There’s an early 20th century picture of Caruso as the murderous clown Canio and though it was taken in an era of studiously posed images it conveys an inspired, stagey madness. You can see a mercurial glow in the man’s eyes. He wears the famous Pagliacci costume and oddly enough he appears for all the world like a doctor who has become insane as opposed to a clown.
The photo is the real Caruso.
We know this in much the way we understand truth or deceit while playing cards in a neighborhood cafe. We are people of moods, conceits, tempers, and out-and-out lunacies. Most of us accept our roles devotedly. As Jimi Hendrix said: “You have to go on and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven.”
Of course I don’t mean to romanticize (or downplay) mental illness: far too much literary and academic damage has been done in that arena. And no, this is not a post of overcoming depression, nor is it a history of artistic or psychiatric alchemy rehashing again the triumphs of Antonin Artaud or John Clare. It’s possible for men and women with true mental illnesses to find their generous souls in art and just now, in our time we’re learning a great deal about neurodiversity and the magnificence of intellectual disabilities like autism. But this is not a book made of the attenuated histories of illness or the compensations of same.
This post is more in the spirit of the rapper Eminem when he says: “The truth is you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.”
Or, if you prefer, here’s the famous fast ball pitcher Nolan Ryan: “It helps if the hitter thinks you’re a little crazy.”
I remember my first inkling that an assumed and barmy spirit was a vehicle—really a “getaway car” like something the Chicago mob would have had.
I was on a playground in Durham, New Hampshire. The year was 1960 and I was five years old. I had thick glasses and I was smaller than my classmates. A big kid who I’ll call Rollie came up to me with a handful of dirt which he clearly meant for me to eat.
“You will eat this,” he said.
“It looks good,” I said. “Hey Rollie, have you ever eaten an acorn?”
Rollie held his dirt before him like a little pillow.
“An acorn?” he said.
“Yeah, they’re just like peanuts, really good, that’s why squirrels like them. You want one?”
“Sure,” he said. He held out his other hand and I dropped a neatly shelled acorn into his palm.
“Go on Rollie, its yummy!”
Rollie ate it. Then he turned red, and I mean red, not beet red or fire engine red—he was red as an unkind boy with his mouth swollen shut. Acorns are among the bitterest things on earth. And of course I only knew this because I’d tried one. I was a solitary kid. Spent a lot of time in the woods. Those were the days when a boy could still go to the woods.
Rollie was incapacitated. I don’t think he ever bothered me after that.
I still recall the thrill of my discovery. That a feeling, a simple reaction, a swing tricked out with language could render a nemesis harmless was rousing.
I didn’t do a little dance. Didn’t brag about the matter. But I was on the way.
A lyric life, I will imagine, is one wherein you can access feelings and then, by turn do something productive with them.
The simplest definition of a lyric poem is a poem that expresses the writer’s feelings.
Freud said: “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.”
One of those palliative remedies is lyric itself. One may think of this as causative intuition, a feeling that trips a switch and makes you sing when you should properly be weeping or running for your life. Again Freud: “Man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get in accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his contact in the world.”
We are getting in accord. We are beside a country road picking edible flowers in the cool of the day. We do not pick edible flowers beside highways because there are pesticides in trafficked areas.
We remove the pistils and stamens before eating.
“Hey Rollie, wherever you are, have you ever eaten Milkweed?”
“Rollie, you can trust me this time. It tastes like green beans.”
This is a post about unforeseen but productive feelings. A little book of kells…