And then there was silence

by Jeff Oaks

After that last post, in which I thanked everyone, there was a silence. I didn’t know what to write; I didn’t even know how to follow up all that public appreciation. Sometimes trying to be good, to say the right thing, gets in the way of writing. I tell my students that all the time. Not that it’s not important to name and thank. But once you’ve done the right thing, it can be hard to do the next thing, if that next thing requires you to try something new, bumble around, make mistakes, fall flat, say something stupid. It’s also true that, at least for me, part of the difficulty with being publicly grateful is that one’s gratitude sounds suspiciously like self-aggrandizement. You can take your humility so far it becomes something else; you end up advertising your own goodness. Even if you don’t mean to, you can come to admire yourself in shadowy ways that block the ability of an artist to remain open, available to the kinds of consciousness that a poem might need. Even the mean-spirited consciousness that is unafraid to kick a perfect sonnet to death in order to extract the true two or three lines. That even likes to do it. That delights in destruction as a way to test the moral worth of a line.

After my first chapbook was published, I fell into a deep silence. Here was this thing in my hands, this thing that I’d dreamed about having, and my heart felt hollow, empty. A month or two later, I developed a pain in my lower back that didn’t go away for months. I walked around like a question mark. I saw a chiropractor who was sympathetic but convinced me that my spine was decaying. I saw her mostly because she let me cry in her office, even hugged me. Finally I decided to seek a therapist, and after interviewing a few crazies, found one. At the same time, I started reading some self-help books, especially Sarno’s Overcoming Back Pain and Bernie Seigel’s Love, Medicine and Miracles. Between those three sources, I started to imagine that maybe there was something deeper at work, something beyond the strictly biological. Sarno said: keep working. Siegel said: learn to play–draw your pain, write out your anger, get in touch with it. Paul, the therapist, kept making me angry with his seemingly simple questions about my family, my career, how much money I was making. One day, I remember I sat down against a wall in my apartment and wrote down every single thing that pissed me off in my life–from big issues to the teeny, tiniest sparks of irritation. If it was possible that part of me was using my back pain to cover other things I didn’t want to or didn’t think I could bear to feel, then I was going to plumb the possibility. I wrote for pages and pages, in big ugly, angry handwriting. For hours it felt. Then I said to myself, is that what I’ve been afraid of saying? and I stood up straight, without any pain at all. Astounded and immediately pissed off. Beautifully pissed off.