The Poison Prison

Debilitating Mental Disorders

One Two Step Over the Crack. This was the first title I chose for this post. What does this imperative have to do with the poison prison?

There is a connection. But first – go back in memory with me. A long time ago. To the mid-1950s when I would walk to junior high in good weather and later walk to catch the bus to high school, eyes downcast enough to avoid the “crack,” i.e. the indentation in the cemented sidewalks in Salt Lake City that were laid out in squares.

For a time, I don’t remember how long, it became an annoying obsession: one two step over the crack, one two step over the crack. A voice in my head chanted the phrase again and again and again.

Then there was the refrain: step on a crack and you break your mother’s back. I knew this wasn’t true – or was it?

My young self didn’t know much about compulsions, but I did have a mild one. That self didn’t know much about mental illnesses either, but I witnessed my father’s “nervous breakdown” when I was ten years old.

My little sister and I huddled near the old coal stove in the living room, at the fireplace ledge, our father stooped beside us. His arms encircling us, he smoothed our hair and squeezed our shoulders, a strange look in his eyes like he was going to cry. What was wrong with Daddy, our very shy father who rarely physically touched us? Mama took him to a doctor for something called shock treatments. Diagnosis: convoluted depression, whatever that meant.

During this time period he and my mother received sometimes weekly letters from his youngest sister Laverne. Aunt Toots we called her, though I never knew why the nickname. Nor did I ever see her. I grew up in Utah; she never left Oregon, the state where she was born, where in her early twenties, about 1935, she was committed to a mental institution where she lived until modern medicine released her over four decades later. Continue reading

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Slaughter of the Innocents – Poets Killed in World War One

Hell in the Trenches - World War One

Hell in the Trenches – World War One

In the Great War that was supposed to end all wars, not beget a second one, at least 80 British poets ages 19 to 40 were buried in battle, a “flowering of poets such as the English-speaking world has not seen again.” Poets who were eulogized in  a wonderful essay by novelist Susan Evans McCloud. I’ve borrowed her title: Slaughter of the Innocents – Poets Killed in World War one.

Poet Wilford Owen (1893-1918) Dead at 25

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920) (1)

From Wikipedia (click on photo for attribution)

Wilfred Owen. The name resonates in my mind, taking me back to the poetry workshops of my college years. I’ve never forgotten the emotional impact of his widely anthologized war poem Dulce et Decorum est, the title ironically taken from Horace, Roman poet, philosopher, and soldier born 65 B.C. in Italy who wrote the line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, translated how sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country. Sweet and honourable? Not so. It’s “the old lie” writes Owen in his poem that’s filled with the most vivid sensual imagery I have ever experienced, the imagery so vivid and intense that the poem is almost painful to read, caught up as I am in the horror of the scene.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. Continue reading

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