WHAT THE RAVENS MEANT
On May 2nd, 2021, I heard the voice of God. I had not been to church a day in my life and I relinquished belief in God when I was a defiant, curious child. I felt, for the longest time, that I was utterly estranged from the collective religious impulse. It is absurd that this is so, for my hometown is infested with Baptists, and my home state has more churches per capita than anywhere in the United States.
Ravens mean the same thing to everyone — omens of death. I thought of the Scottish folk ballad, collected by Ravenscroft and Child, called “The Twa Corbies.” Scene: the countryside. Dramatis personae: two ravens and a knight killed in battle. The first raven: “Where shall we go and dine today?” The second raven: “Behind the dike over there is a newly-slain knight. Nobody knows he’s there. His hawk has taken to hunting. His hound has taken chase of the wild fowl. His lady’s forgotten him and has taken another husband. You, my comrade! Perch on his breast while I pick out his eyes, a gorgeous blue. We’ll patch the bare spots of our nests with his golden hair. Hear the people lament! They know not where he is. When we are done with him, the wind will blow through his bones forever.”
Though this was my first encounter with God directly, it was not my first flirtation with Him. Upon rediscovering the verse of William Blake the previous month, I began to believe, fervently, that the divine was absent everywhere except in poetry. It is my belief that the fundamental purpose of poetry is to articulate what cannot be expressed otherwise. If the world is godless, then God can (and does) inhabit poetry. Blake, in his poem “Auguries of Innocence”: To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an house.
After a dose of Blake (I speak of his verse as if it was medicine or heroin) I lay down in my bed in a Cleveland hotel which was so dysfunctional I was forced to live off tap water in the bathroom and Starbursts from the lobby, and gazing out at the view I could see the lights of the city like sunken stars pulsing as hearts do — and I, momentarily, believed I was God enthroned in Heaven and the lights illuminating a nocturnal Cleveland were my angels. I was in ecstasy, since for much of my life I had no sense of autonomy. I certainly had individuality, but that is different — individuality is navigating a pre-established system on terms one defines for oneself, while autonomy is having dominion over the system. My own Heaven, for a moment! A few days after this, I was visiting a group of friends and we were all talking on their porch. I ranted about the divine in poetry with the immediacy and aggression of a revivalist. I was shot down then I shut up, regretting ever touching upon the subject in the first place. I abandoned that conviction, thinking my innocence towards God was restored.
When I arrived home, my mother knew I was disturbed. I nonchalantly told her that God made Himself known to me. She pressed me. Ridiculous questions. I got frustrated as I usually did in those states and told her not to question me anymore. I went to my room, turned off the light, and slept, hoping God would go away. My mother was, even before it was apparent that I was schizoaffective, aloof and occasionally in veritable denial. Before she got pregnant with me and before the asylums were shut down, she worked with schizophrenics daily.
A day or so after I heard God’s voice, the world I perceived felt different. Nature felt ugly and malicious. Creation was poisoned and by extension God was poisoning me, too. I struggled to eat and drink. I was prepared to fast to counteract the poison.
God said at sunset that day: The sun is sinking, isn’t it?
I was very close to admitting myself into a psychiatric hospital. I realized I had some of my old medication in the medicine cabinet. I chalked the whole affair up to a medicine change. So I took the old medication, and after a horrible psychotic episode the voice of God went mute. I saved myself from the hospital. The only hospital in the area was notorious for mistreating its patients. I went there before, after a suicide attempt; I faced the wrath of nurses and witnessed harsher abuse against other patients.
I was never indifferent to religion, but I never associated it with positive connotations. I hate it, and still do. Yet I read religious texts and read up on religious history with intense, morbid fascination. I justified my hypocrisy with: “it is out of anthropological interest”; “I plunder the aesthetics of religion in my writing”; “I want to know my enemy.” But as anarchists combat the State in its confines, so I combatted God in His.
I was medicated when I heard God, and I still am. Psychiatrists typically prescribe a cocktail of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers for people with schizoaffective disorder. Television commercials for Vraylar are commonplace, but Trileptal isn’t as heavily advertised and is therefore more obscure to the public. My illness was not always well-regulated, but there are people with schizoaffective disorder — some that I have met in mental hospitals, some that I even keep in close contact with — that are worse off than me.
My childhood was banal, but I was never happy. I still do not identify with the idea of happiness. With my illness, I only operate on a basis of highs and a basis of lows. I was a very sheltered child and I am still suffering the consequences. My family was poor for a while but I never knew that I was poor. I was physically abused at a daycare. Once, a counselor threw a handful of sand in my eyes and I was running around blind and screaming, ignored. I was assaulted by other children and counselors numerous times. My mother found out about the abuse and started letting me accompany her on her job, a caretaker at a senior living facility. The job did not last long. There was no legal action brought against the daycare. Though I try to recall if I was molested, I can never get past recognizing that I was in vulnerable situations. I cannot chalk my present condition to trauma, though. Both sides of my family have a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I got the short end of the stick. I’ve often told my parents that I wish they never bred.
I performed well in school, but I was never enthusiastic about school. I took many absences early in my education because I was sick all the time. I had strep throat upwards thirty times. When I had my tonsillectomy at age eight, my surgeon remarked that they were the worst tonsils he had ever seen. Because of my respiratory issues I was put on adult-strength medication at a young age. This led to gaining a lot of weight; I was over two-hundred pounds by fifth grade. Fifth grade was also when I experienced suicidal thoughts for the first time, and such ideations never left.
I needed earlier intervention, but never received it because of malignant naivety.
I remember in second grade I had announced to my classmates that I killed God. I had no method or motive for killing God. I did it through sheer will and pronouncement. I now realize that God was merely wounded.
Before my illness tangibly developed — my years of virginity — I wanted to emulate Ian Curtis: to produce brilliant, influential material and then off myself as an artistic gesture. Now I know there is no glamor in insanity. There is no untapped genius in it. High school was a period of faux genius on every front. It is a miracle I did not get radicalized by the political right, or acquired the mentality of abusers.
In September 2016, not even two weeks after I began classes at Ohio University, I went insane. I followed a student on the street on the pretense of trying to find a hall for a class. I verbally abused him, and when he finally said he couldn’t help me, I threatened to throw myself into moving traffic. I wept, begging him to give me pills to kill myself with. In the span of a few hours I knew reality as I knew it was gone forever; soon I would question what was reality, and what reality I inhabited. These questions plague me even now. I didn't know I was schizoaffective until it was almost too late. As my illness progressed, everything I thought I knew about myself and the world underwent a paradigm shift: everything became increasingly incomprehensible and cruel. I never completed my education because the horrific parts of my disorder kept interfering with my studies and personal drive in other areas of my life. Fear often prevented me from interacting with others face-to-face because I knew there was a deep, international conspiracy against me. Seldom have I held jobs and when I do it is not for very long, not because I do not have a good work ethic but because I am easily upset and susceptible to intense strain that is often arbitrary.
It took my life away from me. If I could reset the last five years, I would.
My relationship with my illness shares parallels with my interpretation of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.
I forget how I heard of Rimbaud or how I encountered his work. He is one of those presences in my life that generated spontaneously. I remember that one day the New Directions paperback edition of A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, translated by Louise Varése, ended up in my possession. Then, shortly after acquiring the collection, I read it. Rimbaud changed how I viewed poetry, approached poetry, wrote poetry. That was that.
Rimbaud is a layered poet, but he is not a subtle one. His bluntness is precise, but the passion behind his poetry is violent, manic even. His diction was elevated to the fury of a demon; A Season in Hell is an anti-sermon. Rimbaud was like a lizard cutting off its own tail, knowing it would grow back again.
Rimbaud is concerned primarily with chaos — the chaos of life, of religion, but certainly the chaos inside himself. It is a common interpretation that Rimbaud’s chaotic lifestyle led him to embrace chaos, personally and poetically. But in my eyes chaos, for Rimbaud, needlessly betrays the ego, the spirit. In both A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, Rimbaud may not say outright that chaos ought to be rebelled against, but there is a longing for other circumstances present. Whether it be resurrecting the Gallic spirit, or becoming familiar with the waters of Europe again, or finding himself in God’s favor again, Rimbaud teases redemption. He does not achieve it, though. It is no fault of his own that he is in Hell, but it is his reality that eternal flame licks the fibers of his coat. Defeat is often conflated with acceptance. Not so. Defeat breeds complacency while acceptance breeds action.
Acceptance of chaos leads to contextualizing it.
I didn’t refer to God as “God” when describing The Voice in certain contexts. Instead I referred to “God” as “The Demiurge,” appropriating the concept from the Gnostic Christians. But since I was reminded of Isaiah 45:7 (I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things) I refer to The Voice as God without hesitation. I know it was God because it was not delusion, it was revelation. Delusion and revelation are share similarities and differences. Delusions, sometimes, can be overcome. Revelations cannot. But delusions, like revelations, operate under an internal logic which cannot be contradicted in the moment. I have survived delusions of fire, of assassination plots, of my organs being controlled by something else, of the world ending. Yet I did not truly survive God’s ravens. I know God is evil, and that God is everywhere.
I don’t consider Christ for a moment.
There are times where I feel that I know God better than anyone else. This is the most dangerous thing I have ever believed, for it is the credo of the zealot, the cult leader. It is, however, the truth. Praying to God, claiming that God visited one in a dream, harboring an arbitrary sensation of God when one views a sunset or a holy site — these things pale in comparison to hearing His voice. Even devout Christians will commit those who hear God to a mental hospital. Why?
I do not fear Hell. I fear Heaven more.
I am God’s enemy. We are at war. My death will inevitably be at the hand of God. His ravens will carry me away. I will not know peace until He is dead, nor will anyone.
I wish the raven would go extinct.
Colby Smith is a native of West Virginia currently based in Cleveland, Ohio. His fiction has appeared in several anthologies associated with the Neo-Decadent literary movement and his nonfiction has appeared in Vastarien. Smith's debut novella, The Ironic Skeletons, is forthcoming from Snuggly Books.