Panic is what I think of when reading our friend Paul Breslin's poem "Siren", that sudden whoooshing, spiraling, dizzy-making sensation when some trigger, whether sound, sight , smell or something tactile, causes us for a moment to lose our focus and envision impending disasters that await us. The future is telescoped into a rapid stream of vivid and brief scenarios where all one thinks they should have done but didn't do culminate in irreversible catastrophes. It is the feeling of the floor falling from beneath your feet, your heart dropping to your stomach, your brain taking a psychic blow that rudely shoves the less compelling and more immediate concerns and forces you into a narrow corridor of fear. One's sense of mortality is heightened, every decision one has ever made is lethal and resulting in dire consequences. It's not a pleasant feeling, and it is during these moments, these panics,where one must breath slowly, evenly. I hate it when that happens.
What is effective in the Breslin poem is that he offers not a long family biography in the way Robert Lowell might have, nor constructs an alternative symbolism to the intangible furies that challenge one's equilibrium, as Plath had done, but instead puts square in the narrative , as the mania unfolds. Quickly, efficiently, with the fast and smoothly language that characterizes the sensations as accurately as any fleeting vision might have, we are in the midst of a consciousness suddenly sped up, cataloguing what has and what might go awry.
I could swear it is saying my name,
a human voice full of pain and anger:
it's the police come to arrest me
for a crime so long concealed
I forget its name. Or my father's ghost,
crying he might have lived
had I loved him better. It's my mother
folding her arms and saying take your anger
someplace else, it doesn't belong to me;
my wife asking Is this good-bye then?
Or my daughter in childhood saying
hoarsely through tears, Dad,
how can you say that to me?
These seems the moment when the on going dreads, doubts and self-recriminations, buried, deferred and distracted from by work, projects, and time-being passions, all come to fruition, collected as a chorus; it is that nagging set of voices one hasn't tried to come to terms with that find an appropriate means to confront their owner. The submerged anxieties have been an undercurrent, a distant unease in this narrator's world, and now they have all emerged in a flash, a flashing panic, a siren, so to speak, grounding him on the rocks. Unleashed, they now color his existence, characterizing it as less noble and selfless as one's cover story might have had it.
The lesson , if there is one, is that the mortal coil is only something we visit for a time before we leave , and it's not an uncommon for the middle aged man or woman, the person in their late fifties or so, to review their motivation in the events of their time and to find themselves wanting for kind deeds, encouragements, genuine acts of charity. As friends die, familiar buildings are torn down, styles change, and the people one works with get younger, one feels isolated,able to share in the common stock of memory with fewer people who would recognize references, would chuckle or nod a certain names, dates, movie titles or writers famous in the sixties.
So many things were almost the end.
At the fire station around the corner,
the engines are pulling away.
So little to separate us
from the one the siren is for,
whose house flies into the air as cinders,
who lies on his bed turning purple and clutching his heart.
This is beautifully done; the siren is the alarm, it is the summons, it is the warning that something fateful is nearer than you think. One hears for decades that life is a gamble and that we conduct our lives on the general assumption that the odds are in our favor that we won't meet with fatal ends, nor will any one else in our varying circles of association. What poet Breslin bitter sweetly gets across, with little fanfare and not a trace of self pity , is that the longer we are in the game, the narrower the odds become.
One can take this poem as affirmative if they choose, but I think that skirts the issue I think .Breslin is really getting at, that we are humbled by the encroaching realization that our time is shorter than we thought and we have less power than we supposed. It's about humbling the ego, not empowering, and there is nothing "affirmative" here to transcend the melancholy that settles in after the panic that comes at us in the first half. there are often times layers and meanings in a poem the author didn't originally intend; poetry seems to me closer to improvising jazz than, say, composing a lengthy symphony. My guess is that he had an idea of what he wanted to write about, had some notions of a particular image or phrase he wanted to employ, a loose framework, in other words. From there he constructed his poem and, I would think, judiciously edited it before presenting it for publication. Some things, whether notes played in a musical phrase, or particular images saddled with objective statements or rhythmic emphasis, just sound right together, seem to make sense in ways that are unexpected and not immediately graspable. With a poem, one goes with what a poet seems to be writing about and attempt to show a connection between the parts with reference to different sections of the verse.