Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Crack-Up

I'm picking up on and extending a topic that Louise blogged about a few weeks ago...

I count myself extremely fortunate to have only ever cracked up with laughter in my life. I like to think of myself as well-balanced, (maybe I'm just shallow), and I've never been subject to those depths of depression, self-doubt or mental illness that can be so utterly debilitating.

A friend from my school days, the most handsome and gregarious of us all, committed himself to a mental institution in his twenties and harboured there for some time until one day he walked out and threw himself under a train. My paternal uncle has suffered several 'break-downs' in his life and has bounced back. My aunt was not the bouncing kind.

It has pained me to watch the impact on friends and relatives who have suffered in some way with depression or a degree of mental breakdown. For my part, I can only try and empathise. I don't know what their respective hells were really like and I hope never to experience such trauma at first hand. That is where great art (and for me, literature in particular) is so invaluable in extending our emotional understanding of psyches and states beyond our immediate apprehension.

I've just re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Crack-Up', an autobiographical story he wrote in his late thirties (he died young at 44), in which he likens himself to "a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving." It's a brilliant piece of writing; frank, self-deprecating and witty but deeply humane. I first read it when I was in my teens and harbouring pretensions to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald (like so many others) and have returned to it several times down the decades. Sadly, my aspiration to write a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic failed to meet the deadline - but maybe that was for the best.

Today's poem (which I have performed at a couple of open mic nights recently) is in memory of Jane Rowland (1929-1979). The title is deliberately ambiguous. Jane's "crack-up" (as it was referred to at the time) was never actually spoken of in any detail nor ever explained, so the inferences are mine alone. Nowadays, or course, one cannot open the doors while the train is in motion...



In Reading Between The Lines
Nondescript Jane leaves her routine job
at the end of a typical day
and rides in the crush of the rush-hour tube
to catch the express from Paddington,
just one of thousands of nondescripts
at the start of her homeward way.

Tired, she reclines in a carriage seat,
glad of the rest for her weary feet
and flicks through a paper she's bought.
Awaiting departure patiently,
she looks, perhaps, a little fraught
but nondescriptly neat.

Once underway, on the six-eighteen,
she reviews (again) her dull routine;
at the end of the line, a loveless home
with the husband she'd hoped would compensate
for the emptiness she's grown to hate;
(but illusions reveal themselves too late).
At the carriage window, opaque with fog,
she communes in silent dialogue
with her bland, reflected self.
Pain makes her pale. (There's little else.)

Then, with a subtle, mirrored assent
she moves in a dream of nerved intent,
no longer thinking of wrong or right,
she's suffered too long to repent.
So she walks unnoticed towards the door,
for no-one interprets the nondescript signs
when she grips the handle, shuts her eyes tight;
and her scream, as keen as shining steel,
curves away on the night.


Thanks for reading. Have a good week, Steve ;-)
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