By Kathy Goodkin
Kathy Goodkin is a poet, musician, and editor for Gazing Grain Press whose poems and criticism can be found in Field, Denver Quarterly, RHINO, The Volta, and elsewhere. She is the author of Sleep Paralysis (dancing girl press, 2017) and can be found online at www.kathygoodkin.com. For The Body Project, Kathy Goodkin is investigating the humor BLACK BILE through poetry.
So I’m probably super late to this party, but did you know that the word “melancholy” translates to “black bile” in Greek? Literally: “melas” meaning “black” (like “melanin” and a whole host of other words that mean dark/black and come from that root) and “khole” meaning “bile.” Think about that for a moment: embedded in one of our words for sadness and/or depression is a history of Western thinking about the relationship between physical and mental health. Melancholy is simply an overabundance of black bile.
As I began writing my black-bile-inspired poem, this was what I found most fascinating. Although we might disagree about the particulars, in some ways, the ancient understanding that mental health and physical health were interrelated, were in fact the same thing, is more accurate than the concepts embraced in the past centuries of modern Western medicine.
The Cartesian duality of body and mind, that is, the idea that our minds and bodies are separate entities, is pretty much false. We know now (although clearly, many cultures already understood this) that our mental health IS physical, is the product of chemicals made by our bodies. As I read more about melancholia and the melancholic temperament, particularly its later association with artists and artistry, I began to think about musicians I love who face(d) mental health conditions. I was struck, in particular, by the way the public often represents these artists: tragic, sometimes to the point of becoming caricatures. Sometimes even laughably so. This made me so sad, the notion that we, humans who also have bodies, many of us who have also struggled with mental health, can be nearly gladiatorial in our witnessing of and recounting of others’ mental health.
I eventually settled on three musicians whose mental health issues became quite public: Amy Winehouse, Nick Drake, and Joni Mitchell. I wrote a section of my poem for each artist, using a title of one of their albums that includes a word about darkness or blackness: “Back to Black,” Black Eyed Dog,” and “Shadows and Light.” My goal in writing is not to romanticize, but to humanize, to compel a consideration of the actual, physical body of each of these beautiful human beings, and the legacy of work that their bodies left us.