the edge: when death haunts the void, use it
Reading Lorca’s essay on duende has me thinking about the brink. When the bullfighter faces the bull, he faces death. Lorca writes that duende “won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation.” When thinking of death, I think of a blade. I walk on its edge and wonder briefly how to maintain my footing on something so sharp.
Death is one of those anxieties that haunts me. Whenever I drive on a tall overpass, perfectly sober, I picture myself driving over the edge, crashing, and dying. “The Pull,” as some call it, is a phenomenon that is not uncommon. Psychologists report that it’s not unheard of for patients to describe anxiety manifesting with the sudden urge to crash a car. Some dark gremlin works inside us and, like the bullfighter, we must tame it. Sometimes, I think a little too hard while I keep my foot steady on the pedal and drive to level road. Like those same branches described by Lorca, I carry those fears with me.
When I press myself against the page, I channel my imagination onto it. For my imagination to emerge on that page, I think of the brink again. They say art cuts deep. It can gut you. I’ve thought about how to write that kind of poem often. It must be my own edge, my own knife. The trick is to lean into the pull and understand the dark gremlin and never look away. Like death, the dark part of the self is mysterious and powerful. We all have a demon haunting us. It’s what we do when we face it that matters. I’ve become less and less afraid of the unsettling feeling I get when I write.
In Latin American culture, the Day of the Dead celebrates death. Celebrated in the fall, the time of year when there’s a waning of light and the spirits are most alive, participants in the Day of the Dead believe that the doorway between the living and the dead is most open during this time. They place altars with offerings and marigolds alongside photos of the dearly departed. Imagining such a world requires a leap of faith of sorts. There’s so much devotion and power imbued in the image of the altar. Acknowledging our ancestors and beginnings requires a belief in the beyond. The offerings are meant to invite the dead back from their realm to that of the living world. When celebrators of the Day of the Dead tell stories, they feel real. They are the sort you’d hear from your uncles and cousins during the holiday. If my loved ones died, I wonder which stories I should remember. Should I remember their bursts of anger as tragic or comic? Already, I picture memories of my father telling me he is disappointed in me for some stupid decision I made and I’m laughing. He laughs with me too.
In American culture grief can feel different. Some choose to have closed-casket funerals. We are not meant to speak ill of the dead. Yet, I believe we would do well to follow other culture’s examples of how to interrogate and tease out the dead parts of oneself. Phillip Lopate once wrote that when turning oneself into character, there’s a natural inclination to dislike ourselves. However, when the discipline of self-amusement is attuned to find the dark humor in our quirks, there’s a richer story to tell. From the pit, then, where we find our darkest selves, we must build our personas into a bridge that can take us off the level, boring road.
If I think of the world between the living and the dead, I can surprise myself with imaginative leaps. Lately, when I write about my family, I think: how do I cut deep into myself? If I write something that feels too easy, I go back and complicate it some more. I dig deeper to understand what I didn’t understand before. In hole I dig for myself, I picture someone who looks around and instinctively finds something worth salvaging. Something that feels like a revelation. The same urge to deliberately crash my car will pull me back to the surface.
Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” comes to mind when I think of how to reach this brink. Hayden ends the poem on a question, on what isn’t known: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” The question of uncertainty in the poem offers an intimacy that reads as haunted. The speaker of the poem illustrates an intimate relationship between a father and son; however, the question complicates the relationship by demonstrating a vulnerability for a speaker who doesn’t know much about his father.
In my writing, asking the question is enough to feel the pull. Sometimes the question is dark and surprising. “Did my father love me?” is a question implied by the Hayden poem. “Was I enough for my father?” or “How could I understand my father’s anger, his labor, or love?” are other questions that occupy my head. I begin to relate to these concerns. For the sake of a poem, I must ask myself similar hard questions.
When I push myself against the page, I consider my pure, instinctual self. I aim to write as if I’m dying. I force myself to be resourceful to stay alive and write. The father and speaker of Hayden’s poem carry the weight of survival. A father aches in spite of the fire. A father calls his son to get ready and the son obeys, fearing the “chronic angers,” yet there are still “love’s austere and lonely offices.” Nothing is boring here. There’s a desire for understanding and Hayden’s speaker leans into it. How else could the repetition of “what did I know, what did I know…” be used so skillfully?
In the fight for survival, our ancestors did better than we would because they learned to survive as a lifestyle. With much practice, a writer builds their skill to use a form like a sonnet to evoke an urgent desire for love. We learn to hone our instincts. Lorca’s bullfighter did the same thing. The bullfighter in his beautiful garments has practiced facing death so many times he’s turned it into an art.
As a poet on the page, I learn to rely on my instincts to manage “the pull” inside myself. Usually, I feel as if I don’t risk enough, but I keep pushing forward and lean into the edge. If you were faced with the opportunity to stand over the lip of the Grand Canyon, would you look down or turn away?
In my writing, I’m still learning to embrace the blade and feel its weight in my hands. With time, perhaps I’ll get better at yielding to the brink and having the dark gremlin work for me.
Sebastian Hasani Paramo is the son of Mexican immigrants. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Salt Hill, Pleiades, North American Review, & elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of THE BOILER. He has received scholarships and awards from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Vermont Studio Center. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Denton, Texas as a PhD candidate at the University of North Texas, where he is the Managing Editor for American Literary Review.