I’m so excited and honored to be offered the opportunity to share my words with the fascinating collection of writers and activists that is coming together on this website! Some of you might know me from co-founding The Icarus Project, an online community, real-life support network, and alternative media project by and for people living with the complex gifts that are too often labeled as “mental illness.” Some of you might know me as the artist and activist featured in the film Crooked Beauty. And some of you might not know that I’m also a poet. I’ve been asked to share my work here on Mad in America.
Much of the writing is drawn from my book Inbetweenland, which is being released this coming March (2013). The book’s description will give you a sense of where I’m often coming from in much of my work:
“Part love song, part howl, part incantation, Inbetweenland is the first book-length collection of Jacks McNamara’s poems, essays, and hybrid experiments in the neon vernacular of being alive. Mapping out radical trajectories through loss, violence, and queer desire, McNamara creates a luminous archive of survival and resilience in a self-destructing world. A visual artist as well as a writer, the author relies heavily on the unexpected image to chronicle the impossible journey through body, family, and history–towards home. From the borderlands of madness to the unpredictable shape of peace, Inbetweenland bears unflinching witness to a rarely charted geography, offering the reader a resonant poetics of insurrection and grace.”
I believe most of us have a broken heart not a “mental illness.” This first poem I’m going to offer you is about trauma and resilience; the ways that the world breaks our hearts, and the ways we survive to find our voices again. Trigger warning: the poem includes some pretty graphic writing about death.
the archaeology of snow
I remember the way the Western sun
would light up the negative spaces
between the leaves of the very first house plant
I ever managed to keep alive
in the first place that felt like a home.
My bedroom window faced 10,000 other houses
stacked up on the hill that kept back the fog,
San Francisco afternoons creating space to stop
leaving for the first time in 22 years.
I learned to paint lichens, lightning, and candles.
Wings with taproots.
Rivers the color of bruise. Inevitably
one housemate got pregnant and rented
a tiny apartment with the boy downstairs.
Another moved back to Texas and I
gave everything away
moved into the bed of my truck.
California has too many freeways
and never enough snow.
The long summer of 2005 was broken by fantasies
of winter, exploded roses on my skin,
and the beginning of seizures
when overexposed filmstills from 1985
began to erupt out of my spine.
The psychic called it kundalini rising.
The homeopath gave me snake venom.
The psychiatrist called it a liability
and dropped me because I was a suicide risk.
When I visited back east I drank wine in the morning
slept with my best friend’s girlfriend
could eat nothing but fried chicken for days.
When I returned to California
I could not find the light switches
in my room. I spent mornings drawing birds
on telephone wires, instead of going to work.
When the fog closed over August
I decided to move to apple country
in mid-October, when the leaves would be full of flames.
After apple country froze solid and thawed
slowly, my mother down south began to die.
She did not do it gracefully. Her organs failed
on a Sunday, while I was milking a goat.
Come home now. Board the train
back to a state saturated with corporate
headquarters where there used to be horse pastures,
a damp yard where the garage smells like a hospital
and mothers are filled with stale blood.
Attached to machines while their feet turn black
and their bellies swell with the sepsis
that looks like lost children. I become certain
her last words are a bitter critique of my haircut
until she rises from the nearly dead and glows
through cheeks her favorite shade of fuchsia.
Eating nothing but canned peaches and cottage cheese
for 6 weeks, sitting up until summer is starving the crops
and she lays back down.
I find myself holding her hand
while she suffocates in the living room
where she used to drink cheap wine.
She leaves us to withstand
the next year’s blizzards alone.
California was a relief again after all that snow.
The misplaced palm trees, the flat anonymous sun,
the queers dressing their dogs in hooded sweatshirts.
You could get lost with the anarchists
eating 30 pounds of dumpstered chocolate
in a warehouse with boards over the windows
or become invisible with the Buddhists
facing walls or stripping paint
in silence. In the used bookstore on 16th
where the peacefountain by the register
bubbled loud enough to drown
out the neighboring taqueria and the SRO
the owner, a complete stranger, handed me
100 sheets of crumpled Rumi
to keep me company until 8:37 am
when the daily mariachi music
drifted up through the floorboards of my room
from the dollar store downstairs. In that bookshop
I found the volume of poetry that broke
my voice open again, and showed me
how to write down the unrelenting itch
and ache of exile in crowded land, the sugar
in the vortex of a passionflower, the sound
of the dead with their heavy feet
pacing the roof upstairs
keeping me awake all night.
(If you would like to pre-order a copy of my book or make a donation to support this new independent press so that they can actually afford to publish the book, please visit the Deviant Type Press Indiegogo fundraising page and share it with your friends!)
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.