Poetry Unites Winner: Paul White
PostedNovember 14, 2014
In the early 1980s I bought a book in New York City by the poet David Ignatow. I swear I remember sliding the spine, out from among the other books, and seeing its shiny, red, black, and white cover. The poems were short, and they used a simple language in free verse. They were mental snapshots, what I would come to know as an emotional autobiography, catching moments of feeling in pictures, like dreams do. The poems were trying to catch up with the speed of life, as if it had somehow gotten away. They were so concise and lacking in pretension, trying to grapple with life and its problems, to lay hold of emotion in its essence. They were just what I needed.
I was about twenty years old and visiting my aunt for the weekend. She was on a six-month assignment in the city for the telephone company. I think I picked the book because I couldn't pay attention well enough to read poems that were any longer. It could have been like so many other books, which I started and then discarded before finishing, losing patience with my own thoughts. But about halfway through, I read the poem “Sunday at the State Hospital.” It’s about David Ignatow visiting his schizophrenic son.
It describes two people sitting across the table from each other at a mental hospital eating sandwiches. The speaker of the poem calls it his “visit sandwich,” but the person he is visiting is having trouble eating. He is frozen and staring at the table with the sandwich suspended in mid air. The poet eats and pretends everything is normal, but the mood of the illness infects him, and the sandwich tastes mad. He goes on to say his past is sitting before him, filled with itself, and unable to bring the present to its mouth. The poet implicates himself, he seems to blame himself for the illness. After this poem, I read David Ignatow’s poetry like it was food for a starving man.
I was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic at age seventeen. The poetry of David Ignatow helped to save my life. I carried his little red book of selected poems wherever I went. My hands began to wear the colors off the covers. His book was like a talisman to ward off anxiety. If I could only stop and read for a moment, I’d be okay. In general, people do not want to know about schizophrenia. When I would try to tell people about my experience, it was as if a brick had fallen out of my mouth and landed on their foot. I learned to keep my mouth shut. David Ignatow’s notebooks are full of desperation and anguish in dealing with a mentally ill son. Even though I never met him, David Ignatow became like a spiritual father to me. His son never recovered.
Today, I’m happily married and I work as a registered nurse. I take care of critically ill children living at home with their families. I’m also a poet, and I often write about my experiences with schizophrenia, and my long road to recovery. I tell my story to advocacy groups for families of the mentally ill. I also have spoken to psychiatrists in training at the University of Buffalo. I tell them what it felt like and how I got better. David Ignatow was a lifeline for me in the long process of my recovery and it started with the poem “Sunday at the State Hospital.”