we must. 

We must try at least to embrace what the moon, a father, a face (any face), and the act of creation could mean. We must because how else are we to come to know the beauty of our vision, the gravity of the truth, the pain of what has been, and is, and someday may be again. We must, if nothing else, because we, like our fathers before us, are compelled to create. And even if it’s not the same face of the moon that we draw with our words, it is something. The urge to both imitate and create is irrepressible.

In the original, the whole poem reads “Once my father drew / the face of the moon before / he got drunk and left.” In this way, our play with these two lines of this haiku becomes more than just a game but also an act of resistance against “before / he got drunk and left.” Our poetry group becomes a recovery group in the very act of attempting to defy both oblivion and abandonment. “Once my father drew the face of the moon…” Through our own poetry, we attempt to return to the raw mystery of the moon and to remain in the “before,” giving the poem another possible outcome. 

Reflection III

Today the poem of the week is Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” The whiteboard is positioned so that I have to kneel to write the last two lines of the second stanza: “and slowly I would rise and dress / fearing the chronic anger of that house.” Kneeling in this way is both worshipful and reminiscent of brokenness. 

Finishing this second stanza, I rise to write the next, driving towards the poem’s final couplet: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.”

After discussing this poem in group, we turn to making our own approximations of sonnet lines. Each individual is to take five strips of torn paper, writing a separate line on every strip. Once this is done, I collect and distribute the strips between two groups. Both groups compose their own sonnets using the lines they received. 

I like how the tables creek as we write and how you can hear hands moving swish, scribble, swish as each poet works across-back-down-across-back-down-across the page like an old-fashioned typewriter slapping back to the left margin. But most of all, I like hearing what we can do with words—how we fill the turquoise room with our voices. When group ends, I am left with a literal pile of discordant lines: 

Stare into the sun, blurred vision with colors
The child smelled like peanut butter
and flowers.
The tree tickled the top of the log
cabin
Those blues got me confused
My mom too busy cookin dope up in the kitchen / I was beggin her to stop but she wasn’t tryin to listen. 

These lines in turn remind me of other lines and stanzas I’ve culled from past groups: 

Love is only a word until you enforce it
Regret is a shadow I can’t outrun
Seeing you silent is the biggest cry
Moses throws a xylophone and hits his mark
Jupiter is a cup of stuffed lions / Jupiter is flat as a guitar
You fit into me / like confetti into a city park fountain / blue confetti / a dry fountain
You trouble me / like a stone dropped into a pond / a cold pond / a smooth stone.
What of these lines? Where do they leave us? Where now are the minds that composed them, the hands that wrote them, the voices that spoke them? 

Reflection IV

In tonight’s poem, Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer,” the kids find a tension in the first stanza between personal and economic value. One boy points out that the grandfather in the poem is encouraging his grandson not to take what’s valuable to others—what’s just a wooden nickel to you may be a prized treasure to someone else. You never know. Another thinks the Indian and buffalo in the poem are important, and the message is to cherish what you worship, remember it, don’t just let it sit in your pocket. One girl sees a message about toughness; don’t take stuff from anyone she says. “Like their stuff?” I ask. “No, like don’t take shit from anyone.” 

Towards the end of group, one client, a boy I’ve know since he was 12 and seen through half a dozen inpatient stints, tells me that he’s leaving, again. He wants a poem to send him on his way. I write one in red ink on a half sheet of wide-ruled paper. In it the stars are singing. Their song is filled with hope. The central figure can choose the next right thing. The small light of caring faces illuminates his imagination. The warmth of hands held out in gestures of hope brightens the cold, shimmer in the dark. This time he’ll make it. This central character. As sure as the poem ends, he’ll make it. 

I hand this poem to him as talisman or memento, as celestial instructional manual. The lines and curves of my scribbled letters are like the scraggly hieroglyphs that bare branches make in moonlight. “Good luck,” I say. “Thanks,” he replies, leaving the room. 

After group, I use a wet paper towel to wipe the night’s poem off the board. The words streak into green like a split leaves spilt over a white plain. I dry the surface with another towel, licking up the residual smudge. Still the board stays blotched with reds and greens and blues—poems, words, and figures bruised into its surface.  §

Issue 06
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Josh Huber lives in Columbia, MO with his wife, Angela. He is a graduate from the Masters of English program at the University of Missouri and now works for Inside Columbia magazine. His various works have appeared (or are set to appear) in Storyscape, Foliate Oak, Bridge Eight, Scissors & Spackle, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere.