The Fog, the Book, and the Nightingale

I am not very good at self-promotion, but I released a book of poetry this week. You can find it by clicking here. It is about that book that I will be talking today. 


I do not like talking about myself. I'm good at discussing things I'm good at, I'm even good at talking about things that I am terrible at—but when it comes to talking about something I feel is a shortcoming, I clam up and my gigantic ego suddenly becomes an angry bouncer that lets nothing in or out. 

Never mind that someone probably needs to hear it, if anything so that they know that they're not alone. 

So today I will be talking about three things: The Fog, the Book, and the Nightingale. In that order. If any of you likes to think that other people generally have it all together, you should probably just stop reading this now and continue scrolling through Facebook, where everybody's life is perfect. 

Also, if any of you thinks I generally have it all together, you should probably get to know me better.  

The Fog

Have you ever watched a slow fog creep across a valley, gently, menacingly consuming everything it comes across? It is a remarkable thing, and is something that I get to see frequently as a resident in a city that is, in essence, a giant weather bowl. 

From above, fog is stark and beautiful: it is a cloud riding on land, gliding freely until it gets burned away by the sun. But from the ground, something a bit more subtle happens. As fog sweeps in over you, the things around you slowly disappear. If you are looking at the edges of a building, they will drift away, dissolve like the rest of the structure. You watch trees and cars and pavement, alike, get overtaken by white mist not quite dense enough to make you wet, but too wet for you to feel dry. 

The weather has little effect on my mental state. If anything, fog and rain and stormy weather make me happier than sunshine because they justify making putting on a pot of coffee and staying in to absorb a book. But I call this thing I'm about to tell you about The Fog. 

If I'm being honest, a doctor might call it clinical depression, though I am not particularly fond of that name (Hence, "The Fog"). It manifests itself physically for me in several ways: hypersomnia, inability to move (or do anything) quickly, weight gain, withdrawal from even the most cordial, untaxing friendships, loss of interest in the things that I genuinely love to do, the frank inability to write anything at all, contentedness with burning every bridge that could possibly bring rescue to my little island.

But physical manifestation is just...whatever. The fact is that I can recognize it when it's at its thickest, the way that you recognize a cloudy day from a sunny one. I may not see it creeping, but when it is on top of me I am quite aware that it exists: It is like two grand planets on a collision course, each dominating the other's sky until they finally crash into one another. It is unable to be ignored. 

Now. Do not read this as a plea or a beg for attention or help because it is far from that. It's like I said, I am fully aware of when the fog has settled, and I know that it will move on. Sometimes acknowledging that it has descended and nestled on top of me encourages it to go on its dreary way, the way staring a beast in its eyes will let it know you do not intend to back down and it holds no power over you. 

While depression is drastically underreported in men (it's looked at as a "woman's" disease, and often symptoms of depression in men are less "obvious" than in women—it must be those centuries of being told to "man up" and "rub some dirt in it"), it is not less real. Those trapped in its morose gray often lose even the willpower to try to find the way out. The longer it goes unchecked, unbattled, unidentified, the stronger its grip gets. But I digress. That is not the purpose of my telling you this; it is just background to an explanation of this strange little text I'm talking about. 

 

The Book

I received a degree in English with a specialization in poetry, for whatever that's worth (Sometimes it feels like receiving a degree in coffeeshop-sitting or blank page-staring). But this book was about a year in the making. I realize that on first glance it may not look like that long an investment, for it's a mere eighty-something pages, has a pretty crappy cover that I did my very best with (considering the limited understanding of graphic design I've scraped together), and much of it is short-form. In fact, there are only two poems that stretch longer than a page, and one of them only does so because I've formatted it strangely. Nevertheless, it is a significantly personal thing, and such things often take a big chunk of time.

Let me explain a bit of the book—peel back the curtain, perhaps, so that those unfamiliar with poetry may begin to understand it. Sure this might demystify but my purpose is communication, not donning some unapproachable "I-write-books-of-poetry" pretentiousness. If one person is intrigued enough by the strange words on those pages to start writing poetry themselves, then I'll say that it was a successful experiment. Shoot, it's a success even if nobody reads the blamed thing. 

On the first level, it is something of a treatise to poetry, herself. It tells a simple story—a boy encounters his muse, loses touch with her, and must find her again—to illustrate what exactly poetry is. Poetry is not a collection of little words strung together in rhyme, it's an emotion that a writer has been tasked with communicating, and often without control of how it comes out.

In many ways, a poet is simply a tap: he can be open to the reservoir beneath him and others can drink from it, but he hardly should receive credit for what he does, for he's simply doing what he's supposed to do. It's his job to simply remain open for as long as he can and to not color the water with his rust.

The book has this idea illustrated in a couple of ways, but mainly in its structure. It has three contributing authors: there is the original author (who is unnamed), who wrote it all before and left it to be discovered. There is (the literary) Hamilton, who came along and translated it, leaving footnotes along the way. There are the editors, who have packaged the thing together and published it. As the original text gets more bizarre, we watch how it affects Hamilton. But the idea still stands—the "author" on the cover of the book is merely a translator of something that has already existed.

On the second level, it is deeply autobiographical and delves into my struggle against the fog. It is divided up into three sections: background (the basics: joy, fears, delusions, etc), inspiration (personified by the Nightingale—we'll get there), and the fogged version of me, who has lost contact with this Nightingale. 

That third section is the longest—roughly 2/3 of the book—and it shows the most literary progression (regression?). The verse becomes increasingly fragmented, the meanings become more layered, the actual thing being said gets obscured behind levels of absurdity. The Fog is illustrated in this book by an actual nightmarish fear of mine—that signs are meaningless (that words point to nothing, that there is nothing to support the elaborate system of meanings we've constructed). As The Fog thickens, the more disconnected the signs become from their meanings—the same way a building would disappear slowly in a physical fog. 

It's a lot to digest, which is why it's expressed through feeling writ large, rather than explanation. That is poetry's job—to make your heart understand something your head may not be able to. It is the Nightingale's great strength.

 

The Nightingale

This part gets a little bit technical and history-of-poetry-y, so bear with me. Because it's way sweet.

The original reference to the Nightingale probably comes from the myth of Philomela and Procne. Philomela was the younger sister of Procne, who was the queen of Thrace. Procne starts feeling a bit lonely and asks her husband to let her invite Philomela to visit. The King obliges, but lusts after her the entire duration of her stay—he eventually takes her to a lodge and rapes her (I know. Super happy story). The King warns Philoimela never to speak a word to anybody just before cutting out her tongue and leaving her in a cabin in the woods. 

In despair and unable to speak a word, Philomela weaves a garment that tells the story of what happened and has it sent to her sister, who becomes, appropriately, enraged. So for revenge, Procne finds her husband's son, kills him, cooks him, and feeds him to the King. He finds out and is understandably miffed. Procne flees and finds her sister.

He chases the two ladies around the world and almost has them cornered when they pray to the gods to be turned into birds to flee easier. Procne is turned into a swallow, and Philomela, you guessed it, a nightingale. 

The Nightingale soon became a symbol of the shuttle between ignorance and knowledge, like she was in the story. But in the beginning of the 19th century in England, a group of poets facilitated the Nightingale's final step in her poetic transformation, endowing her with the title of being the very nature of poetry, itself. The Nightingale represents, in Romantic poetry at least, the poetic ideal towards which a poet may work but which a poet may never achieve. To use a previous metaphor, the Nightingale is the reservoir, the poet the tap, and it's the poet's job to color the water as little as possible as it flows through him. 

NOW. The finest poem that has ever been written, which will ever be written, and by the finest hand that has ever written is titled "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats. He wrote it in a single day while sitting underneath a tree where a nightingale had built her nest, and he wrote as he arrived at his theory of Negative Capability, which is, to quote him, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Do you remember the fear that I used to illustrate the Fog (note: not the cause of it, simply my poetic illustration of it)? That signs may be ultimately meaningless, perhaps "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? It is a heady fear, quite unlike the kinds of monsters that lurk even after you look away. You have to be focusing on this sort of thing for it to bother you (does it really surprise you that such a thing is the sort of something that frightens me?). The Nightingale, then, represents the final reprieve from that fear--she is the embodiment of Keats' Negative Capability, and therefore the release from semantic, mysterious uncertainty and doubt. Connecting to the spirit of the thing releases you from the need to conquer the particularities of it. 

So I've come full circle: poetry is feeling put to words, rather than an explanation of something that cannot be spoken. I will say that there is a reason that the Nightingale makes a reappearance in this book the way that she does, and why it's some of the most regular verse in the collection.  

 

Lightening the Fog

So in conclusion, this is what the book is in a nutshell: it is a poetic exploration of my Fog and of its lifting. It is not always gone, but the more that I stave it off with the song of the Nightingale, the less frequently it visits. I have to actively fight the Fog with regularity (hence my obsessively early wake time), or else it will overtake me and I'll be two weeks in the clouds, no good to anybody.  

Coming down from the metaphor, let me take a moment to encourage you: if you are a man feeling this oppressive Fog, know that you are not alone. Letting somebody know that it threatens to swallow you whole is not weakness, it is strength, for the Fog wants desperately to keep you silent and miserable. The simple act of speaking out against it displays how strong you are. 

You have perhaps noticed that I have not brought a spiritual thing into this discussion at all; it is not because I do not believe that God can help (He does), it is because I know how turned off so many people in the thick of it can get by much of the church's reaction to depression. "You're too blessed to be depressed," one church sign told me as I drove down the road. "You just need to pray harder," you may be told. 

But do you want to see how God deals with depression? Look at Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4. Here, Elijah retreats to the wilderness, under a broom tree, and tells God that he just wants to die. So he lies down and succumbs to his hypersomnia. He sleeps until he's gently awakened by an angel. "Have some food," the angel said. Elijah got up, ate and drank a little, and then went back to sleep!  

The angel tapped him again a bit later: "Arise and eat," he said, "for the journey is too great for you." God didn't come and shout him up, tell him to just shake it off, or call him names; He sent an angel to say but two words to him, give him food, and let him go back to sleep. He didn't jerk him out of this state; but He sustained him through it and gave him a purpose—He sent him to Mt. Horeb. If you're a believer, know that your King never promised to navigate you around your difficulties; He merely promised to walk with you through them.  

If ever you feel the dreadful whisper that you are purposeless, that you are useless, that you are a lost cause, it will be terribly difficult to convince yourself that it is wrong. I'm not denying that. What I am saying is that it's okay. That it's going to be okay. Recognize your Fog, understand what it is that makes it fade, and then rest in the purpose you've just received, for that thing is likely what you are supposed to be doing. Find the voice of your Nightingale and follow its song through, and out of, the mist. 

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.