Depression Lies, Poetry Defies

Why even wonky poems are always worth writing and sharing

Once upon a time, depression, anger, and poetry collided on the page.

The salad spinner in my head decided to spit out exactly how I — the newly naturalized citizen — felt about the reality of Donald Trump as CEO of America Inc. but in verse rather than prose.

I was so rattled my words, which chronic depression smothered for years, came back for another visit, this time as unidentified editorial objects or poems, depending on how indulgent you feel toward these pithy expressions of displeasure from a particularly peeved person. Prior to this, I had also had an uncanny essay moment, which had resulted in another standalone oddity.

On those rare occasions I managed to be functional, odd was my jam.

A few days ago, I found the indignant poems and they showed me a few things.

All the themes I would come to write about at length are already there. The wrath and revulsion are palpable because the ruthlessness of a culture that elevates mediocrity yet punishes poverty and sickness still shocks me on a daily basis. I never could get numb or inured to it.

It’s not my culture and thankfully it’s not every American’s either.

At some point in 2017, I was breathlessly apoplectic for a while and so my titles were in all caps, sorry about that. As a journalist who abhors sensationalism, I do not recognize myself but every single word happened. The caps provide an accurate snapshot of my mindset at the time, removing them would not. Poetry is more forgiving about such quirks than any other form of writing.

Welcome to my brain, please grab a seat, and buckle up! You’ll find a paper bag in your seat pocket.

Exhibit A: SIT DOWN!

What America calls freedom is so flawed
As to encompass and embrace and elevate
The cesspool of the soul
That which should be contained and repressed
Rather than showcased
On national TV by a head of state
Representing all that we are and stand for
A shameless, impressionable nation
Felled by greed and self-importance
Hypnotized by fame

Greed is inspiration, virtue, and goal: The more money you have, the more credibility and respect you get, regardless of how wealth happens.

TL; DR: The arrival of Trump did not surprise me one bit. As a European, I had taken Brexit as a warning. I had also despaired at how the US media was covering Trump’s campaign, too busy ridiculing him to take him seriously. Or so terrified of calling his lies lies they stuck religiously to bothsidesism, i.e. false equivalency.

Because money.

Exhibit B: I DO NOT TRUST

I do not trust
The peacock pens
Who parade prose and opinion
Preening and prancing
Across the page
Swaying and sashaying
On the internet catwalk
Oozing outrage
Rubbing my eyeballs dry
For profitable stares
Subscriptions and circulation
To topple the grotesque regime
They helped install out of greed
by deriding the portents of fascism
As if it America were above
Such a faux pas

After the election, my (naive) hope had been that America would finally become self-aware and push back in unprecedented ways at all levels.

But something else happened. Karen in Seattle spent a lot of money down the copy shop so her protest signs would look great on IG. At $100 a pop, they did. Color-coordinating your outfit and your kids’ into a pleasant selection of complementary hues looked great too.

Three years ago, American life already felt absurdly surreal to me but I still clang to the political momentum of the Obama years, utterly convinced Trump would be out within the first two years.

Clearly, I didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand my hope was as ridiculous as trusting the political irritation wouldn’t last.

I had a lot of trust in my new country and I still do, only without a hint of denial therefore my trust has shrunk considerably.

November isn’t looking good, is it?

I lost my words again shortly after I wrote those protest poems.

Sometimes, you come face to face with your former self; pure ire is never not a surprise in my case. I may be more attuned to internal and external stimuli than most and they easily overwhelm me but I’m not susceptible at all.

So when anger happens, it lights a fire under my ass. That’s why I’m still around and functional again, i.e. writing.

Poetry isn’t something I’ve even written much of, and then only in Portuguese. And yet, poetry happened again, mostly as villanelles and pantoums, each of them an expression of something other than displeasure.

This is when I realized, albeit belatedly, that only intense emotions rouse poetry from its slumber in my case. I am incapable of invoking it. I can write most anything on demand but poetry; others live and breathe poetry in everything they say or write or do.

In an age when words are losing their meaning, poetry is uniquely suited to commentary.

Its audience remains limited, for now.

Exhibit C: THE PRICE TO PAY

How can words matter
When they are stripped of meaning
In the name of free speech
So I might take the liberty
To debase, discredit, and disdain
Whoever isn’t like me?

In America, that which is free has no value.

To understand America, follow the money. Often, words on the screen will lead you to your echo chamber of choice. Unless you’ve chosen to pull an Alex Jones and claimed honesty as your superpower, in which case you’ve unlocked messiah status.

We’re living in peculiar times, caught between reason, a pandemic, and malfunctioning American exceptionalism. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between concerned and so terminally overwhelmed coping is more tentative than ever.

For those of us tangling with depression, it’s horrid.

Regardless of how you feel about right now, what if poetry could help?

From a mental health perspective, no other kind of writing demands such razor-sharp focus. Also, unlike an op-ed or political commentary piece, a poem is small and therefore a more achievable goal.

From a writing perspective, don’t let size fool you. You will sweat over each line. You will agonize over each word. You will curse the salad spinner in your head for picking poetry, of all possible genres.

But the cadence and musicality of words will amuse and delight you, even when your poem sounds like slo-mo death metal with a hyperactive hamster on drums. And some forms, like the dodoitsu, are funny.

You’ll lose yourself into another dimension for a while.

Writing poetry also makes you a better writer.

By forcing you to practice the art of extreme reduction, poetry can teach you how to mean what you say and say what you mean.

Although depression lies, poetry defies, and life makes sense for a while.

Of course, you’ll write very bad poems, you’ll forget them for a while but you’ll share them once anything looks possible again, courtesy of a pandemic canceling our individualistic, capitalistic, and profligate ways with everything.

Including language.

If you too believe words still matter then poetry gets to the point faster than the pithiest of journalists. It doesn’t waste anyone’s time or sell anything. And it can be as impactful as propaganda, minus the questionable ethics.

How about poetry as a weapon for personal and collective evolution?

Change always starts with one tiny subversion.

🎁 I've had the honor and privilege of editing Nuno Ricardo's first poetry book for Six Herons, a Netherlands-based small press. We hope this complementary digital download of Outlines brings you a moment of respite in these uncertain times. Feel free to share it! 

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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