March 10, 2008
Back on the night 1999 arbitrarily became the year 2000 I stood in the middle of an intersection in Northampton, Massachusetts with friends. Some in the crowd were wearing absurd 2000 eyeglasses, those with horns blew them, others yelled and stomped, confetti exploded from hidden places, and hugs and kisses were exchanged as the ball of light atop the Hotel Northampton negotiated its pole signaling the start of a new millennium. Times Square it was not, but everyone’s entitled to small facsimiles in the land of opportunity.
After the gas had gone out of the celebration's balloon we all walked off in pre-9/11 and pre-Bushian innocence with our own thoughts of time passing. Typically self-absorbed, we left the street to the internal combustion engine and the night.
A few days later I wrote something that I recalled when I posted W.H. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts a short time ago. Auden’s poem is a reflection on a painting by Pieter Brueghel (not the one here), which is itself a depiction of the fall of Icarus.
Auden's poem reminded me of what I'd written earlier (in subject if not excellence). Though revisited and tinkered with it's essentially unchanged, and is still a take on swift time and big falls. Considering the eight years since, it might also have been a political premonition.
–eyeballing a new century
Like the rest of us
I had a birthday last year.
I won’t say which, but
when I told a young colleague
I can remember the last day
of World War II
--the car horns and sirens and church bells
and my mother kneeling in the yard sobbing--
when I mentioned this
my co-worker’s jaw dropped
as if the world had been invented
on her birthday.
But to be fair, this is a common misconception.
It takes shape in many philosophies.
Still, I can relate to that
--to being amazed by age,
especially my own.
I can sympathize as one who imagines
that only yesterday he dug Link Wray live
in a metallic gold blazer
sending three-chord riffs through a maxed-out amp
looking cool behind wrap-around shades.
It’s beyond belief, but
that was a half century ago.
I think old Link
is not even around anymore.
So, being easily spooked,
when I walk past a mirror,
my jaw drops too.
Look what you’ve become,
My wife’s comment
when I whine like this is:
Think how your mother feels. So,
at birthday time, when as usual
I’m stuck with my own thoughts
(who else’s could I have),
it’s easy to become annually
But why go there?
Take a positive stance.
Forget the inevitable,
take a chance!
There are more important things to worry about
than time and death.
Today offers the only happiness
and hassles now available, so
it’s a good idea to keep your eyes peeled,
your nose to the wind, and do what you can
while you’re here. After that
it may be too late.
The world’s a beguiling place.
But when I fall or get knocked over
I hope it’s not from inattention.
a popular addiction,
it can be a lethal one.
Icarus fell from a great height
after disobeying strict instructions
to be aware of where he was.
Icarus died of inattention.
We could too.
issuing from Icarus' ignorance
have been designed to help us pay attention
– to help us avoid becoming
etherized by shiny objects;
to keep us from falling asleep at the wheel;
this in spite of the truth
that we all wind up eventually
doing exactly that, permanently.
The point is, many of these techniques
teach us to focus or point our minds
in the hope that in the process of pointing
we’ll come to appreciate that the process
often seems to have no point.
There are times though,
when this truth is realized spontaneously
without the help of drugs or systems,
as at funerals, during the priest’s soothing homily
while some in the pews inconsolably sob.
A sister, a wife, or mother has died,
and there we are again, regardless of liturgy,
at that wall.
Considering walls, Robert Frost wrote,
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,”
and Robert knew what he was talking about.
It’s very human not to love a wall.
Paradoxically, it’s just as human
to love ‘em and build ‘em.
In any case (you can lay money on it),
in terms of walls, the one we face at death
is one implacable wall.
It’s as prehistoric and impenetrable
as the one between rich and poor
—except, the latter wall is strictly human.
It may be undermined by love and will—
but the wall we face at death
is another wall completely.
It was built by god.
It brooks no spin or sympathy.
Death is one wall you don’t surmount
then live to talk about.
it’s too late,
even for talk.
But we can thank god
that death is negated in myth.
It’s a miracle!
How else could we have coped?
Death’s wall has been breached many times in myth.
In stories of the Phoenix rising from ashes,
or of Orpheus’ comings and goings in the underworld
as told by the Greeks,
or of Set dismembering Osiris
and sowing his parts as if they were the
down of a dandelion. Yet Set
was neutralized in myth: Osiris
was finally remembered by Isis
and given new life and love.
Yet still we are swallowed by time.
Only in poet's songs does hope never skimp.
All traditions tell tales of death’s defeat.
All wrestle the same truth but come away with a limp.
This is why I don’t expect any tale
no matter how heartfelt or smart
to cure my chagrin at the instant I pale.
My gut says that at that moment
I’ll be far beyond tales.
Therefore, keep in mind
that what are layed out here
are mere gut feelings arising from things
I’ve seen at funerals
and picked up here and there along the way.
I have no statistics to back them up,
can give no first-hand account of having “passed on”,
and by the time I’ve had the experience to anecdotalize
I’ll be too dead to lift a pen.
This is one thing that's so annoying about death.
Those with no first-hand knowledge
of ever having thoroughly died,
speculate and ramble on about it,
while those who’ve actually had the experience
never open their mouths.
But with a new day dawning in a new century
offering the promise of still bigger swindles and dividends
at the expense of eons-old ecosystems
and the rabble at the margins,
who am I to rain on a ponzi?
And what’s another thousand years
of dead-end metaphysical speculation
when we’ve got today to anguish over
Eat, drink, and be merry, they say (and more),
for one day, sure as the sun melts wax,
the sometimes self-inflicted
but somehow still unexpected
will knuckle your door.
Posted by Jim Culleny at 04:35 AM | Permalink