Poor Metaphors

 

‘Dear god, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through to get here.

Here. That’s all I wanted to be.

I promise.’

Ocean Vuong ‘Notebook Fragments’

When Shama and I began working on this piece, we simply wanted something that brought attention to mental health issues. Based on our personal experiences – and through our attempts with art – we wanted to contribute something to the conversation on what it means to live with things such as depression and anxiety.

As the piece progressed, however, what stood out to us was the inadequacy of art in the face of mental health experiences. Initially, we thought we ought to lend poetic expression to our own experiences and to those of our friends and colleagues. But more and more we found ourselves coming across anecdotes we knew we had no right to give a voice to. And even as we collected heart-wrenching accounts of depression and anxiety from those close to us, what dominates these pieces is the voice of our own experiences.

As we came to highlight those, we realised that our metaphors only compensated for the poverty of language itself. Whatever literary and visual metaphors we came up with to convey our experiences fell short against their brutal reality. There is no poem, no photograph, no medium that can capture the helplessness of a midnight panic attack, the smell of a bed you have not moved from for two days in a row, the growing despondence that makes a home within your bones. When it comes to mental health disorders, all our attempts at art have failed to convey the gravity of our experiences and also those of the people around us. And yet they are all we have. All we have is the medium of photography, of poetry, mediums we want to dedicate our lives to, and yet they fail to encapsulate our experiences.

And so we thought to ourselves, what if we created a piece that expressed mental illnesses through both visual and literary metaphors? But more importantly, we thought, what if we also created a piece that used the mediums we were most familiar with while simultaneously subverting them?

Our main hope for this piece is that it serves to generate some empathy for those who experience mental health issues. We knew that we could not possibly ever convey the reality or truth of these issues the way we experience them, and therefore, meanwhile, all we have to provide you with are these metaphors, in all their poverty.

In a dream last night I held my decapitated skull in my own hands.

But no matter how much brain tissue I emptied

A phantom weight kept pressing onto my shoulders.

Upon waking, all I wanted was to watch the sunrise once again.

 

There may have been a storm last night.

The 5 a.m. sky shows no signs of it:

Gentle pastels of pink, orange and red

Assault my bleary eyes.

I wanted to watch its colours dissolve

But instead I only felt betrayed by its waning gray.

 

How come the storm leaves no marks on the sky?

How come my storms mark my body for days?

How come my sky is always choking on color instead of revelling in it?

Yesterday my mother had to beg me to take a bath.

There were loose limbs on a bed, crumbling against the quickening dusk:

‘Please. It will help. I promise it will.

Please. Please.’

She left the limbs on the bed and moved to the kitchen, still saying please.

She sprinkled salt, and chilli powder, and turmeric, while still saying please.

 

Lately, all I want is to take my worries to the ocean.

It will accept my blue heart with its blue arms

Gently swallow me whole

And rot my body to a pulp.

I want my loose limbs rotting at the bottom of an ocean,

Never needing a bath again.

For a while now I have been reaching into my throat for poetry

Only to come up with ash.

Because I forgot about the consequences of fire, for a moment.

There was the match.

There was the sound of it striking and the scent of burning before the fire took.

And then, the fire.

I forgot what it was to not burn, for a moment.

There was:

Charred flesh,

A houseful of smoke,

Choking,

Retching.

I wanted to air the house out.

But I forgot about the windows, for a moment.

I keep forgetting about the windows.

I retreat from closed doors into damp darkness

And leave countless teacups in my wake:

Dark stains blossom on the white, glittering porcelain

As the bags dry and wither.

My suitcase has been in countless haunted houses

And I tell myself that someday a ghost would want to make friends with me.

Every time I have to flee again

I watch the way wild flowers grow in the crumbling awning:

Softness where it least belongs.

I flee along with my clenched teeth and my gift for storms

But maybe there will be flowers to haunt. 

My mother says I should pray again.

I heave from the dull, growing thud of time:

Faces I once knew, memories I may have been a part of

Lose their roots and fester against my eyelids.

 

Monsoon has arrived and all I have

Is envy for the way these downpours cleanse the sky.

First there is the choking: the gathering of clouds, the endless greying,

Then comes the release: the unleashing, the undoing.

 

The sky with its blue unblemished, its sunsets pastel the way forevers are.

 

For you there are no blues, no pastels, no sunsets:

Only an empty-handed prayer for rain.

 

Lately I’ve been muttering Ocean’s prayer like a madwoman:

So I say, ‘Dear God, I have been through all your seasons

And they have settled like dust

Into my open wounds.’

 

And I say, ‘Dear God, did you indeed make me in your own image?

Because I have been all your seasons

And then some.’

 

And I beg, ‘Dear God, if this is to be a season,

Let it be the one where I finally disappear.’

 

Words: Tanushree Baijal

Art: Shama Nair

Edits: Shriya Pant

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