Language Sideways: The Poetry of Addiction

By Richard Tayson 08/02/18

In what ways do current poems of addiction represent the minds of addicts in the throes of active disease as well as after the process of recovery’s begun?

Man holding flowers walks by giant wall of text in Latin.
Rather than communicating directly, poetry sidesteps logic in ways that may enervate or baffle.

Something poet Sam Sax said in an interview for The Fix has me thinking about poetry and addiction. “Poetry for me,” he told writer Christian Arthur, “is the only medium I’ve found that can accurately mimic how the brain moves.”

I’ve sensed this ever since I stumbled into poetry in my early 20s, and though I’ve written books of poems and have taught writing for years, Sax’s statement reminds me that poets use language in radically unexpected ways. Rather than communicating directly, poetry sidesteps logic in ways that may enervate or baffle. Because its language may seem sleight-of-hand (or even swindle), poetry is a medium well-suited to embody the multidimensional shifting and meandering that the mind enacts on a regular basis. But what may seem merely perplexing language that distorts reality may also be noted as presenting how the brain actually moves, with dizzying speed from present to past, reality to fantasy, hard fact to symbolic representation, all in a moment or, more likely, a split second.

Got it, and now we’re good to go back to our double espresso lattes and the latest CNN infuriation, right? But not so fast, for my coffee-charged mind is cycling through thoughts faster than I can process them, and my news-cycle drenched brain—well, never mind the news. The brain on coffee gets us closer to poetry, at least in the sense that I wish to explore here in relation to Sax’s statement. How, I wonder, does poetry fare under the strain of the addictive mind? What are the ways that poems written by recovering addicts mimic the mental circuitry of addictive thinking, that snarled labyrinth of brain moves that torture every addict I’ve known, both before and after sobriety? In what ways do current poems of addiction represent the minds of addicts in the throes of active disease as well as after the process of recovery’s begun?

* * *

Since American poetry is presently enjoying what may well be its golden age, I push away a stack of books by familiar poets and take up three recent books by first-time authors. Though Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Charles Bukowski, Etheridge Knight, Jean Valentine, Gregory Pardlo, Cynthia Cruz, Nick Flynn, Maggie Anderson, and Joan Larkin—whose poems on alcoholism The Los Angeles Times described as “the finest ever written on the subject”—have much to tell us about how the addictive mind works, I wish to witness the mental machinations of those at the frontlines of sobriety.

So I turn to the most recent debut poets issue of Poets & Writers magazine, where I find ten first books, at least three of which address the subject of addiction.

To read Sam Sax’s Madness, William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind (both chosen for the National Poetry Series) and Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is to enter danger zones in which the only direction we have comes not from GPS, but from eyeballing how close we drive to the edge of a cliff. In these poems, the mind is vertiginous, and in many cases its language sidesteps reductive meaning in order to reproduce, in the reader’s mind, states of mentality pertaining to the addictive impulse. In each of these books, non-linear, sideways-moving language introduces us to harrowing inner worlds. Words swoop down without warning to initiate us in the experience of drug-induced psychosis or to the grief in watching a brother overdose. Lines come at us from around blind corners to ambush us with the minutiae of what detox feels like, from the inside out. Meaning strips us bare then retreats, and words act not as locatable comfort, but as ventriloquized ephemera, cast-off detritus of the unspeakable degradations and mysteries of the addicted mind.

In its 79 pages, Madness (Penguin 2017) reveals a mind reeling from institutionalization, addiction to alcohol and painkillers, and the initial stages of recovery. Its concision may appear, at first, as imprisonment until you find that Sax’s language is liberating, untethered, and—dare I say it?—downright playful. You read these poems as interior landscapes. Though statements such as “i can only half-blame alcohol for my overdose / the other half is my own hand / that poured the codeine” (“On Alcohol”) occur, by virtue of Sax’s skill with wordplay and cadence, we’re invited to participate in a mind surveying its experience of an addictive trajectory that spans active withdrawal to whispered reprieve.

The heft of his subject matter—inpatient mental illness, queer identification and sex as painkiller, an uncle’s cancer, and, of course, drug use—may seem weighty enough to crumple the reader into one of Sax’s finely-wrought pages. Yet the writing style renders Sax’s project one of resuscitation and, for this gay reader, affirmation.

I have to work for it, though, and Sax gives nothing away cheap. Starting with a prefatory block of clinical language from the DSM-1 (1952), words, in and of themselves, cannot be trusted. “[T]his must be the way of things,” Sax writes in one of the four poems titled “Psychotherapy,” “—all signs pointing toward unknowable destinations.” In the mental states of addiction, nothing clear-cut will do. Sax’s speaker opts for a more chaotic approach. “i’ve begun to grow distrustful of sense,” he says in “On Syphilis,” “let there be madness in the text.” Linear meaning oppresses the mind the way disease oppresses the body, until there’s nothing for language to do but to burst out of its skin. That means, in the mind moving in these poems, out and up, into the freedom of wordplay.

Linguistic play sets the reader on notice as to the liberties this book takes with documenting a mind that refuses to move in acceptably linear ways. Words rub against each other, a form of auditory intrigue. “[A]ll our white blood / cells an oven,” Sax writes in “Fever Therapy, “a coven of bees blushing,” the off-rhyme (eye rhyme) of “oven” and “coven” creating a kind of linguistic harmony. Elsewhere Sax puts into motion a series of two- and three-word morphing patterns—“comets” / “comma” and “boarding” / “boring” and “sickle,” “silk,” “sick” (“Diagnosis”); “ward,” “warden,” “wars” (“Willowbrook”); “city,” “family,” “ancestry” (“On Syphilis”)—chains of sound that please the ear and, in one possible interpretation, mirror the circularity of the speaker’s addictive mind. Rationality is turned on its side, and we are driven over it, roughshod.

As I read, Sax’s cadence catches my attention as language becomes a percussive instrument drumming out the mind’s anguish. Punctuation, or its lack, emphasizes these poems’ rhythms, as well as their barrage of mental buzz. In Sax’s hands, driving cadences refuse logic while simultaneously giving rise to a clashing sonic beauty that articulates feeling (drowning? enclosure?) better than most narrative can. Take these lines, for instance, from “Transorbital Lobotomy”:

in the fifties there were tens of thousands performed in the states

sour mess. sour mash. mash-up. macerate.

cut a rug. jitterbug. wonder drug. gutter. tug. suture. lacerate.

erasure. erase. raced. deadened. dead end.

How can writing about lobotomy sound so, um, appealing? So mentally alive? There’s more than meets the eye: an outpouring of mind that moves toward implying the panic and dis-ease of circular thinking, while simultaneously (and subliminally) encoding that which is sonically recuperative. In one of the main ways that Sax’s poems encode mental activity, sound, in and of itself, simultaneously embodies the horrors of addiction and enacts recovery.

Recovery’s brain moves happen in William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind (Milkweed 2017), but differently. New York magazine calls Brewer “America’s poet laureate of the opioid crisis,” but even those like myself who have never taken recreational opioids might find familiar ground here. Addiction is addiction, and in “Oxyana,” the place Brewer defines as “[a] nickname given to the town of Oceana, West Virginia, after becoming a capital of OxyContin abuse,” the addictive mind proliferates. But it’s also where I experience a degree of skepticism with regard to Brewer’s poetics, for this statement seems more explicit than what I’ve come to hope for in poetry. My misgiving only increased as I read further: “Following a successful crackdown on prescription painkillers, heroin has now flooded the state. West Virginia has the highest fatal overdose rate in America, nearly three times the national average.” How, I wonder, can this factual language reach a state of epiphany that poetry is primed to offer? Explanation, my thinking goes, kills the spell that lyricism attempts to cast.

Which is what I expect to happen in I Know Your Kind. Brewer’s emphasis on Oxyana feels narrow, literally confining. And I sense a further problem in Brewer’s first poem, “Oxyana, West Virginia,” which opens with a panoramic view that winds through the Alleghenies and arrives at the town where the action is. Does the addictive mind think this way—in aerial shots panning down from the ethers to land us in an Oxyana? This seems too staged to be a useful representation of the addictive mind in action.

But in the book’s second poem, “Icarus in Oxyana,” a striking image leads me to the discovery of another way poetry renders how the brain moves: “Someone on the porch / who’d lost both his arms / chain smokes.” This single image--bold, bewildering, painfully true--clarifies the addictive mind at work. It allows me to settle into this book, an eye out for other potent images.

And I find them: “waking up in an alley with a busted face, // teeth red and penny-sweet, the rain / coming down clear as gin” (“To the Addict Who Mugged Me”); “have held the still hive of his head, / have placed my lips against the shadow // of his mouth, screamed air into his chest” (“The Messenger of Oxyana”). And these, from “Detox Psalm”:

With the waves’ jade

coaxing, I heaved my every organ

through my mouth, then cut a mouth,

at last, in my abdomen and prayed

for there to be something more divine

than the body, and still something

more divine than that, for a torrent

of white flies to fly out of me,

anything, make me in the image

of the bullet, I begged, release me

from myself and I will end a life.

Language moves sideways here by creating literal impossibilities—heaving internal organs through the mouth—that are metaphorically accurate. Detoxing does feel like the body throwing itself out of itself, the skin all wrong. The detoxing body is its own enemy, and glad we would be, at the worst of it, to be our own bullet that ends the body’s dangers. Such is the power of Brewer’s imagery to carry the reader through the stages of addiction, partial recovery, relapse, and finally sustained recovery. Brewer’s images depict the emotional and mental rot at the foundation of addiction, the skewed thinking at the heart of the disease.

In the work 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Frank Bidart calls “an intensely inventive and original debut,” Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James 2017) is alive with images that render shifting mental states at dizzying speeds. Akbar’s poems shunt from one emotional state to another, giving a sense of mental motion more reminiscent of driving too fast on hairpin curves than of logical elucidation. We race to keep up with speakers who pay no heed to safety. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Withdrawal,” Akbar offers a description that veers from one image to another: “I can hardly picture any of it now / save the fox I thought / was in the grass but wasn’t // I remember him quiet / as a telescope / tiny as a Plutonian moon.” Dimension derails, and disproportion prevails as the poem’s narrator lurches from fox to telescope to a moon so far in space that we’re granted a sense of how distorted the mind is that’s lining up these improbable—and emotionally accurate—images of DTs. “It’s amazing what you can find / if you just dissect everything,” Akbar writes in another poem, followed by a tumble of images: “Once / I pulled a glowing crystal from my beard / and buried it in the earth. The next day / I went to the spot and dug up a silver trumpet.” These images aren’t locatable in a linear context. They lurch and undulate beneath the skin of sense, advancing a project that, as with both previous poets, incites a sense of skepticism in relation to the body. As such, Akbar’s images wobble, as if they’re about to topple headlong onto bloody pavement. It’s no wonder, given the sidewinder moves the mind in these poems makes, that Akbar admits, “When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do.”

Because of Akbar’s linguistic bravura, it takes time for me to become aware of his use of topographical space representative of another way the mind moves. In the context of his poetry, empty space is not vacant; it connotes the unsaid, the impossible-to-say, the outer limits of implication. Every silence is an admission of not-knowing, a blow against hubris. Amid the linguistic swerves of Akbar’s poems, ample white space sometimes surrounds words, engulfs lines and whole stanzas in a silence that cordons off a kind of quiet amidst mental chaos. For showing brain moves in his poetry, silence is as meaningful as articulation.

Akbar offers extra spaces between words (“my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour   with a turning away” [“Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)”], and he occasionally jettisons left-margin conventions in favor of lineage that moves across the page (“Portrait of the Alcoholic with Moths and River,” “The New World,” “Against Hell”). Though the silences of the intake interview embodied in “Drinkaware Self-Report” indicate physical and emotional distance between interviewer and interviewee, the majority of Akbar’s silences are indicative of commonalities. The space between the three-line stanzas that filter across the page of “Learning to Pray,” for instance, are silences of communion, of reaching toward something greater than the addicted self. The white space between the unrhymed couplets found in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” is tentative with an uncertainty suggesting a fragile state of mind.

In Akbar’s best work, silence girds understatement, and what remains unsaid gives a sense that within the frantic place of the addictive mind lies a locus of calm. There, the mind doesn’t explain. It doesn’t offer delusion or false comfort. Yet it comforts, perhaps because open space is public space that has the potential to welcome us all. In its meaninglessness, it aspires to greater meaning, the way, say, our parks and canyons and monuments are open to everyone. Language can undercut commonality, but silent space knows no identity other than that of all. Silence is, in a word, collectivity. We is its pronoun, as in we are not alone. No matter how difficult may be the stages of overcoming addiction, Akbar’s silences imply, there are others with us. The silences I see in his poetry of addiction are perhaps the most hopeful of all the mental moves I’ve observed.

* * *

Poetry of the caliber of these three debut poets reminds me that the mind is not a linear muscle. How can it be that I so easily forget this? Wasn’t it just last week that a stain in my bathroom sink reminded me of the cigarette burn at the edge of my grandmother’s porcelain tub from forty-five years ago? Didn’t that image trail with it the smell of her Slavak cooking and her devotion, in absurdly equal proportion, to the L.A. Dodgers and As the World Turns? Standing in my apartment a few days ago, at the sight of a mar on my porcelain my mind catapulted back to four years before I took my first drink before ricocheting into a present that contains the seven years (this month) since I’ve had my last. It happened so suddenly that it shocked me.

Which is frequently how our minds work. What sideways language does is enact this process, so that we can see it in action. It’s the conduit between our current and past selves, making us privy to states of being we might otherwise miss.

Though the majority of Americans express intimidation and disinterest in poetry, I wonder if in doing so they aren’t inadvertently expressing a fear of language that moves the way the untethered mind does. Sideways language may nudge us to wonder if it’s not linear logic, rather than its sideways counterpart, that enacts distortion. Minds of addicts and non-addicts alike traverse multiple planes of experience simultaneously. Poetry, in enacting the mind in all its vicissitudes and pyrotechnics, its leaps and mental gymnastics, is an art that counters, not codifies, linear distortion. Shouldn’t we honor, rather than disparage, the depiction of mental states as we actually experience them, something that Sam Sax, William Brewer and Kaveh Akbar are teaching us to do?

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Richard Tayson is a freelance editor and the author of two books of poems, The World Underneath and The Apprentice of Fever, which won the Wick Poetry Prize. He has completed a third book of poems and is at work on a memoir concerning addiction and celebrity culture. He teaches at New School University. Find Richard at his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.