Friday, July 15, 2011


"You are not your circumstances" is how a twelve step adage goes, in response to someone who might have shared that their life is out of control, seeming to be determined by external forces and events of the past. You are not your circumstances if you've come to this moment of dissatisfaction with the way things have turned out so far; now is the time to learn what can be of use in one's upbringing and background, now is the time to discard what only stalls, stymies and stultifies. Now is the time to come fully into one's own.


Jeff Skinner, gets that struggle with his poem Self-Made; the endless struggle of any awake citizen to rise above the chains of biologically inscribed instinct and habits formed as a consequence of a succession of cross-generation decisions. The urge he gets to address is the memory from before birth--to borrow Poe's phrase--to suss through the particular instances that have formed key elements of one's profile. There are so many things that have made up the essentials of where we come from--the question after the analysis, the inventory of origins and likely expressions in current time is where one goes when they've exhausted the examination. The inspection, one hopes, is a preparation for the next level , the next set of results and consequences that are truly one's own, not the outcome of forces outside one's grasp. It's the classic existential dilemma--the goal of one's life being not to live successfully , but rather to live authentically, solely responsible for the content of one's life.


Before puberty I knew the I: Mowgli, Maris,
Boy shadowing Tarzan; Ethnographer of dirt kingdoms;
Scientist of worm and dandelion blow;
Impresario of The Ant & Beetle Circus; witness to twisting deaths
of caterpillar and moth (placed gently in the web
by hand). After puberty I no longer knew who came
and went within this I but knew a woman
was somehow implicated; somehow a woman carried,
beneath her clothes, a major clue.
Everything I had I gave to seeing through that fabric.
I never believed in the social me—loath to speak,
to intrude—though he did what he could.
On clear nights, frost entered my definition, as did
the language I learned at work with men.
When my father died, his self exploded
invisibly.

It's a heady task, and Skinner's dizzying litany of the powerful influences that dog his heels and define each gesture , turn of phrase and slumping posture makes it seem that there is nothing one can do to upset the lineage and emerge as a stand alone sort of guy. He never believed in the "social me"--given the circumstances of the company he kept, he could take on numerous voices, tones, expressions, talk fluently on many different subjects while having interest in none of them--there is a only the urge to get through the hour and return to some private space where one isn't obliged to maintain to maintain a presentation of self to the social world that cannot be avoided.


But I felt particles streak through my body.
I am accumulation, lust, barrels of Seagram's,
memory, a few grains only of selflessness. My children
were made, not begotten. They carry my letter
of recommendation in and beneath the skin–proteins, enzymes,
electrolytes. I have offered it all up for renovation
many times with a smirk and crossed fingers, once in earnest.
Every day I am forgotten, a new man.

The tragedy , the irony is that Skinner's narrator, a Prufrock for the 21st century, is precisely the circumstances he passes through, past and present; the only thing to do is change the definitions of a situation that haven't changed , even with the benefit of education and experience. He is an accumulation of traits, a pastiche of attitudes, a juke box of poses and personalities that can be drawn up and modified and fitted to the situations he finds himself in. Repetitive that these situations are, as intimately as his boredom with the contents have become, it becomes a matter of play, of finding a nuanced way to play the role he finds himself in, a new way to read the script.


I have offered it all up for renovation
many times with a smirk and crossed fingers, once in earnest.
Every day I am forgotten, a new man
.


He resembles a jazz master looking over the sheet music of an old chestnut--"Autumn Leaves", "Misty", "You Stepped Out of a Dream"-- and considers how he might yet revive the same old notes of the melody , where to build tension, where to release it, when to rush the improvisation ahead of the tempo and when to slow it down. It's about creating a performance that is singular , unique, using familiar material to create and sustain a coherent stream of mood and emotion. Skinner's character finds different ways and motivations to make his paces more inspired and spontaneous, and declares in doing so that he is a new man each day, a self-invented voyager constructed from borrowed parts. It's an intriguing compromise--the desire to be the Ayn Randian superman raising above the petty and false moral structure and instead become an artist, of sorts, working splendidly, proudly with the materials at hand.