—A black gossamer found
in the brain’s neural pathways,
secreted in minuscule amounts by every cell.
Below the surface of the cortical folds
and deep within the cerebellum
even of infants
filaments of darkness
float between ganglia, drift between the hemispheres
along the corpus callosum: black wisps that pool and eddy,
forming eventually a filmy, toxic cirrus
suspended throughout each lobe, tendrils
that can coagulate to a thicker mist
in response to certain illnesses or traumas,
then with time
wafting away down passages, around
—Barely detectable, asymptomatic,
yet always capable of being produced
in copious amounts in a millisecond:
hair-triggered like an automobile’s air bag,
poised to fill all available space
if a bullet tears through, say, or
if a conduit suddenly occludes, preventing blood
from reaching the cerebrum.
—Normally, though, the cloud
densifies as the body ages, expunging various muscle memories
and interfering with the release of healing enzymes
until eventually what has become a cumulonimbus
hovering in each corridor and room
transmutes to a black smoke
that blankets the cerebral cortex,
an unstemmable presence
obliterating the light
Questions and Answers
How/where do you find inspiration today? What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
I have found that inspiration for poetry for me has changed as my life circumstances have shifted. For example, my move from an urban (Vancouver) to rural (Slocan Valley) base in 1989 brought an increasing attention on my part to the natural world and the replacement in many of my poems of industrial images by natural ones. Similarly, an increasing awareness of the fragility of life has occurred while I’ve aged, as friends and relatives suddenly are diagnosed with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, and in the latter case utterly vanish from the planet. “Thanatosine” was written out of that heightened sense that decay and death are inextricably entwined with life. I imagine a substance always present at the cellular level in the living brain, a chemical compound that, like a hormone, neurotransmitter or other bodily product, can increase or decline in volume and in so doing regulate or otherwise influence the functioning of the organism. My imaginary substance is the presence of death made manifest, a sort of inherent memento mori.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
The particular challenge in writing this poem was to make it sound “science-y” without losing the audience with the poem’s use of esoteric language. The poem is set in the brain, but of course I didn’t want to repeat “brain” continually in describing the imaginary substance Thanatosine’s presence and effects. But my hope is that even if a reader can’t distinguish between the cerebellum and the cerebrum, at least the reader will grasp that the poem is referencing areas or components of the brain. The use of the “science-y” diction is also necessary in order to generate the illusion that the poem is describing an actual natural substance. For the metaphor to work, disbelief has to be suspended for the duration of the poem, and since the poem pretends to be describing an significant bodily component, use of scientific descriptors is necessary to generate the desired metaphorical illusion. Metaphors are sometimes defined as consisting of vehicle and tenor. So if we say, “my love is a red, red rose,” the vehicle is the rose, and the rose must be portrayed so that the reader visualizes mentally the tangible flower: hence the repetition of “red, red.” The tenor is what we take away from the metaphor: the author’s love is intense (“red, red”), beautiful (a common attribute of roses), but edgy and potentially a source of pain (those darned rose thorns). Here, my vehicle is this imaginary chemical substance supposedly found in the brain. The tenor is that our very existence embraces our death.