Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Detail of "Fruiting Bodies" by Troy's Work Table. Sidewalk chalk, charcoal, and chalk pastels on concrete.


On the evening of Wednesday 05 October 2016, TWT participated in the Creative Colloquy Crawl, a storytelling event in downtown Tacoma. "Singing the Black Psalms" was an exploration of the process of writing the poetry chapbook Black Psalms, and presented to an audience at Destiny City Comics as a twelve-minute-long performance/reading.



Tonight, I am going to give you a thumbnail sketch of my process of getting from an initial question and theme to a particular finished piece of work—my poetry chapbook Black Psalms.



For quite some time now, I have thought of my poems as being given to me by my muse in the form of cartoon panels or comic strips. Once my muse has shown me these images, then it is my job, as poet, to figure out how to translate what I see contained within these panels as words on the page.



My mother and I are supposed to be sleeping. I am spending the night with her so that my dad, who is her primary caregiver, can get some much needed sleep of his own.

Like I said, my mother and I are supposed to be sleeping, but we aren’t. We are seated in recliners that are next to one another, wrapped up in blankets in the dark of her living room, in the middle of the night, and she is talking. Talking about her life—telling me stories about her childhood and young adulthood, about being a wife and mother, about hanging out with her friends, about the bowling leagues she was on and the pool tournaments she participated in and oftentimes won—and lamenting the Parkinson’s that has twisted up her body. It is a time of quiet and of peacefulness and of listening, until she asks this question of me: “How come you never write about women?”



It is winter and the evening light departs early. There are seven us gathered in a living room in Seattle. This is my writing group, Les sardines, of which I am a founding member, and these are my friends and fellow writers who have invited me back to work on another issue of our self-published literary journal, Les Sar’zine.

We are working our way through writing exercises, sharing pieces we have been working on, and giving one another feedback on what does and doesn’t work for us in what we hear read.

And then we are given the deadline for submissions for the next issue of Les Sar’zine, which is only a few months away, and the theme for the issue, which is “mirrors.”



So now I had some soul searching, some research, some exploring to do.

I eventually decided that not only would I “write about women,” but that I would write about one particular woman: my mother. I would tell her story. But I would tell it in the form of a series of poems and I would tell it through the lens of her Parkinson’s disease and discomfort.

I also decided that the mirrors that I would use to frame her story would be places where I oftentimes find my own humanity (or lack thereof) reflected: in the literature and art that I turn to again and again.

That meant that I was reading sections of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville again, like chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a meditation on the horror of the “color” white. I was studying the etchings and paintings of Goya, especially his “Disasters of War” series of prints and his fairly late self-portrait of himself at a moment when he nearly died. I was reading the biblical psalms and the minor prophets, tending toward those that were filled with lamentation and mourning. I was listening to the heavy metal music of Mastodon and Gojira and Kvelertak.

In other words, I found that I was steeped in disease and darkness.



In my explorations, I encountered some of my own fears. Around the time that my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, 9/11 happened and shortly thereafter our nation was off to war in the Middle East. My reaction to all of this—watching my mother’s decline while the world burned—was to spiral into depression and panic attacks. And a few years after my mother’s diagnosis, I started to experience symptoms very similar to those that led to her diagnosis and when I was at the point of being nearly unable to walk, and no doctor was able to tell me what was going on with my body after months of agony and pain, a disc in my back blew out. I didn’t have Parkinson’s but I had my own health issues to now deal with. Blessing and curse.

In other words, I had this mess of mirrors reflecting back all these raw things of beauty and horror, of life and death, of questions about the meaning of existence. And I needed to figure out a way to navigate these reflections without going mad. Or, at least, to “go mad” less.



I had to find a way to scream.

I had to find a way to rage against all that I saw and felt and experienced.

But I needed a form to contain that scream and that anger so that it didn’t consume me in the process. I needed to find a form that allowed me to escape the process of writing when I neared its conclusion, one that would be not only catalyst for the work but also catharsis for myself as writer.

And I ended up with a form I called “black psalm.”

The form was five “panels” of lines, each panel as long or as short as necessary to convey the images that I saw. And these five panels, or sections, were then laid down next to one another so that there would be some form of movement through the panels. A narrative. A story.

And then these black psalms, in their own right, would be laid down next to one another, and hopefully their order would weave a fuller tale.



Here is the first scream, the first cry, the first black psalm.

This is not the black that nips at fingers and toes and seizes fleshy bits of face in extreme and sustained cold. Nor the black of night caressed by the radiation of distant stars.Here is the first scream, the first cry, the first black psalm.

This is hot black, the sharpened black of obsidian polished by the kiss of deep earth. This is the stinking black of mold on bread and upon sails folded and improperly stored rather than stretched tight by the wind. The dripping black that hangs from the branches of trees in lieu of leaves and fruit.Here is the first scream, the first cry, the first black psalm.

This is the black of the butcher’s shop—congealed pools of drained blood and piles of organ meat littering the waxed wooden floor.Here is the first scream, the first cry, the first black psalm.

This is the black of soil filled with seeds waiting to burst forth alongside the infection waiting for its host. This is the black of shared mourning.

This is the black of the Pit and the black of the soul that enters therein.



While I was reflecting upon my mother and her condition, while I was revisiting Melville and Goya and the like, while I was crying out black tears onto the page, I was also reading about and researching octopuses.

I found another mirror. I also discovered a way to describe my muse, for I was now certain that I was possessed by an octopus spirit, who was having me write out the story that she was trying to tell. And her story was similar to my mother’s. Not a duplication of my mother’s story or an exact copy, but a similar story.

Mother, the Cosmic Octopus, as I came to know and call her, was neurologically unique. She inhabited a body that didn’t quite function and move like mine, that included limbs that had more independence from the core control of her brain than mine did, similar to the way my mother’s body now moved.

The Cosmic Octopus was a gentle mother, a creature who tended to her eggs, her potential young, in a manner that my mother would recognize. I felt that my mother, who wanted to accomplish two things in her life to feel complete—raise her children to adulthood and get a tattoo, and had achieved both—could relate, in some way, to her octopus “cousin.”

Finally, the Cosmic Octopus was a being who would perish upon achieving her purpose in life. She would wither away. She would become a ghost, a specter, wandering through the vast vacuum of space until she simply was no more. And my mother is on a similar journey—falling deeper into the disability and disease of Parkinson’s and the Parkinson’s-related dementia that 25% of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s also end up diagnosed with.



“Ink: Poems and Black Psalms” was published as my contribution to the “Mirrors” issue of Les Sar’zine. And although I was happy with pieces of the whole, it didn’t quite work for me as a collection. It was six “black psalms” in a tenuous marriage to a few poems about the Cosmic Octopus, but those latter poems were fragmentary and weird and not fully formed. In other words, they didn’t quite work, which meant that the whole didn’t quite work.

So I turned to the six black psalms I had, and was mostly happy with, and used them as another mirror to look into and to write about.



I turned to a word found in the biblical psalms—selah—that no one is quite sure the meaning of, and used it as a moment to pause after the first section of black psalms and to take a breath.

An utterance
a sigh

a pause
a musical direction

a breath
     of air
     of oxygenated water

a mystery
the fingerprint of an angel

the weeping
of an octopus.



I realized in that moment of stillness, in that pause, that once again, I hadn’t written about women. Or, even about my mother. Those controlled screams were my own. They were about my own depression. And my own neurological and mobility issues. And me having to witness the decline of my mother in body, mind, and spirit—a once vibrant and very social being now trapped in a broken body and a broken mind, isolated and stating that she wished she was dead.

I had received panels of images, and written out these comic strips as poems, but hadn’t realized they were mine.

So I asked Mother, the Cosmic Octopus, to show me her panels, to grant me to see the images she would have me write. And she gave them to me.

There was still darkness and despair. But the scream wasn’t as sure of itself. There was less certitude. Questions were asked instead of angry answers being provided. There was room for hope. There was room for holiness. There was room for new life and resurrection.



I gave voice to my mother. I let her speak. And I gave voice to the Cosmic Octopus. I likewise let her speak. Their two voices were woven together and their song sounds something like this.

Lamb is a lampstand:
light her seven candles!

Don’t gaze upon her
in her full glory

instead watch her dance
reflected in the waters

of the River of Life.

You will see things
in the light

but you will learn
more from the darkness

that hobbles it.



I now had a collection of poems that I was happy with.

I hold them in my hand. Black Psalms. Lamentations and songs. Faith and doubt and a thin hope.

And that would be the end, except that in preparing for tonight, in revisiting this story once again—my story, my mother’s story, the story of the Cosmic Octopus—I discovered another mirror.

I found it in the later poems of Rilke—in his Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

My new poems won’t be black psalms, most likely, but “alleluias"—a way to sing and celebrate the moments that we’ve each been given, however dark or light, however brief or prolonged.

So listen to the stars. Listen to the stillness. For it is there that I will find the stories that I will bring to you next. Because I paused and I listened and I let some others speak.

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