Essay on Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are sicknesses that can sometimes work for good. Milton and his blindness. Beethoven and his deafness. The one envisioned heaven within his mind in terms so rare and lovely that they belong to one who could not see. The sighted would never have appreciated the loveliness of their vision, the magnificence, the fearsomeness of vision, of something they had never lost. Milton did.

Of Yeats, Auden wrote, “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”

Poetry is a way of seeing, it is a way of sensing. Poetry is a way of being. A means of being. We narrate ourselves and the narration cannot but be poetry, that strange rhymed-unrhymed, broken/whole, devastated, shining, ruinous architectural oddity. That is human narration. The mind is a way of narrating. One of many ways. Faith perhaps the highest sense. The sense that unites all the other senses, but ultimately can discard them. Faith believes in a body that will be a body of light and of flesh.

Madness expands, deepens; it teaches about pain. No one who has ever experienced a mental illness would deny the terrible reduction of self, the breaking down of being and personality, the slow and frail new life that grows in its wake. Madness is something like a forest fire. It sweeps through or smolders steadily. It devastates, charring whole landscapes, leaving the stark ghost trees as its sentinels for seasons. But then, the new growth, slow, frail the wildflowers reappearing.

Madness is a new interiority; it is also like looking through the world at a kaleidoscope. New words and pictures come. They are bought at some terrible price, but they come. Perhaps they can never be articulated or drawn, but they come. Sometimes, you see something that is like seeing blue in a world that had no blue—a frightening and otherworldly beauty, an awesome event. When I write poetry, nothing writes through me. I am all alone with my thoughts, grappling with them, praying for a release. Jacob wrestling with the angel. A terrible battle—and then the angel’s merest touch dislocates a hip. But all this in exchange for a new name. New and terrible name that connects one to a history of blood-shedding and grief, exile, awesome beauty, life. Fecundity. Kate Barnes describes her father, “roaring like a Minotaur in the basement.” I never roar, but I do inhabit the basement. I must seem an odd presence to any visitor to the house—soft sounds down below, the low tracing sound of pen, the tappity-tap of a keyboard. Crying, hissing, anger. Henry Barnes ascended the staircase of Jacob.

© Meg LeDuc

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