[cover image courtesy brownpoety.com]
I know you are alone and soaking in it
like solitude is blood
and the night is the letting.
— Derrick Brown, “Church of the Broken Axe Handle”
Have you ever saved your own life? Lots of people do it every day. Lots of people do it lots of times a day. To be suicidal and stay alive is to choose, over and over again, at the most mundane, banal, boring moments, to not kill yourself. You decide not to do it, to wait, to sleep on it – not now, you think, I’m in class, or, the spaghetti pot will boil over, or, you are lying on your back in a dark room and it feels like floating in the middle of nothing but it’s not it’s something it’s a room in your childhood home and if this scares you imagine what nothing, real nothing-nothing would be – again and again, decision after decision, and that moment of choice repeats itself forever until it doesn’t any more.
When I talk about “Church of the Broken Axe Handle,” I like to tell people that this poem saved my life. It didn’t, not really.
I saved my own life.
But I made that decision while I was listening to it.
I spent a winter and a summer crying on kitchen floors. People were trying to take care of me, and how else to do so than with food? With warmth and comfort, with things a body needs. Good food – curry and ramen and greens and chicken, soft eggs and and hearty soup and watermelon with lime. Genmaicha. Orange juice. Nutrients and love. An attempt at something grounding.
There are two kitchens in particular that I’m remembering, in different cities but remarkably similar: tiny, linoleum floors, rickety wooden tables. Prone to filling up with steam while someone cooked. Both inhabited by someone who loved me and who took better care of me than I knew what to do with. Neither person would let me cook, and so I would sit on the floor and watch them. Usually, I would cry.
I’m remembering these kitchens for two reasons: because it was in one of them the decision was made and the tickets were bought to go see Derrick Brown and a host of other poets perform in Seattle. And because I was still making the same decision over and over again in them, in spaces built of comfort and care and love and hot fragrant steam. Even then, even there. The opposite of a laugh track playing on loop inside my head wouldn’t shut off for anything.
When things are that bad inside your brain it is like you are drowning and it becomes necessary to grab onto whatever you can find outside of yourself to stay afloat. One of my lifelines was the same place I have always turned: to a lifesaver called poetry.
I first started listening to performance poetry in my senior year of high school, having discovered it two-fold: at my hometown’s bi-weekly spoken word night, and on the Indiefeed Performance Poetry channel. I liked the podcast because it was curated by someone who loved poetry, and that meant that I was being directly fed the best of the best; someone was already sifting through the slam voice and the faux-outrage for me, and delivering pure, brilliant poetry right into my earbuds.
It didn’t take long for me to realize which poets I liked best. Most of those poets now form the core of the group of extreme talent published by Derrick Brown’s independent press, Write Bloody: Anis Mojgani, Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson. And, of course… Derrick Brown himself. (Write Bloody has gone on to publish many other poets I adore: Jeannan Verlee, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Lauren Zuniga, Franny Choi, Danny Sherrard, Beau Sia, Hieu Nguyen, and others, but at the beginning it was smaller, as all baby presses must be. It has grown beautifully and naturally, and watching it do so has been like watching a garden bloom.)
But here’s the thing about that original list: Derrick’s poetry is pretty different from the others’. Andrea Gibson is a whirlwind of force; righteous anger and fierce tenderness and the only time I have ever been able to describe grief as “generous”. Buddy Wakefield and Anis Mojgani are different in style and content and yet similar: both inhabit a place of deep joy. Both are almost meditative in their work.
Derrick’s poetry is written to be performed, just like the others – one of the stipulations of being published by Write Bloody is that the author must perform at least twenty shows a year – but it tends to be crafted like page poetry. That is not to say that the poetry of the other people I’ve mentioned isn’t crafted: it is, often elaborately, always beautifully, and in ways I have studied to make myself a better poet. But performance poetry exists for an audience that is in the room with the poet, and so tends to gesture outside of itself. Page poetry is usually more self-contained, hanging together like a spider web.
There is also the matter of content. All poets write about love, whether they admit or not. All poets write what is on their mind. And Derrick’s mind is a strange one. I lent his collection Scandalabra to a friend, once. She returned it the next day with the verdict, “I don’t know, it wasn’t for me. It was kinda… harsh and weird.”
Harsh and weird, I thought. Sounds familiar.
She wasn’t wrong: Derrick’s writing, whether it be his poetry, his comedy, or his erotica, often plunges into the surreal, and the surreal can be a dark place, built as it is out of our deep strange subconscious. In his own words, “I find that many themes keep occurring: dogs, God, riots, knives, blood, death and women.”
Dogs, God, riots, knives, blood, death, and women – if you know me, you’re not going to be surprised that my favourite poet would make a list like that.
Here’s the thing. We survive any way that we can. The choices we make when we are trying every day not to die might not look healthy from the outside. Sometimes what we need isn’t a healthy meal cooked for us with love. Sometimes what we need is a knife fight, fast and brutal.
In April of 2012, I went to Seattle with my best friend. The weather had turned, and spring was blooming, and there we were: two sad, scared girls who had come to town for poetry.
We explored. We ate good food. We were flirted with, and flirted back. We spent hours in a traditional Chinese tea shop, letting everything be steeped away from us until the world was herbs and tea and the sound of the door. And in the evening we trekked up a long, steep hill to a place that used to be a church, and we sat down inside of it.
That night, Derrick Brown stood on stage backed by a small orchestra and howled, “Hallelujah we are fucked! Hallelujah we are fucked.” and I sat there and I held my best friend’s hand, and I thought to myself: I can’t keep living like this any more, and I don’t want to.
The small everyday choices continue and repeat, continue and repeat until they don’t anymore. There are two ways to break the cycle. I chose the second.
The earth didn’t shift. I wasn’t suddenly a different person. It was a slow change, the way big ones are when they happen naturally – glaciers and tectonic plates. This is how it went: being suicidal is being in a state of constant reaction. Your nerves are frayed to the point that you hurt, physically. The world has bruised you, bruised your entire self. The choice I made was to stop cringing back, waiting for the next blow.
I picked up my knives, and I stepped into the fight. ♦
“Church of the Broken Axe Handle” is featured in Derrick Brown’s 2009 poetry collection Scandalabra. His newest publication is UH-OH: The Collected Poetry, Stories and Erotic Sass of Derrick C. Brown, a retrospective collection.