David Keplinger is an Associate Professor of English in the MFA program at American University in Washington D.C. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently THE PRAYERS OF OTHERS (New Issues, 2006). His first book was chosen for the 1999 T.S. Eliot Award. His essays and poems have appeared in scores of magazines, including, in 2006, PLOUGHSHARES, AGNI, PRAIRIE SCHOONER, SMARTISH PACE, FLORIDA REVIEW, and elsewhere. In 2003 David Keplinger won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The following piece is a selection on sickness and the arts, a memoir to appear in his book on poetry writing, THE CATHEDRAL EFFECT.

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I'm in Tuscany. I have two hours at my stop in Grosseto before my ride, David Peat from the Pari Center, where I'm to present a paper, arrives to pick me up. An Italian train station. The rubber burn of brakes and the electricity arrives in the air and settles into the jittery nerves of the people. I have written about train stations in every one of my poetry books, and I suspect I will continue to do so. I'm writing about this one now. They're the way in, where strands of experience cross wires and faces and strange animals arrive from the farthest reaches of the known. There's a sadness about the trains that I love: the handkerchiefs and the smiles from the windows and the awkward moments before the train gets going, when people just stare at each other, like the last days at the sickbeds of the dying.

Our fascinations might say a lot more about ourselves than anything we might say about them. What grabs us is an image that contains our own reaching is like a neurosis. We go back to the same places, same subjects, the repetition somehow comforting. There's always more to find, more to uncover. Jung equated a search for meaning with all neuroses. For some, when the split between the conscious and unconscious becomes too vast, the neurosis, like a rubber band trying to hold it all together, finally snaps and the personalities dissociate. That's different from schizophrenia, I've come to understand, which is when all the personalities basically shatter. It scares me when I think of all those potential dissociated personalities, like these trains, ready to take off without warning into thousands of directions. But for now, they're all here bunched together.

The artist, you might say, is the one who's just stretched out enough to feel more intensely (in-tension), but not so preoccupied with the in-tension that he or she can't function in the world. Neruda longs to return to the place of unity, but the people who actually get there do not become poets. Contemplation, a term used in Catholicism, is
essentially the same as "sitting" or meditation in the eastern traditions. Both involve what was called once a "cloud of forgetting" set behind us and a "cloud of unknowing" set before us. The monk who wrote of it lived seven hundred years ago, but the advice is similar to what you would read in the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron. The cloud of forgetting abandons the world; the cloud of unknowing sets us in the midst of the unknown God. Art-because it's made from the stuff of the world-does not forget the world. Even a poem is a bridge between this imminent world and the imperishable one. Think of Emily Dickinson- her best poems caught between life and death, a place where horses' heads "point towards eternity."

It's the betweeness that appeals to me. I love the neither here nor there feeling of a train station. That's where the tension is given some space, some chance to speak. But it's a common image. The danger is to choose the train station because it happens to be a popular subject for a poem, like roses and tombstones. In fact, the writer who is actually drawn to them has to work harder than others who are drawn towards, for example, WalMart. No one can ever call you passé if you're writing well about support hose.

Jung's belief that the smartest part of ourselves, the collective unconscious or "the objective psyche," travels through our consciousness rather than originates from it, is still compelling. And I suppose if you're fascinated with issues of the spiritual order you can take that leap with me. The collective unconscious was essential to his teaching. He believed the contradictory impulses of the ordinary "subjective psyche" or personal unconscious could not be reconciled unless the individual went another layer below, found a "myth to live by," a story or an archetype to which he or she could cleave. A story underneath a story happens all the time in the arts. Nora's triumph of reconciliation alludes to the agony of Oedipus ("Nora, you poor, blind child!") just as she slams the door.

One's inward journey writes the external story of life. While the Freudians are interested in creating individuals who are able to fulfill their obligations in the world via a healthy adult relationship, in which they give up the dependency of childhood and enter the self-responsibility of adulthood, in Jung there is only a desire to write the story of one's life. Not to "know yourself," but to know you're on a journey of your own making. The alchemical ingredients, the two parts that merge, are not a married couple in this case, but the conscious and unconscious mind.

Writers are on that road all the time. Their psychic vocabularies are highly developed. But maybe there's a little voice in there that doesn't want the synthesis to come. So we get these twirling personalities, moody, they used to call it, like Nora dancing for Torvald "as if it were a matter of life and death." Writers may prefer the journey towards integration more than the thing itself. Anthony Storr, writing on Jung, explains something about the schizophrenic personality-Jung noted, as many psychiatrists working in mental hospitals have done since, that the patient's ego might remain more or less intact, although invisible, throughout many years of chronic mental illness. If a chronic schizophrenic becomes physically ill, it sometimes happens that his "normal" personality, i.e., his ego, reasserts its supremacy, and that he may therefore, talk and behave ordinarily for a while; only to relapse again when the physical illness has passed. (Storr Jung)

That the healthy ego reappears again when the body is in danger indicates to me that there is a hierarchical system at work which keeps in check the breakdown of the shared language of the conscious and unconscious. It's not like a snapped spinal cord; it can be "hooked up" again at any time. It's also significant that we can simply choose to make it happen. But what is doing the choosing? This is the aspect of our intelligence we may never even begin to fathom in our lifetime. There seems to be a higher law to which the ego must always submit; I'll call it the "witness" self.

Consider the many nineteenth and twentieth century writers to whom sickness seemed a connection to that place of witness. The "sad height," Dylan Thomas called it. He was focusing on his father's sickness, but his alcoholism was a sickness, too. He was drawn to both. The pain fueled his writing, but killed him. And Beaudelaire and all those hospitals, all the talk of spleens and melancholy. Think of poor Keats struggling with the threat of that first cough of black blood when he wrote "When I Have Fears," and think of the confirmation, how it came just at the time he writes "To Autumn." For these writers the illnesses actually provided a necessary distraction so that the healthy ego could emerge, at least while the writing was going on. They may have been non-functional in every other way, but when they hit the page they were a Colossus of an ego. They had to be. It was, to use the phrase again, a matter of life or death.

I don't think you have to be out of it, mentally or physically, to write well. That concept was forged a bit by Coleridge, a drug user, and it was inherited by the decadents like Poe and Beaudelaire. There are other ways of finding your cunning. That's just one, and it's a dangerous one. If you begin to believe that your sickness is where the poems come from, you may refuse to get well. It's not necessary. But if you're ill, and there's nothing you can do about it, you can use the illness like Keats did to find a place of great power in yourself. Flannery O'Conner wrote only two slim collections of short stories. But the books were products of great struggle - physical struggle with lupus, for one and a moral struggle which ended, in her case, in a triumph of belief. When a writer is put in the midst of death, especially a young writer, the will to survive and to see "from the sad height" is suddenly so much greater than it was before, than it ever could have been. You wonder if it's possible to teach Keats to 24 year olds. Then you remember he was one himself.

But for the rest of us, blessed with relative good health, there is no need to rationalize a drinking habit or a drug habit to support your ideas about what a writer is or should be. That will kill your writing one day, I promise you. It could also kill you. That way is a copout or a pose or both. And it's really expensive. I had a friend in San Francisco, a very well known psychologist who worked with meditation techniques that place one in hallucinated states of mind. I like his work a lot, but when asked to participate, I declined. That's like spending the principle to me. Make friends with the unknowable parts while conscious, I say. Isn't alcohol, aren't drugs, a safety net? They're saying, I don't have all I need to do this alone. Keats' advice was to cultivate the ability of "being among uncertainties." With the safety net, the alcohol or whatever, the show is only mediocre. Make it a fabulous show!

Me, I love this going down and in. It's difficult without accessories. But more rewarding. I sit in a small café in Grosseto. In front of me are six or seven ladies of varying ages. One is in her seventies, in a bright red dress, her hand over her mouth, her hair recently styled, maybe this morning, still shiny from the hairspray. The dress is a knockout. She's holding an empty sack. Where is she going, dressed to kill with an empty sack? I want to tell the story. She's going shopping in the next town. It's her only activity outside of working in the garden (her hands on both arms are covered with scratches from the
thorns). In the garden it's hot though she wears long sleeves - the cuts start at her wrists. But she has this dress, and what is she going to do with it? She waits and waits and the train hasn't come yet. She's patient. She's gotten good at sitting still.



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