Sunday, December 09, 2007

Matt Jasper on "The Tip of the Iceberg"

This is Matt Jasper speaking about his poem, The Tip of the Iceberg, published on December 9, 2009, as the 20th installment of the Chapbook Genius series:

I wrote this poem accidentally in the following way:

In my late teens, I began to hear the voices of all of the animals I had killed and stacked into barrels. At a Boston shelter, in a summer rush of unwanted cats and dogs, we injected them with sodium pentothal and then waited for the small room to go quiet so the bodies could be loaded into cardboard barrels we'd lean onto a dolly and roll down the hall to a larger refrigerated room with its own loading dock door that opened up once a week for a huge Thermo King truck that carried the chilled fur and meat away. The week I lost it there were so many cats coming through that me and this guy who was in a band called Demon Fetus tried to liven things up by racing our tippy barrels to the refrigerated room. We got there and noticed that the compressors were broken--that the bodies were starting to smell. Then I went back to clean the smaller room where the caged were injected, where the smell of animal fear could never be washed away. I began to hear growls and meows that weren't there. When new animals were brought in and killed, I noticed that they were winking at me, letting me know they were still alive. When I inhaled they grew larger.

I toyed with the idea of injecting my ankle with sodium pentothal because I'd heard it was truth serum in small doses. I let the needle scratch my skin and then squirted some of the stuff into my shoe before deciding to steal a dog and depart through the nearest emergency exit.

The job and maybe some earlier substances had conspired to make me less than employable, awash in delusions, convinced that I was God or dirt. I called the rapidly fluctuating transitions from significance to insignificance a state of "Omni-impotence" and began writing notes trying to explain what was happening to my friends:

"God finally destroys the devil and accidentally disappears. I steal the bread of understanding and cast it to the duck pond. I have done what is good until an old and wise mallard looks me coldly in the eye, whispers that I have caused overpopulation, eventual starvation. It occurs to me that I give to charity only so calf-eyed children can continue to lead quiet lives.
The urge to go on a three state killing spree. Or help an old lady to cross the street. The realization that any action has an equal and opposite reaction, that to do any one thing is to kill the other. Parts of my body crawl away and are never seen again. I win friends. Their limbs fold back into a tree that leaves no seed. A tree that begs me to eat its red fruit. A tree that tells me the road to hell is paved with ordinary asphalt."

I was obsessed with morality. I forgot to feed or house myself for a few days and then started selling my body to the cheerful phlebotomists at Medical Technical Research Incorporated of Jamaica Plain. As a human guinea pig testing experimental dosages of theopheline and other drugs, I discovered that going insane is a great way to meet other crazy people. The solipsism of mental illness often has people going crazy in different directions--becoming more and more isolated. Yet at times one can go out of one's mind and meet other people who have exited their minds in a similar way and toward the same goal. Or one can recognize someone who can share and live in whatever world you happen to be dreaming up at the moment. I've stretched out the thread of my reason beyond my ability to reel it all back in, yet there really is such a thing as being a magnet for insane people and I became that. I felt that by absorbing all forms of madness, I would no longer be able to go mad. One way to absorb madness was to capture it in words. The pressures I was under made poetry a natural form of expression. It could compress experience. It didn't have to make sense. I could use it as a spell. The line breaks broke at fluctuations in or the collapse of conscious thought.
I wrote poems about delusions and crazy people. I had many insane girlfriends. The iceberg poem lifts the remembered inflections, incantations, and obsessions of at least two or three of them but does approximately center on one who was indeed committed for trying (quite seriously) to kill me. I really didn't mind at the time. I was sort of flattered. Other people committed her. I never would have.

This seemed like it should be a poem because I wanted the voice to be as compressed and alone as her voice seemed to be in my head. I think the thin lines can penetrate and disorient as poetry in a way that they never could as prose. With prose, there would also be more of a temptation to frame and describe her. I wanted her more as a disembodied voice that had been cast out into the world. She is broken down into voice and thoughts that scatter across landscapes and then weave themselves back into her always with a misplaced significance, odd magnifications, something crucial forgotten. She is furiously trying to create a beautiful and whole picture of herself as someone capable of being alive and loved while crucial elements of her desired self dissolve, undermine her. In the end, her only hope is a delusion that she is sane.

I originally had only her voice on a page with no preable or frame. I grafted the beginning on to create more of a context, an entry. In the battle between purity and accessibility, I hoped it was a good choice. Many of my poems have no such frame or point-of-entry so are quite invisible to many who for whatever reason are unable to break in.

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