Death & Duende
Before my best friend Ray’s suicide last December, I wrote about politics, relationships, my cat that died, and other frivolous intellectual endeavors that seem so trivial in the aftermath of his death. What I’m trying to say is that my writing sucked. It lacked that “it” factor people like Simon Cowell are always ranting about. “The muse [stirred] my intellect,” as Garcia Lorca would say, but I couldn’t hear those “dark sounds.”
Lately, I’ve hated writing. I’ve been angry that there are things to write about—grief, addiction, guilt. I can’t avoid them in my writing. Everything that comes out feels like gouging a vein from my skin, running my fingers along the length of it like a tube of old toothpaste—the plaque and blood clumping on the page. There’s no satisfaction in writing this way—no catharsis. But it’s “good” writing, and I think that’s what hurts the most. I recently had a friend remark (with subtle disdain) that I was always writing—always producing work. I didn’t have an answer for him as to why this was until reading Christopher Soto’s essay on duende and “death culture” and the poets need within that culture to “produce in a survivalistic frenzy.” This says to me: writing isn’t what I’m doing, it’s how I’m escaping. Except, I often feel guilty writing about the death of my friends (I’ve lost 4 in the last 5 years). I feel guilty because they are by far the “best” poems I’ve ever written. I feel guilty benefitting from their death. Why does this have to be the spirit I feel so potently? It’s almost as if they hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have written those poems—thus never receiving the small successes I’ve had…but I’m not sure I want to open that box.
In Tracy K. Smith’s essay, “Surviving in Two Worlds at Once: Garcia Lorca and Duende,” she notes, “any poet who is honest with him or herself recognizes a struggle very near the impetus to write.” Those poems about Ray and Bear and Stefan and Stephen I know are “good” because they are honest. They are poems that speak from somewhere deep inside of me—through me, the mystic relays. How do I know they’re honest? Well for one, I didn’t want to write them— I just knew I had to. But it’s these poems “quality” that I’m really interested in. It seems so odd to say “this is a good poem about my friend putting a hole in his heart” or “this is a bad poem about my friend overdosing on cocaine—his legs now blue and stiff.”
I find it almost funny when Lorca says, “the duende never repeats itself, any more than the waves do in a storm,” because I wonder if this is true. Perhaps this is where Soto’s “death culture”and Lorca’s idea of duende smash into one another. Duende being the gate-keeper to that space inside of us that we cannot speak fully of but understand completely when it’s present; it’s manifestations are always original, but lately I feel like I have to remain in the frame of “death culture” for those manifestations to occur. When I want to leave (write about something besides death), I resist. I’ve become accustomed to the grief. I feel guilty if I don’t write about the anguish but I feel guilty when it’s a “successful" exercise.
This world of duende, as Smith puts it, exists within the larger, “outside world,” and we vacillate between the two: one drives us to the page/one is what happens on the page. And I imagine that one scene in every movie about the apocalypse—where the animals sense danger is coming—“where have all the birds gone?” someone says just before the invasion—and I think that is duende—the intuition to run, hide, and fear for your life.