Last night I pulled out a book of poetry I have. I bought it in an independent bookstore in Austin, Tx in the spring of 2000. Probably in May. I remember because I was in Austin for a poetry competition. In high school I lettered in poetry interpretation. (Ha!) Basically, I performed a 7 minute poem or group of poems for 3 judges, and we would compete at local, regional, and state levels. I was pretty good at it, actually. I went to state my junior and senior year. I placed 4th in the state my senior year. And I really enjoyed performing. There were a lot of rules about what you could or could not do. There was a technique to picking the right poetry. The performance had to be restrained but engaging. Being both a drama and lit nerd, this was my bag.
But it wasn’t just about being the best performer. For me, the exposure to so much poetry was exciting. When I was a sophomore I remember there was this guy from a nearby school who made it to state reading Gregory Corso’s “Bomb.” Usually, picking something by a well known poet was risky. It was smarter and easier to pick something new to the judge to avoid comparisons. His performance was amazing, though, and we all had the biggest crush on him (T.F.). He even had a beard–in high school! I knew nothing of the beats then, and he was one hell of an attractive and engaging introduction. I never performed Beat poetry in competition, but his performance is where my love of it began.
In 2000, at my senior year state poetry competition, I heard someone read a beat-style poem titled “For Carl Wilson” by Robert M. White. I was at the competition with my soulmate girlfriend at the time, and we both scribbled down the title and author. That day we went found Robert M. White’s one and only published book of poetry titled Redemption Songs.
It was published by Oddfellow in Albuquerque in 1998. Last night when I checked online the only trace of Robert M. White or his poetry was one used copy of Redemption Songs on Amazon through a third party seller (it is signed by the author even). This little book of beat poetry is just an obscure footnote. But to me it is so much more. That is why I remember it so well. That is why I still have it. It doesn’t matter that the poetry isn’t groundbreaking because my encounter with this little book was. I can see that random kid performing. I can see the corner of the bookstore where I found it. I can practically feel my heartbreaking all over again when I read it.
My girlfriend and I had our own secret obsession with this little book. We would read it and talk about it, regularly reference it in conversation, and we even used some lines from it as metaphors for things happening in our lives. (“…and [we] missed the street/ so it was longer getting/ home.”) It became a centerpiece of our blossoming friendship. It helped us process being angsty teenagers struggling with (undiagnosed) mental illness.
Over the next couple of years, this book was my constant companion. I filled it with my favorite quotes and song lyrics, underlining my favorite lines in my signature green ink pen. It traveled with me to London and Paris the summer of 2000, and stayed beside my bed in my college dorm room. I remember buying and giving away a copy to someone I loved. It was the most personal gift I could think of. I wanted to give my heart, but this little book that spoke so deeply to me was the closest thing I could think of that usps would accept.
One of my favorite poems begins, “If I had a choice/ in these things/ I would have chosen to be elsewhere/ than here, in this silent room/ surrounded by memory and fantasy.” I think about all the places I wanted to be other than in my dorm room in Texas. I dreamed of California, the Midwest, New York. I dreamed of just leaving. Just getting up and leaving everything behind. Starting over and trying to be happy. Underneath this poem I have a Kerouac quote from On the Road: “…because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars….” I just wanted to go. I was bursting out of my skin. I felt so trapped where I was. I felt like I couldn’t escape. I was so enraptured by the beats. I was so transformed by their freedom, by their openness, by their quest to satiate the gnawing emptiness that I too felt, by what seemed like their success in at least feeling if not understanding the essence of life. I thought it all seemed possible. And yet I wasn’t allowed to do that. That or I was just too scared.
I know more now, the mythos is gone. I wasn’t as trapped as I felt, although I wasn’t as free then as I am now. But when I found Redemptions Songs at 18, I thought that maybe I had found the key to my cage. That maybe if I followed my heart–my pathetically beat heart–I could escape the life I was growing to resent. That didn’t really happen. No book of poetry could save me from depression. What was once energizing became draining. The more depressed I got the less likely it seemed that I would ever escape. I tried writing poetry. I tried reading more books. I tried listening to more music. I tried ignoring the things that I hated and obsessively latched on to the things that made me forget my misery.
I used to read this book with wonder and fascination. But it became bittersweet. I would read, “And I dream/ and I hope/ that the sounds of my brain/ cacophony of insane thoughts/ burst into daytime fantasy/ and I stretch my hand to the missionary of space/ hold it high to the stars/ to grasp tight/ to rip this body from this mind/ and this soul from this earth/ into the experience of me/ which touches hard the mind/ to find new future/ for which there is no witness” and feel my captivity deeply. I felt like a prisoner to my conservative Christian upbringing. I wanted to rip my body from my mind and my soul from the earth. And yet everything about that seemed prohibited. I would be breaking the mold I had been squeezed into. I wanted a new future. I thought I wasn’t allowed to have any future except one that I loathed.
It’s a bit silly now. I did escape. And it wasn’t ever really a prison. Depression made me feel that way. Depression makes everything taste bitter. It lied to me about my life. It lied to me about my agency. It lied to me about my value. And it lied to me about my options. Sometimes, I wonder what if I had just left my life in Texas at 19? What if I had gotten out before my suicide attempt? That in itself is also silly. It won’t do to play “what if.” It won’t help. But we all do it anyway. What if that had happened? What if this hadn’t happened? Where would I be now? And then there is guilt that even just wondering makes you ungrateful for what future you ended up with. But we do it anyway.
I wonder every time I look at this little book of poetry. And I remember. I remember being afraid of being myself. I remember being afraid of breaking out of the mold. I remember thinking that poetry could change the world one person at a time. And I remember my disappointment when escape finally seemed impossible. Mostly I remember how much I wanted to live. Just not the life I had. I believed in love, hope, and happiness. I truly believed. All of my favorite poets and songwriters told me that those things existed. But depression made all of those things seem out of reach for me. What had started as a way out, what seemed like the key to my finding happiness, became a painful reminder of all those things that I could never have. Depression made me believe that I could not do what I wanted, that I would never be loved, that I would never be allowed to be happy. And to have discovered freedom only realize that it was not for me was maddening. It drove me to tears and into isolation, and then it drove me over the edge.
The last poem in the book begins, “The thought of you/ is never far away.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about this little book and all it represents. It all happened years ago and yet that time is never far from my thoughts. Having studied poetry in graduate school, I won’t claim that this little book is an undiscovered gem. It’s just a book of poetry by some dude who likes the Beats. But my copy is irreplaceable to me. After 17 years, I still keep it close. It isn’t just memories. It isn’t just poetry. It’s a tangible piece of me at my most tragic and most vulnerable. It is a token of self-discovery. It is a record of the idealism that both led to my suicide attempt and drove my recovery. It is everything that a little book of poetry aspires to be–truly meaningful to even just one other soul. I love it because I found myself in its pages.
Robert M. White, if you’re out there, thanks. You changed my life just as much as Kerouac did.