KILLING THE BLACK DOG: A MEMOIR OF DEPRESSION
By Les Murray
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13, 96 pages
In the ever-diminishing world of contemporary poetry, Les Murray is one of the few undeniable titans. He is a bit of a renegade: a Catholic and a “subhuman redneck” (as his most famous collection of poems, “Subhuman Redneck Poems,” has it) and an almost too-earnest foe of human cruelty and much of modern cosmopolitan and intellectual life.
Measured against the teasing, meaning-averse vagaries of postmodern poetry and the sometimes prettyish, usually vapid adjective salads that fill the occasional nook in high-brow magazines, Mr. Murray reads like a mutton-chopped bard of yore. He’s cut from old cloth. He likes plot and picaresque - his novel in verse, “Fredy Neptune” has a bit of the page-turning feel of a 19th-century adventure novel - though the quality of the novel’s verse demands a slower pace and its acute interest in the manifold varieties of man’s inhumanity to man tempers exquisitely the novel’s rip-roaring aspects.
Mr. Murray is also perhaps the foremost nature poet writing today. In his poems about the natural world, he inhabits animals and plants: He speaks as a herd of pigs, as a cockspur bush. Mr. Murray likes the tactile and the physical, and it’s no surprise that his essay about his intense depression in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “Killing the Black Dog,” newly published in the United States, is acutely interested in the physical aspects of the disease - though it is no less interested in the disease’s spiritual aspects.
It’s fitting that Mr. Murray borrows Winston Churchill’s name for his depression: “black dog.” Mr. Murray has a Churchillian build and, at least until he was taken by the black dog, a Churchillian appetite for cigars (about eight a day). Losing his taste for tobacco is the beginning of Mr. Murray’s “Big Sick.” Indigestion, tangled thoughts and incoherence follow. Then, stricken with chest pains, sure he’s having a heart attack, Mr. Murray is rushed to the hospital. This phantom heart attack is a panic attack, and crushing despair follows in its wake:
“Every day … sometimes more than once a day, sometimes all day, a coppery taste in my mouth, which I termed intense insipidity, heralded a session of helpless, bottomless misery in which I would lie curled in the fetal position on the sofa with tears leaking from my eyes, my brain boiling with a confusion of stuff not worth calling thought or imagery: it was more like shredded mental kelp marinated in pure pain.”
The way out is slow and tortuous, the work of years. He feels “beneath help, beneath the reach even of Godhead,” and though he goes to Mass regularly, “if God helped, and I imagine He did, He didn’t tell me about it - or perhaps I simply couldn’t hear Him if He did.”
Family helps, as do conversations with fellow depressives; Xanax gives Mr. Murray some relief from panic attacks, as do certain breathing exercises, but his main therapy is rigorous self-discourse, a method he attributes to Dr. Hannibal Lecter of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“Killing the Black Dog” is in some ways a transcript of this self-examination. And true to Lecter’s insistence on absolute, unsparing honesty, Mr. Murray exhumes his friendless, grief-riddled childhood and untangles the skeins of rage and alienation that have bound him since his earliest days.
Some of Mr. Murray’s dog days have an accidental comic aspect, like when his wife is driving him home and he refuses to wear his seat belt. He’s opposed to these instruments of “the Nanny State and its goon police” on the best of days; on this dark one, he’s inconsolable at the thought of their existence. Of course, a police officer pulls the car over. When he tells the officer that he has a medical exemption (he does) but doesn’t have the document with him, the officer insists that he has to “see it visually.”
“Shoot me,” Mr. Murray responds. “My offense is clearly unpardonable, and I’m sick of my life. Blow me away with that cannon of yours!” The officer leaps back on his bike and speeds off.
Mr. Murray’s seat-belt aversion is a minor example of his defiant cast of mind. An adult convert to Catholicism, Mr. Murray describes his initial attraction to the church’s “intransigent defiance of all ordinary contemporary thinking” - and this descriptor suits Mr. Murray himself just as well.
His refusal of contemporary intellectual modes and his aggressive attacks on them have won him some passionate enemies in his long career. They are also intertwined with his depression, which emerges in his essay-qua-memoir as both a permanent cast of mind and a clinical condition. (Mr. Murray suffers from both.) Take “The Beneficiaries”:
never praise Auschwitz
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.
This is a savage poem. One could easily argue that it’s an offensive poem (at least one of Mr. Murray’s detractors justly wondered what a Jewish atheist could make of it) but it’s also a stunning example of the intellectual and poetic tenor of depression, on par with the work of Philip Larkin and Theodor Adorno. (Though, somewhat perversely, the poem also can be read as a brutal joke at the expense of Adorno, who said that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”)
“The Beneficiaries” and 20-some other poems are included in “Killing the Black Dog” after the essay. These poems were written in Mr. Murray’s depression era. One of the most interesting aspects of the book, especially for readers skittish about poetry, is that Mr. Murray glosses several of the included poems in the essay, describing in prose the circumstances and ideas behind them.
Mr. Murray’s eternal theme is dehumanization, the many ways human beings are trampled and diminished, usually by each other. “Killing the Black Dog” continues this work: Depression is nothing, if not dehumanizing.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewers Contest.