Fever and Jungles: Mary Mackey On Becoming A Poet

I do not have an MFA. I became a poet by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, and being caught in volcanic eruptions, swarmed by army ants, stalked by vampire bats, threatened by poisonous snakes, and making catastrophic decisions with regard to men. And then there was reading.

I read constantly, compulsively: secretly under the covers with a flashlight after I had been put to bed; defiantly when I was supposed to be doing the dishes or sweeping the kitchen; sneakily in any class that was boring. As proof that my reading addiction was out of hand, I offer the fact that I was quite possibly the only student at North Central High School ever to be sent to the principal for being in illicit possession of a collection of the poems of William Blake. (Fortunately when she busted me, my math teacher did not find Ovid’s highly erotic The Art of Love, which had somehow made it into our school library uncensored.)

            How did Jungle Woman and Bookworm come to inhabit the same body? How did they combine to make a little girl born in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the height of McCarthyism into a short, scrappy woman who began writing poems at the age of eleven and never stopped? The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple part is that I desperately wanted to get out of Indianapolis. About the time I turned eleven, I started to realize that everything interesting was happening somewhere else. I had even heard rumors that in Paris people sat around in things called “cafes” and talked about ideas.

Paris, Rome, Antarctica, Mars: how, despite an impaired sense of geography, I longed to see them firsthand.  Books had already taken me to exotic places—OZ among them—but I had never really been anywhere unless you counted trips to the family farm in Kentucky and a brief jaunt to Niagara Falls where I got to enter a foreign country for the first time, albeit not a very exotic-looking one.

I imagine many of the children I went to school with also longed to go somewhere interesting, but I had an advantage. I knew that there were places so different from Indianapolis that they could not be described in ordinary words; and this is where it gets complex, because the thing that brought me this knowledge, the thing that did more than anything else to make me into a poet, was fever. But first it almost killed me.

The first time it happened, I was six months old. I don’t remember any of the events of my near-death experience, but I’m told I turned blue and went into convulsions. According to my mother, I would have died except that my father, who was completing his medical training in a military hospital, had access to penicillin—a drug not at the time available to civilians. The stuff was nasty: preserved in wax in a small glass bottle that had to be boiled before the penicillin was injected via a very large, hollow needle.

For most of my childhood, I dreaded that wax and that huge needle so much that I had to be chased and pinned down like a cat being taken to the vet, but on the night I nearly died before I had lived, the penicillin bought down my fever and saved my life.  But fever was not done with me.

The next time I nearly died was just before my third birthday. I remember that experience well, because it was the first time I saw how thin and bright the world could be. I remember lying on a green couch in a over-heated room. It must have been winter because frost coated the window panes, and snow lay on the bare branches of the trees in big lumps. My mother had given me a bottle of Coca-Cola on the principle that I needed to take in more fluids. My temperature must have been somewhere between 105 ͦ and 106 ͦ Fahrenheit, because I was already experiencing that wonderful, detached, floating feeling I always get above 105 ͦ.

Just for the record, the path from 98.6 ͦ to 105 ͦ is nasty: filled with aches, pains, uncontrolled shaking and the pure misery of sickness, but once you reach 105 ͦ everything changes. You start to feel irrationally happy. Your body becomes light and buoyant. By the time you get to 106 ͦ, you begin to discover that you are incapable of worrying, even though everyone around you is frantic with fear. The best is yet to come. Teetering on the edge of 107 ͦ brings the real poetic gifts, because a fever that high does something strange to your brain.

As I lay on that green couch, warm golden light—the kind you only see for a few moments at sunset—flooded our living room. My parents moved toward me so slowly that I could see their clothing billow out and collapse in an invisible wind. Bending over me, they lost their faces, and floated toward the ceiling like huge birds. The coke bottle on the coffee table multiplied into dozens of coke bottles, which flew up and circled in a huge glassy aura around their heads.

Behind my parents’ bodies, the light turned into a veil composed of long, rainbow-colored ribbons. The veil expanded, consuming the green couch, the blankets, the windows, and my parents.  Suddenly it parted, and I saw trees with red and gold leaves (impossible, because it was the dead of winter), and little children stretching out their hands and calling to me.

I couldn’t have had much of a vocabulary at that age. Nevertheless, words suddenly streamed into my mind and came out of my mouth, combining and recombining into entirely new things. I believe this was the moment I was given the gift of poetry, a gift which I did not yet have the skill or understanding to use, but a gift nevertheless.

I have captured this childhood experience best in a poem entitled Breaking the Fever  in my collection by the same name (Breaking the Fever, Marsh Hawk Press 2011). Although fever is far from the only topic of my poetry, it has provided the specific inspiration for well over a dozen poems and subtle inspiration for many more, many of which are in my most recent collection The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected  Poems 1974 to 2018  (Marsh Hawk Press, 2018).

What does fever show me? Are the things I see real? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t claim to be a profit or an oracle. All I know for certain is that something strange happened to me on that afternoon just before my third birthday, something that would  happen again at least half a dozen times as I continued to run extraordinarily high fevers. The logical explanation is that I was hallucinating. Yet hallucination does little to explain how well-organized the words I babbled were, and how I sensed them as objects that regrouped and changed forms. Nor does it explain why, much later in life during high fevers, I spoke in rhymed couplets—sometimes for several hours at a time—and was unable to stop until my temperature dipped below 106 ͦ.

Actually, I am less interested in discovering an explanation for why these things happen to me than in the result, for starting at a very young age, fever gave me priceless poetic gifts: metaphor, because it showed me how one thing could easily become another; rhythm, because it organized the speech centers of my brain; a love of words, stories, and ideas, which had a life of their own and frequently came into my head so effortlessly that writing them down was like taking dictation. Best of all, fever gave me chance to see the world in a way that few other people see it. Am I insane? Fair question, but I if you are searching for a mad poet, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. When I am well and fever-free, which is 99% of the time, I am almost boringly sane. I’m a practical, well-organized, Professor of English, dedicated to poetry as a craft, meticulous about revision, and unless my body temperature goes above 106 ͦ, I never hallucinate or speak in rhymed couplets.  

   Thus, although I received some of the building blocks for creating poems a little before my third birthday, it would be years before I knew what a poem was and many more years before I attempted to write one. Oddly enough, the break-through came in a geometry class. I was eleven, and it was late October. We were learning about triangles, and I was bored in a way that makes you willing to give in to any kind of distraction including counting the tiles in the ceiling. My classroom lacked ceiling tiles, but it did have large windows, which looked out on the front lawn of the school. The leaves had turned on the maples about a week ago, and now the wind was blowing them all over the place, sucking them into the air, whirling them around, and throwing them to the ground.

Up in front of the class, my geometry teacher was talking about obtuse and congruent triangles. Obtuse. Congruent. What wonderful words, I thought. At that moment it all came together: the wind, the leaves, the triangles, and the geometry lesson. Suddenly, I saw the leaves both as dead leaves and at the same time, as masses of colored light swarming in patterns. Suddenly I understood that leaves too could be obtuse and congruent. Picking up my pen, I quickly scribbled down my first poem:

Blown high on the wind unfurled
Gathered in masses of light
Softly though their numbered twirls
The autumn leaves in flight

Reds and yellows, pastels soft
Shapes obtuse and congruent
Blown high by the wind aloft
Motions precise yet fluent

 

            Not a very good poem, admittedly, but very important to me, because it marks the moment I fell forever in love with science, which I suddenly realized was not so different from poetry. Weren’t poets and scientists both trying to explain the the world around us? Weren’t they both exploring the unknown and attempting to make sense of it, trying to figure out how human beings fit in? The vocabulary of science was simply another kind of poetic language, and the beautiful logic of scientific proofs, like the words of a poem, had the same goal: creating meaning out of chaos.

            In the weeks that followed, I wrote twenty poems, which flowed out of me so fast I could hardly get them down on paper. In retrospect, none of them were very good, but I loved writing. I was intoxicated with it. I still had no desire to become a poet, have a career in poetry, or get published. I was just having the best kind of fun you can have.

Soon I realized that I had two problems. First, I had no idea what I was doing; and worse yet, I had no control over my poems and no idea how to fix them when they went wrong. Being a practical sort, I decided to read as much poetry as possible, pick it apart, and see how it was put together. I thought I could learn everything I needed to know in a few months, but, of course, I was wrong. Learning my craft took years.

My second problem was that no matter how pretty my poems were or how cleverly I combined words, I didn’t have anything significant to write about. I was a child. I was living in Indianapolis. I needed a  subject. You might say I needed a life. I couldn’t go on talking about autumn leaves forever.

If you don’t have a life, I asked myself, what do you do? The answer seemed obvious: You borrow one. With this in mind, I plunged into the biographies of poets and novelists, determined to discover how their lives had inspired their work. Soon, I discovered two things: First, the great poets and writers of the world did not for the most part live in Indianapolis; second, they were almost all men.

Male writers, it seemed, could do anything. They could drink themselves silly on absinthe and not give a damn if it rotted their brains. They could have wild affairs with their own sisters, “ladies of the night” (whatever that meant), and even other men. They could write passionate poems to their poet lovers; then shoot them down in seedy hotels, do prison time for the crime, and still be worshiped as the gods of poetry. While women poets sat home and knitted, male poets could sign on to whaling ships, meet psychotic sea captains and tattooed harpooners, go to war, and write poems about the tragic slaughter of young men in ways that brought tears to your eyes.

            The cards were stacked. Men had the whole world to write about, while I was destined to get a decent education, marry a nice man who would provide for me and my three children, and spend what little free time I could spare from taking wax off the kitchen floor writing poetry on domestic topics. Was there an alternative? I had never read or even seen a poem by Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, or Sylvia Plath; and Emily Dickenson had been presented to us by our teachers as a talented, but disturbed, recluse, which didn’t make her much of a model.

            I didn’t want to be a man, but like a man, I wanted to be able to do anything and have the whole world as my subject. Most of all, I wanted to have time to write. Clearly I was going to have to figure out how to support myself in a way that left time for travel and writing.

I never for a moment considered that I could do this by becoming a professional poet. Everyone knew that real poets starved in garrets. All you had to do to figure out that writing poetry was not a viable career path was read François Villon’s poem “The Legacy” in which Villon, the best-known French poet of the Late Middle Ages, said he couldn’t finish writing a poem because his candle had blown out, he had no fire, and his ink had frozen.

It took me about four years to figure out a plan that seemed to have at least some chance of allowing me eat regularly while giving me time to write and see the world: I decided to get a Ph.D. and teach at the college level. This decision to provide for myself is an essential part of the story of how I became a poet, and it had unexpected benefits.

            During all those years of study, I only took one creative writing class, primarily because it was the only one Harvard offered. It was taught by the talented Steven Sandy who gave me the first and only feedback I ever received from a published poet while I was a student. (An interesting sidelight is that to get into Harvard’s sole creative writing class, you had to compete against other students by submitting a sample of your work. That year I was the only woman admitted.)

            As I sat in Mr. Sandy’s creative writing seminar, surrounded by nineteen young men, I was almost a poet, but not yet the poet I wanted to become. I had no mentors: no male poets to take me under their wing, and certainly no female ones because there weren’t any at Harvard. I was still on my own, and the world I was living in—while far more interesting than Indianapolis—was too safe, too predictable, too academic, and much too rational. I didn’t want to write predictable, academic, rational poetry. I wanted to write poems that explored the world I saw above 106 ͦ without having to deal with starvation, incarceration, and frozen ink.

            Fate cooperated. In the fall semester of my senior year, I sat down to dinner next to a Harvard professor named Richard Evans Schultes. Since I was an English major, I had no idea who he was or what he had done, but we had a pleasant conversation about Charles Dickens, whose novel Pickwick Papers was the subject of my senior honors thesis. It turned out that Professor Schultes was a member of the Boston chapter of the Dickens Society, and he invited me to come to the Old North Church to celebrate Dickens’ 153rd birthday.

            At this point, you may be asking yourself what this chance encounter had to do with how I became a poet, and my reply is “everything.” After the birthday party, which involved singing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Dickens who, by my calculations was not going to eat his piece of cake, because he had been dead nearly a hundred years, Professor Schultes told me he was in need of a student assistant, and asked me if I would like the job.

            A few days later, I showed up at the Peabody Museum as he had directed, wandered past a stuffed display of the last Passenger Pigeon (which, rumor had it, had been shot by a Harvard expedition), and found Professor Schultes who immediately put me to work cataloging ethnobotanical specimens, which included among other things a cake of raw opium which had lain on a shelf unnoticed for some 60 years and a tortilla dating from 1897.

Before the day was over, I knew that: 1) Professor Schultes was world-famous in botanical circles as the “Father of Ethnobotany.” 2) Ethnobotany was the scientific study of how people used plants. 3) Professor Schultes had spent years living in the jungles of Central and South America collecting plant specimens and learning from the people who lived in the jungle how those plants were used. 4) Professor Schultes’ specialty was hallucinogenic plants and their uses, and he had been the first person to bring ayahuasca to the attention of Europeans. 5) That photo of the guy on the wall dressed in a loin cloth having hallucinogenic snuff being blown up his nose by two half-naked men who were only wearing feathers and penis gourds was the same person as the Harvard professor in the three-piece, tweed suit who had hired me to be his student assistant. 

This time there was no sudden revelation. Only gradually, as I worked in the Harvard ethnobotanical collection, did I realize the final things I needed do to become a writer:  I needed to live like Professor Schultes in some remote location beyond the comforts of civilization. I needed odd, unpredictable experiences. I needed the ecstasy and terror of nature in in its original state. I needed to find a place on this planet where trees outnumbered people. In short, I needed danger, and I needed to survive it.

What I didn’t need to do was sample hallucinogens. Professor Schultes had presented me with an entire footlocker of Banisteriopsis caapi—the main ingredient in ayahuasca—to classify, but I was never seriously tempted to concoct  a brew of the famous “black drink.”  From what I had read, and from what I learned when I listened to him lecture, fever had already given me some of the gifts people seek when they deliberately set out to alter their perceptions of reality, and it had done so without destroying my brain or leaving me addicted to any drug more potent than chocolate.  

The summer after I graduated from Harvard, I went to Costa Rica to a place where trees, mosquitoes, and possibly poisonous snakes, outnumbered people. For the next six years I lived off and on at the University of Michigan and at a remote field station in the middle of the jungle. Sometime during those six years, I became a poet. All the pieces were in place: vision, craft, subject, a wider world, time to write, and the means to do so without having to worry about frozen ink (although malaria was always a consideration). Yet until I was well into my fifties, the jungle itself was not the subject of my poetry. It was instead the silent muse behind my poems, the place where I found the unspoken and non-human; and where, far from civilization, I could contemplate the mysteries of what lies inside human beings both below and above 106 ͦ.

“Fever and Jungles” was first published as part of the Marsh Hawk Press Chapter One Series.

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