By Victor D. Infante
“There have been girls in this competition who can développé and pitch to the side and do 20 pirouettes and land perfectly … and I don’t care. You put your finger against a wall and you break my heart.” – Christina Applegate, “So You Think You Can Dance”
There have been times when I’ve observed myself from the opposite side of a window, watching myself numb and immobile, while beyond the pane I’m screaming, hammering at glass that fails to shatter. Those moments come less frequently these days, their duration more fleeting, but still I find them terrifying. And still each time the question percolates: Is this it? Will I ever feel again? Time is irrelevant to that moment, watching the mind withdraw entirely, not quite overwhelmed, simply … gone. “How strange to be gone,” writes Jim Carroll, in Living at the Movies. “To be sure.”
My love of art was born in that bleak certitude, that gaping silence that is art’s antithesis, grasping for a space where emotion is not only relevant, but paramount. Because there have been moments where it’s been utterly denied to me. “There is a stadium beside my window/filled with winter,” writes Carroll, almost echoing Franz Kafka: “A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.” That ice is a refrain, from writer to writer, a telegram warning of winter’s approach. Winter is always approaching, George R.R. Martin references aside. And with that message, an undertow, the knowledge of temptation, the urge to sink into the snow, to disappear entirely. “So all that’s left is she,” writes Carroll, “taken away in the form/of death or love.”
And I listen to the office chatter, to the men for whom love is a tongue-twister, as though it were some weakness to be disguised, a tender heel awaiting Paris’ arrow. How am I supposed to respond – me, for whom love has always been a grace, star to navigate blizzards? Is this nonchalant embarrassment a thing to be envied, this blissful ignorance of a moment where there is no love, no hate, just a head filled with snow? How do you explain that love and heartbreak are not opposites, but rather, that that unlivable winter is the opposite of both? Those unfrozen rarely understand. They call it sadness, when really, sadness, too, would be a blessing. Sadness is painful, yes, but it is proof that you are alive, the sort of alive that parts the fog, the creeping predecessor to snow. How to convey the necessity of intense emotional experience, the soaring passion and the desolate heartbreak, that it’s in those moments and those moments only that you can be absolutely certain that you are more than cardiac rhythm and breath? How strange to be sure.
We have a name for that impossible conversation. We call it art. It’s not the only definition of art, but it’s the one we’re concerned with right now, not only that place where emotion is paramount – where “everything matters everything,” to echo Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz – but where the conveyance of that emotion is a crucial piece of the process. It must seem vanity, from the outside, this search for the reader or listener, but that’s never been the entire truth. From the biggest pop star to the humblest poet on an open mic, what’s really being chased there is a clawing need to complete the circuit, an innate knowledge that art pursued in solitude is something else entirely from other acts of creation. Consider Tony Brown’s The Radioactive Artist, where he writes:
The radio today
brings me the story
of an artist who builds sculptures
from radioactive waste.
I sit back amazed
and listen to a doomed voice
in full cry
on behalf of his art.
his Nuclear Materials Handler license number
tattooed on the back of his neck.
He has the stuff of his every sculpture in his blood.
He builds his work
from the scraps and tools left behind
in the wake of nuclear weapons manufacturing
and keeps them in a gallery
that will be off limits to critics
for 10,000 years.
Someone has to do this, he says.
Someone has to make these things beautiful.
That’s a slightly different compulsion than the singer who needs an audience, the writer seeking readers. If anything, it’s perhaps a more noble calling. I envy that artist’s ability to work in solitude. For most artists, the act of transmission to some audience is church confessional, therapist’s couch, a 3 a.m. whisper between lovers. The art has a mind, and needs acknowledgement. To do so in solitude feeds nothing, simply causes demons to fester.
But the relationship works both ways, and artists are hardly the only ones who seek refuge from the snow in art, in the intense emotional experience of beauty, and in that, one can form some empathy for the nervous fidgeting of office talk, the embarrassment at love’s admission. Writes Carroll, “I wonder if she’s thinking of pain.”
W.H. Auden once wrote, in elegy for W.B. Yeats, that “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” but the world hurts everyone in some way or another. That wound does not draw everyone to the act of creation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a wound there for art to heal, or at least salve. The act of acknowledging emotion can be frightening, and art can provide a safe space to do that. But that acting – and even seeking beauty – out of response to pain is still a somewhat different beast than pursuing emotion, that desire to experience emotion as its own end. Because as frightening as the risk of heartbreak is, the knowledge of its absence is more terrifying still, to be simply numb meat, knowing nothing anymore of love or weeping, to remain perfectly blank.
Perhaps even terror is the wrong word. Last night, a bat entered my office through a shifted roof tile, and I was startled and frightened by the unexpected visitor. But in that moment of fright, my heart rate accelerated, and I was alert, no fog in my head, no snow. I was alive in that fear, whereas when I am beyond the pane of glass in my head, I feel nothing outwardly. I am simply screaming, and even that makes no noise. Language breaks down here. There is no clear diction to describe what happens, only feint and metaphor. “That’s my language,” writes Carroll, “divisions of words I know: ‘love : sky.’” The conversation is impossible. That’s why it is art, and not some other thing.
I do not know if that unnamable thing is fear or something else, although I separate it from the cascade of emotion I otherwise attempt to give free reign. I love easily, and I grieve easily, too. Sometimes I will burrow myself in either, letting them wash over my face, until I emerge clean. It’s not that I pursue suffering, but I try not to flinch at it, either. I prefer to feel it, to feel anything. It’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all. A pat cliché, certainly, but you can’t really see the truth in the cliché until you find that capacity to love entirely absent. That capacity is what wards off winter. I fear winter more than I fear grief, and as inferred, I grieve easily, and hard. My pursuit of art – mostly poetry – strengthens those wards, allowing me to reconnect with that intensity of emotion, keeping the recollection sharp and vivid. To do this, I have tools at my disposal, craft and technique. I can développé, pitch to the side and do 20 pirouettes, landing perfectly. They are useful skills, but are not, in and of themselves, of interest. Using them well heals nothing, if it is not accompanied by something more important, and ethereal, an honest emotional spark, carved sharp and beautiful. It is work, and the work changes as I change, as my relationship to winter, and to all the things that drove me to winter, changes. And I cannot do it totally in solitude, lest it become mad buzzing in my ears. That takes a sort of strength I don’t have, and is inevitably driven by a different sort of demon.
But it matters everything to me, these poems. Poetry, like love, keeps the winter in my heart at bay, and each new poem that enters the world edges a tiny sliver of my soul back into spring.
Into a swamp this heart is flying
like Mayakovsky’s last breath
death full of gravity and Frank O’Hara
I have abandoned…and I am crying it is midnight
and she knows it. marvelous joy of miracles breaks through