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Journeys with a black dog

13 December 2009 3,702 views One Comment

At his best, Barry Dickens is very, very good.

One of my all-time favourite comic pieces is his account, when young, of selling Four’NTwenty Pies, just outside the urinal at the Aussie Rules football on a boiling hot Melbourne afternoon. As gnarled old men stumbled out of the toilet, a hot pie seemed just the right medicine to replace what had just been expelled.

Sadly, UNPARALLELED SORROW, Dickens’s memoir about finding his way back from depression, is nothing like the quality of some of his earlier writings. Why this is so is open to question. Perhaps it is, as he suggests, the result of frontal lobe damage and other cognitive harms sustained over decades of alcoholic self-indulgence. Perhaps it is a product of age wearing him down, or of writing at a time when many Australian publishers cannot afford to hire top quality editors.

But whatever the explanation, this three-part rambling discourse reeks of self-pity, with occasional shafts of insight. The latter often take the form of questions. What on earth is so wrong with sadness? Or with mood swings and insomnia anyway?

While Dickens writes tenderly and well about his honest and stoical father Len and about his much-loved teenage son Louis, his indulgent meanderings, primarily about himself, needed to be clarified and, more importantly cut, severely.

His prose is often sloppy.  Take three examples, virtually at random:  “I had a nice lunch he writes in Part 1, “ with an amusing public servant and it felt fantastic to sip coffee that was real and not mechanical and laugh unmechanically.

A nice lunch! Coffee that was real and not mechanical! Come off it.

Then twenty-two pages earlier: “One of the nurses injects a short silver needle in my left wrist and I am instantly unconscious. The other nurse puts on the gas mask and presses it on me. ‘Just breathe naturally,’ she intones, looking bored stupid. But Dickens cannot know what she said or how she looked. He is unconscious! In fact, he has the electroconvulsive therapy  (ECT) anaesthetic procedure back to front , the nurse puts the gas mask on the patient before the patient is injected with the anaesthetic medication. In this section Dickens writes about taking 25 mg of Seroquel, as though this is a large dose, when in fact it is the smallest amount of that medication that can be prescribed – in his case as a hypnotic medication to help him sleep. In contrast, anti-psychotic doses of Seroquel range from 400 mg a day.

A final example, towards the end of Part 2, where Dickens describes sitting by the highway beside the scorched bitumen: “The tyres were all sort of scorched and so on. Is he kidding?  Or does he regard such adolescent ‘stream of consciousness’ as being somehow ‘poetic’? “Sort of scorched and so on is merely slovenly, just like the author – well past his prime – is so often self-described.

A key motif running through UNPARALLED SORROW is the prospect, and then the reality, of his long-suffering wife Sarah permanently leaving him. As far as we can tell, the separation is not only still in place, but it seems increasingly unlikely that she might opt for a comeback. “I am, he writes simply for once, “as domesticated as an ape. No wonder the marriage fell through. Then a mere page later he admits, “Everything I say is an exaggeration to make an impact, which is a large part of the problem, Barry.

Yet this unsatisfactory memoir leaves him still persistent, and far from demoralised, two qualities that may afford him an even-money chance of writing more limpidly than he has for years.

It is pleasing to read that Dickens is now (or at the time of writing) completely free of all prescription drugs.  But the reader is not left with much confidence that he can, or will, remain anything like permanently free of nicotine and of alcohol – a conspicuously lethal combination that, by his own account, has caused him so much physical and psychic damage. Yet there is always the hope of improvement, if not recovery.

Early on in the book, Dickens quotes his psychiatrist at the Clinic, in which in 2008 he stayed for almost six months: “You’re deteriorating Barry. Let’s hope that the same does not continue to apply to his craft and art.

Deteriorating certainly does not apply to the poetry, and the prose, of that well-known depressive, Les Murray, for whom alcohol seems not to have been a problem.  Indeed in his revised and extended version of KILLING THE BLACK DOG, Murray appears close to the peak of his poetic and writerly powers.

Following on from an original essay first published in 1997 by Sydney’s innovative Federation Press, Murray now explains that he had mistaken remission for recovery, and falsely thought himself freed permanently from the severe depression that so undermined and blighted his life.

To my mind, Murray’s updated and more complex understanding of his illness, coupled with six more poems dealing with relapse and remission and despair, is on a par with the late John Updike’s magisterial memoir of his depressive breakdown, ‘Darkness Visible’.

Certainly this new edition of KILLING THE BLACK DOG underlines how, like a number of people predisposed to depression (or what he terms “this kind of hormonal malfunction), Murray sees his tendency to depression to be primary and the exigencies of existence to subsequently provide “the subject matter for (his) neuroses.

Even severe depression can have an upside. In Murray’s case from being an eight-cigar-a-day smoker, he suddenly became unable to endure the taste of tobacco, which was “worse than burning rubber. Fortuitously, for him, the change has been lasting. Perhaps more importantly, on one hand his family reckons that after he “went acute, he became, in the main,  “a much nicer nicer person, and on the other he became aware of being “less obsessive much of the time and “more capable of lateral thought even outside of poems…

In the ‘Afterword’ Murray probes the contours of his illness. He explains that, after his seeming ‘recovery’ in 1996, “sheer euphoria of survival dismissed the depression fairly completely for a couple of years and deceived him into thinking that it was gone. Instead, as he came to realise, “the atmosphere and themes of the disease had merely taken a holiday. Slowly but surely, depression crept up on him, again.

Even when he stars, even in his poetic brilliance, the tendency, the predisposition, to depression and to despair, which enervates the body and exhausts the mind, is almost always with him.

As Murray concludes his poem ‘Performance’:

“As usual after any triumph, I was of course inconsolable.

Arguably our nation’s greatest living poet, Murray now knows that he cannot slay the Dog forever. This means that his earlier account of his depressive illness has the wrong title. It should have been called, he says, LEARNING THE BLACK DOG.

Barry Dickens, UNPARALLELED SORROW, Hardie Grant Books, 2009, pp 309, $29.95 and Les Murray, KILLING THE BLACK DOG, Black Inc, 2009, pp 88, $24.95

One Comment »

  • David said:

    William Styron wrote “Darkness Visible”, not John Updike.

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