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Journal, Day Four
Taos, Christmas Eve, 2005. Ferociously beautiful. A half-mile from the Pueblo you see black smoke running up the nighttime sky, bright flecks chipping the firmament, stars so wild and primeval that they seem the gods the Greeks and other tribes believed them to be. Inside the Pueblo walls, pinyõn pine bonfires blaze, sparks fly into children’s hair and parkas, flakes of flame pulse off the core of the fires and rise to the stars like propitiation. The Christian and the aboriginal do their odd-couple dance: while bonfires burn in a total darkness where you expect sacrifice to happen, inside the small church an evening service for children takes place, then a procession exits the church bearing a statue of Christ and Mary and makes a long slow circuit of the pueblo. It’s not just the darkness and the firestorm-feeling of hot winds in cold December air, not just this, but the elemental physical presence of belief and propitiation, the transcendent and the animist, that makes you feel you could get lost there, you could go up in smoke and only later will friends realize you’re missing.
If you live with whatever you call depression—melancholia, the black dog, the noontide demon—you smell it in other poets like a rotten-petals perfume. William Cowper in a 1790 letter: “I number the nights as they pass, and in the morning bless myself that another night is gone, and no harm has happened.” He knows how vulnerable we are to be stricken at any moment: this order of depression isn’t the “Doctor, everything seems to be in a gray mist” variety. You live in terror of the momentary. Awareness of vulnerability doesn’t help: “We are not always the wiser for our knowledge, and I can no more avail myself of mine, than if it were in the head of another man, and not in my own.” We each have our worst moments of the day and year. For Cowper, January, the beginning of the cycle: “I now see a long winter before me and am to get through it as I can. I know the ground before I tread upon it; it is hollow, it is agitated, it suffers shocks in every direction; it is like the soil of Calabria, all whirlpool and undulation; but I must reel through it—at least if I am not to be swallowed up along the way.” (Sept., 1783) For me, it was April: flowering and restoration induced spiritual paralysis; fresh green and growing items of the world saddened and terrified me. The heart cannot stand so much blessedness, and the hatefulness and fear burn inward. (In 1759 Cowper tried suicide by laudanum, knife, and hanging.) And the unremittingness is as rude and tedious as what I’m now writing. You want to leave the room, but the room is your skull, the terracotta planetarium where there’s no light and the darkness of the great firmament is an oafish gravity. Cowper was “reduced to an almost childish imbecility from my wonted rate of understanding.” He could answer rational questions but only if they were asked. Otherwise he remained speechless. To speak, if you’re in an episode, is to risk nonsense, an exciting of incoherence, so you shut your mouth and your head feels about to crack. Depression alienates you: you know that others see you as “other,” though at the same time that’s not what you want, but you’re speechless to say so. (“[I] believed that every body hated me.”) In a poem he says he’s “in a fleshly tomb, buried above ground.” Once you emerge from melancholy, all time becomes only and always “for the time being.”