“Abyss (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

“Abyss (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Emily Dickinson, arguably one of America’s foremost poets, is characterized by critics as able to capture extreme emotional states in her greatest work. Recent dating of her poems offers the periodicity of her writing as a behavior that can be examined for patterns of affective illness that may relate to these states. The bulk of Dickinson’s work was written during a clearly defined 8-year period when she was age 28–35. Poems written during that period, 1858–1865, were grouped by year and examined for annual and seasonal distribution. Her 8-year period of productivity was marked by two 4-year phases. The first shows a seasonal pattern characterized by greater creative output in spring and summer and a lesser output during the fall and winter. This pattern was interrupted by an emotional crisis that marked the beginning of the second phase, a 4-year sustained period of greatly heightened productivity and the emergence of a revolutionary poetic style. These data, supported by excerpts from letters to friends during this period of Dickinson’s life, demonstrate seasonal changes in mood during the first four years of major productivity, followed by a sustained elevation of creative energy, mood, and cognition during the second. They suggest, as supported by family history, a bipolar pattern previously described in creative artists.


John F. McDermott M.D.

“Crater (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

“Crater (from The Emily Dickinson Series).”  Janet Malcolm, 2013.


Dear Diana,

your birthday balloons or Valentine’s Day balloons

were scattered along four miles of McGrath State Beach,

as a few plovers and stilts scurried up and down the surf,

turkey buzzards ate something up in the dunes

toward the oil field, two pelicans flew directly at us,

swerving of course at the last second, easily, without

any change of angle, posture or expression,

(one flew north with torn breast red from a

distance, flesh hanging open) and we came upon two

sea lion pups, less than a year old, separated

from the others, separated from each other, starving

and looking up at us fearfully as we walked toward them,

one lifted large wet eyes on a thin neck and sniffed,

the other yelped and fled from its resting spot

down into the waves. All the way I collected the Mylar

balloons, tore each open and stuffed it

into a plastic bag. Only one carried your name.

It came to me that you were 4 years old, your

round chocolate face dimpled with glee,

surrounded by family and these bobbing

helium-filled emblems of their wobbling joy.

As we hiked the three miles up to McGrath Lake

and its rafts of sea birds, waves rolled in, waves

rolled on. Stalking up from hard-packed sand

I’d fetch another one of your withered globes.

19 total, so maybe you’re not 4—maybe you’re

21 (the other 2 still float in the ocean)

and my corny imagination presents me with

this heart-shaped image of you at 21, chasing

your 18 or 19 year old lover, teasing you,

a $20 bouquet of big shiny wishes in his fist

to make you chase him, to make you love him,

—as laughing, you do—he skips away as the sea

wind buffets these notional tokens of fantasy

and desire about you both, as he catches you

in his arms, strands of the long ribbons trail

in that wind when he catches you and loses

them, they fly up with your squeals and delight

—your delight rising to the skies. That’s

how I think of you as I walk barefoot at surf’s

edge. Your balloons, a kind of plastic deadly

to sea life, rode the sea wind like specks

of fantasy and desire trailing periwinkle ribbons

from a civilization playing out fantasy and

desire across the continent, floating out

over the sea to wither with cold and drop

into the breaking waves, still partly inflated,

washed up on miles of shoreline. They stuffed

the plastic bag to bursting, Diana. Withered

flags or feathers of your delight and bright desire.

And what about those two shotgun shells I found?


balloon bump

One guy showed us his tiny sculptures made of tissue paper, saliva and semen. One guy wrote a novel, the same novel that he kept showing me about a once famous child actor who had been his partner who died of AIDS around 1990, rewriting and revising the same manuscript for twenty years. One guy I’m sure still lives with his aged, infirm mom who he dutifully cares for and still writes noir stories he sends out to unknown on-line publications. One woman, the major poet of the city and basically the poet laureate of the city, died ill and broke out in the desert. One woman wrote brutal hilarious stories about dead-pan sexual relationships that I urged her to publish, but she did not. One woman, I should have called her back immediately, left a message on my phone machine saying she had a manuscript she wanted to show me, but committed suicide. One guy published about fifteen years ago a tiny edition, a few hundred copies, of a little poetry book which nobody saw and no one remembers. Sometimes I see him in Trader Joe’s. Another guy I see around seems like a good guy but never talks about books or poetry, instead he asks for favors, recommendation letters or referrals, or money for some project or other. One guy asked me to write a recommendation letter, and wrote me from the mountains thanking me for helping him get the gig; someone said he was drunk at a gathering, talking shit about my work. There was also the Paraguayan Korean poet, who I pointed out in a recent magazine photo to someone who didn’t recognize her; I said she’d gotten married, and the last time I saw her she was drunk outside Ave. 50 Gallery. A journalist we used to talk with about writing in bars or cafes wrote a cook book; the last time I saw him was with a script writer who wrote a little poetry on the side who had recently returned from Cuba, with a Cuban wife no less (supposedly she was making his life hell), who kept trying to turn the conversation into a lament for the death of Communism, but the journalist and I were talking poetry and how poetry related to the journalist’s cook book. The journalist left the city to become a professor up north. I did not see or hear from him after that, but I had dinner with an interesting poet in the Bay Area who said he was his nephew.


pot of beans boiling or simmering, reading about beans or thinking about beans, beans of thoughts, little heads of beans, Anasazi beans and sangre de toro beans, black beans of little eyes of small animals, beans cleaned out for debris and rocks, dirt, beans that taste of earth and steam, with sliced pan-fried anaheim or hatch chiles, “lost all patience for people who primarily think about food, particularly their own. it’s solopsistic and boring,” cara b. said on facebook, i met her on the top floor of a big hotel overlooking the zocalo in mexico city, where i clomped out on the balcony on crutches with broken ankle from backpacking cascades in northern washington, we were there with a bunch of writers, harry gamboa, ruben martinez, reed johnson, karla diaz & mario ybarra, luis valdez, tom hayden sneering early in the morning as we gathered for nice breakfast buffeet on the high balcony across from Palacio Nacional, we’re all just beans, beans simmering or boiling in our pots together or alone, steam of thoughts rising in the kitchen of the world, on the fires of desire, on the wings of heat, red beans, pintos, cooking those beans not bullets, paper beans and beans of electric words, not for killing anyone, not suicidal, but simple—rip a tortilla in half, eat some beans


We arrived in the town at 11:30 PM, drove through on the highway, everything—even us—obscured by and emerging from the fog. I was driving her big black truck, slowed by “men at work”—men working in a trench appear in our headlights after we were flagged through. That fog we’d traveled in since mid-day, all the way through Oregon, the previous state we’d driven across. The town still had no sidewalks, but seemed—perhaps—to have grown. Hard to catch in the fog, and when was the last time I’d driven through here? Almost midnight, a guy in a yellow plastic hard hat and orange reflective vest stood in the trench, wolfing a sandwich. Looking down at another guy working there. Backhoes at either end of the trench. I was following directions, left by Safeway, straight a couple miles through the dark, down the road to another turn off, another road. Houses dark through the trees, some limned by exterior lights, garages, driveways, obscurities of a much vaster night. At least one house through large picture window flashes neon red green colors of giant flat screen TV. Then the dark trees. Nobody knows me here.


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The Missing Picture is a movie about the Cambodian Genocide made of mixed media, carved wooden dioramas, and newsreel footage. The Black Dogs is a cartoon about the Armenian Genocide made of cast lead and cast gazes, unknown lives hidden by secret skies. Prognostication of Rotten Luck is a performance piece about the 2nd Coltan War, the Great War of Africa, made from dancers on hot sheet metal, the sizzle of intense money, and burnt out literatures. The White Hospital is a movie about King Leopold’s Belgian Congo, starring a tour de force of powdered human molars, crying mouth windows, feather-like certitudes. 3 Stars Over Sand Creek is a podcast about the genocide of up to a million California Indians, called digger Indians, produced via a newly invented process of sublime holes, dragonfly dreams, wings on genitalia. The Red Numbers is a pelicula about the Middle Passage made of childhood Brazilian charcoal, windy sheets, polished floors stretching to infinity.


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Dad was a World War II vet, heading for North Africa as a teen, escaping his cop dad/ head of security at Mare Island shipyard and schoolteacher mom and the Barbary Coast shipyard town for a wider world (on the troop carrier, young and excited, reading the Russians? Biography of Nijinsky?), stringing communication lines across North Africa. Jumped off telephone poles when shot at, broke his ankle. Fond memories of recovering in a desert tent, Arab camp women (prostitutes, I assumed).  So in his last years at the convalescent facility, they framed a picture of him—blasted white by age, by alcoholism—by his bed, captioned, “US Army 1942 – 1945, Rank: Tech 5th grade, stationed in Africa.” I carried the box of his ashes from that Northern Calif. town and tossed them in three parts—one at the foot of a big tree above the General Grant tree in Sequoia National Park, another third in the Pacific surf at the mouth of the Golden Gate on a bright windswept beautiful day (then crossed the Golden Gate into S.F. and checked into a hotel, read at City Lights Bookstore), the last third under a citrus tree in my backyard. Some of course swirled around my vehicle driving across Calif. Dad named me after a 15th century Japanese Zen painter, and I grew up around art ideas, looking at art, thinking things like, “We have artists in the family.” But, really, dad was a failed artist. I used to think that you could not fail as an artist—because every artist, writer, creative thinker, fails sooner or later. So even if you have nothing to show, success remains incipient, because you have survived, so I used to think that as an artist you are really that much more alive—you have done something, created something as an artist. The creative impulse remains alive within you, like DNA. But maybe that’s not true. Because a countervailing force—his alcoholism—worked to erase that creativity and every artistic idea and ideal he held in his life, till at the end, nothing was left of it. Recently, someone asked me what’s left of his paintings, where are they? “They all got thrown away, somewhere along the way,” I said. Long that, he had disappointed, debunked and destroyed everyone’s faith in him, his promises, or his “art.” It’s true, my sisters kept a couple paintings. One sister chopped up a painting into small pieces, which she framed. That’s what I think of Socialism.


People drift by… half of ‘em look defeated. They look used up, harried by infirmity, conformists slouching into numbers they’ve been handed, into the lines set up for them. Checkpoints, the features of the airport. Bit by bit, the world has meted out destinations for each of us; we have accepted a ticket. The little girl I sit next to is different from everyone, all going the same way—the young women fiercely concentrating on their hand-held screens, the paunchy men and their splotchy faces, diffident hipsters paying no attention. This girl has the face of an old woman, but her body is tiny. She looks old, but she’s young; it’s not Down’s syndrome, it’s something else congenital. She chatters non-stop, softly—sometimes to her father who sits large and silent beside her. Mostly to herself. She hugs her pink backpack, she pats it, she rocks in her seat and kicks her feet. Her old face, her sweet voice. Poems by Saadi Youssef in one hand, I listen to her voice. She tells her father, “I want to go, I want to go, I want to go.” He says softly, “No, no, no.”

pelican skull

“I’m burnt out from delivering the bad news,” one telephone pole said to the other, “it’s all right,” Needles said to Kingman,”Baker told me cities of America pop like popcorn in the stupidest weather,” while raven flew away like a crow, crow dropped down close and was a raven, the dead dog rolled over and was a palm frond, the golden promise of dawn was a postcard, “it’s canceled,” said the stamp of the future, “we are advancing toward Communism—or something,” said New Year’s Day 2015, and I wrote everything they were saying with tiny crackling letters of sunshine that sparkled like tin foil in the sun.

photo by Chiwan Choi

photo by Chiwan Choi


Etched lines of specks of ice crystalize out of the blue sky on the other side of the airplane window, almost invisible Runic numbers. Below, low fog quarters into a grid array of cloud puffs, shattered and flowing away. Wisps and streams of clouds layered over the Sound, neighborhoods and towns and waterways darkening. The plane rises. White spaces. I wake as the plane descends over mountains behind Ventura—are those dirt tracks curling through oil jacks? Flatlands sectioned and divided, chopped up and fenced, acres of plastic-covered crops white and glinting, rectangles of variant green, ochre, dark brown. Lines of roads, filigree of gray freeways, infestations of tract housing. Shimmering ocean beyond.

photo by Lindsay Bolling

photo by Lindsay Bolling


The surface of the ocean shimmers like vast skin trembling below. Taut, shining, aglow, variegated with infrequent striations like stretch marks once in awhile that rivulet blue uniformity. Like rivers of currents flowing underneath or maybe over the surface, maybe it’s the wind. Maybe the variations of surface tension are not upwellings or flows, but vagaries of the sky leaning down at points on the vast bubble of shining water. Toward the horizon, in the distance the haze merges with clouds over islands, white obscurity broken by specificities, distinct contours of the gleam of eye or teeth. An island doglegs in a kinked sloping fold, perhaps another channel island beyond. The plane banks, the vast sweep of blue ocean, the Santa Monica mountains hunch and roll down into that sea.

photo by Lynell George

photo by Lynell George

March 2015
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