Poetry Prescriptions for ADDICTIONS & COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOUR

Recently I’ve been self-prescribing poems to learn by-heart for my own addictions and compulsions: to food, to drink, to my phone; to the constant stimulating stream of social media I now can’t possibly live without; to poetry; to YouTube videos; to television series and the week-long binges they necessitate; to certain kinds of interpersonal attachments, both “real” and virtual.

For days I’ve had that 80s schlockmeister Robert Palmer intoning his insidious little mantra into my limbic system: “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your will is not your own… / Might as well face it you’re addicted to love.”

Truth is, we are all now addicted to something or other. Maybe it’s always been that way, or maybe we’re facing a rampant new strain of a very old problem, outlined as far back as Plato and The Prophets. As Kaveh Akbar writes in another poem that expores this, one I’ve been by learning by heart recently:

I blame my culture       I blame everyone but myself     
intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss   

Wherever we sit on the spectrum of compulsive behaviours, are these not the justifications we all use on a daily basis? I know I do.

Here are some poems you might want to self-prescribe (learning by heart?) for whatever compulsive behaviour has got its claws into you at the moment.

THE DAY YOU STOP

One day will be tomorrow. The day of truce
and socket and beaten. The day
you shrink into stopping, the day threadbare and pain-
shamed and limit. Until then,
you might be continuing
because that is what you do until the last moment
when you must stop.
Still everywhere the shiver
is slow on the tongue, insistent. You will stop
for some weeks,
your body taking body
from your blood
and the back of the throat,
and those weeks will be thank-you-God acres
of erasure and resurrection and the clabber of other small prayers
you stoop to collect. You will be diligent
because you have paid good money
to be taught how to stop, slanting off
from queasy transgressions, those
clutches and source. Even so,
we shouldn’t fool ourselves;
resolve cannot liquefy need.
You will probably start again soon after
you have completed the stopping,
the unwashed swell of rapture
taking your face through teeth to heartbeat,
every beaten moment on the couch.
Every relief: have hereafter and clamor.
Have nothing worse.
You’ll follow the mumble through
that ache that is tincture. Is rule
and bundle. Is famished inside you
and thrumming. You understand
there are two types, and you are
the type to release. If you had to choose
between settle and suture, you know what you’re after.
You’d pour yourself hitches
and battery. Pour yourself each subsequent time.
It will become impossible to believe
you will ever stop for good.
Stopping is not counter or suspect,
but easing back is all that is left,
the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives.

-Lauren Camp

RECOVERY

You have decided to live. This is your fifth
day living. Hard to sleep. Harder to eat,
the food thick on your tongue, as I watch you,
my own mouth moving.
Is this how they felt after the flood? The floor
a mess, the garden ruined,
the animals insufferable, cooped up so long?
So much work to be done.
The sodden dresses. Houses to be built.
Wood to be dried and driven and stacked. Nails!
The muddy roses. So much muck about. Hard walking.
And still a steady drizzle,
the sun like a morning moon, and all of them grumpy
and looking at each other in that new way.
We walk together, slowly, on this your fifth day
and you, occasionally, glimmer with a light
I’ve never seen before. It frightens me,
this new muscle in you, flexing.
I had the crutches ready. The soup simmering.
But now it is as we thought.
Can we endure it, the rain finally stopped?

-Marie Howe

I HAVE ROADS IN ME

winding within my arteries
into distant hills
of memories,
where dreams float like dandelion fibers
on bright, chill, breezy
mornings under a canopy
of cottonwood branches.
Where leaves glimmer
sunlight
roads turn.
I have roads in me
where drums pound a sacrifice
and beckon
to again believe in life’s wonder,
where I learn the intense passion,
seeing the sparkling, dewdripping
leaves upon moist, pine-needled ground.
My heart restored,
I am guided
by stars
and a raging desire to live.

-Jimmy Santiago Baca

LOUDMOUTH SOUP

Vodka, whiskey, gin. Scotch, Red wine, cognac,
brandy—are you getting thirsty yet?—ale,
rye. It all tastes good: on the rocks, with a splash,
side of soda, shaken
not stirred, triple,
olives, one of those nutritious little pearl
onions, a double, neat,
with a twist. Drink
it up. Let’s have a drink: dry beer, wet beer,
light, dark and needled beer. Oh parched,
we drank the river
nearly to its bed at times, and were so numb
a boulder on a toe
was pleasant pain, all pain
was pleasant since that’s all there was, pain,
and everything that was deeply felt, deeply,
was not. Bourbon, white and pink wine, aperitif,
cordial (hardly!), cocktail, martini,
highball, digestif, port, grain
punch—are you getting thirsty yet?—line them up!
We’ll have a drink
and talk, we’ll have
a drink
and die, grim-about-it-with-piquancy.
It was a long time on the waiting list
for zero
and I’m happy
for the call out of that line
to other, less predictable,
more joyful
slides to ride on home.

-Thomas Lux

THE IRREPARABLE

Can we stifle the old, the lingering Remorse,
That lives, quivers and writhes,
And feeds on us like the worm on the dead,
Like the grub on the oak?
Can we stifle implacable Remorse?

In what philtre, in what potion, what wine,
Shall we drown this old enemy,
Destructive and greedy as a harlot,
Patient as the ant?
In what philtre, in what potion, what wine?

Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know,
To this spirit filled with anguish,
So like a dying man crushed beneath the wounded,
Who is struck by the horses’ shoes;
Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know,

To this dying man whom the wolf already scents
And whom the crow watches,
To this broken soldier! if he must despair
Of having his cross and his grave,
This poor, dying man whom the wolf already scents!

Can one illuminate a black and miry sky?
Can one tear asunder darkness
Thicker than pitch, without morning, without evening,
Without stars, without ominous lightning?
Can one illuminate a black and miry sky?

Hope that shines in the windows of the Inn
Is snuffed out, dead forever!
Without the moon, without light, to find where they lodge
The martyrs of an evil road!
The Devil has put out all the lights at the Inn!

Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned?
Say, do you know the irremissible?
Do you know Remorse, with the poisoned darts,
For whom our hearts serve as targets?
Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned?

The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth
Our soul, pitiful monument,
And often he attacks like the termite
The foundations of the building.
The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth!

— Sometimes I have seen at the back of a trite stage
Enlivened by a deep-toned orchestra,
A fairy set ablaze a miraculous dawn
In an infernal sky;
Sometimes I have been at the back of a trite stage

A being who was only light, gold and gauze,
Throw down the enormous Satan;
But my heart, which rapture never visits,
Is a playhouse where one awaits
Always, always in vain, the Being with gauze wings!

-Charles Baudelaire, tr. Aggeler

THE HEAVENS

From mind to mind
I am acquainted with the struggles
of these stars. The very same
chemistry wages itself minutely
in my person.
It is all one intolerable war.
I don’t care if we’re fugitives,
we are ceaselessly exalted, rising
like the drowned out of our shirts…

-Denis Johnson

AMERICAN RIVER SKY ALCOHOL FATHER

What is pornography? What is dream?
American River Sky Alcohol Father,
forty years ago, four lifetimes ago,
brown as bourbon, warm, you said to me,
“Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.”
Then: “You’re killing your mother.”
And she: “You’re killing your father.”
What do men want? What do fathers want?
Why won’t they go to the mothers?
(What do the mothers want.)
American River Sky Alcohol Father,
your warm hand. Your glass. Your bedside table gun.
The dock, the water, the fragile, tough beach grass.
Your hand. I wouldn’t swim. I wouldn’t fly.

-Jean Valentine

BREATHINGS

i checked him every night
mixing the landing light
with the slow mucous of his snores

if he was quiet I would press
two fingers on his arm
until he breathed again

children need so little air
but i wake every hour
gasping for yesterday

choking on the things
i did not do
the times i did not listen

i check him still
opening his old room
like a tin beneath my bed–

Dom Conlon

CORRESPONDENCE

I leave it there
For a while
Like some jagged thing
Until foolish hope
Overcomes hollow experience

And I am told
That the beating heart
I stuffed with the unbroken spiral
Of a small, round apple
And glazed all over
With dark, sticky blood
Was not quite right

I leave it again
Until I tire of the tiny nicks
Each time I pass it by
Then reconcile it
To the rejection heap
Along with the others
That also taught me nothing

And I take up my blade

-Anne Casey

DELINQUENT HEARTS ON THE RAILROAD TRACKS 

Eat the shrooms and desire me. We tag
the car, our tailing Fs and Ss rising
off the rusted side. You say the paint cans
hiss like the king snake curled up under your porch.
I laugh and jake, vodka gunning. The highway
is a distant thrum. When you smash the caboose window
with a rock in your fist I know the drugs are working.
We nimble along the tracks back to stashed
bottles filled with gas and oil. When the train
rolls by we toss and laugh and streak as fire
consumes the side of the cars. It’s a dragon
you brag, and high we rise up over crappy
lives we knuckle drag. We drink and smoke and tag
and dodge the railroad cops bobbing for our necks.
It’s just after midnight and the laughs still come.
I’ve got a scheme to avoid being caught.
When you touch me I know you want me forever.

Stephen Scott Whitaker

DREAM SONG #57

In a state of chortle sin—once he reflected,
swilling tomato juice—live I, and did
more than my thirstier years.
To Hell then will it maul me? for good talk,
and gripe of retail loss? I dare say not.
I don’t thínk there’s that place

save sullen here, wherefrom she flies tonight
retrieving her whole body, which I need.
I recall a ‘coon treed,
flashlights, & barks, and I was in that tree,
and something can (has) been said for sobriety
but very little.

The guns. Ah, darling, it was late for me,
midnight, at seven. How in famished youth
could I forsee Henry’s sweet seed
unspent across so flying barren ground,
where would my loves dislimn whose dogs abound?
I fell out of the tree.

-John Berryman

IF THERE’S A GOD

If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of
wrecked lives, and it’s only he who can explain how my doctor
father, with the gift of healing strangers and patients alike,
left so many intimate dead in his wake.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of
recklessness, and I ask him to answer.
He’s the god of thrills, the god of boys riding bikes down
steep hills with their hands over their heads.
He’s the god of holy and unholy chance, the god of soldiers
crossing a field and to the right of you a man falls dead and to
the left also and you are still standing.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of diet pills,
who is the god of the Fifties housewife who vacuums all day and
whose bathroom is spotless and now it is evening as she sits
alone in the kitchen, polishing her chains.
He’s the god of the rampant mind and the god of my father’s
long monologues by moonlight in the dark car driving over the
dusty roads.
He’s the god of tiny, manic orderings in the midst of chaos,
the god of elaborate charts where Greg will do this chore on
Monday and a different one on Tuesday and all the brothers are
there on the chart and all the chores and all the days of the
week in a miniscule script no one can read.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was his hopped-up
acolyte who leapt out of bed one afternoon to chase a mouse
through the house, shouting, firing his .38 repeatedly at the
tiny beast scurrying along the wall while Jon wailed for help
from the next room.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of subtle
carnage and dubious gifts who lives in each small pill that
tastes of electricity and dust.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was its high
priest, praising it, preaching its gospel, lifting it like a host
and intoning: “Here in my hand is the mystery– a god alive
inside a tiny tablet. He is a high god, a god of highs– he eats
the heart to juice the brain and mocks the havoc he makes,
laughing at all who stumble. Put out your tongue and receive it.”

-Gregory Orr

GRAVY

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.

-Raymond Carver

POETRY COLLECTIONS:

  1. William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind
  2. Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf

If you have further suggestions for poems or collections on this theme, could you please leave a note in the Comments box below. Thank you!

 

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