A Pathless Wood: Navigating the Poetic Border Between Health and Harm
James Davis May on Poetry's Power to Indulge and Control Depression
The darkness is dangerous. It’s 5:10 in the morning, and the concrete path I’m running is illuminated, barely, by lamps filled with at least a year’s worth of dead moths. Soon, though, I’ll be on the unlit dirt trail-that’s-barely-a-trail that skirts the Nottely River. An animal I’m reasonably certain is a possum—and if not a possum, definitely a demon—creeps through the leaf litter 40 yards ahead of me.
According to a sign I passed a mile ago, the park is closed until dawn, but these are the Georgia mountains—there’s no one here but me and that possum (or demon), the hour being, depending on your perspective, either so late or so early that any possible mischief has gone to bed.
I’ve been up since 4:00.
When he prescribed them last week, my doctor told me that if I wanted any chance of sleep, I should take the antidepressants right after waking up in the morning. Yesterday morning, I did just that and got five hours. Not bad. What was bad, though, were the thoughts I was having, thoughts I had hoped would go away once the pills dissolved into my system. It was my thoughts, after all, that were suicidal, I told myself, not me. I didn’t like thinking about all the possible ways to die, didn’t like imagining how quickly it could be done—and, most of all, I didn’t like that there was something comforting in the thought of suicide. It felt like bad but convincing outside counsel.
The good news was that, unlike a month before, I was able to get out of bed. The bad news was that, unlike a month before, I was able to get out of bed and potentially act. That’s one of the problems with antidepressants, I’ve heard: they make you feel well enough to kill yourself. So though I know pre-dawn running through woods frequented by coyotes and bears and possible demons isn’t exactly healthy, it’s healthier than following my mind where it was headed.
Sports sayings are 95% drivel, but I appreciate this one from my hockey days: “Keep your feet moving.” The idea is that if you’re along the boards with the puck and keep stride, it will be harder to hit you, and if you do get hit, that hit’s not going to be as forceful because your momentum will deflect some of its energy. It seems easy enough, but when you have a 220-pound defenseman coming at you, shoulder aimed at your head, your instinct is to stop and brace for impact, which is just what the defenseman wants—that is, a stationary target.
That’s what I’m doing on this path: keeping my feet moving, literally and figuratively. If I’d stayed in bed, those thoughts that have been hunting me would have had an easy mark. When I run, I don’t think—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t think that way. I’m a body, one that’s hurting, yes, but one that’s also surviving. There’s time and space to navigate, and if I get to the end, I win. I’m breathing heavy but I’m still breathing.Writing these poems felt both healthy and unhealthy, like I was indulging my depression but also controlling it by describing it.
Yet running also feels vaguely like self-harm, at least the way I do it: I get to the point where every step hurts and then I keep going. At least the acute pain screaming in my legs and chest has a source, one that I control. And I feel better about myself when I’m done; no matter what, I’ve done something with my day. But though I rationalize the pain, I know that it isn’t entirely healthy, and I can tell that’s one of the attractions. I’m learning that when it comes to depression, the distinctions between what’s good and bad for your mental health are vague, unpredictable, and constantly shifting. Pills that can lead to both reanimation and termination. Introspection that uncovers the source of pain but can also completely expose the nerve.
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry describes the confessional poets as those who “presented their lusts, hatreds, and suicidal urges in extraordinarily charged and intimate terms.” The entry goes on: “Such writing sometimes came at a high personal cost: three of the confessionals—Plath, Berryman, and Sexton—committed suicide; others, Lowell included, endured repeated breakdowns, hospitalizations, addictions, which led to early deaths.” The implication here is that the exploration and articulation of some thoughts can either lead to suicide or the perpetuation/amplification of mental illness. I know better (we all know better), yet there’s some side of me, maybe the side that embraces superstition, that half agrees.
“Account,” the first poem I wrote directly about my depression, describes the time my wife, who is also a poet and my first and best reader, asked me if I was a danger to myself. In that poem, I compare the situation to being taken to a bank by man who’s holding me up surreptitiously at gunpoint. The bank teller gestures with her eyes at the silent alarm, essentially asking if I need help. In the poem, though, saying, “Yes, I need help” either directly or indirectly seems far more dangerous than not saying anything. I held onto this poem for a long time before showing it to my wife—which, again, felt like I was avoiding articulation. Once a poem finds an audience, even if that audience is just one person, it truly becomes a poem. It’s been written and read.
But there’s another half that doesn’t agree with the anthology at all and thinks that the “high personal cost” of not writing would be far greater than the price of writing. After finishing “Account,” something opened in me and the poems started pouring out. I wrote a poem about suicidal ideation. I wrote a poem about suffering a major depressive episode at Disney World, then another about how, during the worst of the depression, I would spend long periods of time in our darkened bedroom wishing for nothingness.
Writing these poems felt both healthy and unhealthy, like I was indulging my depression but also controlling it by describing it. If nothing else, writing them was a way of staying active. It hurt to say what I say in them. It hurt even worse to see my wife read them. But it also felt like a necessary if risky act, like running through the dark.
I’m at the mouth of the woods now. I see the silhouettes of trees and the path’s margins, but the details—roots, leaves, rocks, coyote scat?—are indistinguishable. I’m almost at the spot where, a year ago, my foot missed the uneven slope and my ankle took the brunt of my weight. At best, my ankle was sprained, but it’s possible something broke. Our local hospital was, I would learn later, criminally corrupt, simultaneously harboring a prescription drug ring and a bribery scheme, both of which would make regional news. Back then, I just thought the place was inept and knew that if I went to the ER, all I’d get was a $200 dose of Tylenol. Following that errant step, I couldn’t run for nine months.
Which meant my feet weren’t moving for nine months. I tried to supplement by buying a set of weights, even though I had never lifted before. A few months after busting my ankle, I could bench 150 pounds. But weightlifting is a different sort of exercise. For one thing, the active time is short. There’s a lot of standing around. A lot of thinking. It seemed that as I got stronger and stronger, my mind got darker and darker.
Did not running cause my breakdown? Was I just standing still long enough for the depression to catch me? Am I so addicted to cardio that not doing it conjures suicidal thoughts? Of course not, but maybe.
In Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich describes creativity as “a form of movement…around [the] impasse” of depression, and repeatedly depicts depression itself as a state of “being stuck, both literal and metaphorical, that requires new ways of living or, more concretely, moving.” She’s not alone in advocating movement, creative or physical. Andrew Solomon does so in The Noonday Demon, and a casual Google search for nonmedical treatment for depression pulls up countless sites that recommend exercise.
Keep your feet moving. Yet our moving feet can take us to some scary places, like this dark trail that leads toward the even darker woods. I recognize that this is, if not an archetype, then a cliché. “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost,” begins The Inferno. Robert Frost, my favorite poet, always seems to be hanging out at the edge of the woods, whose darkness sometimes seems to be calling him to come in.
Frost himself made what some of his biographers describe as a halfhearted suicide attempt when a misunderstanding between him and the woman he would eventually marry prompted him to take a train from New England to Virginia, where he set out for the Dismal Swamp, bringing with him little more than his street clothes. Frost made it through the swamp only because he befriended a troop of duck hunters who took him to safety.
It seems imprecise to call Frost’s trip to the Dismal Swamp a suicide attempt, and I’d say the same about my running through the dark. What’s the right word for it then? It’s a sort of disappearing act—disappearing into despair. Despair itself comes from two words in Latin: De and sperare, which respectively mean “down from” and “to hope.” Middle English had a wonderful—wonderfully tragic, that is—version of despair: Wanhope. It means without (or lacking) hope. A lack, by definition, implies a need, and a need necessitates articulation: whether you’re an infant crying for your mother’s breast or a diner asking for a glass of water, you need to be able to articulate what it is you need. And sometimes you don’t know what you need, so you look for the articulation of your situation, whether it comes through act, language, or image.When we go into the woods, or the figurative darkness, or the literal darkness, or the poem that depicts all three, maybe we do find something necessary.
Discussing the Dismal Swamp episode in his biography of Frost, Jay Parini writes that “It is interesting that so many of Frost’s best later poems… return to the scene of a lone walker in a swamp or dense forest, which rapidly takes on symbolic aspects. Indeed, if Frost can be said to have an archetypal poem, it is one in which the poet sets off forlorn or despairing into the wilderness, where he will either lose his soul or find that gnostic spark of revelation.”
Frost’s two most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken,” fit into this mold, but “Birches,” another classic, differs in one important way. The situations depicted in the poem are all general: “When I see birches bend to left and right” describes multiple instances, not just one. The poem works like this: Frost explains that when he encounters bent birch trees in the woods, he’d “like to think some boy’s been swinging them”—that is, slowly climbing up them so as to bend them over, though he acknowledges ice-storms as the actual cause. “I should prefer to have some boy bend them,” he writes, and goes on to construct an elaborate myth about the solitary boy, basically a stand-in for Frost who was himself “a swinger of birches.” Then we learn why he’s telling us all this:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
This is a metaphorical wood through and through. Life is “too much like” this wood that’s “pathless” and downright destructive, lashing us, making us cry. When I think of depression and poetry, as much as I admire and love the work of Sexton, Plath, and Lowell, Frost is the poet who comes to mind first. His response to the pathless wood, what I’m reading here as depression, feels startlingly close to my own feelings of ideation, the wanting to die while not wanting to die nature of it:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.
The desire to disappear but not forever. When we go into the woods, or the figurative darkness, or the literal darkness, or the poem that depicts all three, maybe we do find something necessary. Maybe it’s possible to “come back to it and begin over.”
I’m in the woods now. They are dark. Not lovely, but not terrifying. I slow down. My eyes adjust. The ground in front of me takes on a blue hue. Each step seems dangerous but also, when it’s complete, something of a success. I run, hop, skip, and occasionally stumble over roots and ditches for about a quarter mile and then head up a steep hill. Sycamore, oak, and pine all around. When I get to the summit, my legs burn. Burn isn’t quite the right word: my quads feel as though they’re tearing from my knees.
This is the point in every hard run where I wonder why I’ve done this to myself. The answer is that I’ve done this to save myself, but it doesn’t feel like that until a few steps after the climb ends. It’s flat. Then the slope begins its descent. I take the downhill as a sort of free-fall, letting my momentum lengthen my stride. At the bottom, I see a space where the trees open to what looks like a cave of light. I head that way.”>
James Davis May is the author of Unusually Grand Ideas, available now from LSU Press.