LIFE Coach: A Literary Exchange Between NICK CARBÓ and RICK MOODY
This stirring exchange between two gifted wordsmiths, one a poet and the other a novelist, shows how the power of language can easily usher a centuries-old epistolary style into the digital age with intimacy and grace.
Rick Moody to his FaceBook friends — June 9, 2019:
As some of you know, I operate occasionally as Rick Moody, Life Coach. My theory is that those who have sometimes botched life are in the best position to celebrate those who are doing a better job. As it happens, I need some new letters to answer. I have run out of letters. So if you’re in need, send me a letter here. My only caveat is that I REALLY think long and hard about this stuff, so sometimes it takes me a while to reply. But I attempt to answer every single request, in some fashion.
Here’s my letter to life coach:
Three straight months earlier this year in the hospital, along the way a five-day coma because of renal failure, also amputation of remaining leg, then MRSA infection. Back home now and doing four-hour dialysis three times a week (Tue-Thu-Sat). Occasional incontinence, fatigue most of the day. Diabetic neuropathy–a constant pain in hands.
So when do you say it’s time to stop all this? As a writer I’ve flirted with all that Thanatos crap and find that writers are so self-centered that they can’t see what’s just about to hit them.
So, life coach, is life worth it at this stage?
June 9, 2019
I’m putting you in front of the line. Count on an answer. I want you to know herewith, in public, how much love and respect I have for you and your work. I am so sorry for the suffering. Your note is immensely poignant and powerful, and I will answer in kind.
July 1, 2019
First, as I have said elsewhere, I want to say how much I love your work, your moving, cranky, funny, profound, uplifting, tragicomic, hilarious, beautiful, human work.
My experience of your work, at first—which must have been around or between your books El Grupo MacDonald’s and Secret Asian Man, when I knew you and your then-wife, Denise—was that you were part of a group of poets, who, for me, revolutionized American poetry. In this group I would also put Campbell McGrath, and Cathy Bowmanand Dean Young, and Hal Sirowitz, etc. Wherein an accessible poetics was mixed with humor, and a sense of experiment; a kind of dense dissatisfaction and melancholy hovered around the edges, too, an indictment of Americana that was welcome, even as Americana was sort of the incubator of the work.
I think you were the first person in the nineties I knew who was online as much as I was in those days, and I had a sense, through you and your cultural critique, that poetry was going to become a thing online.
Your work and Denise’s work and the work of these others made poetry an endeavor that all readers could delight in, and it was in every medium, in every container, and it didn’t require training in hazardous materials. There didn’t need to be a secret language, or an insider code that only the really academic writers were allowed to crack.
I didn’t relate to the academic poetry, but I related to yours, I could locate the feelings, the melancholy celebration of it. And now that I am in a family of Asian American writers, it is even nearer to me, your model and its influence.
I love your work, and because of it, I have always loved you, from afar, as your fellow toiler in the depths, as a fellow writer who traffics (at least some of the time) in the comic. If there is a thing that lasts and endures beyond all the suffering you have been dealing with recently, it is the legacy of your work, which, however oblivious you were to the coming storm (and, as you note in your letter, this is the common lot of writers), the work is there, and it is rich in figures and metaphors andbeautiful turns of phrase, and wherever you are now that work is still kindling something in me, and I’m sure it will ever be thus.
This morning I just punched you up on the Poetry Foundation web site, and there are bunch of good pieces to be found there. This link is for the people who need to know: Nick Carbo. “Little Brown Brother,” with its welcome indictment of Hollywood war machinery, is especially excellent.
But I also really loved “For My Friend Who Complains He Can’t Dance and Has a Severe Case of Writer’s Block.”
The first line, “Then, take this tambourine / Inside the sheep barn” is electrifying, so deep, so right at the heart of what we are doing when we attempt to speak to writing, to the act of it. To me “sheep barn” as an image is just very unexpected and satisfying.
In a way you are making a case for the way writing is disseminatory, the sheep being an image of dissemination in, for example, the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, though the use of “barn” makes of the shepherding business a more modern one, one in which ownership of property is a feature of the enterprise.
We could also speak to the image of the tambourine” in this line as relating to Dylan’s song of the same, which some people think was about Gene Clark, the singer in the Byrds, who only played the tambourine in the band, and whose words were always so full of melancholy hues:
“Nowhere is/There warmth to be found/Among those/Afraid of losing their ground.”
When Clark was asked to comment on “Eight Miles High” being banned because of drug references, he made a comment about poetry having more layers in it than that, and that is true of your poetry as well. From the sheep barn you go to the “anaconda’s intestines” (and both are incredibly interesting poetical words—I think “anaconda” is a ditrochee, and “intestine” is an amphibrach), and from there across a sprawl of great and imaginative images, including Kahlo’s hair, Garcia Lorca’s leather shoes, Chaucer’s liver, Anne Sexton’s face, etc.
The poem finishes with the lovely couplet: “Never feed your towel to the alligator, because he will eat you and eat you and eat you.” The loss of the towel, it seems to me, leaves the friend naked, where one often is after writing, and then the repetition of “eat you” burlesques the Frost of “Stopping by Woods.” Somehow the alligator also reminds me of J. M. Dent’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed, which is itself a variant on Jung’s famous injunction about the lion in the basement, and how all of us will have to encounter the lion in the basement at some point, if we are to grow, and accordingly all the ages of humankind, of maturation, are there in the poem.
If “For My Friend” is about how to achieve an end to writer’s block (and also an injunction to dance) it is beautiful because it is a gift, and right now it is a gift for all, because anyone can read this poem online.
But it is a gift that is achieved through a pile up of highly imaginative and oblique images. How is the “river insect’s neon calligraphy” secret? What is the certified blue turtle? I could work on these images as I have worked on others above, but what I would amass is a system of allusions that say, in effect, that dance and language are one, and that writer’s block is resolved in nakedness and in facing one’s fears, and in the simple amassing of images, even images that are not rhetorical, but are automatic in the surrealist sense.
Everything about this gift of yours is wonderful, is funny, and humane, and sympathetic, and never is the advice condescending; on the contrary, one confronts the possibility that the poem is autobiographical, too, and that the gift is to Nick Carbó, or that he is a co-recipient, that the reminder is to the author of the poem about the matter of poetry, but the great force of the gift is simply in its status as gift, and as poem as simple item of exchange between friends.
A poem, in this matter, is a thing right at hand, that we might give to those we love, in times of need.
You ask me, Nick Carbó, author of these lines, if it is worth persisting, materially, when faced with the very significant amount of suffering that you are confronting, and my first response to this is simply that if I could take from you your suffering, I would. That is, the fact of your request, and the place of your request, a public setting, brings out this intense wish to want to shield you from what you are going through, the repetitions of it, and the apparent boundlessness of it.
I mean, it’s not possible to read your note and not feel tremendous sympathy and compassion, even in the obvious conundrum that your suffering is of such a cast that it’s beyond my experience, personally, and probably beyond the experience of what many people who read your note have felt. But, despite all the trouble in the world (and there sure is a lot of trouble these days), the feeling surges forth, and that is the feeling in which one cares deeply for a friend in a bad time.
A couple thousand miles are separating us right now, I think (I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, this morning, parked in front of a UPS store, and it’s raining torrents.) And our stories are pretty different, in that you were raised in the East, and in languages that I mostly don’t know, but in a moment of crisis little of that matters. Certainly it doesn’t matter to me right now, and it doesn’t matter in part because of the ache and clarity of your voice. Which means that language, and writing, can still do things.
Here are some things I have seen this week.
I saw an extra large skunk in the backyard, over by the beech tree, and I had to run my son in the door as fast as I could get him, and told him not to look back. And I saw an oriole hightailing it over to the neighbors’ bird feeder, the next morning, so bright it was almost in neon. I watched a brass band play an “extinction protest” in Boston the other day. I picked up my son’s birthday cake at the grocery store on Sunday morning. It was one of those big flat ones, and the bakery lady was really laughing about how well the cake came out, what with its strange wish list of icons: astronauts, dogs, and vegetables (!). In this spot in Providence, where I’m parked, it used to be kind of desolate, when I lived here in the early eighties. But now it’s got a lot of Mexican food, and the UPS store, and a breakfast café joint called Olga’s. I can see the cars streaking along the overpass on I-95. Those people are on their urgent business, otherwise why drive in heavy rain.
I offer this list, dear Nick, to tell you that there are still possible, even in your darkest hours, perceptions, of just the kind you store up in the poem I’ve quoted above, that are the signs that a person was there, an observer who saw, and felt, and believed, and made a mark. I am sure there are a lot of times now when you feel otherwise, when writing is the last thing you can do, but you wrote me your letter, and I have seen, in these last months, that even when you were in the most trouble, you still managed to get out a few lines. And in every one of these cases, Nick, I have felt the familiar warmth and wisdom of your voice, as I do here. “…the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely…”
“…the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely…”
But I can think all these things and still want the world to have Nick Carbó in it, still want his voice and world view, still want the sound of his tambourine, and his recollections and perceptions, and not just the work, but the potential for more work, and I don’t think that this is a selfish feeling, or a feeling that you are obliged to entertain, or at least I really hope that you do not feel in any way obliged, because that is not the way I am trying to formulate my line of reasoning here.
Rather I am trying to give you a sense of what others of us may think, what our love feels like, and the untapped potential for you, and your essence, your Being, in the world, even if in pain and badly compromised, and in and out of the hospital in Corpus Christi.
Even in your incredibly difficult state, as the letter shows, there is still language, and still the framing up of some beautiful edifice of words, there are still the glassy shards of your critique of this tragicomic world, and your situation within it, and I can still feel it, even out front of the UPS store, from 2,000 miles away. And if you feel you have to go and there is no other way to deal with what you have in front of you, I will respect that decision, and still grieve, but if you want to know why bother to hang on, I can think of a hundred reasons, and then a hundred more, and each one is a poem, and it doesn’t matter if it has two words in it, or if you have to have it read back to you because you can’t read very well, or whether you have to dictate it into your phone, it doesn’t matter.
Those one-hundred poems, which are one-hundred reasons, and the hundred more, will be glorious, and they will be even more glorious for your having hung on just a bit longer to make them, for your having written what you wrote in your letter, and then hung on a bit longer to make a few more scribbles, of whatever kind, hieroglyphs, film poems, chalk marks on paving stones, crosshatchings on the arm of a wheelchair, or whatever it has to be, from whatever state of consciousness, if you want to hang on, to see what there is to be seen from where you are, then I think that is beautiful and has a sort of electrifying power to it, like it comes from the place of urgency that isn’t known to all of us waiting in line at the UPS Store or at Starbucks, how you are in your place of reckoning.
You are brave, and you are a good man, and your journey has been exemplary, and you have made the world better, and not just for writers from the Philippines, or for Asian writers, or for Asian American writers, though you have certainly done that in a way that should be the envy of all, but you have made American literature better, and world literature better, and I won’t ever forget that, and as your life coach, today, I say take a few notes, from wherever you are, we will all be happy to read them, ever your happy audience, and then tomorrow you can reassess again, at which point I will be delighted to repeat the above, if it helps.
With love and respect,
July 2, 2019
I’m sure hoping that I didn’t send something that hurt your feelings in any way, because I was trying 100% to do the opposite. If you hate it, and want me not to publish, I can…
July 3, 2019
I thought / felt it was awesome! You earned your “Life Coach” badge with this one, and I’m honored you put much thought into this.
Publish right away!
Had appointments all week with docs and labs so could not respond sooner. Let me insert my own reference with Kazantzakis’ last scene of the movie version of Zorba the Greek where Alan Bates turns to Anthony Quinn and says “teach me to dance.” So along the desolate seashore we hear the bouzouki strings of the Theodorakis song and they dance. Quinn responds to Bates “I have so much to tell you—I’ve never loved a man more than you.” It can happen with two straight guys and your letter shows that loving spirit which, in the end, one can only dance to.
For a guy that has had his lower legs and two feet amputated, I ask you to teach me to dance. I have a great imagination.
Author and Life Coach, RICK MOODY, is best known for his 1994 novel The Ice Storm, which was made into an acclaimed film directed by Ang Lee. His latest book is The Long Accomplishment. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Aga Kahn Award from the Paris Review, and many other honors.