In David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Woods of Depression, David Blistein retraces the diagnosis of his complicated depressive disorder and deftly captures the elusive nature of the illness:
The experience of it being so unspeakably bright out there and so dark in here is one of the most humiliating aspects of depression. As if you’ve failed the universe itself.
And its physicality:
Wake most mornings 4:30 with what feels like a vibration or ‘racing’ in my heart or throat chakra, or occasionally solar plexus. Can’t go back to sleep but feel exhausted and can’t focus enough to get up and write. Wish I could sleep for a million years and wake up refreshed. No real suicidal thoughts, but I appreciate how people do it. Appreciate? Weird word.
And the constant refrain in his head:
Try to act normal, try to act normal, try to act normal.
I found myself turning the pages quickly, caught up in the universal terror of struggling with an untreated, serious mental illness.
I appreciate the book’s structure of alternating chapters with related discussions of one of the world’s greatest works of literature, Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy:
How wild the forest was, so tangled and overgrown I still shudder to think of it. But to reveal how I was transformed there I must tell you of everything I saw.
I must tell you of everything I saw. I repeated the sentence and thought of my own writing. I repeat the sentence now.
Adrian Matejka’s remarkable book of poetry The Big Smoke (a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award) offers a lyrical exploration of the life of Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first African American heavyweight-boxing champion and the complexity of segregation, inter-racial marriage, celebrity, domestic violence, and myth making.
Some of the poem’s titles are inspired from original source material like this newspaper byline: “Beware Mr. Jack Johnson: Texas Authorities Will Prosecute the Champion If He Takes White Wife to That State” and “Carefree as a Plantation Darky in Watermelon Time” which came from a newspaper’s description of Johnson training to fight.
Many of the poems struck me with echoes of the past that still resonate today. This excerpt from the poem “Cannibalism” about a deadly hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900 has shades of the coverage of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005:
After the Great
Storm hit, the Times called us ‘black
ghouls,’ cannibals eating coloreds
& whites like Sunday chicken.
They said we left babies in the street
just so we could take a dead man’s
shoes. They said we sawed off
fingers at the fat meat for rings.
I was there, so I know what’s true:
whole families of coloreds shot
down by whites. ‘Protecting the dead,’
the Sheriff said, sending buckshot
at any colored in sight. Those
dead people didn’t need any more
protection than the mud & rocks
Even my youngest daughter right now is caught up in a book inspired by real-life events. Mare’s War tells the story of two young sisters who discover their grandmother was a member of the 6888th African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
This debut novel is based on author Tanita S. Davis exploring her own grandmother’s past. She states, “I was poking through military records to find information about my grandmother and I discovered an America I’d never seen. After slavery and the Harlem Renaissance, there’s a jump in the history we learn at school to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. What happened before the mighty river that was the civil rights movement is that little streams started trickling. I never found out about my grandmother, but I found others like her. This is the story of their time.”
The author writes on her website: “Childhood: too important to give away to bad books.” I like that.
Up next on my nightstand are: Goodnight Nobody by Ethel Rohan, a collection of short stories that had me with its book jacket promise of lives gone wrong: “the wife jealous of bees; the pyromaniacal mother craving warmth; the one-armed identical twin facing incompleteness;” The Truth in Rented Rooms, a book of poetry by Koon Woon that I bought immediately after reading this; and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, a seminal book I’ve been assigned to read by my teacher to explore the nuances of multiple points of view. I’ll be diving into Donna Tartt’s long awaited and much lauded The Goldfinch as soon as my turn on the library list comes up.