By Raul Alvarez
The sun is coming back,
you are still alive and honestly—
I have no elegy ready
when you call, feathers ruffled with the news
from California: Ralph and Lynn are in Palm Springs,
without you again, constant Cinderella,
left to tend their house—a 50 year old woman!
Click your hands together in
manic signs over the phone,
ask if I need
money, and no, I don’t need money
but you stumble over me
sending alms I will wire you
something next month
okay, after I pay off
Money (in a small
is a little tight okay,
it’s tax season darling!
I love you and
I mean it even though I didn’t come home in January
during the last episode.
You’d been rapid cycling
when a call,
my brother shouting—the hospital—
—I can’t hear you Thomas—white noise—
I call back.
No answer. What did he say?
My hands are freezing because of course he called when I was outside waiting for the bus which never comes
when you need to go to Target to buy gloves—
the phone rings
Thomas? His small words leak
between FUCKING TAKE ME HOME GODDAMNIT —
oh Thomas? Buddy
I love you
you’re doing great just keep
driving I’m right here
—the call drops.
I sometimes think I am a cure.
My little layers of religion,
an old book of haikus
on a beach. I am nothing
but balloons flickering
in the sun’s sky.
In Target my grandmother calls,
Everyone’s fine, your mother is on suicide watch BUT IT WAS A FIB! The doctor wanted to release
her so I told them she was going to kill herself, but I don’t think she was going to do it, she just started
screaming at grandpa out of nowhere about hell and oh my goodness! Tommy did a great job. He’s such a
good boy. Driving on the freeway even! Such a good boy!
It started the year the air conditioner fell,
the smashed Cadillac
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hospital—
white walls candy
sodas: do you
want a coke?
honey? do you
as Dad hid in his room, his sons
distracted, the marriage unraveling,
you didn’t love him anymore.
Your disease killed him. Your empty sex drive,
he bottled things,
worked in the tool shed while
listening to talk radio.
At night he’d come into my room and read from
the book of Matthew and make promises
son we will never get divorced.
son I will always love you.
son your mother will always love you.
I wasn’t paying attention—
in the bedroom, you slept on
the couch. Wore pajamas silk and
white and sheer 24 hours a day, didn’t
make dinner, didn’t hear the air conditioner
fall, hit, crack bones,
almost no blood,
a puddle of splinters—dad
running, again, the hospital, his son so small
and still the voices—insisting—sneaking
into the couch, hissing You are a terrible mother,
you must leave them! You must do it,
quick, the car!
A sleek and spacious Cadillac, boat
sized red leather seats—a Southern
Californian’s car. Bad gas mileage but bad ass!
Even God agreed, the car, take the car.
Go fast into a wall.
Free us! Little Thomas only a year old
and already such a smile! Your little boys.
What good little boys.
When the paramedics arrived
you were laughing.
Lithium hallucination emergency room withdrawal triple empty
tall boy 3am play write trunk white page prayer candle saint
hypnogogic spit smoke scuttle story feet bare heaving sound
suck water naked drunk geo metro skunk smell sunk Jr. High
school drop-off hand crawl down our small when some kids
found out so we moved out
and all the while scratched at scabs and talked
in whispers about
some past life
which takes your mind and makes it
two, divided and divisive—I know it like the sunshine
seeping through the window reflecting off my ring
finger touching my coffee
cup silently begging to be let in please come in!
End the winter wrap the Midwest in
blue flowers and fluffy clouds
in soft buzzing prayer calculate
the winds and measure the morning
my sun, my sweet sun
It is springtime and you
are sending the little money you
have, saying sorry for the other day,
whatever day, in winter
when you throw the statue of St. Jude through the TV and I run
Thomas by his fingers into the bathroom your white apartment
bathroom with its white window facing the alley lock the door
as you charge all animal into it again and again a cracking
crescendo while we lay in the bathtub looking out of the
window into the alley where pigeons wait on garbage bins as
you split the wood the white wood that separates your children
your blood your St. Paul and St. Peter the word and the rock
who’d known Christ and charmed him two beautiful boys
walking through Jerusalem arm in arm sunning themselves
under olive trees and when your breathing puckers I know the
shaking is over and I get out of the tub open the door see you
standing chest heaving your love your hair wet and your eyes
white and your fingers praising ten bleeding knuckles which I
run my small hands over and am your good boy your good boy
Asymmetric Magazine: Tell us about this poem.
Raul Alvarez: Rapid Cycling is one of the first poems I ever wrote that directly addressed mental illness. The title refers to when someone with bipolar disorder experiences four or more swings from mania to depression within a year. I started writing the poem back in 2011 while I was in graduate school in Chicago when my mother's illness was especially brutal. That winter, she had an intense manic episode. My family wanted me to come home to spend time with her, but I couldn't afford the airfare or the time off of work. I felt so guilty about being distant from everyone. I was also feeling immense pressure in my graduate program to "find a voice." So instead of finding a voice, I decided to borrow from voices I already knew and loved: my family. This poem uses the voices of my father, my mother, my mother's illness, my grandmother, my brother, and my past.
AM: What inspires you most?
RA: Empathy. Expressing empathy through poetry is my only artistic goal, so I am especially inspired by art or conversations that teach me how to better accomplish that goal. About 10 years ago, I was visiting friends in San Francisco, and as we were walking back to our hostel in the Tenderloin, a man came up to us. His face was completely cut open, his eye was swollen shut, blood was covering his neck and slowly soaking the front of his shirt. He asked me if I could give him some money for the bus. Instead we took him to a pharmacy and got him some gauze and bandages and gave him all the food we had on us. He asked me if he could write me a note, and I said of course. I gave him a pen and paper and on it he wrote, "I am the lost boy of the lost children." He was probably in his 40s but he needed to tell me that he still saw himself as a child. It was sad, and it was beautiful, and nothing that I did in that interaction was helpful. I saved that note for 4 years before I lost it in a cross-country move. I think about him a lot. He's had a bigger impact on me than most things.
AM: What role does Southern California play in your work?
RA: Southern California, and more specifically Orange County, has blended itself into me so completely that I can't write anything that isn't affected by it. I am the kind of person that takes places way too seriously. For example, I have a hard time driving by the church I grew up in without feeling anxious and lonely. Thinking about certain intersections in Fullerton makes me immediately feel young. Because of this, I like to include places in Southern California frequently in my poetry because they are so emotionally resonant. I know that the reader might not feel the same resonance, but if I'm being honest and vulnerable about the details I include in my work, I know that the reader will recognize that. At least in a successful poem. That's why I'll always include flashes of my childhood.
AM: What themes do you pursue in your poetry?
RA: Holy moments between strangers; illogical empathy; emotional vulnerability; nostalgia; hope; connection.
AM: How did you conceptualize the making of your book There was so Much Beautiful Left?
RA: I wanted my book to include all of the possible emotions associated with being near mental illness. I don't think I accomplished that, but I tried.
AM: What can we expect to see from you next?
RA: Long poems influenced by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Seattle, and being 30. Boost House is also putting out a couple videos that pair footage recorded by Steve Roggenbuck during his reading tours with audio of me reading my poems. [You can watch the first one here.]
Raul Alvarez is a poet from Southern California currently based in Seattle. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College and has helped edit several literary journals, including The Columbia Poetry Review and Phantom Limb. He infrequently reviews books for the Los Angeles Review and New City Chicago. You can find more of his work in The Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, Ghost Proposal, PANK, Muzzle, Pinwheel, Wave Books, and raulrafaelalvarez.com.