Thursday, September 17, 2009

Death may be your Santa Claus

We get older, our joints ache, our blood pressure rises,we bore ourselves with our jokes and our set platitudes said to friends who are having a sorry time of it . We tire of being responsibility for other people's feelings, we weary of repeating ourselves again to the same people the same things. We want to be done with our pains, our complaints, the sounds of our own voices venting our regrets and resentments: sometimes we just want it all to end. But most of us do nothing to abort our transactions with the inane and the repetitive--we shoulder our burden, we cram our misgivings into a burlap sack, we continue to live for the next five minutes of happiness all this breathing and work schedules too infrequently results in. But still others of us want it to stop, all this obligation, this drudgery, this loss of interest in the vitalism they used to see at the core of their community, their jobs, their jobs: one finds themselves living by rote to forgotten rules and the awareness of the inability to forge a new path , an improved outlook, a fresh perspective causes one to dwell on the idea of escape, the permanent solution to the consequences life in the big city. You just envy the dead their peace, you become romantic for the one thing that is, indeed, forever and unchanging.

Deborah Digges

See how the first dark takes the city in its arms
and carries it into what yesterday we called the future.

O, the dying are such acrobats.
Here you must take a boat from one day to the next,

or clutch the girders of the bridge, hand over hand.
But they are sailing like a pendulum between eternity and evening,

diving, recovering, balancing the air.
Who can tell at this hour seabirds from starlings,

wind from revolving doors or currents off the river.
Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

This hit me like a sock in the jaw--it seems to get the mood of a writer who has an intense sense of that all manner of gravity, both natural and moral, has ceased to exist that the material world and the conduct of the population was now free to play, wander , roam, let themselves go into a an vertiginous , all embrace void. These very much resembles Yeats, and the ringing rhetorical and hard edged images resound like "Easter 1916". The difference between the two, of course, is that Yeats' poem was a prophecy, and his poem was apprehensive because everything old was being made new with new uses, new meanings, remolded from a new philosophy. Terrible in the unknown and beautiful in the sense that life processes cannot be stopped, only made into something new , different. Digges gives the feeling of the floor, the sidewalk, the street giving way from under you , that the conditions of conduct are suspended or revoked outright, and that the life goes to an inevitable, ecstatic end.

Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

These last lines get the pitch exactly, the pull toward a personal apocalypse being so strong that the bounds of reason, protocol, faith are undone. It's a seduction to the darkest yearning, to enter a sphere where there is no contradiction, no agitation, no weighted arguments with the balance of one's universe. To become nothing. It's a plea, as well, for the families, the friends, the passers by to cease heroic efforts to prevent the inevitable and accept one's decision to be raptured.The nihilistic lure is overpowering here, and one is made to feel that there is nothing for this speaker to do but to surrender to natural forces, to embrace the inevitable end.

What gets me in the poem is how it makes the Big Sleep, the Large Nod, the Humongous Nap an attractive state; life consists mostly of temporary problems requiring our wits and ingenuity with which to engineer remedies. It's a wearying task as the years go on, and Digges , it seems to me, writes from a point of view of someone approaching their nadir, the breaking point when what passes for ironic disengagement, the activity of minimizing one's labors in just getting through the day, becomes an encroaching obsession for a permanent solution . The narrator seems envious of the dead, as you say, but I think there's a real desire here to leave this sphere of being. The weightlessness and unboundedness of the dead suggests desire, a deferred longing . The narrator sounds like she is desirous of what the dead get to do in the universe as we understand it, which is nothing. The desire is to do nothing and to be nothing in turn.The foreknowledge that every living thing dies finally crowds the poem like a Bosch painting--one last intense set of indulgences of the human senses, and then ride the sensual tide to a darkness one cannot report back from. This is beautiful, unnerving, slightly scary.

Reading about the yearning for death, though, can be worrisome in itself, and Kim Addonizio provides a proper antidote with this piece:

by Kim Addonizio

On winter nights, the dead
see their photographs slipped
from the windows of wallets,
their letters stuffed in a box
with the clothes for Goodwill.
No one remembers their jokes,
their nervous habits, their dread
of enclosed places.
In these nightmares, the dead feel
the soft nub of the eraser
lightening their bones. They wake up
in a panic, go for a glass of milk
and see the moon, the fresh snow,
the stripped trees.
Maybe they fix a turkey sandwich,
or watch the patterns on the TV.
It’s all a dream anyway.
In a few months
they’ll turn the clocks ahead,
and when they sleep they’ll know the living
are grieving for them, unbearably lonely
and indifferent to beauty. On these nights
the dead feel better. They rise
in the morning refreshed, and when the cut
flowers are laid before their names
they smile like shy brides. Thank you,
thank you, they say. You shouldn’t have,
they say, but very softly, so it sounds
like the wind, like nothing human.

This is a is a sharp and funny rebuttal to the late Digges' poem. Unlike the narrator in "Trapeze", who all but says she envies the dead their inertia and seeming serenity, Addonizio's poem tells of us spectral traces of formerly corporeal beings who cannot severe their link with the physical world. It's funny in an odd way, as it mirrors the vanity of the living's obsession over status and the fear of not getting what they desire or losing what they think they have. Addonizio's point, after her brisk and crosscutting descriptions of spirits contending with various dis-pleasures and discomforts, is that we should make our peace before our time comes; otherwise the anxieties will follow us in the crossing over to the other side and cause us to stall before we reach the place of fabled Eternal Rest. It seems Addonizio sees this state analogous to being stuck at the starkest intersection for all time. A drag.

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