Breaking the Ice

I don't think I've gone this long without posting something since I started blogging almost nine years ago. It's been a busy semester -- I've been serving on a search committee and a planning committee, both of which have had to navigate certain controversial issues. And I'm teaching a survey course -- American Lit I -- I've never taught before and that has meant reading some texts I haven't looked at seriously in a couple of decades. I've also been trying to arrange translation and editing work with a couple of Vietnamese colleagues and do some writing of my own as well. Fact is, I haven't been working on poems with any serious application for several months. But I've also been suffering from fairly severe anxiety for several months, for which I'm now taking medication. It started after I cam back from Vietnam last spring, around the time of my birthday. Beyond noting the fact here, this is not something I'm going to write much about here in a public space, but it's not something I want to hide either. (I am fortunate to be in a position in which making such an admission will have little or no effect on my ability to make a living, friendships, etc. Not everyone is so lucky.) Such an experience -- especially coming out the other side of it and regaining some equanimity -- leads one to some fairly intense considerations and reconsiderations of one's personal history, one's "self," if you will. Especially at my age, when I have a fairly long vista to contemplate in the direction of the past and a somewhat shorter vista looking ahead. Or is it all chemicals binding and unbinding to receptors in the brain? More than that, clearly, though I'm not sorry about introducing the chemicals to my brain cells -- they seem to be getting along quite well in recent days. I've been doing a couple of things to work out for myself the nature of my recent experience (which is actually a recurrence of a very similar episode a decade ago, also after returning from Vietnam, though I think that is mostly a coincidence, except perhaps for the influence of spending a lot of time by myself in a strange, though loved, place.) I've begun gathering thoughts and materials for a course that I want to teach with a medical historian colleague called The Literature of Madness. I'm also in the early stages of drafting an essay with the working title, "The Wilderness of American Mind," which will be an attempt, along with the class, to investigate the literary implications of certain abnormal states of mind, not limited to, but including my own. I am particularly interested, for the purely personal reasons noted above, in anxiety and the ratcheting and ricocheting state of mind it produces. I have been circling Buddhism for at least a decade, probably longer, but I was so burned by Christianity as a kid that I have distrusted all forms of religion that I remained suspicious of even a non-theistic religion like Buddhism -- of which there are, also, some heavily theistic forms. I survived my early adulthood by becoming a non-believer, though I've always had a strange attraction to ritual; mostly, I discovered that I got a lot more comfort and happiness from sentences than from beliefs, though, so I went to work as a writer. And then over the last decade I came to believe less and less in that, or in the kind of writer I had become. There seemed to be no need for such a thing as I was. That has been driving me crazy, figuratively and perhaps literally. But for the last six months or so I have been sitting zazen, reading sutras, trying find a way forward. It seems to be working.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “Breaking the Ice”

  1. joseph, this is tough truth-telling even for a phenomenologist. you are such a fine person and it shows in your account of struggle. our lives are bound up with others, events, history. ed i’ve been maundering and dithering with the piece i’ll attach below:

    life as tapestry

    my life is a tapestry i pull it apart, repiece it, incorporate, renew, replace, reinvent to replenish the archeology of who i may have been: anything but the tinned dishonesties enfeciating formal stories we attempt to reject (enfeebling the whole history of the

    human race, or human walk, from cain and abel through abraham and issac on through nixon and kent state to its waterboarded finale). not only a government but a whole people may be represented at one time by one voice, and that voice but a tatter. but the people and a nation depends on consent–and

    of that voice:

    should anything as much as only one percent ONE PERCENT
    oppose the people/ the nation/ the government there is dissenus, instability. so listen to ONE voice. find that ONE voice. SAY THE USA HAS 300 OR 400 MILLION PEOPLE. what is one percent of that? could our people, our nation, our democracy

    survive if one percent or even one tenth of one percent were to oppose it actively? my life’s a tapestry. i pull the pieces
    of our time however discordant and full of the dreamtimes/ frozentimes : these change, plus they mutate, switch, and they crossover, transform. we each may have our ulysses moment —

    Ulysses —

    as in the tennyson poem of 84 lines where he says “I am a part of all that I have met.” lawrence fixel had this committed to memory, and in the last decade of his life justine fixel would recall–and i remember–speak parts of it and, if asked, would recite. When a boy in the late 1930’s, my older brother Dave

    was singing

    in his fake-sinister boy-soprano a ditty perhaps from that time: “Blood on my shoulder/ Lasting ever longer….” that blood is on us all. even in our coats of navy blue of a 1942 song he sang :“Bell bottom trousers / coat of navy blue/ I love a sailor/ and
    he loves me too”. so here i wait, now, to stitch a center to this


  2. I think I can make a compelling case that at no has the kind of writer you’ve become been more important. Your work stands as a reminder that there are other, more human, ways to live beyond obsession with the bottom line and accumulation of wealth. Your readers are the very people who either need this messsage most, or who are searching for a deeper way to engage the world.

  3. It is good to have you back.

    On a totally pragmatic note that you probably do not need, the essay in progress sounds like something that would interest The Sun.

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