March 7, 2011 @ 4:26 pm
Word came this morning that one of my poems is being included in an anthology to be published next month. The book is a coffee table book on depression and the poem I submitted was written for my late cousin John Edward. I received the confirmation email the morning at 6– the book party will be in London– so the email lifted my spirits which, this morning, really needed lifting. On my commute, I thought about Cousin Johnny who inspired the poem and who has appeared a couple of times in poems I really like. The other was about alcoholism. The newly published one, ‘I Learned Crazy From My Cousin John Edward’ comes from my memories of him back when I was a child. I describe him as a paranoid schizophrenic, but that’s only to provide a label and way of describing him to others. What would could I use?
Johnny was my cousin and I believe born in the late 40′s. He was one of my aunts’ oldest son’s and was raised in Los Angeles. Family legend was he had been jumped by a gang of boys who beat him with a tire iron. They cracked his skull and the doctors at the time used a metal plate to repair the damage. Either the head injury itself, or his brain pressing against the metal, or whatever the plate was made from mixing with his blood, changed his personality. He would be prone to violent outbursts and dialogues with god where he proclaimed to be the second coming and his ‘father’ wanting to blow up the earth. I did not know him when he was normal. His mother, my aunt, was afraid of him. My mother, whom Johnny shared a birthday, was the only one who could talk to and reason with him. Somehow he could hear her through whatever was going on in his head. She knew how to talk with the police, she took care of him while he was locked up in psychiatric hospitals or jail was his sole emotional support. I remember nearing his 32 birthday him saying he would die soon because that was the age Jesus was when he was crucified. The duration of my childhood he would swing between levelheadedness to mania. He drew and painted beautifully and would do drawings of old girlfriends, sketches of me, or paintings of angels hanging amidst clouds like ornaments. A handwritten poem of his ascending between the angels like a ladder. He lived in halfway houses, lived alone, stayed in many apartments and places over the years and would always get drunk and beligerent and destroy the place, getting evicted. He preferred living in the park and often my mom would be helpless to do anything but let him. He married once but that didn’t last. He had a car, but crashed it and preferred to walk. And he walked miles back and forth across Oakland. He loved movies and we went to the movies a few times together. I remember us seeing Empire Strikes Back in Albany, sitting at the bus stop outside the theater before the movie started. He had a gigantic boom box on the seat between us and pumped the volume to the max– Prince’s 1999. He told me he didn’t need sunglasses to stare at the sun and looked up into the sky to prove it. I was scared of him for years, and hated him for several more.
And when my mother became sick I saw less of him. I believe when she was mostly bedridden he relocated back to Los Angeles to be with him mom and his immediate family, but they didn’t know what to do with him. Some time after my mom died, a few years in fact, I got back in touch with another cousin whom I was very close to– his youngest sister. She told me after my mom’s funeral he drank himself to death. My hate over time transformed into pity and he found his way into my work unexpectedly. Like it or not, he was one of my images for masculinity when I was growing up. No wonder I couldn’t get laid. But seriously, folks. He was family and a huge chunk of my memories from childhood. His name remains unspoken in his mother’s house unless to float above a photo in an album. Perhaps my poetry is me making a sketch of him as he once did me that summer, pulling me away from my friends briefly, to stare at the contours of my blossoming face, to gaze into the crazy logic within it. To recreate me in color on a blank canvas. Funny, after all these years and all the pain, I stand looking back on him doing the same thing.