On Formlessness

Up and moving slowly. The cogs in my head are moving in an odd rhythm of stick and spin. When Leonard and I returned to the house, E. had already shoveled the snow from the driveway. I couldn’t recall the route we’d taken or explain why it’d taken us so long to round the neighborhood.

I felt a little dizzy. But that may just be the cold.

Last night an email caught up with me. It related to an art project that I was privileged to be involved with last year. It seems like a lifetime ago and pulled me back to a time when I felt like I had a writing career. Like I had something to say. I have to arrange for an Italian translation of the poem that the artist used in his larger, collaborative work. I had to dig through my files: neatly labeled folders with dates and genres.


I am like a stereotypical addict parent in a bad movie. I show up a couple of times a year and promise to get my shit together this time. Then I disappear. No note. Hell, I don’t even bother to say I’m going out to buy cigarettes.

Obviously, in this little parable, it is the poetry itself that suffers abandonment. How’s that for a conceit?

Following Impermanence, I had plans for another book. But every time I began writing it felt like craftsmanship and not art. I know how that sounds. But I felt as though I’d given myself an assignment and was hoping that the life spark would seep in somehow if I made room for it in the work. It felt like waiting for Godot joy.

And I am not against that kind of approach. I even think that it can be a wise approach if one wants to establish a name, a brand and a business. It keeps the wheels turning. And you can be a poet on Instagram with a capital P, which means your work will reach readers. And that is what it is all about.

But ultimately, with all my experimenting with marketing, I acknowledged that that… what? goal? is a full time job and only a fraction of that time is the creative art work. The smallest allotment of time can be spent in open-ended experimentation, play, creation. Meanwhile I work a 43-hour-a-week job that I alternately love/hate, maintain a marriage, friendships, family relationships and my mental and physical health. I walk the dog, cook the meals. Life is so full of goals and wants that it can be overwhelming.

Maintaining a healthy structure has always been difficult for me. I go to extremes. I’ve never been motivated by whips or carrots. I plug into the machine until whatever energy got me moving dissipates. How much of this is bipolar behavior, how much is PTSD-related issues, shame, ADHD, simple immaturity? My shrink shrugs: Does it matter?

In my practice, writing is all about the effort of taking my personal experience/perspective/understanding and attempting to make it a thing-in-itself. A thing recognized by other people. Maybe it is very much about the validation of my human experience as real: this is meaningful, and we can recognize our animal and spiritual selves reflected in one another through the thing.

It’s as though we can’t know one another directly. We need the thing. Like squinting our eyes to see an image we call an optical illusion: the shift in perspective doesn’t make things less real. It enhances our experience. Even the stars disappear when we look directly at them. Maybe we see the world – and each other – best through a glass, or at a slant. We’ve heard something like that before, of course.

Maybe I can do this better without self-assigned projects? Maybe I can drop the form now and write things into being in a messy, organic way?

There are scenes in my head, memories that surface again and again “like rotting wood shooting out of the lake“. And I write them and rewrite them and wonder why I’m not done yet.

And then there are the scenes I may never write. When I look directly at them, my observations are clinical. Big, academic words that engender a detached, legal dignity. Like trigger warnings on a book cover.

At a slant, everything splashes on your retina and indirectly calls up the smells, and the sensations on skin, on membranes… and well, there is this “thing” that is uglier than you thought. And so very human.

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