Tim Mayo Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
Each of these poems considers the condition of the human spirit in a different way. "Trapezing in God's Country" offers the reader an interesting situation: we watch the speaker attempt the physical sensation of a spiritual ascension by trapezing. Could you talk about the inspiration for this poem and how you decided to craft the narrative of this piece?
I’ve actually been doing flying trapeze for some 8 years now, and for the last few years I’ve thought about using it as a metaphor in a poem. But, even as I was intrigued by using it, I was also troubled by the obviousness of it as an ascension to heaven or an arrival at a spiritual experience. It seemed almost too obvious and as such risked being a cliché. Maybe it is. It was only after I began to think that, if I could describe the process of flying in enough detail, the physical things one does the first time they fly and how they feel at each point in that process, then I might be able to transcend that obviousness and succeed in captivating the reader. I hope I have.
The kind of fearfulness described in the poem and sensations of everything going far too fast are something a beginner feels and not what a more experienced flyer feels. My heart no longer pounds when I am up there, and the more I fly, the more time I become aware I have to make adjustments in my swing or to succeed at the trick I am trying to throw to the catcher. But most readers won’t know that, and besides, in the poem, what’s at stake is this spiritual ascension as a flying trapeze trick, and the fear that you don’t have enough time or will fail hopefully adds to that drama.
Flying Trapeze is certainly different things to the different people who do it. For me it has become a form of meditation. This seems to frustrate the different coaches who work at the rig. They want to see their students learn new tricks, but I’m just an old dog, and I just want to fly and perfect my swing. All of which I do now without the safety lines mentioned in the poem.
One last thing. Even as an atheist, I still feel that life must include some sort of spirituality which each of us needs to find and practice in our own ways. For me it has been primarily writing poetry. Flying trapeze, running and other forms of physical exercise that one tends to do alone come close to that. They are all forms of meditation for me, but since I work on a detox unit in a mental institution where death is always a possibility, I now use them more as tension reduction than a pursuit of the spiritual.
I like the idea of the physical act of trapezing as meditation. I also enjoy your detail of the physical world in "Puppet Therapy” and “Working in Detox," where the shell of the body asks for a release, either through flight or surrender. Could you talk about your use of the body in these poems?
Funny you should ask this question. All of these poems are part of a manuscript now entitled The Body’s Pain. I changed the title because I had decided to dedicate the collection to a former lover/partner who suffered from TBI (traumatic brain injury) and partial paralysis from her first brain operation some 20+ years ago. She died last March after refusing to have what at that point would have been her sixth overall brain operation and the third in as many months. Her choice was her release from a body which more and more wouldn’t allow her to live the way she had always hoped she could. Essentially I believe that mind/spirit and body are inseparable. We are biologic entities who conjure up the perceptions of our lives and the world. Just as I saw that she suffered the psychological and spiritual effects of her body’s condition, so do we all in our different ways, and that “the body’s pain” is that psychological and spiritual suffering which is a necessary part of the human condition.
The main character in “Puppet Therapy” suffered from a debilitating depression which physically affected him. In the poem he chooses a turtle to demonstrate how he physically withdraws from the world when he’s depressed. Although to him the rubber turtle is the metaphor for his body and spirit in depression, he then picks up a little metal butterfly from the table and speaks about how it represents the opposite of his depression and a faith that he can “this time, [. . .] crack the shell” and escape the confines of his depression (“the hard cocoon of his heaviness”) and be cured. More and more my experience tells me that faith––not in God (though if that helps, fine) but in the perception that we can be a factor in the change of our circumstances through the choices we make––is a critical component to the success of not just the mentally ill but also to the successful outcome of our own lives. I don’t think people can change without developing a faith in themselves. The world is dynamic not static, but addicts and the mentally ill are stuck in a stasis. Nothing ever stays the same, but often when we’re down and out, we can’t see that, and if we’re down long enough, it can seem impossibly static.
Oddly enough in “Working in Detox” what I think I am driving at isn’t there until the end of the poem: that we are not in control of our lives, and we must surrender to that. We like to think we are and the more successful we are the more we believe that we are in control, and, by God, we’ve got the bootstraps to prove it! It’s only when you're at the bottom do you begin to see how little you can control. Alcoholics and drug addicts, however, still have a very hard time accepting that they are not in control, and they are very angry about not being in control. Yet paradoxically they cannot change their lives until they accept that they cannot change a lot of what they want to change. The part of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer which AA adapted demonstrates this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
But to get back on track and try to answer your question about surrender and the body. As a biologic entity whenever I act or do something, I change the neural pathways in my brain. Just as any drug acts to change those pathways, so does the act of surrender which can lead someone to healthier choices and a more fulfilling life. On the surface surrendering seems like such a simple act, but it is hard to do, it takes overcoming an emotional inertia, and then the emotional impact of it is so powerful . . . it’s “Biblical in its intensity.” And that emotional intensity is tickling a lot of neurons in the brain and changing them in some cumulative way. If all human interactions change neural pathways, then washing the patient’s feet in “Working in Detox” might change the patient’s neural pathways in a positive way, though, I expect it’s more likely to change the speaker’s than the patient’s, but you still keep trying, anyway. It’s all about humanity.
Many of your poems seem to speak from experience, either from a moment you've experienced personally or one you've witnessed. As a writer, how do you decide what to focus on and what to leave out?
It’s really visceral and a process of trial and error. But there’s an interesting thing about poems which seem to tell a personal story. I remember a poetry teacher of mine who wrote anecdotal/narrative poems as I mostly do, and he said something to us in a workshop which sort of outraged me at the time until I thought it through. He said that all his poems were fiction and not slices of his life although they definitely appeared to be just that. I remember feeling as if I had been duped as a reader, which leads us to examine the unspoken contract between poets and their readers.
Up to that point I had been writing under the impression that poetry was supposed to be about truth and as a reader of poetry I was also reading it that way. But when you examine this idea about poetry being “true” and I put this in quotes, because what I realized was that I had never defined what that was supposed to be. I realized that in fact I had never read anything about poetry having to reflect a “journalistic truth,” or that a poet was bound to the same code which journalists are, yet that’s what I was adhering to and expecting in what I read. Is the “truth" in a work of fiction no less true because the work is fiction? I think you would answer no. It resonates with our world view or changes it, because we suddenly see the world in a new light because of the story.
So to sum up a long winded explanation which has gone astray from your question, changing the anecdotal event of the poem in some way which might make it resonate more deeply is an option which years ago, I had never considered but do now. The truth in a poem doesn’t come from some journalistic adherence to "the facts” but to what, in this case, the story reflects about the human condition that we as readers end up culturally agreeing with in some way––even reluctantly.
This answer also speaks obliquely to the underlying assumption that these poems are based upon experiences I have either had or witnessed. As a caregiver working in a mental hospital, I am bound by HIPAA, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which in so far as “Working in Detox” and “Puppet Therapy” are concerned, says that I am bound to not reveal a patient’s identity nor any facts about his or her condition to anyone without his or her express written permission. Going further, I should not say or reveal anything which, though it doesn’t reveal that patient’s identity, might lead someone to be able to identify that patient. What is fiction, what is fact, what is truth? I am skating on real thin ice.
I try my best to make the supporting details of the story/poem move that piece to a resonating conclusion, but I do it by trial and error, and by putting the poem in a drawer, so when I read it again, I can do so closer to how a stranger might perceive it. I do also try to be spare, and sometimes that can work against me in the sense that the story may not have enough context to stand alone or just might be a richer experience if I had added a little more descriptive imagery and detail. I have a good friend, Patricia Fargnoli, former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, whose work I so admire because of the richness of the detailed imagery which she has in her poems that I find lacking in mine. Recently I decided to try and keep up with her that way. So far it’s lasted one poem, my very latest, which she really likes and thought was very different from the rest of my work, but we’ll see what happens. I often make poetic resolutions which like New Year’s resolutions seem to fall quickly by the wayside or are just forgotten.
Trapezing in God’s Country
Now in my mid-sixties, my blond hair silvering
at the temples like little wings, I’ve taken up flying.
It happens in a farmer’s field, hidden
from the road, on Sunday afternoons,
the New England summer sun frowning down
like a Puritan as we gather, coven-like, to practice.
Think of it as a post-modern meditation
on getting to heaven.
How you must study and learn the way: a trick
which arcs your ambition across the mortal divide
and the ultimate achievement of grace.
How after the long climb
up the ladder’s absolute verticality,
your hand must reach out from the platform
a mere arm’s length
across a void of existential proportions
to that simple bar . . .
and as you feel its weight pulling you
into the empty air,
if your heart were not knocking so hard
against the ribbed bars of your being,
you’d become aware in a totally new way
of a certain imbalance in the world
which has always been there;
you would see how the multitudes,
teetering on the edge, try to hold on
to something they fear will swing away
leaving them to fall,
leaving them empty handed.
But this bar isn’t meant for revelations,
nor the passing epiphanies of second thoughts.
It is there to move you
through a series of well-timed attitudes––
motions your flexing body must make,
arching to what it must hold
to carry everything your body contains: heart
––stomach––soul––into the catcher’s arms.
There’s an imperative to doing this right:
do it wrong, you will fall back to earth,
and falling to earth is not
what heaven is about.
Unbeliever that I am, I spurn ritual,
the repetitions we walk through
to affirm what we cannot define,
but this, I practice religiously.
I climb up to the vantage of the platform
above the tawny fodder the field still sprouts.
I climb until I seem to come to the very tops
of the green-pillowed hills
where the opaque sky seems to rest its milky head.
There, a solemn attendant awaits me.
He attaches safety lines
to a sun-colored belt at my waist.
These will break my fall to that spidery bed below,
that resting place above the earth before I try again
until the sweet high chariot
of the catcher finally comes . . .
Nervous, not a novice, nor a long time practicant,
I will still make this happen. And so . . .
like a confessor,
the attendant leans in,
he cocks an ear toward my mouth,
and his hands still fiddling at my waist
like bees around a flower, he finally asks,
so what are we trying . . . this time?
And I whisper back that special name
for whatever set of movements
my will shall translate to my body what it must
execute to carry me to the other side.
Nodding, he straightens up, hands
me the bar then trumpets the name
for the really simple trick I’ll perform,
and then . . . with a ready-y-y-y––hup!
he calls me off the board and I drop
into that apparent easiness of flight:
but all around me the static world blurs,
down . . . and up––out . . . and back . . .
then swooping . . . out . . . again––
until I rise to that point. . . farthest away . . .
from where I began,
from the everyday talk-talk of how to do this––
and that––the hello-goodbye and in-between
of human exchange–– the shouts from below––
the accelerating sputter and clutter
of neurons in flight––all of it! . . .
subsides . . .
into this pure emptiness of air . . . this one moment . . .
this point where all gravity has vanished––
––(though only for the briefest time)––
but nonetheless not there,
and where some shape,
its arms now reaching out, suddenly swings up
to meet the downward motion I begin to feel,
and it grabs my outstretched arms––and I too, grab
and hold––not for dear life––but for everything else.
I watch a man. Hands toying his totem,
he talks to the group, his fingers
playing out his words on the table.
Everyone leans in a little closer
as he fiddles with a small, green turtle
made of rubber. He explains the sinking
turtle of his self, how he wants to shed
the dark carapace he carries.
When the day begins to lag, he says,
and the heaviness you’re born to sags
through your veins, because the clouds
have muddled the blue right out of your sky,
you just drop your soul into the deep mud
of your being. You just stop. Right there.
In the middle of the road. Become a hard lump
against the black tar of the difficult day.
He shoves the turtle head inside its shell.
This is where he dwells most of his days.
Now he takes a small enameled butterfly
from the table of assorted objects.
It is made of tin. He loves its delicate mobility,
the way it inhabits the air, un-muddied,
not dirigible, the way it doesn’t hold the air
inside like a breath you can never expel.
Instead, its wings, replete with color, just twitch,
then flutter, and the whole world leaps happily after.
Somehow, the man says, he knows it is there:
he feels a bright fluttering in the ribcage
of his gloom that is more than just
the sluggish heart pumping to survive.
He says, this time, he will crack the shell;
this time, he will see the quivering inside emerge,
cleave from the hard cocoon of his heaviness,
and he will see its splendid wings spread,
and a gaudy glory will hover all red and yellow
over the green and brown smudge of his life.
Working in Detox
It’s not about the tearful atonements they promise
and the promises they will probably break,
nor the rock-bottom details of their lives
full of the high drama of their lows,
nor their tremorous histories of drowning alive in liquor
or the pink clouds of opiates mushrooming their brains,
nor the happy scores they talk of having made and may again,
but how, when you raise your eyes
to this one gray-stubbled face before you,
his pallor still apparent, though he doesn’t shake anymore:
the earthquake-trembling of his hands subsided at last,
you hear the anger cracking the fragile vessel of his voice,
roughening his vowels to a sandpaper pitch, all because
he doesn’t yet know the promises––the blessings––
not of a second chance nor whatever number
the fingers and toes of his body have become
inadequate to tally––but of more––as you wash his feet,
dry them, then slide new socks over his gnarly, ingrown nails
so he can hobble, unembarrassed, down the long,
linoleumed hall to the day room with its TV, Scrabble,
Twelve Steps on the wall, the incomplete circle
of straight-backed chairs facing the center,
and finally, the fortified screens on the windows
to keep out the earthy prevalences of the world.
And as you raise your eyes to those cracked
and scab-encrusted lips, pursing––then suddenly––
spraying out their sputumous invectives––
not at you––but at the world and his wife
who put him here for his own good––and hers,
you suddenly hear a long subsided echo of yourself,
tolling the rosaries of resentment, your red eyes
brimming with Hell, fire and self-loathing,
until something inside you––maybe a rib––popped,
and you felt a release so Biblical in its intensity
you still say amen to that simple act of surrender.