Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ungenerous Depression and Tom Healy's New Book of Poems "What the Right Hand Knows" (PART ONE)

It may be fabulously retro for a queer poet to write in the personae of a clinically depressed homosexual. Or for that matter to be one himself.

There are no queer role models in Tom Healy's new book of poems "What the Right Hand Knows." And we’re all the better for it.

Perhaps most accurately described as a queer Jane Kenyon, Tom Healy includes in his collection a good amount of poems about the unpleasant banality of loneliness. I could see Kenyon and Healy paling around together, even though I think Healy would benefit from the friendship more than Kenyon. He’d learn some good stuff about poetry.

Both of the poets are invested in sadness, self-inflicted masochism, an occasional nod to the pastoral, an overdetermined minimalism that can play, if not monitored, as self-parody. But Kenyon’s depressive nature in her poems –shall I dare say it?- prove to be more generous. Here’s the final titled section from Kenyon’s often-anthologized poem “Having It Out with Melancholy.”:


High on Nardil and June light

I wake at four,

waiting greedily for the first

note of the wood thrush. Easeful air

presses through the screen

with the wild, complex song

of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.

What hurt me so terribly

all my life until this moment?

How I love the small, swiftly

beating heart of the birds;

singing in the great maples;

its bright, unequivocal eye.

What’s so wonderful about Kenyon’s closure is her acknowledgement of the embarrassment of psychic pain. No doubt mental illness is comically shameful to the person suffering, but that fact is often overlooked. When Kenyon writes “What hurt me so terribly/all my life until this moment” she gestures towards her own silliness, her own frustrated inability “to get over herself.” For those of us who’ve underwent a depression-chemical or psychic, or both-there’s always a tendency to not acknowledge the “dark” comedy of depression: “ordinary contentment” itself becomes such a relief it yields a dangerous self-dramatization all of its own. When the stability disappears, a sense of foolishness occurs: you’ll wonder if it really was ever there in the first place.

Here’s the first numbered section of Healy’s poem “An Act of Forebearance”:


You’re the type

who’d murder.

I’m the one

who eyes

his own wrists.

Should we wed

and spend life

thwarting one another?

Instead of developing this relationship, the poem transforms into a pedagogical lesson, explaining to us self-evident elaborations:


Compare apples

and oranges.

Compare fiction

and breathing

One peeled,

One bitten.

Which, my spider,

is which?

We swing

in the threads

of this web


for sting,

for struggle.

Put the cliched metaphor aside. (Does a teaching lesson really need innovative figurative language anyway? It may be best to work in clich├ęs. You then have no choice but to focus on the meaning of the image, not the image itself.) This poem’s idea is simple: the ambiguity and conflation of victim, victimizer, etc.

The final section only compounds this fact with a self-conscious gesture to language: “Consider/what it would/have been for us/to flower-/or stealing/the work/of another verb,/to weed.”

Billy Collins could be faltered for his own lack of generosity, too. Like Collins at times, Healy sets up a conceit, offers a slight twist, quite often a reference to his own writing and reading. Then he perfunctorily moves onto the next poem. Which often trudges down the same rhetorical path as the last. The only difference: you actually believe Healy has read what he names. It seems fitting that at the end of the first numbered section of the poem "Body Electric" that Healy's personae reads Henry James. And unlike Collins, understands it.

There’s a stinginess in this volume. I do not mean in any way I want to know anything more about these speakers’ familial histories. I could care less, and it seems that Healy, much to his credit, feels the same way.

In fact, so much art, in particular Hollywood movies, fail as a result of the desire to pathologize characters through family history. Did we need in the atrocious remake of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scenes of his relationship with his father? Why do we need an explanation of why Willy Wonka behaves the way he does? Why attempt to explain away the mystery of eccentric human behavior? (Same thing with Michael Myers. In the John Carpenter original, Myers’s streamlined pursuit of the murdering his victims engenders the fun; we don’t go to see a detailed trajectory of his own childhood abuse, as in the remake.)


  1. What a smart, perceptive, strangely ambivalent reading of my work. We should meet.

  2. And did we really need to see what made Darth Vader evil? In 3 movies? Sorry, I really really hate that modern convention, of wishing to know why everyone is the way they are.