Thursday, November 30, 2006

Villanelle: Devout; Depressive Thinking


I wake up to a house cold as a stone.
The old dog limps downstairs, I let him out.
He wanders in a forest of his own.

My wife nests in her bed, warm but alone.
Her sleeping face warms me, what love’s about.
I wake up to a house cold as a stone.

She loves me more than anyone I’ve known.
Her heart’s heat is what keeps the true chill out.
He wanders in a forest of his own.

There is no sin for which these words atone.
My love, being deaf, can’t hear them if I shout.
I wake up to a house cold as a stone.

Love is a small, shy bird easily flown
And can’t be caged in words within, without.
He wanders in a forest of his own.

We’re not just one, we’re not each other’s clone.
Our separateness doth make our love devout.
I wake up to a house cold as a stone.
Love wanders in a forest of his own.

This marks the end of my villanelle composition for November. I’ve already touched upon Nature, Death and God, so I thought one on Love would be a suitable ending, though I think my darker villanelles were in general, better.

What have I learned from writing these 23 villanelles? First, that form is still relevant. Second, that the power of anaphora persists as strong as ever; repetition of phrases adds power to poems. Third, this form isn’t hard, although the choice of end-rhymes is important as you only get two rhymes. You don’t want to end a line with “industrial,” for instance.

I can only hope the reader enjoyed these poems as much as I did writing them. The artistic discipline they required each morning has been one stay against my ongoing depression. While writing I think about the poem, not myself. (My wife encouraged me to no longer rate my mood, but I would put it at 1.5 kilorats today.)

Yesterday I sent another ms. off to another ms. contest, this time “The Richard Wilbur Award.” I think I have mss. floating in four contests now, but the odds that my one ms. out of 500 should be selected are rather astronomical. But it is a discipline or sorts, even if it costs $25 a pop.

I cried yesterday while sitting with Kathleen. I felt myself a complete failure. Between tears I mumbled: “So this is my choice: To be a lousy poet or a crazy doctor.” So I felt. So depression makes me feel. But Kathleen reminded me that I was an outstanding doctor, and I was. And she doesn’t think I’m a lousy poet; she thinks I’m good. When I’m feeling better, I, too can have such positive thoughts. But now I walk through a wasteland of self-despite. My twisted logic says: “If I feel this bad, I must be this bad.” When feelings rule, you’re really up shit creek. In depression feeling drives thought; in normal mood, thought drives feeling. In depression I think of myself sadly because I’m sad; in a normal mood I would feel sad only if I suffered some loss.

I’m also terribly ambivalent about poetry, a love-hate relationship I’ve had for a long time, because I feel my poetry will never gain the recognition I had hoped, and therefore fear I am wasting my time, and I need to find a real job (if only my back and mood were better). But I go on writing. As I say to my students (and I haven’t had one for a while), “Only write poetry if you cannot not write poetry.” That’s how it’s always been for me.

I have not decided on a form for December. I’m considering pantoums and ghazals. Tomorrow I should debut the new “form of the month.”



Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Villanelle: Wise Man. Thought vs. Action

What the Wise Man Said

I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.
His hands were leather and his head was white.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

As he spoke he moved farther uphill.
I followed him into the fading light.
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.

It wasn’t my mind that followed but my will.
He had me there; my will attained that height.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

But if mind must shepherd thought for good or ill,
Does action render mind a parasite?
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.

“You can’t prepare for change,” he said, “it’s still
“The act that makes the change, not your foresight.”
He told me that my mind was not my will.

I went back down the mountain to fulfill
My dreams or bury them in the grave of night.
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

I got the idea for today’s poem from a soft news segment on a course at Harvard about happiness. I remember what the professor said: “You can’t plan change. You either change or you don’t.” “Shit or get off the pot,” in other words.

I say I want to swim but I don’t. Therefore I am not swimming. And all the arguments and pleading and guilty scenarios in my mind have nothing to do with me getting in the car and driving to the gym. Action talks, bullshit walks. But how does this apply to clinical depression?

In deep depression one must absolutely will oneself out of bed, will oneself to make a bowl of cereal, will oneself to check e-mail (which you are sure will be derogatory and judgmental). In depression the mind tells you you can’t do anything but your will disproves your mind over and over, unless you enter a catatonic state. The problem with will is that if only will is operative, there is no pleasure in attaining a goal, only a mild relief that you have done something. I get no pleasure from putting away the dishes this morning, but I will myself to do it and afterwards regard my work as something.

I believe it was Adler who spoke about the will to power being ascendant in human psychology. Reality is not so easily explained. Consider the soldier in Iraq who fell on a bomb to shield his fellows. One could argue that he willed himself to the power of a glorious memory, but I don’t think so. It’s not like he was a suicide bomber. It was an act of noble charity.

Depressed or not, there are a great many things in life that we must will our way through, from filing taxes to getting a tune-up on the car. Habits make willing easier, however, as in my habit of writing a poem in form each day. But while I am at a task that requires my mind, it is my will that propels me to the end so that I don’t stop and say, “This is too difficult.” If the mind invades a process that way it is best to take a break and not argue with your own mind. Who has ever won an argument with himself? For each side of you that wins, another side loses. It is in action that we choose how to be. Thought may be useful in planning an action, but it can never perform the action.

Food for Thought,


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Villanelle: Resisting Autumn. HTML trials.

Resisting Autumn

November’s dying. Gold has turned to rust
And rust to brown. The great rains have begun.
Nature hoards its strength because it must.

But why is Nature always boom or bust?
The Douglas Irises have come undone.
November’s dying. Gold has turned to rust.

A little sun would elevate my trust.
At least the green of firs can’t be outrun.
Nature hoards its strength because it must.

Brown skeletons of thistles join the dust.
The cowslip parsley’s white has turned to dun.
November’s dying. Gold has turned to rust.

I’d love to see a single bulb upthrust
To light the forest floor, a change begun.
Nature hoards its strength because it must.

Perhaps I ought to call Prometheus
To bring us fire and burn this season down.
November’s dying. Gold has turned to rust.
Nature hoards its strength because it must.

I think my medication change has had some salutary effect on me. Although my balance is not so good, my head is not filled with the constant, narcissistic self-despite which characterizes depression. And my anxiety about everyday tasks seems slightly reduced.

For instance, yesterday I got up on a tall ladder and cleaned the rain gutters at our rental.

Our landlord is sly. When I told him this needed to be done, he simply slid a big ladder in the garage. I wonder if I’m being used or whether the partnership between the landlord and me is natural. In either case, the back rain gutter is pretty helpless as it’s protective mesh of wire has fallen down near the bottom of the gutter, inviting redwood fronds to bury it into oblivion. The mesh in the front gutter is in good repair, so I didn’t have to hand-clean the vegetable matter out of its depths.

I am not well but I don’t feel as sick. My great frustration has been an html class I’m taking at the local community college. I just can’t seem to get it. I sit at the computer and compose code and nothing ever happens on the page as I intended. The concept of the Cascading Style Sheet and the Document still puzzles me, and I don’t know how much of the former I should employ for the latter. I have continued in this class during my depression because I know it is good for me, even if my failure to grasp certain basic principles makes me fear I have lost my mind.

The four great themes of poetry are nature, love, death and God. Yesterday’s villanelle was about death, today’s about nature. The rhyming was difficult in today’s offering but I hope it does not appear unnatural.

Thine in Truth and Art,

Craig Erick

Monday, November 27, 2006

Villanelle; The Dead

The Dead

The dead shall rise again. The dead shall rise.
Out of the sea they come, covered in flesh.
They are astounded at their newborn eyes.

Will these bones live? Nothing can sanitize
The worm within the shroud around the dress.
The dead shall rise again. The dead shall rise

Not wiser for their absence, mouthing lies
They lived and breathed, lying as they confess.
They are astounded at their newborn eyes.

Christ said, “Come as a child.” No disguise
Can save them from the dreaded second death.
The dead shall rise again. The dead shall rise.

They must submit. There is no compromise.
It’s them or God, and they are in excess.
They are astounded at their newborn eyes.

The sun sets on the dead. By moonrise
Most are dead again in God’s winepress.
The dead shall rise again. The dead shall rise
And be astounded at their newborn eyes.

I continue to be dull in my mind but my emotions are marginally better. Unlike my normal self, I have little to say. I trust it's the medication that's doing this, flattening my affect, taking some of the noise inside my head away. One good sign is a return of sexual interest, something I have sorely lacked these last eight months. But I have been fooled before, thinking I was on the road to recovery, so I won't invest too much time in considering if I am better. At least I am no worse.

I will continue to labor at poetic forms. Thanks for all the feedback. I am not currently rating my mood because the microscopic attention I pay it may be bad for my mental health.



Sunday, November 26, 2006

Failing Sonnet Sunday; Wonderful Thanksgiving!

This morning my mind is dulled for reasons unknown, possibly by the new medication. Thus I did not compose a sonnet for Sonnet Sunday, for which I apologize. In its stead I wrote my first snippet of free verse in two months. Here it is:

The Missing

rain on the skylight.
Mouthfuls of drops
thread the forest like spores,
pearl my windows.

No light but gray light.
No light but the sky
painted in primer
diffusing down
to the roots of trunks
in a mist of dull silver.

Where are the birds?

Despite my mood impairment I enjoyed Thanksgiving immensely because all three of my daughters and my grandson were there. (Writing the word "grandson" has a strange effect on me. Doesn't it imply something about my age?)

The love of my daughters lifted me up. They alternately hung on my arm as we toured Haight Ashbery and Fisherman's Wharf. Our bond is strong. When I returned home yesterday I cried because I missed them already.

Afterwards we watched "Rushmore," a movie my brother bought me for my birthday. We didn't get the movie, though my brother and daughters are enamored of it. I saw no change in character in the protagonist, no crises that changed his outlook, although near the end he accepts a more realistic goal in obtaining a girlfriend than trying to get laid by a teacher.

Naturally the interruption in my blog was due to the holiday.

I can only wish that others had as sweet a Thanksgiving as I. I was surrounded by the people I most love, including my siblings. Kathleen said it was good to see me laugh. I was skating on love. I will try to hold on to that.

Thanks for stopping by,


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Vilanelle: Cold Dawn; That Dog Smell

Cold Dawn

I feel the cold dawn of old age.
My years run swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.
My youthful strength was flimsy camouflage.

I think the golden years are a mirage.
My joints eagerly join in the rebuttal.
I feel the cold dawn of old age.

Where is my understudy from offstage?
Come do my stunts, be me, and make it subtle.
My youthful strength was flimsy camouflage.

I don’t want to engage but disengage.
My works are rusted ships but fit to scuttle.
I feel the cold dawn of old age.

One day you wake with nothing to assuage
But boredom. And there’s no one left to coddle.
My youthful strength was flimsy camouflage.

Pain from my ankles to my shoulder blades:
This is my harvest, this the body’s total.
I feel the cold dawn of old age.
My youthful strength was flimsy camouflage.

Today I can only afflict the reader with trivialities. Yesterday Kathleen and I cleaned the house. I vacuumed. She had me put some kind of powder down first that helps separate animal hair from carpet hair. Whatever. On my hands and knees going up the stairs, the small brush nozzle attachment kept getting plugged with hair. It was dog hair, not carpet hair. Could it be the magic powder wasn’t magic, or was the carpet hair swept into the vacuum first, leaving only dog hair behind?

Afterwards I went to vacuum the car, so I took everything out of it, including Kenyon’s blanket. I handed the blanket to Kathleen. “I just washed that,” she said. “Smells like dog,” was all I said.

You know that wet dog smell? It’s like a wool sweater soaked with rain. There’s a damp mustiness about it that nothing can quite match. You can find it in the scratch-and-sniff book for masochists.

2 Kilorats,


Monday, November 20, 2006

Funeral Notes

Funeral Notes

I won’t take death lying down.
Let me sit up so I can curse the day.
I don’t want a martyr’s tinsel crown.

If my poetry should gain renown
And some fool wishes to embalm this clay,
I won’t take death lying down.

A Viking funeral—let me burn and drown--
Is better than the coffin’s slow decay.
I don’t want a martyr’s tinsel crown.

Death is the ancestral hand-me-down,
Your last best suit, it is the great cliché.
I won’t take death lying down.

We hope some deed or word, some towering noun
Might keep our memory forever in play.
I don’t want a martyr’s tinsel crown.

I’ll curse you if you put me in the ground.
(I’d rather you put my books on display.)
I won’t take death lying down.
I don’t want a martyr’s tinsel crown.

I want to thank LKD for her compassionate comment yesterday, proving that she is truly “one acquainted with the night.” It’s easy to tell who knows and who does not know the experience of severe depression. There is no way to fake the knowledge. I wish I were never given the knowledge, but you can’t pick your parents, and both of my grandmothers, not to mention a bunch of aunts and cousins, are manic-depressive, as was my father.

There are certain disadvantages to the diagnosis in terms of practical matters. I can’t get term life insurance because my dad committed suicide at age 62 and I have the same disease. As for health insurance, we are catapulted into the states “high-risk pool”, where we can get Blue Cross for $1200/mo. or sign up with Kaiser for around $800, the only disadvantage being that Kaiser is over two hours away, and not an easy drive on the two-lanes. Even when I was a practicing doctor I favored universal health insurance. Massachusetts is trying it, God bless them. With a third of Americans uninsured, it is one more class division between the haves and have-nots. I worry about Kathleen’s hip, which is painful and clicking, and whether she might need a hip replacement. And if I had insurance, this depression might be over as I could afford ECT. But we muddle on, try to walk each day for an hour, stop when Kathleen’s hip or back become too painful. And Kenyon can’t join us on these walks, they wear him out, although he still swims like a seal.

Today Kathleen has declared housecleaning and I look forward to it since it consists of concrete tasks with immediate rewards. I once asked my pastor at a large Lutheran Church if there were any menial tasks I could do to help me with depression; I ended up vacuuming the whole sanctuary but my back couldn’t take it. And they say irony is dead.

I think I’ll cut this off here and check in with the domestic engineer and receive my sentence.

One crying spell yesterday; I usually try to resist.

At 2 Kilorats,

Craig Erick

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sonnet Sunday; Picture of Kilobunny

First, a kilobunny sent to me by a rabbit fancier, Jennifer:

Now for today's sonnet:


I take so many medications that
I am a walking pharmacy, and still
I am no better. I’m suicidally fat
And anxious. I would delegate
My pain to someone else if only I could.
Jesus invites it, but could he name the pill
I am or am not taking that would put
A grin upon my face, laugh in my gut?
He is no pharmacist. He took my sin
Supposedly, but melancholy’s no sin
Unless it end in sloth. I’m in a rut.
When I was young religion took me in
And made me worse, but granted me a meaning;
Now I don’t know if I am sick or sinning.

It’s Sunday, Kathleen’s sleeping, and I woke up early enough to try a new church. But I didn’t, as in the state of depression religion merely heaps more guilt upon me. As I’ve before stated, I feel no relationship with God; I pray he has one with me. At 52 I’ve learned a number of things, but I think the most important of them is endurance. Sometimes you must simply hold on to the edge of the life raft and hope for land before hypothermia does you in. Sometimes that is your only choice. So I hold on, so I’ve held on before.

If circumstances dictated my mood I would be happy. I have an adequate income. I am married to the one true love of my life, someone whose sleeping face gives me joy when I am well. I live where I’ve always wanted to live: on the northern California coast near the redwoods. As much as my back permits, I have time to write and fish.

The fact that I’m depressed in the midst of such luck helps elucidate the difference between unhappiness and depression. Depression can strike when you’re on top of the world. It is no respecter of persons or circumstances. It is a failure of the primitive portions of the brain to sustain the necessary neurotransmitters that make a sense of happiness possible. Let me repeat that: It is a failure of the primitive portions of the brain to sustain the necessary neurotransmitters that make a sense of happiness possible. It is not a sin, it is not a retreat, it is not an avoidant behavior pattern from childhood, it is not a lack of courage, it is not a reaction to loss, it is a physical failure of the brain, better compared to a seizure than anything else. When in the grip of it you can only try not to hate yourself too much, avoid suicidal thinking, and continue to venture out into the world to stay in practice in case you return to it some day.

Underneath my skin I am sure people are angry at me. I think Kathleen must be angry at me. When I meet people I think they can see through me, but I know they can’t, and I fake normality with the best of them. How else did I get by as a doctor for 20 years? The depressive must pretend to be normal in order to avoid the sting of misdirected sympathy from those who do not know the difference between the blues and clinical depression.

There, I’ve said enough for one day. I hope I haven’t worn this topic out and that the reader is not angry with me for my not getting better.

At 2.5 Kilorats,


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Villanelle: On Television

On Television

I watch the television; it watches me.
Eye to eye, the contest isn’t fair.
The TV has more personality.

We are a symbiotic entity.
It feeds my brains electrons while I stare.
I watch the television; it watches me

When plots pile up into redundancy
I still take pleasure in the clothes and hair.
The TV has more personality.

The TV can’t induce passivity;
It seeks to rivet me with violent fare.
I watch the television; it watches me

I know the tube is not reality
But can you blame me if I prefer it there?
The TV has more personality.

In my depression I must praise TV.
It grants a respite from my long nightmare.
I watch the television; it watches me.
The TV has more personality.

The final default setting for a depressive is television, I think. As Homer Simpson said, “How can you not like television? It asks so little and gives so much.” In my depressions it is a drug, like alcohol. Once the anxieties of the day are over, I can settle into my bed and watch re-runs of Law and Order for hours. And now with NetFlix, we are able to watch re-runs of series I’ve already seen, like Six Feet Under. There is more comfort in a re-run, I think, since you know some of what is going to happen, and the reduced surprise leads to reduced stress. And there’s always the clothes and the hair to watch, as Sam Waterston in Law and Order sometimes gets a bad haircut. Last night Kathleen opined that he was showing his age; I replied that he just turned 65.

When I get out of this depression for good, my blog may change or appear less often, because my need to blog will be reduced by my participation in reality. Speaking of which, I turned in my book review for the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday and the editor pronounced it “good.” I was not beyond feeling a little better for that compliment, which argues that I am not in the deep kilorats of depression. To have real positive feelings inside my chest would take a further revolution in my neurochemistry. But it was good that I was not entirely immune to the feeling.

Other happy items are Kathleen’s continuing hip and disk pain, and Kenyon’s bad wheel. Without medical insurance I feel helpless to help Kathleen. But some days are better than others. Yes, as the brother of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov said, “You are responsible to everyone for everything.” Despite my interest in Russian mysticism, that saying strikes me as an intolerable burden, though when my mood has been better I have seen great wisdom in the saying. It’s a shame that depression influences even the meaning I extract from my favorite books. Which makes TV all the more attractive.

Thanks to Jennifer Danner for sending me a photo of a true kilobunny. I tried to put the image in here but it wouldn't take.

At 2 Kilorats,


Friday, November 17, 2006

Villanelle: Hero and Fool; PTSD

The Hero and the Fool

To live in fear is not to live at all.
Gestapo boots trample the abject mind.
Before a hero comes, a fool must fall.

The fool still fears the arcing cannon ball
Although the generals have long since resigned.
To live in fear is not to live at all.

It’s more than foolishness that comes to call
When post-traumatic stress creeps up behind.
Before a hero comes, a fool must fall.

The fool may dunk his head in alcohol
To drown his demons, playing deaf and blind.
To live in fear is not to live at all.

Who is the hero then? Does he recall
Grenades, nerve gas—living and dead entwined?
Before a hero comes, a fool must fall.

The hero can forget the Berlin wall.
The fool still feels barbwire up his spine.
To live in fear is not to live at all.
Before a hero comes, a fool must fall.

Among my other maladies I believe I suffer from PTSD, although I haven’t been over the strict criteria. Wait! I’m on the web. I can go look it up. According to strict criteria, I don’t qualify, though I share many symptoms. I’ll italicize the ones pertinent to my state:

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three general categories:

1. Repeated "reliving" of the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity
• Recurrent distressing memories of the event
• Recurrent dreams of the event
• Flashback episodes, where the event seems to be recurring
• Bodily reactions to situations that remind them of the traumatic event

2. Avoidance
• Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
Lack of interest in normal activities
• Feelings of detachment
• Sense of having no future
• Emotional "numbing", or feeling as though they don’t care about anything
• Reduced expression of moods
• Staying away from places, people, or objects that remind them of the event

3. Arousal

• Irritability or outbursts of anger
• Sleeping difficulties
Difficulty concentrating
• Exaggerated response to things that startle them
• Hypervigilance

Ockham’s Razor suggests that one should look for one cause to explain a person’s symptoms rather than multiple ones. In this I don’t qualify for PTSD, though I do detest Mexico and want no part of it, and I live in fear that my insurance company will stop their disability payments at any moment. My bipolar depression can explain, I think, all of my psychiatric symptoms. It is not like my normal self to worry. It is not like my normal self to fear the future. It is not like my normal self to be a passive and a little agoraphobic. These symptoms are all part and parcel of my primary illness. And I remember what it is to be well, though it seems magical to me now, as I recently had four days of remission before sinking down again. Send me your kilobunnies!



Thursday, November 16, 2006

Villanelle: Constraints of Form

Constraints of Form

I’m tired of villanelles. I want free verse.
These strictures would no doubt make Whitman cry.
I know he cried when he saw Lincoln’s hearse.

Expansiveness, that’s it. Throw off the curse
Of formalism before you mummify.
I’m tired of villanelles. I want free verse.

The villanelle renders my poetry terse
And unfit for a Whitman lullaby.
I know he cried when he saw Lincoln’s hearse.

Everything I say I must rehearse.
I think I’ve lost all spontaneity.
I’m tired of villanelles. I want free verse.

Whitman worked as a Civil War nurse.
He saw the bloody bodies piled high.
I know he cried when he saw Lincoln’s hearse.

Why can’t I cry? Has form emptied my purse?
I want to rip it off like a necktie.
I’m tired of villanelles. I want free verse.
I know Walt cried when he saw Lincoln’s hearse.

At 1.5 Kilorats,


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Villanelle: Morning Anxiety; On Thanksgiving

Morning Anxiety

There’s burning in my belly when I wake.
I push my gut against my wife’s curled knees.
The pressure helps a little; I won’t break.

Anxiety rattles like a rattlesnake
Inside my abdomen, malignant tease.
There’s burning in my belly when I wake.

Who goes there? Who’s the monster on the lake?
Are you the one to fist my heart and squeeze?
The pressure helps a little; I won’t break.

It is not death. It’s just a minor quake.
It’s not a plot by Mephistopheles,
This burning in my belly when I wake.

This vague sense of free-falling I can’t shake.
I feel the swinging of my own trapeze.
The pressure helps a little; I can’t break.

If my only motivation is to escape
Anxiety, how petty my reprise!
There’s burning in my belly when I wake.
The pressure helps a little; I won’t break.

My wife has suggested, for my mental health, that I write about something beside myself today, and I am beside myself in choosing a topic, so let’s talk about Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the only true American holiday, excepting birthdays of notables like Washington and Martin Luther King. It also falls inevitably on a Thursday, so the rush to make all holidays occur on a Friday or Monday has been resisted, just as in Easter and Christmas. Even so, many people take Friday off, though not those in the retail business who must tend the biggest shopping day of the year, like my oldest daughter, who sells shoes.

Turkey is the traditional entree for Thanksgiving—and in my humble opinion, ham just doesn’t cut it, even with all those pretty cloves stuck into its sides. And how do you put cranberry jelly on ham? Other traditional fare includes candied yams, which I’ve never liked. Mashed potatoes are compulsory; green beans have been the staple vegetable in our family, usually with sliced almonds. Dressing is a must; we use Mrs. Cubbison’s. Above all the gravy makes the difference between a good and great dinner. My parents fought over the gravy, as have I with my partners. It’s important not to make it too watery, nor to choke it with too much flour into a paste. It should be a light brown and flow down the edges of your mashed potatoes easily. Nothing but pepper or salt should be allowed for seasoning the gravy. So much my culinary prejudices.

This year I am looking forward to a rare event; our three daughters and grandson will all be at my sister’s for Thanksgiving. So will my younger brother and his squeeze, as well as my sister’s in-laws. I can’t remember the last time we had so many Chaffins together. Non-Chaffins should be warned that they may not be able to get a word in edgewise, since Chaffins were born to talk. It’s not that our chatter isn’t interesting, it’s just that it doesn’t leave much space for comment—if you’re not quick as a Chaffin. Verbally my family of origin would be hard pressed to be exceeded; my younger brother is a copywriter, my sister is a lawyer, and I am a poet. My older brother, regrettably, will not be there, but he is less verbal and more visual, having long been a creative director in the advertising business. In this mix will be three dogs as well; my sister’s two dachshunds and Kenyon.

I look forward to supervising/babysitting my grandson, a very active and self-directed boy who so far does not display much interest in verbal skills. I know he’ll be OK because I see in his play that he is adept in spatial relations and imagination. I don’t know what Sponge Bob is doing, but I know that Jacob regularly positions him in different places with different companions, and talks with them all.

Without sharing specifics, five of the six Chaffins to be present are on medications for mood disorders, so I don’t feel all alone. We have beaten the nursing home crowd to the punch, having had the pleasure of discussing our medications freely in the prime of life, long before a lack of other topics at the rest home required it.

In any event, whatever my mood, I have been looking forward to this great gathering. The joy of seeing all my daughters at once is palpable, and as they are mainly grown, I will also have the pleasure of watching them relate to others as adults—at least I hope so.

(No rating today, as Kathleen suggested; there’s still my villanelle for the dark side.)

Craig Erick


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Villanelle: Reckoning


And then the judgment came upon all flesh.
We looked down at our feet. We couldn’t meet
The eyes of he who turned the world to ash.

The billionaires were scattering their cash
In frenzied example to the meek
And then the judgment came upon all flesh.

I heard great wheels grind, coming to thresh
And separate the tares out from the wheat;
And then the judgment came upon all flesh.

I thought some might be saved but hope was dashed
When mercy slunk away from every street:
The eyes of he that turned the world to ash.

The world resembled one festering abscess;
There was no cure except the hellish heat
Shot from the eyes that turned the world to ash.

Citizens mouthing "God" with every breath
Were silenced, forced to watch their sins accrete.
And then the judgment came upon all flesh:
The eyes of he that turned the world to ash.

Today’s villanelle was more difficult than usual because the end rhyme I picked for the first stanza, -esh, is hard to manage. Thus I allowed myself the liberties of slant rhyme, and while the syntax could be better, I am in no position to judge myself today. If fact, what artist can truly judge his work? I have always been amazed by which of my poems have been “hits,” in terms of the attention garnered through recital and publication, and which have not. Often what I think are my best poems don’t get much attention. That’s likely because what I think are my best poems are denser than most.

Yesterday Kathleen dragged me all over town in a surfeit of errands, but was kind enough to deposit me at a coffeehouse with a wireless hook-up for most of the time. At our home in the redwoods, the best we can get is dial up at 31 kbs. Maybe that will change if Ma Bell gets her act together. I don’t know about Hughes Net.

I had a difficult day yesterday, but my mood improved late at night, which is par for the course in depression. I don’t like my morning anxiety, but there’s nothing for it. I can hardly believe I’m still struggling in my eighth month of depression. What I pray for is a full remission.

At 1 Kilorat,


Monday, November 13, 2006

Villanelle: Men in Suits; Mood dips

Men in Suits

The men in suits decide which war is good
While desert grunts hear shrapnel whizzing by.
The men in suits never give up their blood.

It doesn’t matter how hard we withstood
Snipers and bombs, watching our comrades die.
The men in suits decide which war is good.

I’d kill the policy makers if I could;
I’d trade them tooth for tooth and eye for eye!
The men in suits never give up their blood.

Democracy cannot be understood
By ancient Islam culture blown sky-high.
The men in suits decide which war is good.

Mostly the war produces widowhood
Though our commander still clings to his lie.
The men in suits never give up their blood.

There is no love, there is no personhood
When men are ground up for bad policy.
The men in suits decide which war is good.
The men in suits never give up their blood.

I was plain wrong when I claimed a week of euthymia (good mood) yesterday; in reviewing my blog it was only four days. It felt like a week because I felt like myself again. Unfortunately, today I feel on thin ice and I’m anxious.

I got up yesterday and wrote my sonnet and blogged, which is my daily mental toilette. Later I felt restless. I couldn’t concentrate on the book I am supposed to review, or on learning the hieroglyphics of html. Finally at 1:30 PM I jumped in the van and drove south about forty miles on winding Highway 1 to the Garcia River. Three years ago in October I had netted a steelhead and a salmon at a deep part of the river, and I thought perhaps there would be some fish pooling around now. I didn’t get a bite, which is not unusual for the unluckiest fisherman in the world. I wear a hat that proclaims, “Fish Control My Brain.” I have since learned that that control means that I am constantly directed away from fish. If I’m there, they are not.

But the feeling of restlessness and irritability persisted as I fished. The landscape was overcast with occasional sprinkles; the bracken of summer had decayed into the color of straw; the leaves of the blackberry bushes had begun to turn red, imitating the dreaded poison oak, but I know the difference in the shape of the leaves. I saw a raven fight off a white-tailed kite over a territory dispute near the bluff above. Placid cows grazed high on the steep embankment along the river, and I thought it a miracle that they did not fall off for an unscheduled swim. I saw a beautiful red-tailed hawk.

I was entirely alone in this somewhat forbidding landscape, and not surprisingly, following my irritability, an angry irritability, melancholy descended. Was it for not catching fish? Was it my memory of fishing there three years ago that reminded me of all that had transpired between, our whole sojourn in that unmentionable country south of the border? In any case I felt like crying but controlled myself. When I came home Kathleen immediately spotted my change in mood. I can hide nothing from her.

This morning I woke up anxious. I held on to Kathleen as if she were a large stuffed animal for comfort. Eventually Kenyon stirred and I had to walk the old boy, as in his dotage he can easily get lost and confused. He stops sometimes, stands still, and exhibits the thousand-yard stare. I remember when he was young and frisky. Now I am a helpless participant in managing his decline.

The point is, my mood is still fragile. I could dive down from here. The self-critical thoughts have returned; I’m no good, I’ve never done anything in my life, yada yada. But I noticed another aspect of my illness, namely jealousy.

I’m jealous of the success of other poets and musicians. I feel somehow it’s not fair, that I’m good enough to be recognized. But even as I think this I castigate myself for my narcissism, since those with greater recognition, in general, have also striven harder to attain what they have. Other than a whole wad of publications on the net and a lesser wad in print, I remain a third tier poet, one of thousands who have not distinguished themselves from the herd. It is sad that the world of poetry works much like Hollywood, but them’s the cards, deal with it. I’m not submitting to anyone right now, a deficiency I need to correct. but sometimes it seems purely hopeless to try; I think my poetry is retro and the moment of its potential recognition has passed me by. Can I accept that without bitterness? Jealousy is the essence of narcissism and I am ashamed of it. But I must admit it. I resent those with greater success, especially when I think their verse is inferior. I try to tell myself that they earned it, but I can’t help believing they had lucky breaks. Take Wanda Coleman, for instance; what’s she doing in the second tier of poets? She is obvious and bombastic, though a good performer. Or take Charles Bukowski, from whom Garrison Keillor chose multiple entries in his anthology of poetry. I could go on, but naming names is always dangerous. You risk expulsion from the potential circle of venerable elders. I suppose my greatest achievement in poetry was when Dorianne Laux solicited me for an issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review and I had as much space as Billy Collins. To be solicited for a top flight journal is a thrill.

At 52 I’ve pretty much let my music and songwriting slide. I’ve let medical practice slide, though not by direct choice. Look: I’m being honest. The Bible advises that we pray for our enemies, for which a competitor in the small world of poetry might qualify, especially if I think their verse inferior to mine.

In my worst moments I’m so jealous I want to appeal to some objective cosmic judge for a decision. After all these years, from adolescence on, why have I not been able to master these feelings of injury? Those who succeed are not injuring me, only helping themselves. Why do I, in my worst moments, resent them? The answer is simple: I think I’m their equal or better, and that it just isn’t FAIR. What a ridiculous concept, that life and art should be fair. In my case it stems in part, no doubt, from being a middle child, a same sex second child quickly followed by my sister only 16 mos. later. Why did my older brother get more liberties? How come I couldn’t be his equal? It never dawned on me that it was just a difference in age that allowed him greater privileges. But I took his privileges as somehow diminishing mine. This is a problem I go through on the edges of depression. I wish I knew a cure.

I do remember one epiphany when I practiced in Palm Springs. At that time a Mercedes was the commonest car in the upscale desert. One day when driving I realized why others had Mercedes and I didn’t: They had earned their cars. I was not gypped; their cars did not diminish me; they had earned their luxury. Enough said. Or not enough.

My narcissism, which crops up when my mood is bent, embraces the ridiculous idea that the success of others, particularly others I think less talented, somehow takes away from me. This is plain silly. But it is one of the slippery slopes into depression again, as I must condemn myself for my narcissism, afterwards paralyzed by my perceived failure. Perhaps the only antidote for this is to simply accept that I have these feelings, justified or not, and that I need to keep working in the hopes of being recognized someday. “Don’t look behind, someone might be gaining on you.” But I am open to comment or commiseration regarding this psychological thorn, and I trust, among artists, that I am not the only one to suffer from it.

At 1 Kilorat, with Anxiety,


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sonnet Sunday: Be Careful

Be Careful

Most of our lives are tediously mundane.
Go trace them with a stick of dynamite;
They won’t explode because they can’t ignite.
Our memories are as white bread as our pain.
We shuffle through the sameness of the rain.
The rain is good but it won’t cleave the heart.
It can’t promote your longing into art.
It’s been that way since Abel died by Cain.

A mackintosh, umbrella, a warm haven
Is all you want come evening, and a beer.
I wouldn’t take away your hope of heaven.
But why should it be cheerier than here?
Who we are here will likely be what’s given.
Be careful not to lose imagination.

I don’t know where this poem came from. It started as free verse but the first four lines converted themselves into a quatrain before I could re-assert my will. So it became a sonnet. Not a happy one, certainly, but a cautionary sonnet.

Yesterday we took Kenyon swimming at Ten Mile River. On the shore of the beach was a line of pelicans 200 yards long. I’ve never seen so many pelicans. They were brown pelicans, the common kind; we haven’t seen white pelicans here as yet.

There is something so primitive about a pelican in flight. They remind one of pterodactyls; all they need is a bony protrusion from the back of their heads and you could hardly tell the two apart.

A northwest wind blew fiercely while we were there. About a half hour before high tide the ocean made it over the bluff of sand and united with the river through an isthmus only 20 ft. wide. The mixing of the salt and fresh water never ceases to amaze me, the marriage of the land to the sea. The waters may have been barely deep enough to accommodate some migrating salmon, but we saw none. I’m still waiting for the salmon/steelhead runs up our local rivers. What’s strange is that no one seems to know much about them, likely because the local fisherman catch their salmon at sea, before they journey to spawn.

I have no more to report. I’m working on a book review. I’m working on my html class. I stay up late and watch movies on Turner Classic Movies. Last night we saw The Maltese Falcon and most of the original Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

Maybe writing about depression was more interesting for the reader, however painful to myself. Isn’t that the way it always is? A tale’s no fun if the hero’s not in danger.

I now have a week of not being depressed. Though I feel lucky and happy to be myself, the threat still sits on my shoulder like a drooling vulture, if vultures can drool. Depression can certainly return me to road kill in a New York minute. But I’m starting to find my feet.

At Rodent Neutral,


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Anti-Villanelle; Contemporary Poetry


An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.
Post-modern poetry should not make sense—
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

Red dog, blue cat, the sawhorse was imbued
With hair; wash, cut, dye and rinse.
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.

A man raking. Car crash. Somebody sued
My poems for using the pluperfect tense.
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

The bearded lady and the dwarf collude.
The dog-faced boy won’t howl, take down the tents.
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.

Grasshopper leaps, the cockroach crawls for food
While kilorats gnaw the New Testament—
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

Such blather may result in hebetude
While its practitioners say, "It’s intense!"
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood--
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry lately, as I had to review 27 issues of The Melic Review to pick 20 poems to submit to a net anthology. I’ve also read three books by an author for a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer (through the good graces of Frank Wilson).

In reviewing Melic I noticed there seemed to be a fall-off near the end of 2002 when the poems more and more became verse disconnect, where the primary voice of narrative was buried under layers of scene-setting, non-pertinent images, and disregard for continuity, with a touch of epiphany at the end--but not too much--not enough to confer unity on the poem. Here are three excerpts for your delectation (the authors will remain nameless):


the body’s entire
expression is self-centered
in this glyphic hill
the architecture of a lost amazon
civilization the texture of foam


Flesh and blood (mine . . . ours) mingled to form
a giant so large he would have difficulty
carrying his heart. Murmur . . . the traffic

between worlds, walls we learned
to listen to.
Had to!


Now here I am on foot among scattered bags
Taxis ride the plains I whistle at one to bring it down
Muleskinner and sage
A birch rod dips
toward sacred words Everything's out of tune Tom

Much of contemporary poetry behaves like this. It screams: “Language and syntax are not enough! We must break it up with interruptions of imagery and bizarre, startling connections. It is a collage of words, not a narrative per se.” I have dealt with such claims in my essays on Logopoetry.

My problem with such poetry is that it is written for poets and aficionados, not for “the common reader”—someone with the equivalent of a liberal arts degree, whether dactic or autodidactic (though nowadays I don’t know what the degree is worth). Because of my stance on this I am considered retro, a bit of a dinosaur. In most of my poems my hope is that the reader will understand the theme without suffering consternation from images and ideas at cross purposes.

After this brand of poetry began to invade our magazine, I stopped and put out a call for “power lyrics.” Out of some thousand poems we were only able to find about eight that came close to fulfilling our criteria. It was plain discouraging. We wondered where the poets of our earlier issues had gone. I still don’t know. But I think there was a sea change in 2003, at least in what we were receiving in submissions.

In any case, my villanelle today likely makes too much sense to belong to the category I invoke, but I did try to make it a little more contemporary than my others. It doesn’t matter if you like it. It exists for itself. And that is frequently the attitude I find among contemporary poets, whether MFAs or just trendy. My poetry is not trendy. It aims for the human heart and failing that, the human mind. But I sometimes think I was born a little late.

Happily Rodent Neutral,

C. E. Chaffin

Friday, November 10, 2006

Villanelle: Mornings; Darkness Visible


My wife wants coffee. I get up. It’s cold.
I plug the coffee maker in and wait.
I don’t need mornings to know that I'm old.

My joints no longer do as they are told.
The smell of coffee tells me I’m awake.
My wife wants coffee. I get up. It’s cold.

A little sugar and it’s good as gold.
I’m a cold fish and coffee is the bait.
I don’t need mornings to know that I'm old.

We never listened to what we were told,
How age would change us, age would desiccate.
My wife wants coffee. I get up. It’s cold.

It’s pain and wisdom that will be unscrolled.
One feeds the other as we dissipate.
I don’t need mornings to know that I'm old.

This lifelong sentence will never be paroled.
Come join me, we can have a grim parade!
My wife wants coffee. I get up. It’s cold.
I don’t need mornings to know that I'm old.

It was 47 degrees in the house when Kenyon woke me at 7:30 this morning for his constitutional. I don’t mind the cold so much but I noticed it was colder than it had been. Later I rose and made coffee, the subject of today’s villanelle, and turned the heat on up to a blistering 57 for Kathleen. She complains that it is not only cold but damp here, and it is. I tell her that’s the price of living in the coastal redwoods.

My mood seems to be holding at neutral, thanks be to God and medications, and it’s so strange waking to myself. As my older brother likes to say when I come out of one of these down cycles, “Welcome back.” There is a villanelle by Roethke I love called “The Waking,” for any interested. Next to “Do not go gentle” by Thomas I think it’s the best villanelle in the language.

While depressed there was nothing beneath my solar plexus, just a vacuum or a cardboard imitation of feeling like a person. Now beneath my sternum is a feeling of Craig—-I can love again, appreciate natural beauty, caress my dear wife, make jokes, have ambitions, work without a sense of hopelessness, in a word, live rather than barely exist. In my humble opinion as a manic-depressive, the feeling of self is much overrated, as are all the positive emotions. In deep depressions there is a complete loss of self and no memory of how it feels to be oneself. Those who have not gone through this cannot understand. I always recommend William Styron’s Darkness Visible to any who are interested in the illness. He is more eloquent than I. When you come back to yourself after a depression, truly, it seems a miracle.

Rodent Neutral,

Craig Erick

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Villanelle: Redwoods; Rodent Neutral!


Cathedrals come to mind when the soft light,
Refracted through the needles like stained glass,
Leaks down from these great trees from a great height.

Their bark is thick and grooved and will not blight.
Their fallen fronds, acidic, allow no grass;
Cathedrals come to mind when they shape light.

I look up and the tops are out of sight.
My mind cannot encompass their great mass;
Light leaks down through these trees from a great height.

I love an oak, I love its tortured might;
Maples burn gold and rose when leaves must pass;
But they are not cathedrals to the light.

Straight as a rod, vertically impolite
To man, who feels a bug beside their mass,
The light leaks down through these from a great height.

I want to stay here like an anchorite
And worship at their base while all things pass.
Cathedrals come to mind when the soft light
Leaks down from these great trees from a great height.

Like yesterday, it’s a good sign when Dr. Chaffin writes about things outside himself. In general I am no introvert, but depression forces me into a smaller and smaller space until I’m afraid to speak with my wife, until making coffee becomes an overwhelming burden.

But you have been there with me, and your support—even if only the knowledge that I am being read, that I am not simply a mute smudge on the windshield of the universe—has meant a lot. (Did that last over-the-top trope remind you of Roc McKuen?)

My new psychiatrist was quite knowledgeable, to my relief. He is the second psychiatrist I’ve seen in my life who knows more about medications than I do. In view of my recent improvement since doubling the Seroquel, he opted not to change a thing, but asked me to return in a month or call him if I start to cycle down again. What’s interesting is that in this small community I remember him from the men’s retreat. There I told him that he emanated the most joy of anyone I met at the affair; he just smiled back. As I said to Kathleen, a happy psychiatrist is either very healthy or in denial. I think my new shrink is actually healthy. Amazing. So few psychiatrists are. Naturally, as that rare, truly competent doctor, to get an appointment with him takes over two months. But he has a walk-in clinic when he is on call, and that’s how I was able to see him.

Not much else to report. Kathleen is under the weather but I am never allowed to give details. She has a stronger sense of privacy than I. My sense of privacy has been blown out by multiple hospitalizations and events, if I described them, that are beyond embarrassment. What otheres think of me is none of my business. I tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

I have a better poem on redwoods than the villanelle above, and I’ll post it below. In shape it resembles a redwood by design. See the poet George Herbert for more such poems.

At rodent neutral?



on the burnt
tripod of your
fire-hollowed base
like a Saturn rocket
waiting for launch,
your faraway limbs
radiate like bent spokes
bearing needles tighter
than a comb’s teeth to hide
your crown like the face of a god,
just as you hide the sun
from the laurel and the fir.
What light you spare
won’t penetrate the bleached
rust carpet of needles below where
blue jays strut, squawking indecorously
beside your unearthly stillness.
Your peat-red bark is grooved as if
some prehistoric cat had clawed it lengthwise.
Your roots, big as pythons, suck up the silt from
all those moss-furred wrecks that splinter
into orange sawdust, your ancestors.
Without them you’d go hungry in this rain forest
flushing minerals faster than roots can taste.
Only the outermost of your two thousand rings
is alive, a thin cylinder of cells
wrapping your heartwood
like foil. Your strength
comes from your core
and your core is dead.
Your seeds, smaller than
a fly’s wings, share
a lotto’s chance of sprouting
in your shade. More often
your own shoots encircle you
as you die to feed them,
rising in a cathedral
cool and still and vertical
around your stump’s altar.

(published in Mi Poesias)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Villanelle: Things I Love; Mood Improves (shh!)

The Things I Love

The things I love define me, more or less.
I love the Simpsons and pistachios.
I love to watch my one true love undress.

Her living sculpture summons my caress.
I love her curve of hip, her Irish nose.
The things I love define me, more or less.

I love basketball, wine to excess.
I love the violet hour at day’s close.
I love to watch my one true love undress.

I love my daughters, proud of their success.
I love my grandson in his dirty clothes.
The things I love define me, more or less.

And I love poetry, though I confess
I find much of it nowadays otiose.
I love to watch my one true love undress.

Under melancholy’s fierce duress
I grip these things more tightly than a noose.
The things I love define me, more or less.
I love to watch my one true love undress.

I don’t know if today’s poem qualifies as poetry, as it is deficient in tropes, but even if only verse, it is authentic. And that’s what good poetry must have; not truth per se but authenticity. The reader must feel convinced of the poet’s experience, or narrative, in his very bones. Otherwise it’s just another bad television show.

As you might deduce from today’s subject, my mood is improving since my antipsychotic was doubled three nights ago. Antipsychotics help re-set the brain, much like ECT. They put the brain at rest. They help my focus when I’m ill, so that I can attend to one thing without the overwhelming anxiety of everything else.

The depressive often feels responsible for everyone and everything, feeling guilty that he can’t set it all right. This is a Christ-like narcissism, as this presumes one should be good enough to take on everyone else’s sin. It’s part of the illness. Then there is the irony that most depressives, while depressed, can do very little, nevertheless have crushing expectations of doing more than is humanly possible. This is why acceptance of one’s depression is paramount in enduring the illness, because depression is like a tar baby—-the more you fight against it, the deeper you’re sucked in.

I have an appointment with a new psychiatrist today. I hope he’s more knowledgeable than my last.

At 2 kilorats and rising (shh!),

Craig Erick

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Villanelle on Obesity; Depression and the Lizard Brain

21st Century Plague

Watch out: obesity is on the prowl
And like the Blob will subsume all your sume;
America, don’t just throw in the towel!

Designers love us skinny as a dowel.
It makes us easier for them to groom.
Watch out: obesity is on the prowl.

Somewhere I hear a supermodel’s howl
To find a single french fry in her room.
America, don’t just throw in the towel!

New laws against trans-fat evince a growl
From those who love fried chicken’s rich perfume.
Watch out: obesity is on the prowl.

We need to scrape our arteries with a trowel
And sweep our livers with a statin broom.
America, don’t just throw in the towel!

Is it our fault there’s more to feed the bowel?
We’re only victims of the calorie boom.
Watch out: obesity is on the prowl.
America, don’t just throw in the towel!

In depression minor issues become major ones and long-term problems become immediate crises. When I crossed the border from Mexico in February of this year I weighed 245, which made me technically overweight but not obese. In no time at all I blossomed into my present weight of 270, the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. When I get the courage to look at myself in the mirror after a shower, my appearance gives me cognitive dissonance: I can’t believe I’m that fat. My belly protrudes, the definition in my arm muscles is barely discernible, and the new padding of the groin makes some items look smaller.

When I talked about this with my pain management doctor in April, while deeply depressed, she said, wisely: “That’s the last thing you need to worry about now.” Indeed. But that doesn’t make the depressive mindset let go of the issue. In depression we play with our defects like cats with dead mice. We pick at them like scabs. We revolve on a carousel from one defect to another. Here’s a list of some of my specific self-accusations in depression:

1) You’ve never done anything in your life.

2) You’re so fat how could anyone love you?

3) You’ve done nothing about retirement, do you want to be penniless?

4) You don’t deserve disability; you’re a mooching fraud.

5) Why don’t you go to the gym? Why don’t you swim?

6) You drink too much and it’s ruining your brain. You’ve permanently damaged your brain, especially with all the medications you take.

7) You’re a wimp to take so many medications. Why not just flush them and tough it out?

8) You’ve blasphemed against God and are beyond salvation.

9) Your children don’t care about you because they don’t call.

10) You call yourself a poet but you’re a fraud. You have three unpublished manuscripts that nobody wants. You’re afraid to get out there and do the real work of competition because secretly you know you’re not good enough. Poetry is a thin excuse to keep you occupied in your no-account life.

I could probably list a hundred of these and it would not be enough. When self turns against self it’s as if a stick were whittling itself-- whittling, belittling. All this is what I call “the chatter of the lizard brain.”

In depression the primary problem is mood. The depressive mood arises from primitive brain areas we share with reptiles. Thus our frontal cortex, the seat of thought, is directed by the lizard brain to spew all this self-denigrating chatter, because if only our accusations were true it would explain our depression and satisfy our need for causality.

In other words, in depression, the lizard brain is the horse and the frontal cortex is the cart. You can’t fight your lizard brain. It’s too primitive. Treatment requires medication, supportive therapy, and time, and if this does not suffice, possibly electroconvulsive therapy.

Some depressions are not just biochemically based, but mixed with psychology. In these cases cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful. But to a pure biochemical depressive, like a bipolar I, talk therapy can actually worsen the symptoms. After all, you have a new person to disappoint: your therapist. I’ve never had strict cognitive-behavioral therapy, but analytic therapy and ego-centered therapy have definitely made me worse. Anything beyond supportive therapy I find damaging. A biochemical depression is probably the worst time to try to make changes in your personality.

Back to obesity. I’m on medications (antipsychotics, lithium) that cause weight gain and fluid retention. The antipsychotic also takes all my stamina away, so I gasp going up stairs. I’ve found it terribly hard to exercise on my present medication regimen.

Like all fat people, I hope someday to be thin again, as I have been the majority of my life (until my early 40’s after failed back surgery). But as my doctor advised, it’s not something I should worry about now. For now I do two things: 1) try to accept that I’m sick; 2) try to stay busy. While writing this I’m doing the wash, for instance. Afterwards I have the kitchen to clean up. Then I want to start writing my book review, and later, perhaps, work more on my html course. That I can do these things shows that my depression is not as deep as it could be. Indeed, I could pass for normal.

At 2 kilorats,

Craig Erick

Monday, November 06, 2006

Infinite Split

Who is that third who always walks beside,
After the second speaks inside your mind
And, split into parts, you can’t decide?

The chatter in your brain’s on override,
Your thoughts repeat themselves and then rewind.
Who is that third who always walks beside?

Observing you observing you as guide
Brings others on like an unholy wind
And then, split into parts, you can’t decide.

You chant a Buddhist chant to quiet the ride,
Still, you proliferate, needled and spined.
Who is that third who always walks beside?

One voice becomes ten prophets multiplied.
You sue for peace but all are nonaligned.
Besides, split into parts, you can’t decide.

Your second comes to mourn by your bedside.
Your third, vomiting selves, follows behind.
Who is that third who always walks beside?
You, split into parts, cannot decide.

(Those conversant with T. S. Eliot will notice I stole a verse of his from the fifth movement of "The Waste Land.")

It’s a mistake for a poet to comment on his work, but I’ll make it; I like today’s poem, especially as it takes up the question of mental chatter I discussed briefly yesterday. The terrible thing about self-consciousness is that the awareness of self can be split into a seemingly infinite throng of observing selves, co-selves and anti-selves. If you listen to them you will not be able to do your best work or even achieve intimacy with another human being. But the ability to abstract ourselves is also what makes us human. We can choose consciously while animals respond by instinct and trial and error (never mind the chimpanzee with the twig and the termites; generalities always prove exceptions).

In my best Zen moments I don’t play the guitar, I become the guitar; I don’t cook, I flow with the cooking; I don’t shoot a basketball, the rim sucks it into the net. Such unity of consciousness and activity is rare, though Yogis tell us it is possible to be present most, if not all, of the time. Paradoxically, I was present as I wrote today’s poem about not being present.

Recent experiments have added the elephant to the chimpanzee as two animals who, with investigation, come to realize that their image in the mirror is only an image. (I believe there is a third animal in the group but I can’t recall it.) Thus an elephant can use a mirror to direct its trunk to grooming its neck. A cat, on the other hand, may confront the image aggressively, and, discovering it to be harmless, think no more about it. In this act I think the elephant shows mirror-consciousness, but I doubt it exhibits self-consciousness. To be self-conscious means to think in terms of ‘I.’ Once that line is crossed you end up with that human problem: the disintegration of the ego into alternate selves.

Imagine the relief of being only thing-conscious like animals. You have no word for food; there is a scent that directs your brain toward it, and then you deal, perhaps, with aggression and competition to obtain your food, but you never sit back on your paws and think about how best to approach food and whether you’re good at it or not. By trial and error behavioral improvements can be made, but they are not rational. (Whenever I put forward these ideas, some animal lover will invariably take me to task, but I think assigning an identity to an animal, usually a pet, is mainly an anthropomorphic projection.)

Some believe the Fall was a fall from thing-consciousness to self-consciousness; in the moment we remarked upon ourselves we became separated from “God” and ourselves. In evolutionary terms this would be seen as an advance, not a fall. In any case, when there is no conflict between being and doing, one is likely enjoying mental health. And to be present with one’s doing certainly helps with avoiding one’s undoing.

At 2.5 Kilorats,

Craig Erick

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sonnet Sunday: The Memory of Man; Religious Psychosis

The Memory of Man

I saw two prides of sea lions on the rocks
Across a cove filled by a clear green sea.
I was alone. I sat there harmlessly
While pelicans flew by in ordered flocks.
I posed no danger, but the sea lions’ young
Looked warily at me with huge dark eyes
Of deep translucent black, and their surprise
Was soon confirmed by action. A pup hung
From the rock’s edge, then plopped into the sea.
His mother followed and the other young
Followed behind, while one male, unimpressed
Stayed on his back, lounging in luxury.
I wondered why the beasts became unstrung
Then recalled guns and clubs and all the rest.

Yesterday was a bad day. I had at least three weepy/weeping spells, two of them on the cliff across from the sea lions that made for the sonnet above. What really made me cry was the idea of God and an attempt at prayer. I have such feelings of rejection from the Almighty, and the idea of approaching him fills me with such a sense of unworthiness I can’t begin to describe it. I feel like a bug under glass, but smaller. It’s a feeling of primal abandonment which likely goes back to infant bonding issues with my mother, and is subsequently projected on that great screen, God. It’s a grief over a vacuum that persists from my adolescence and young adulthood. Back then I was such a fanatic I felt I had to have a message from God to do nearly anything of consequence.

For some strange reason I received the impression at the age of 17 that God wanted me to become a doctor. When I didn’t get in to medical school the first year with a 4.0 from UCLA, I felt betrayed—“Look, God, I’ve done all this work for you getting through college, working three jobs and the rest, and then you thwart the ambition you gave me?” I later realized this was the sin of presumption. But just when being a doctor began to make sense in the third year of my psychiatry residency, I fell into a severe depression that caused me to drop out. There went my hope to make something of being a doctor, something I could bear, as psychiatry dovetailed with the humanities. After this debacle, my primitive thinking was: “I tried to do God’s will, but he screwed me.” How could I be so special that God would screw me? All this demonstrates the narcissism of the depressive. When an infant does not have enough human bonding, he makes up people in his head, and his life revolves around his head instead of society. To the degree you were isolated in your earliest years, to that degree will your head fill with chatter as a substitute.

I know that my feelings toward God are opposed to Christian theology, but I can’t help how I feel. If I have a relationship with God it must be infantile on my part. Especially in depressions, prayer only makes me sadder. Yes, I did pray for myself yesterday. There’s no harm in that. But any emotional wholeness from a perceived contact with God is something I’ve never experienced. I wish for healing, of course, but at my age I settle for acceptance. This is how I’m built. My emotional wounds go way back to infancy. I project them on authority figures, even an authority figure presumably on my side.

Mental illness lends itself to hyperreligiosity and religious psychoses, in which I was an avid participant, though to be fair, I didn’t know of the illness that possessed me until I was 30.

One more thing: When I am well I like to say, “It is not I who have a relationship with God, it is he who has a relationship with me.” Let the burden be on the Almighty. He can take it, one assumes.

At 3 kilorats,


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Villanelle: Parasitic; Discourse on Depression


Beyond the darkness lies more dark and pain.
Where marigolds preened, a black orchid blooms
Just like the parasite inside my brain.

This business with myself is so inane.
My heart is human ash among the tombs.
Beyond the darkness lies more dark and pain.

Who goes there? Who would shake my window pane?
Is it the wind or just my tangled looms?
I fear the parasite inside my brain.

My humanness is really inhumane.
I coil on myself inside this room.
Beyond the darkness lies more dark and pain.

I called you, Jesus, through this bloody rain.
Forgive me, I did not mean to presume.
Am I the parasite inside my brain?

The darkness is a tunnel inside a train.
The train is trudging slowly towards my doom.
Beyond the darkness lies more dark and pain
Just like the parasite inside my brain.

I want to be honest, but in the act of writing despair seems briefly arrested. Then I would not call my state despair, exactly, which implicates the heart and will, only clinical depression. Yet clinical depression leads to despair, which can only be defined negatively: without hope, helpless, without recourse, bereft of comfort, and so on.

When my mood is normal (may it be again!) I feel like myself. In depression I become my anti-self. Whatever I do is pointless; those who love me are deceived; I have made nothing of my life, indeed, have no life, and nothing I can do will change this. I constantly berate myself for perceived failings. And this from a Lutheran who supposedly believes in grace, “God’s unmerited favor toward us.” In depression I’m sure that God made a mistake, that in my case it doesn’t apply. I don’t feel loved by God yet I believe God is love. I am not comforted by Jesus; I can’t relate to him at all, indeed, have always had tremendous trouble with the second person of the Trinity. It is an article of faith that Christ suffered all our sins and griefs on the cross, so surely his suffering included clinical depression, but that doesn’t help my depression. It just makes me feel more guilty, as if I’m failing God by not believing. I think about going to church but know in this state I will misinterpret everything as a demand and leave church feeling more guilty than ever. In depression you question your core beliefs, and my faith is certainly one thing eroded by depression. This is no suffering to make me a better person; this is the extinguishing of personality itself.

There is a sense in clinical depression that the pain of the moment is eternal pain, that one has always hated oneself, that it has never been any different. Because I have had a few days of relief here and there, I am lucky to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. In saying that I have hope. It is intellectual hope based on past depressions; I have always, eventually, come out of them, and I have been most helped by medications and electricity. Activity is good as well; simple tasks like washing the dishes. I am not so bad that I fear my inability to wash the dishes, each dish weighing a ton as my hand shakes with the fear of not being able to do them. But I have been there. I have been at 8 kilorats and it’s not pretty.

I feel the need to justify my existence every day, but the paradox is that nothing will justify my existence. I worry about old age, my body is tired and my joints ache, I am more than unhappy, I am abandoned. I know the form of my depression goes back to infancy, but that does not change the state of depression or explain its occurrence. One must have genetic predisposition to become clinically depressed.

Have you ever felt utterly alone, like a smudge on a windshield, like a microscopic dot in infinite darkness? Have you ever suffered constant accusations in your mind telling you all was for naught? Have you been nauseated by food, taking pleasure in nothing and wishing only for death? If you’ve had such symptoms for a week straight without relief it qualifies as depression. It used to be four weeks, then two weeks, and now the APA has decided the requirement for treatment is only one week. One week can be an eternity.
Right now the one thing I look forward to is seeing a better psychiatrist, although there is no guarantee I will be able to see him come Wednesday, as he will be on call for emergencies and may not be able to stay in the office. If that happens I will no doubt think that’s exactly what I deserve, that it’s hopeless anyway, that no one can help me. But I know better. Those who follow this blog know that I experienced a few kilobunnies several weeks ago, only to fall back in the pit.

As an aside, yesterday’s poem was roundly condemned by my editor and wife, and I couldn’t agree more. In my present state I think most of the poetry I’ve ever written should be thrust into the fire. Then in depression one can have no objectivity regarding anything about the self. I had the same experience as a practicing doctor, fearing everything I said was nonsense, that it was a miracle no one perceived me as a fraud and that I did not harm anyone while practicing in a psychotic depression. At that time work did not make me feel any better or worse, so I continued to work. When a crying spell would overcome me, I’d slip in the bathroom, cry, use Visine, and wash my face with cold water. I did that for more than a year, day after day. The only relief I experienced at that time was while driving. Something about the motion was comforting, and it was the one task I felt I could still do.

I want to render thanks to Jennifer, a friend of Kathleen’s, for giving me a pewter bunny to remind me of the possibility of getting back to kilobunnies. The rabbit now sits on the windowsill now next to a picture of me and my youngest daughter, where I am glowing with joy. And I say to myself, “Who is that man?”

At 3.5 kilorats,

Craig Erick

Friday, November 03, 2006

Villanelle: Kenyon; Update on Depression


My dog limps, so I wrap his leg with tape
His aging has accelerated now.
It’s months, not years, until his great escape.

My wife, she weeps to see him in such shape;
I miss the playfulness he used to show.
My dog limps, so I wrap his leg with tape.

When he sleeps I don’t know if he will wake.
To die asleep might be the kindest blow.
It’s months, not years, until his great escape.

Sometimes he stares out into the landscape
And stops as if confused, and I allow.
My dog limps so I wrap his leg with tape.

When he squats to poop, his hips will shake
Making it difficult for him to do.
It’s months, not years, until his great escape.

Is it too soon or late for God to take
This creature we so loved from here below?
My dog limps, so I wrap his leg with tape.
It’s months, not years, until his great escape.

Not much to report today. It’s raining here. After the rain a mist will rise among the redwoods like the forest’s breath. The smell of wet trees and earth is the smell of life as much as the ocean’s, though I have long favored the ocean.

My medications have numbed me to a degree, but I can still feel the pit that is my heart under the mist. I try to be useful each day, though there is no pleasure in it. When I prepare to take up a new task, however mundane, my anxiety rises and the chatter of self-denigrating voices begins. I wish I had a nickel for every time my brain told me I’m worthless.
My psychiatrist talks about self-worth as if I only had to inhale it. He has no gift for those with severe affective disorders; talk therapy does no good, however skillful the practitioner. When my mood flips I don’t need it. When I’m in a down cycle, I’ll listen to nearly any suggestion out of desperation, even though I know only time, medication, or ECT will work in my case. Luckily I have a tentative appointment next week with a psychiatrist better versed in managing medications. Perhaps he can make the adjustments I need.

This sputtering depression is now seven months long, my longest since 1996. How I wish I could feel hope again! At least I have, in this most recent dip, been able to feel love for my wife. She is my anchor. If it were in me, I’d get well for her tomorrow, because she sees both me and Kenyon suffering and sometimes she can’t bear it. I’m tearing up as I write this, because one symptom of depression is sorrow over one’s effect on loved ones. You want to spare them the pain. This is a frequent justification for suicide in the depressive: “You’d all be better off without me.” In actuality this constitutes a narcissistic lie, and the act of suicide, outside of a terminal illness, is the most selfish act one can commit. Yet in the deepest of depressions it takes a powerful moral core not to give in to the option. I’m not troubled by thoughts of suicide as much as I was when I was younger and depressed; back then I had to wrestle with the question daily. Now, by long practice, it rarely enters my mind with any force. I have foresworn that option, one benefit of a lifelong struggle with this disease, which has over a 30% lifetime mortality if not properly treated.

Happy thoughts for a Friday, right? But I doubt people don’t come here for happy thoughts. I think they come to read the truth as best I can tell it, or possibly to sample a poem (though in my exercise in form I may at times be writing only verse).

At 3 Kilorats,


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Villanelle: Wounded


I know this clotting wound will never heal
But I can keep it clean for you, O Lord
Until the resurrection makes me real.

You rose with all your wounds; it’s no big deal
To fall on ploughshares and discover a sword.
I know this clotting wound will never heal.

The tragic movie spins from reel to reel,
The audience either suffering or bored
Until the resurrection makes them real.

I tell my wife, “Don’t ask me how I feel.”
Pain is less when pain can be ignored.
I know this clotting wound will never heal.

Minds are meant to know and lips to seal
But if I were an apple I’d be cored--
Until the resurrection makes me real.

I look inside and watch my blood congeal.
I know my way; it’s neither from nor toward.
I know this clotting wound will never heal
Until the resurrection makes me real.

There is a danger in villanelles of sacrificing substance to suit the form, and the required repetition can turn an average line into a bad one. But I won’t comment on today’s effort. It’s the effort that matters.

Kathleen returned to work yesterday and returned in a good deal of pain, but there are more workers in her area so she didn’t have to work as hard as before. She wears a back brace now, which I think is more helpful in reminding a patient of proper mechanics than any direct benefit. I tried a number of back braces when I still had hope for improvement. Yesterday my doctor suggested a long-acting narcotic for my pain but I told him I’d think about it. I must see a qualified psychiatrist to consult about my medications before I add another for mere physical pain, which is, as I have said before, not comparable to emotional pain. Perhaps the flagellation practiced by monks eased their spiritual pain more than denying the flesh. Pain can be a welcome distraction from depression because it seems real.

I should practice my HTML today, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to figure out how to log into my website from here. The course scares me because I’m a novice and have so much to learn. Then I remember that’s how I felt in nearly every course I’ve ever taken; I feel anxiety until I master the subject, so I try too hard too early to understand it all.

I don’t feel very chatty today.

At 3 Kilorats,


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Villanelle: Not Alone; Dog Doo-Doo

Not Alone

Walk with me, Peter, we are not alone.
The time has come for all good men to shine.
There’s nothing more for which we can atone.

Demosthenes would chew upon a stone
To make his speech a little more divine.
Walk with me, Peter, we are not alone.

Our life requires us like a miser’s loan.
Who makes more of it than a crooked line?
There’s nothing more for which we can atone.

Although I wish my earthly span were done,
The salmon finds the river through the brine.
Walk with me, Peter, we are not alone.

The phoenix burned his past, now he is gone,
The sphinx misunderstood for all this time.
There’s nothing more for which we can atone.

Who were the monsters living in your home?
Childhood is peopled with their kind.
Walk with me, Peter, we are not alone.
There’s nothing more for which we can atone.

I received no suggestions for a new form so I thought I’d tackle a villanelle today. It proved easier than I feared, but I doubt I can write one every day for a month. Then I doubt a lot of things about myself right now. But I would say that form is good for a depressed poet. It gives one a structure with which to begin. And one line builds toward another, and soon you have a poem.

It is not surprising that many here send me their good wishes and suggestions for my illness. That is the compassionate side of human nature which we all treasure. But in truth I would rather hear comments about my verse, as that is something outside of me. That we can discuss without the “me.” A poem has to stand on its own. And in writing I forget myself for a time.

Kathleen went back to work today, despite the fact that I think her back too bad to do such work; she has a bulging or ruptured disk at L5—S1, with changing sciatica. She was, however, determined to return on her scheduled date. I hope she does not come home in agony. She can be very stubborn about things like this, and I hate to see her in pain.

I almost threw up this morning. I had to prepare Kenyon’s food, a mix of wet and dry food, plus add giblets and juice from last night’s chicken as instructed by Kathleen, though I was forbidden to give him the neck. The sight of congealed, yellow, floating chicken fat in a cold soup, which I poured into his dish (he ate all his food), was sickening. Afterwards on our morning walk he had trouble evacuating completely and ended up soiling his long golden fur with green. I had to hose him off when we came home. His anus was particularly sensitive to the procedure. I hope I haven’t grossed you out, but it is important for me to write about things beside myself.

So dear reader, I bid you adieu—or a-doo-doo as it were.

At 3 Kilorats and holding,


Unexpected Light

Unexpected Light
Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 ON SALE NOW!