This is part two in a three-part essay by Alan Shapiro. Read part one here.
“Charlie,” I said to break the silence, “I was going through some poems and prose pieces you sent me a while back, among which was a prose poem I don’t think you ever published called “War for Peace.” Remember?”
“Sure, of course,” he said.
“Seems like,” I said, “no matter who’s in charge the circular reasoning political power uses to legitimize itself is always the same.”
He waved his hand, and the tree branches on the walls dissolved into a black, quivering mass, like an army of ants that then reshaped itself into words and sentences slowly scrolling up into the sky:
Our violent men are more peaceful than your violent men.
Our violent men desire peace, only peace, they are passionately devoted to peace: your violent men desire only violence, which they pretend is a desire for peace.
Our violent men never lie, yours never speak the truth. Therefore the pretended peace your violent men propose to attain through violence, unlike the peace our violent men propose, is not true peace at all but is merely an extension of their violence.
Our violent men are compelled by spiritual considerations, while your violent men are devoted only to inquiry, and further violence; they are atheists or robotic fanatics. Our violent men partake of the holiness of our divinity, which consecrates their violence; they are faithful enablers of its wishes.
An essential element of the mission of our violent men is to make clear that only the divinity which defends us, and which they serve and defend, is worthy of being considered truly divine. Your divinity because it is yours is by definition less worthy than ours, therefore our violent men must honor our divinity, and, in order to defend it from the ignoble divinity which deludes your violent men, must kill them.
However, our violent men have much less desire to kill than your violent men. Thus, when our violent men are compelled to slaughter other human beings, this is incidental to their real peaceful intentions.
(Sometimes our violent men are of the female gender. This is of no moment, they are still violent men. Wombs and breasts are no impediment to the execution of violence, or its promulgation. Also, only a very few of our violent men participate in the actual enactment of violence. Most of our violent men instead are theoreticians of violence, conceivers of violence, planners of violence, propagandists of violence, executives of violence, producers of the means of violence. All of these violent men are more crucial to our peace than those who merely risk their lives to enact violence, and are accordingly more lavishly rewarded.)
Also, if some, or many, of those so slaughtered are not directly involved in the struggle against your violent men, this is to be considered an unfortunate necessity, and should not be particularly remarked. As a matter of fact it would be gratuitous even to keep an accounting of these deaths.
In truth, our violent men believe that those who have had to die in our quest for our peaceful ends should consider themselves fortunate, should indeed be grateful for having been delivered from possible death by your violent men.
Our violent men are more powerful, more potent, than your violent men. They are exponentially more dedicated to our well-being than your violent men are to yours, and thus have need of greater resources than yours. It is therefore unreasonable to believe there should be a limit on the proportion of our resources relegated to the efficient functioning of our violent men. We cannot know precisely the resource-access of other violent men, hence, to continue adequately to defend ourselves against them, we must put at the disposition of our violent men any portion of our wealth and wherewithal they might deem they have need of, now or at any time in the future.
Our violent men are tirelessly vigilant, and demand of us a vigilance of our own. So sometimes our violent men will convey to us the necessity of initiating violence first, now, now, before other violent men, the stealthy, cowardly, deceitful, unscrupulous, treacherous other violent men are able to carry out their unthinkably nefarious plots against us. It is our absolute responsibility to support our violent men in this decision, as in any other decision at which they may arrive.
Some have found it strange that it is in the care of violent men that we have bestowed all but entirely our progress towards peace, that we have put in their care the very definition of peace, but this shouldn’t be surprising; it has always been so. There have always been a sufficient number of us frightened by the mere possibility that alien violent men may usurp our own violent men’s authority and bring down alien violence upon us, that they are eager to give over their sovereignty, their lives, the lives of their children (especially their children) so as to not suffer any longer from the possibility of such a dire eventuality.
Those who thus feel protected by our violent men understand that an enduring state of violence is preferable to sporadic outbreaks of peace, during which violence may be perpetrated on them without their having been prepared for it. If the state of violence in which we are allowed to participate means we will be subjected to an abiding anxiety, and that sacrifices of other aspects of our existence will be demanded of us through the means of this anxiety, it is to be considered a fair bargain.
It is self-evident then that in order to maintain this protection we must also put into the care of our violent men our system of laws. Because our violent men are so wholly dedicated to upholding our laws, the laws must be put at their service, otherwise a misinterpretation of the laws might impede the effort our violent men may have to make, or may already have made (it is not for us to know this), in their striving for peace.
In truth, we cannot be permitted to know, or know for certain, the degree of legality or lawlessness of violence our violent men have implemented, nor which of the laws they have been forced to redefine in their striving towards peace.
This will assure that our violent men will never have to admit having been wrong: they will never have to regret what might appear like failure, because this would surely be construed by other violent men as an admission of weakness, which will in fact make us weak, and thus bring the wrath of other violent men upon us.
There have been moments when unviolent men may seem to have usurped the prestige and authority of our violent men, but these have been the briefest aberration. The world’s violent men have always demonstrated that the start of unviolence thus postulated, precisely because it is unviolent, engenders danger, and is to be mistrusted.
In a word, security, even a security which entails unflagging fear, is more to be wished for than any other condition of existence. This is why our violent men propose to us a state of insecurity which will never end, because of their benevolence towards and concern for us.
A benevolence and concern for which we must offer thanks, unto death.
“A kind of hopeless piece,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I never published it.”
“I don’t know, Charlie, for me the clarity of manic satire lightens the gloom considerably. There’s hopeful resistance (a larger image of being human) in the tone.”
“Funny thing,” he said, sighing. “I love the intellectual traditions of the West, the value of independent thought, of analytical rigor, of skepticism and self-expression, even while it’s hard not to hold Western civilization to account for so much harm, not to admit the mayhem and grief my beloved Enlightenment has wreaked.”
He turned away and stared into the trees and sky on the wall, which I could still see through him. Everything began to undulate and flow together, billowing like a plume of starlings into different shapes.
“What do you see?” he asked.
I told him I saw starlings.
“I see Uganda, Kampala (we went there, years ago, Catherine and I), crowds on every street, every corner, beside and in every building. All the streets unpaved or partly paved, shades of brown, light, dark, and always the uproar, the tumult, everything swirling. The poverty, how much is missing, how much is needed, wanted, and yet simply isn’t there. The whole society in a state of explosion; everything away or toward everything else, but with so little order that it seems impossible that anything can ever be accomplished. And yet there are so many people doing nothing, waiting on corners, waiting in front of buildings, in doorways; waiting, it’s never clear for what. And then comes the fear, the realizing that this is what the state of things truly is, that it wasn’t just your unfamiliarity with the place . . . All these people have to eat; where will they find things to eat and drink, and even the places to eliminate what they’ve eaten? How will the earth bear the weight of all this need?
“We heard reports from nearby countries, years after their various wars of liberation, of vultures perched on barbed wire fences near minefields, waiting for gazelles as they passed through, grazing, to detonate the bombs and become fast food for the vultures.
“And then, so against that, against the enormous past and present of human suffering and want, it’s hard not to see the illusions that drive our own culture, the fragility of our moment of prosperity, the accoutrements, the manifestations of our really unimaginable wealth, our shining cars, our buildings, our houses, our clothes, all just a tissue, the thinnest membrane cast up against what came before and will come after, and I think, Why don’t they kill us? There are things we’ve stolen from them, I don’t know precisely what they are, but they’re essential, crucial to existing in our world, and we’ve gorged on them, wasted them. Why do the people here then permit us to stay alive? Why don’t they do away with us?
“Hard not to see a future in which all our buildings will be emptied, deserted, falling to pieces, the surfaces of the roads crumbling, pot-holed, rotted, the gleaming metal of our cars and trucks rusted away, barely holding together, coughing, groaning, resisting ever having to move again. Perhaps buses still run, packed with bodies in clothes close to rags, staring from the filthy windows in helplessness and hunger, going they don’t where to find they’ll never what . . .”
“But there were children in Kampala, too,” I said, “that you and Catherine were helping to support.”
“Agatha and Michael,” he said.
“Tell me about them,” I said, hoping his mood might brighten, but he just kept staring, in silence, at the shifting images on the wall.
“Catherine and I went to Uganda to visit them,” he said. “For some years we’d been helping to support their education. At that time, maybe still is, the average age of the population was fifteen, the youngest in the world, and out of a total population of about 25 million there were nearly 2 million orphans. In the 1970s and 1980s there was more or less constant political conflict, dictators, coups, more dictators, all cruel, tens or hundreds of thousands afflicted. “The AIDS generation,” they’re called, almost all of whom died, leaving behind this inconceivable number of children without parents, many without grandparents.”
“Tell me about Agatha.”
“Agatha was very tall, and very slim, and at first quite quiet, but then she became more openly friendly with us. We’d been helping her and had been in touch with her for several years longer than we had with Michael. She and Catherine sat next to each other at the table and chatted together. Near the end of the meal, while we were waiting for our coffee, I realized that whenever I looked across at Agatha, she was already gazing at me, not at all furtively, but with a somber, reflective expression surprising in someone of her age.
“She seemed to be looking at me rather as though I presented a puzzle to her, a mystery she was trying to solve. Later, when we dropped her off at her school and were saying goodbye, Catherine and Agatha embraced, kissed each other’s cheeks, but when Agatha and I came together the ritual of our embrace seemed very complicated, and we couldn’t manage it properly. Her head turned at the wrong moment, and mine moved toward her too quickly, so my lips bumped against the side of her forehead, then on her eyebrow, and though both of us could tell how awkward we had been, we didn’t make even make another attempt, as though, because it was such an elaborate undertaking, the whole procedure would only have been doomed to fail again.”
“That awkwardness,” I said, “seems sweet and touching.”
“Well,” he said, “maybe so. At the time, especially at the table at lunch as she was looking at me, all I felt was uncertainty. I didn’t have an idea of how to respond, of what expression I was supposed to assume to react satisfactorily to her expression. I thought maybe it had something to do with me as a kind of father.”
“Really?” I said. “But you were meeting her for the first time.”
“I don’t know if she ever met her real father; if she had, it would have been when she was very young. Was she trying to imagine me as a father? Was she trying to find an emotion in herself that would have been something similar to what people feel, she might have thought, when they look across a table at their father? I don’t, in truth, remember either of my children ever looking at me with that much seriousness, that much evident depth of emotion, whatever emotion it might have been, and I don’t believe I ever looked at my mother or father that way. I never had to. Our connection to one another was never so compressed, so necessarily truncated, and fleeting. Agatha knew I’d be gone in a few hours, and that there was a strong possibility we would never see one another again.”
“Fact is,” I said, “you have no idea what she might have been thinking.”
“Even now,” Charlie said, “what I do know (when I look back on that moment at lunch) of what passed silently between us? It seems to me Agatha had probably more profound experience in her seventeen years than I had in my seventy. Perhaps that’s why I felt a little abashed to have her look at me that way: my life felt so innocent compared to hers. I never slept in a room with sixty people. I never had so many hours of hunger, hunger of the body and hunger of the emotions. The world never seemed so unsusceptible to my desires.”
“At the same time,” I said, “seventeen-year-olds, unless they’re sick or starving, and she was neither, do have an irresistible vitality even under the most unlikely circumstances. She might have also just been happy in your presence, or maybe she had plans to meet someone after you left and she was thinking happily of that.”
“Possibly,” Charlie said. “Now, when I think of that lunch, I think of the bowls of pale, blank porridge the children at the orphanage were so eagerly devouring: the porridge of my childhood—farina, oatmeal, cream of wheat—even when we were 'poor,' was speckled with honey or sugar, and I still didn’t care for it.”
“What happened after lunch?” I asked.
“She wanted us to see her bedroom.”
“Like any kid would,” I said.
“Though we were tired, we could tell how important to her this was, so we agreed. Ten or so miles from the city we left the paved highway and followed a badly rutted dirt road for another mile until we arrived at St. John’s Secondary School. The school, like almost all the buildings in the country, seemed decrepit, in a state of either decay or incompletion, it was hard to tell which: many structures looked as though whoever was putting them up one day just walked away and forgot to come back. And, like everywhere else in and around Kampala, there was a cluster of people standing around in front of the gate.”
“Mightn’t some of them have been workers,” I asked, “or even parents waiting to see their kids at the end of the school day?”
“Agatha led us down a path between some low buildings with windows, where two or three students sat at the small desks reading—it was the end of the afternoon, classes must have been over for the day—then down past what seemed like dormitories, with a few adolescent boys and girls standing beside them smiling shyly at us, and then to the structure we realized was what she called her bedroom.
“Agatha’s bedroom was 50 or 60 feet long, and about 20 feet wide. The walls inside were plaster, perhaps once white but now mottled gray, with darker, almost black streaks leaking down from the ceiling. There were four windows in the back wall, three and a door in the front; they didn’t let in a lot of light, but the pale gray glow wasn’t unpleasant. In the room were three rows of double-decker bunk beds, with about 3 feet between them; there were ten or so bunks in each row, which meant that there were sixty beds, so Agatha had fifty-nine roommates. Each bed was covered with a plaid blanket, and each bunk had two wide, plastic basins on the floor beneath it. The ceiling of the room was quite high, and some of the beds had a dress suspended above them on a hanger hung from the ceiling by a cord—they reminded me of the ropes and pulleys factory workers in America once used to hang up their street clothes over the space where they changed into and back out of the coveralls they wore while they worked.
“Grim-seeming,” I said, “from our perspective, but maybe not so much from theirs, if for no other reason than it’s their lives, their everyday experience? This is probably a totally inappropriate comparison, but I remember, in Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, his example of a good night, a joyful moment, was a night in which, when he got up to piss, the piss bucket wasn’t full to the brim, so he didn’t have to haul the bucket outside into the snow, piss sloshing, splashing onto his bare feet, and dump it out before he could relieve himself. He described himself at that moment as happy and lucky. And he wasn’t being ironic.”
“Not on all the beds,” he continued, “just a few, among them Agatha’s, lay small suitcases, of stiffened paper. When the girls fortunate enough to have suitcases lay down on their beds, the suitcases went underneath the bed with the plastic basins. That was also where they parked their shoes.
“Agatha’s suitcase was trim and neat, and striped in imitation of the luggage wealthy people used to have; she must have used it when she went to visit her relatives. Who would that have been? A grandmother, an aunt or uncle? How many were there? We hadn’t heard anything about Agatha’s relations. We really knew so little about her; we didn’t know where she was from, or how her parents died; really almost nothing. Though we received letters a few times a year from her, sometimes with photos, she really didn’t reveal much about herself except how she was doing in school.
“I wonder,” I said, more to myself than Charlie, “since you were paying for her education, if she might have felt she owed you updates on that and that alone. But the rest of her life was something she assumed you didn’t care to learn about or she didn’t care to tell you.”
“I don’t know,” Charlie said. “But not only did we know so little about her past, we knew still less about her future, which once we met her, I found myself considering a lot and with anxiety. I almost couldn’t bear, in fact, the sense of insecurity, instability, precariousness, and incipient peril I felt when I tried to look into that future. Knowing so little about how the society worked there made this more acute, but the sense of need, of want, of civic inefficiency seemed to have so few interstices into which actual life could be slotted. The sixty girls in that room: where was there a place for them in the near rage of disorder in which the whole country seemed to be swamped?
“Agatha said she wanted to be a doctor, or a nurse. In the first world, our world, the world of wealth, these are vastly disparate ambitions, which entail disparate educational procedures; was it that way there as well? I worried whether Agatha even knew the difference. If she didn’t, was it a bad sign or good? I imagined that wanting to ‘be’ anything in a place like that would require a terrific amount of will, of force, of energy. And yet I hear myself say, “a place like that,” and I have to ask myself now, “like what?” Fact is, I knew next to nothing about Agatha, Kampala, Uganda, the entire continent. I have no idea whether what I remember now exaggerates or understates. I felt then and still feel now overprotective. There seemed so much to protect. But even that might be a measure of my ignorance, or arrogance.”
The mineral sky around us dimmed somehow without darkening, as if the light had swallowed itself yet went on shining. The starling plume slowed down to a barely discernible billowing in place above the treetops.
“One day,” Charlie went on, “on the way out of Kampala toward the interior, along the highway we passed various commercial districts, outdoor store markets selling food, building materials, tires and automobile parts, even CDs, and then one long area with coffins for sale. Most of them were bare, untreated wood; some very simple, unadorned; some, for babies, tragically tiny; others elaborately carved, with cunning sliding doors over the place the faces of the presumably more prosperous deceased would be inserted.
“A while later along the same highway: people bearing on their shoulders harvested trees, most barely saplings, debarked, skinned, smoothed. Would they be coffins, baby carriages, houses?”
“Maybe wood for a fire,” I offered feebly, “a lucky find?”
Then, after a moment’s pause, quietly, wistfully, he said, “But what do I know? I remember seeing over a lake a sky fill with dark clouds, which were all somehow underlit by the red moon, and through the clouds, lightning . . .”
Odd, now, how the cloud chamber went on dimming while somehow growing clearer, brighter and dimmer at the same time.
Charlie now was talking to himself: “On a path through the forest, monkeys, blue monkeys, and vervets: they suddenly appear, sitting on a branch, looking at you, and then in a moment they turn away and, if they choose to, vanish into the leaves, or move to a higher branch to look at you again.
“Such a strange sense of intimacy; they’re so close; perhaps it’s that, when you see animals like this on film, no matter how much they’re in close-up, there’s a distance, a sort of assumption about the experience happening in a telephoto lens. Here, no thrill of danger, no feeling we’ll ever come closer, but we, they and I, are in the same realm of being for a moment, and we both seem very conscious of it.
“When one blue monkey goes almost sailing effortlessly up the branch system to a higher level, I have the feeling that maybe we’re very close to the simian world not only in our genes, but in our psyches: I remember the huge tree—I suppose an oak, but I wouldn’t have known that then—in an empty lot on top of a small hill at the edge of the neighborhood in Newark where I grew up, and how we’d spend so many hours climbing it, sitting in its branches, trying to reach its top, where—I don’t remember if it was true or not—you were supposed to be able to see New York.
“And then once, in a suburb where I’d gone to work at a stable so I could get a free quarter-hour of riding, I went with some boys from the area to a nearby brook in the woods, where there was a rope hanging from a branch of a tree over the water, and I remember how we’d swing ourselves out over the water, and let go, and do it again, and again, in an utterly absurd repetition of that simple action, but how gratifying it was, how right it seemed to be able to do this, and do it, and again.
“Weren’t we, in our reckless grace, overcoming gravity, as do monkeys, making so many gratuitous gestures, like them? This is one of those moments in which it would be nice to be able to see oneself as one was then, to experience oneself from without instead of always merely looking through one’s own eyes.”
He paused, eyes still fixed on the wall awash with images, all of which to me still looked like swirling birds.
I said, “I remember a letter you sent from Uganda about a bird book and some guards.”
“I wrote that,” he said, “from the hotel-camp adjacent to the forest in which Catherine would climb to see the gorillas. We were told by the person showing us our cabin that we shouldn’t be startled if during the night we noticed men walking around carrying spears, they were the night-watch.
“When Catherine went with her group up the mountain, they were accompanied by two soldiers with machine guns, and when I went for my hike through the forest, I was, too. We were told that it was because of leopards or other animals, that the soldiers would fire their guns to scare them away, but we had read that it was really because of a group of Rwandan rebels who came through there six or seven years earlier and slaughtered eight tourists with machetes. (I read that some of those who were killed during the madness would try to pay the people about to murder them to use their guns instead of machetes, because that death was so hard. Horrid thought: buying the bullet that would kill you.)
“The soldiers who came along with me were young men, in their twenties it looked like, who sulkily lagged a ways behind and spent the whole time talking with one another, to show their disdain for me, the absurdity of their task in the first place—any danger seemed unlikely at best—and in the second place to have to accompany someone as ridiculously decrepit without any evident use as I was. They irritated me a little, but then, near the end of our trek, they borrowed the guide’s bird book and looked eagerly through it together, and they seemed, with their rumpled uniforms, their awkward weapons slung over their shoulders, their walkie-talkies, like rather attractive adolescents who had been forced to waste their time hanging around with adults, and at last could do what they liked.”
“Wasn’t there something else you showed me, a prose piece about some women?”
“Under a bush, right on the road, on a Sunday, a group of people: one a woman in a green suit, the kind of suit a woman executive would wear in Paris or New York; her hair, like everyone else’s there, was clipped short and neat, but with the suit it increased her aura of almost dizzying glamour.
“Another woman on a Sunday, when people wear their best outfits, I suppose, far from the city, and far from the best town we’d gone through, a woman in a brilliant scarlet African dress, with wide shoulders, much draping; a profound elegance, which she must be taking somewhere. Somewhere. Somewhere.”
I wanted to ask Charlie, why wouldn’t she be going somewhere, anywhere, maybe to a feast, or to sit by an ailing friend, or to celebrate a birth? Who knows? But Charlie seemed entirely inside himself, unaware that I was there:
“Another woman, also in an elegant suit, carrying a black plastic sack full of something that seemed to become a part of her outfit: an accessory, I think they’re called in the fashion world.
“A very beautiful woman in a gold dress, with a parasol, of all things, with some other women on the roadside. She sees me looking at her, and her glance back is at once cool and acknowledging: I imagine that what she’s saying is, “I know just how gorgeous you find me, and I will tell you with my amazing eyes just how little that means to either me or my beauty, which has little to do finally with you or with me.”
“Seems like,” I said, when he finally paused, “when you observe or remember observing individuals at specific moments in specific places, you find oddments of unexpected beauty and possible connection, and not just miasmas of estrangement and despair, which seem to intensify the more generalized the world, or your perception of the world, becomes.”
“I remember on the table at breakfast,” he said, “several varieties of splendid yellow birds, some all yellow, some with black here and there on their bodies, or on their head: they were species I’d never encountered before, so it was hard to recall what they actually looked like once they would fly off. They would alight on the table for crumbs, or if there were no crumbs, some would hop to the rim of the sugar bowl and dip into that, their beaks so delicate they could only hold a precious few grains at a time. It’s always astonishing that such fragile beings should be able to exist, stand on those strange stick legs, propel themselves upon them, to, amazingly, fly.
“Better than any other creature, they’ve mastered the precise space between being wild and partaking of the human, sharing for instants our overflowing world before they dart away, vanishing again into their cosmos in which we are utterly incidental. If the building we were in fell into ruins, if all human matter vanished, nothing would change in their lives except these instants of relative ease which our surpluses offered them.
“Though this is true, I suppose, of all wild creatures, their existence seems most removed from ours, and something in me longs terribly toward them, as though they, their being, their meaning, their force, could save ...something that will not be saved.”
Charlie, facing me again, shimmered like air above distant highway asphalt on a hot day.
“So, in your short time in Uganda you witnessed environmental depredation, massive poverty, greed, corruption, inequality, the ongoing effects of historical atrocities we in the West can hardly imagine even while we bear responsibility for so much of it, all of which is intimately braided with moments of beauty, natural and human, incredible resilience, dignity, sweetness, and kindness.”
“Funny,” he said, “the contradiction you’re describing seems connected now to another tension or contradiction I’ve always felt between my life and art:
“On the one hand I craved a kind of poetry that’s larger than the quotidian, that moves out of the personal toward a comprehensive grasp of things, away from particular attachments toward metaphysical, or spiritual, or general truth; I don’t know quite how to characterize it. But I know what I mean: Rilke, Yeats, Eliot, Baudelaire in a different way.
“And yet, in my actual life, the life I lived, what had been most important to me were other people, my love for others, theirs for me, their lives in relation to mine, their lives in relation to themselves.
“But surely this is what the life of all poets, all people, has been, isn’t it? Isn’t the quest for the larger, more comprehensive point of view always something that happens in solitude, and yet the actual poetry I wrote was concerned with both, it sprang from both.”
“Charlie,” I said, “are you rehashing Yeats’s ‘choice’ between perfection of art and perfection of life?”
“No, not exactly,” he said. “See, I could never turn away from the people who had been in my life, which of course would have been an absurd, unthinkable renunciation, and would have surely led to impoverished art. But I always felt the force of both, was always pulled in both directions, away from others into a solitude conducive to the larger perspective, and then back to my loved particulars, and there never seemed to be any way to reconcile the two . . .”
“But we were talking about Uganda,” I said, “and the beauty of the place, and how that lightened somewhat the general malaise you felt there. I’m curious how in your poems, if not in your life, you reconciled those contrary motions or balanced those competing claims. How did all that complexity and contradiction get shaped?”
“I took pages and pages of notes in Uganda, considered writing a book about our African experience, wrote some dozens of prose pieces, fragments of poems, realized there are already all too many books by writers much more familiar with the place than I am, so I stopped, put it all aside.
“A few years later, I’m not sure just when, there was an article in the New York Times about people who keep chimpanzees for pets, about a couple who’d given their beloved too-grown-up ape to the Central Park Zoo, then had come to visit on its birthday, bearing a cake, but when they didn’t think to share it with the other chimps, those other chimps turned on the couple and savagely attacked, biting off fingers, chunks of ears and face . . .
“Sometime in here a poem begins. I recall a 1993 exhibit in the Israel Museum of a James Turrell sculpture, Space that Sees, a lined chamber in the earth not unlike this one, with a single opening in its ceiling like a lens that makes everything that passes through it vivid, magical, marvelous. As I looked up through that tiny expanse, a single bird flew through it, then a small, perfect cloud.
“For some reason the memory of this triggers memories of trips to Krakow, Poland, in the early 2000s, where my friend Adam Zagajewski was educated and lives. Several conferences, an exciting poetry festival, some readings. I remember spending time with Czeslaw Milosz, meeting Wisława Szymborska, and some other poets, Polish, visiting Americans, Tomas Tranströmer, many others. A city of poets.
“Turrell, Uganda, beauty and death, and Catherine, and death again, often in my mind, probably too often then, waiting for me, sometimes it seems with impatience: ‘Where are you? I’m waiting.’
“Then, in 2008, over the course of some weeks—three or so, I think—many versions, with a jump to a last revision a few months later, then one more. Somehow scrabbling it all together, holding my breath, beholding, as always with something like disbelief as it happens, as it comes together. That always astonishing moment of doing something while having no idea what the doing really consists of. The sense of being done to, as long as you can stay out of the way, as long as you hold your breath.
“And at last, so unlikely, the poem.
The Coffin Store
I was lugging my death from Kampala to Krakow.
Death, what a ridiculous load you can be,
Like the world trembling on Atlas’s shoulders.
In Kampala I’d wondered why the people, so poor,
Didn’t just kill me. Why don’t they kill me?
In Krakow I must have fancied I’d find poets to talk to.
I still believed then I’d domesticated my death,
That he’d no longer gnaw off my fingers and ears.
We even had parties together: “Happy,” said death,
And gave me my present, a coffin, my coffin,
Made in Kampala, with a sliding door in its lid,
To look through, at the sky, at the birds, at Kampala.
That was his way, I soon understood, of reverting
To talon and snarl, for the door refused to come open:
No sky, no bird, no poets, no Krakow.
Catherine came to me then, came to me then,
“Open your eyes, mon amour,” but death
Had undone me, my knuckles were raw as an ape’s,
My mind slid like a sad-ankled skate, and no matter
What Catherine was saying, was sighing, was singing,
“Mon amour, mon amour,” the door stayed shut, oh, shut.
I heard trees being felled, skinned, smoothed,
Hammered together as coffins. I heard death
Snorting and stamping, impatient as he hauled off, away.
But here again was Catherine, sighing, and singing,
And the tiny carved wooden door slid ajar, just enough:
The sky, one single bird, Catherine: just enough.
“I don’t know, Charlie,” I said. “I love the poem . . .”
“But,” he broke in impatiently, maybe even a little irked as he sometimes got when I didn’t respond to a poem as enthusiastically as he had hoped.
“Yes but,” I continued, irked by him being irked, “when I look at how closed the tercets are—every tercet is end-stopped, and almost every line is, too—how horizontally the lines are stacked like boards on top of each other; despite all the temporal ground you cover, I feel as I read the poem as if I’ve been locked inside a very small, ever shrinking space, not unlike what I imagine a coffin to be. That locked-in claustrophobic feeling, which I find very convincing, overwhelms the turn to that little bit of light in the closing lines. That is, I don’t quite believe the final statement, that the door ajar is open just enough. Seems too little too late, more like something you wish to feel than actually do feel. Like what happens in the closing couplet of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets (“But when I look on thee dear friend . . .”), twelve lines of unforgettable misery reversed by two lines of rhetorical hope.”
“Me and Willie,” he said. “A couple of softies. You should have said something sooner. It’s a little late for revision. Anyway, even if you’re right (and I don’t think you are), even if my need to affirm did sometimes get the better of my commitment to truth, you need to acknowledge too that reflexive skepticism can be just as blinkered and self-deceptive if not self-ennobling. A way of justifying deficiency (‘If I haven’t experienced it, then it can’t be real!’). You’ve been married what, how many times?”
“Three,” I said.
“Why do you suppose that is?” he asked.
“I got tired of being lonely.”
“So, you got remarried?”
“No. So I got divorced.”
“Ha, ha, very funny. What you don’t appreciate is how love and hope and poetry, too, human attachment in all its myriad expressions, are part and parcel of the very realism you admire in my work, of what you’ve called my refusal to simplify. You can sentimentalize the light, true enough, but you can just as easily sentimentalize the dark. You can write, as is your wont, about the vacuum of outer space, deep time, entropy, the eventual heat death of the universe, as if doing so were a measure of intellectual courage. But it can also be a lack of nerve, a retreat from life, a sneaky kind of preemptive mourning, a cave-in to despair.”
“But don’t those infinite spaces terrify you, the infinitely large no less than the infinitely small?”
“It did, sometimes,” he said, “maybe too often, but the mind isn’t equipped for infinite scales, large or small. You can’t live or think or feel on quantum or cosmic levels. Besides, shift your angle of vision, and what terrifies might just as easily reassure or at least excite with wonder.”
“I mean, think about it,” he said, “the sheer unlikeliness of life deriving from subatomic bits of matter born at the Big Bang, forged over millions of years in the core of some primordial sun that eventually explodes, only to reconfigure light years away by the force of gravity (whatever that is) into this sun, this solar system, this earth circling at just the right distance from a sun that’s just the right size to enable that matter, those same ancestral particles, to warm up only enough to combine and recombine until in some primordial soup they come alive as cells, microbes, bacterial mats, stromatolites, which in turn reshape themselves in a cascading daisy chain of generations spanning eon after eon, through ice ages advancing and retreating, over continents drifting together and breaking apart, from sharks, to loan sharks, from hedgehogs to hedge fund managers.
“What were the odds of everything unfolding out of nothing as it did! Or the just as unlikely possibility, once human beings had evolved, that the genetic crap shoot would fall out so as to make my life or your life turn out as it had.
“Think about your lineage, such as it is, exponentially reaching back behind you: two parents, four grandparents, sixteen great-grandparents, sixty-four great-great-grandparents, two hundred fifty-six great-great-great-grandparents. Think of those hundreds of unknown forebears, say, in 1850, all scattered across different continents, at different ages, in different walks of life, all somehow somewhere, in order to make you possible, having to meet, date, marry, make love, lose a child, twist an ankle, decide on a lark to go to Cleveland, miss the train, return from Cleveland, get drafted, go AWOL, fall ill, die or divorce, misfire, remarry, have another child—how unbelievable is that? What were the chances that all that hooking up and unhooking would take place, much less lead to you, or that you’d even end up being Jewish living in America, in North Carolina of all places!”
“Come on, Charlie,” I said. “You’ve never been a Panglossian best-of-all-possible-worlds type of guy. Or found much to console you in contingencies and accidents. You’ve been as prone to panic as I have.”
“True enough,” he acknowledged. “I implicate myself in this as well. There were periods when I lived in a state of acute anxiety about the future that awaits our children and grandchildren. A few years back, there was a time when every poem I was writing had global warming as either its overt or implied theme. Sometimes I grew depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fell into a funk that threatened never to end.”
“I’ve always thought of myself,” I said, “as a happy pessimist. I set the bar so low and expect so little that anything short of a holocaust is a good day. My exes, in contrast, were all idealists, depressed idealists. They expected so much that they lived in a perpetual state of disappointment and betrayal.”
Charlie just looked at me blankly.
“Just saying,” I said.
Then he continued. “Given all the evidence that’s being accumulated about global warming, this seemed to be a perfectly reasonable response to the only future in sight. But I had to realize over the course of my life that I was intrinsically somewhat of a depressive person, about much else than the end of the world, and that my instinctive response to fear, or threat, or despair was to plunge deeper into the darkness, which so readily took me. It took a long time for me to notice that many people respond differently, friends who, when deeply concerned about large matters, can turn easily from them into a relatively positive vision of the world and their lives, leaving me to writhe and brood sometimes all by myself; public figures who manage to convey a kind of hope that can confound personalities like mine. One of my favorite examples was Fred Kavli, a wealthy scientist philanthropist who established a program of million-dollar prizes for scientists, and at the presentation ceremony announced: “The future is going to be more spectacular than we ever can imagine.” I wished with all my heart that he knew something I didn’t.
“I wondered what the implication of all this was for my life and work as an artist, a poet, a writer. Certainly, the traditions of literature, particularly in the last century and a half, have had their fair share of dark personalities, more than mere pessimists, sometimes outrageous nihilists. My most enduring poetic influence was Baudelaire, hardly a paragon of brightness. I often thought, didn’t I have the right to express my own sadnesses? But at the same time might there not have been some responsibility that came with my artistic identity to resist those sadnesses, to go beyond them?
“Surely the most extreme vision of the future in recent years is Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. Don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way—McCarthy is a novelist of craft, and has a powerful gift for verisimilitude, and in this book he puts all of this at the service of the literally darkest non–science fiction fate that has ever been conceived for human beings. The world, land and sea, is black with soot, utterly silent except for the wind and mysterious intermittent explosions, and the several words, most of them threats, human beings still manage to pass between them, before, in many cases, they devour each other. ‘Grim’ hardly does justice to the sheer horror McCarthy inflicts on the planet and on his readers.
“I felt the same way when I read it,” I said. “‘Inflict’ is the right word. As Robert Pinsky once said, ‘there’s baloney under all that Catsup.’”
“I felt indignant that I had to have the book in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodied the extremity of panic, this is it. It was like having a piercing scream in my mind, one which, when the book came to mind, as it often did, went off like a siren.
“So, what are you saying,” I asked, “we shouldn’t be too dark? Tell that to Euripides or Primo Levi. What happened to the mind as laboratory for any and all possible imaginings?”
“I’m not sure,” he answered, “I just . . . I don’t know. It’s not enough to say that life is nasty, brutish and short—what’s that old joke you like about the old Jewish couple in the restaurant: “The food stinks here,” the wife says, and the husband answers, “Yeah, and such small portions!” There just has to be something in the manner of the piece, in the structure or way it holds it all together that resists despair even if the content says there’s no resistance.”
“That sounds awfully abstract,” I said.
“Not really,” he countered. “I began to talk about this earlier, the relation of elements in a work of art to notions of justice. Whatever their subject, the best poems are like little ideal republics, like just economies, in their reciprocities and reconciliations, their harmonies and balances. The way the different parts assert themselves, even while the whole prevents any one part from dominating all the others; the way the forward pitch of the sentence is countered by the restraining force of the line, so that at every moment one hears both systems (the syntactic and the linear) in varying degrees, each defining its own identity by means of the other, in relation to the other, interdependent yet distinct, consistent yet unpredictable; and the way the poem varies in speed depending on amount of stress per line or stanza, while the tone or perspective changes, shifts, evolves, so that you end up somewhere quite different from where you started out, and yet the shifting speeds, tones, perspectives all together somehow feel part of a continuous, even inevitable, development; and the way these formal energies link up with content—mirror content, or imbue it with irony. The beauty that arises from the integration of so many elements needn’t be the beauty of distraction, or escape, but of deeper engagement.”
“I can see that,” I said, “in someone like Whitman. How he developed a style that embodies his vision almost independently of anything he says, the long-lined catalogs and lists, appositively strung together, the clauses/lines grammatically identical or “equal” (little or no “subordination”) yet rhythmically distinct: the style itself is a kind of argument on behalf of democracy, harmonizing respect for individual lives with communal affiliation. People used to say you got your long line from him, but I can’t imagine two more different temperaments.”
“As you know,” he said, “I love Whitman, and I have always loved Whitman. He is the father of us all in the sense of American poetry, but just because our lines are long does not mean there is necessarily a relation. I never saw Whitman as forebear of my music. From a technical point of view there is almost no relationship between Whitman’s line and mine. His is a turbulent, ecstatic all-encompassing sort of line. It is almost a wave-pattern line in which he is constantly compiling lyric perceptions. Mine isn’t a compiling of lyric perceptions at all. It is a meditating line. His line is a music of hurrying, let’s hurry up so we can gather more evidence about this exalting vision I have, and my line is constantly saying, let’s slow down so we can find out more about what’s wrong here, let’s slow down and go deeper. For me the longer line allows for more thorough movements of thought, and his is the opposite so that although he is a master, he is a master for me of political possibility and of social and poetic vision.”
“What you’re saying, I think, has more to do with syntax than with line length. Whitman’s sentences tend to be loose and paratactic, or, as you put it, a piling on of clauses that coincide with the movement of mind from object to new object, which is how he dramatizes his excitement at the world around him, whereas your sentences are more complex, hypotactic, not paratactic, not relying, as his do, on lists and catalogs. It’s like you’ve combined Whitman’s long line with the meditative syntax of Wordsworth, or even of someone like Elizabeth Bishop.”
“Bishop, for sure,” he said.
“I wonder if the difference between you and Whitman isn’t rooted, too, in differences of history more than temperament. That his long line and syntax produces a poetry of ecstatic speed and yours produces a poetry of hesitancy, scrutiny, skeptical appraisal that requires slowing down and investigating what’s gone terribly wrong, not gathering up everything that’s perfect and getting better all the time. In a way the differences between you two describe the differences of late twentieth-century America and nineteenth-century America in the decades before the Civil War.”
“I want to get back to talking about beauty and hope,” Charlie said, “but yeah, I agree with your analysis. Whitman did live past his own vision. At the end of his life it was clear that he could not be the Whitman of the first ‘Song of Myself.’ That he constantly reworked that poem for his entire writing life, often messing it up, often diminishing it, had to do, I think, with his history moving out from under him; I think he was aware of this in Democratic Vistas, in the Civil War poems and notes: after the Civil War America was not the same, just as for us the world after World War II was not the same, what with the Holocaust, the Cold War, the atom bomb, maybe even more so than for Whitman.
“It does seem, doesn’t it, that we really have no viable political or social vision anymore; there is no leftist vison that really has the kind of prophetic urgency that we once thought the left had. I mean, most of us are quasi bleeding-heart liberals. That seems to be the best we can do, and the right, well, we know the right is a catastrophe once it gets into power. We live in a moment when everybody is very hesitant, everybody takes one step forward and goes back two. At the same time, when you look at the details of it, when you look, for instance, at what is happening to the social contract in America, at the grotesque disparity between rich and poor, the exponential increase in poverty and displaced peoples all around the globe, and the way the primary social emotion of people who aren’t poor (here and in the West) is the hope, the semi-conscious wish, that the dispossessed will stay in their cages, it’s hard not to think we’ve entered a really dark stage in the evolution of capitalism. All anybody can think of to ameliorate this state of affairs is to find a way of improving the economy so that the trickle-down effect moves faster. Hard not to envy Whitman’s optimism, his faith in society, in the future.”
“Compared to Whitman,” I said, “your affirmation of beauty does seem kind of meager.”
“Look, I know beauty won’t save the world from the depredations with which it’s been savaged, it’s not a panacea, or much of a solution; but maybe it can save us from the enervating despair, which is the outcome of panic, and which will definitely keep us from doing anything to minimize the damage we’ve already done.”
“So, let’s talk about beauty,” I said. “Your faith in it assumes we all agree on what beauty is. Don’t we all have different notions of the beautiful, especially now (as I was saying earlier) when all the arts are being ethnically Balkanized. It’s not like there’s one universal standard.”
“I’d like to think,” Charlie said, “it’s possible to acknowledge the subjectivity of the sense of beauty without denying its legitimacy; to have confidence in one’s perceptions of those elements of the aesthetic called taste, while recognizing that taste can only be accurate within the terms of the system it is a part of. One is also obligated, I believe, to liberate oneself from its strictures, and to question how that system, and one’s taste, evolved, so as not to become conservative and hidebound. That said, as a practicing poet, it’s especially important not to undermine faith in our own taste to the degree that the assurance necessary for creative activity might be impaired. It’s a complicated dance, to trust in taste and always question it.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Fact is, our tastes change as we get older, as our lives change. Some poets I loved at twenty, when I still had hair and was falling in and out of love every five seconds, I lost interest in two decades later when I got divorced. There are poets I loved when my parents and siblings were alive that do nothing for me now that everyone in my family is dead. Sometimes, and I hate to admit this, you read a biography of a poet you love that paints a rather ugly portrait of the life, and suddenly the work seems diminished, or you hear through the grapevine about some awful thing done by a poet you admire, or you meet him and he has no idea who you are or cuts you in some gratuitous way, and you can no longer read him with any pleasure.”
Charlie stood again, and it seemed the sky brightened behind him as he rose.
“The first book I ever passionately, desperately loved, and which I read devotedly, probably a dozen times, purported to be a true story but I found out later was almost entirely a fabrication, a lie. The book was Lone Cowboy, the autobiography of the western writer and artist, Will James.
“I came across Lone Cowboy when I was eleven or twelve. I was mad about horses then, all I wanted to do was ride and own a horse of my own, not a very likely prospect in Newark, New Jersey. So what I did instead was to read obsessively about horses and their riders, everything in our school library downtown, then in the branch library not far from our house, and finally in the big central library downtown. I think I read literally every book I could find that had anything to do with horses, the way ten years or so later I’d read everything I could find on the Holocaust, and after that everything by and about the various poets whose work I’d fallen in love with. But right now it was horses, and especially it was Will James; in some ways I think I almost assumed his biography was my own.”
“Charlie,” I said, “the image of you riding high in the saddle across the lonesome prairie is one I’d pay to see. A Jewish cowboy!”
“Well,” he said, “as some children have imaginary playmates, I had James, and that book, which recounted a real cowboy’s life: being born under a wagon in Montana, the mother dying in childbirth, the cowboy-father so distraught by her death that he became careless of his own life and was killed a few years later by a raging steer. Then being adopted by a French Canadian trapper, Bopy his name was, from “Beaupre,” I think, who was also a cowboy during the warm months when pelts were thin. I still remember so well. The winter you had two wolf-cubs as pets. The gift of a little horse for a birthday. Saddles. Books. The slow wanderings down out of Canada. The herds of cattle, wild horses, roundups and line-camps. Then the trapper, too, disappeared, probably drowned fetching water from a flooded river, and you were on your own, to wander and work as a cowboy all over the West, from Montana even down into Mexico. Then, as vengeance for some sort of affront, you stole a herd of cattle, were caught, and ended up in prison for a time, where you begin to draw and paint seriously, and so another life as an artist, then as a writer.
“The part about prison, the most seemingly unbelievable yarn, turns out to be almost the only thing in the book up until then that was true. I found out years later, in a study of James I happened on in another library, that James had actually been a French-speaking Canadian from Quebec, had conceived a passion for cowboy life, and had gone west when he was sixteen—this would be around 1908—and become one. His tragedy begins when he comes to believe that in order to be an authentic westerner you have to have been born to it, so he makes up that biography, which he swears to, no matter what, though it means cutting off all except furtive communication with his original family, and though his marriage to a woman he’s obviously very attached to falls apart, because he’s taken to serious drinking, the reason for which the author of the study hypothesizes was that he couldn’t bear the split between his real life and his ravaging lies; he would actually drink himself to death not many years later.”
“Were you terribly disillusioned when you learned the truth about him?”
“I think I was too old to be broken-hearted, though I certainly found it illuminating about how we can order our own reality according to examples we’re not even aware have been spuriously generated for us. Suppose no great harm had come from me wanting to be a cowboy, by my working later on in the riding stables I found outside of Newark, and finally convincing my parents to buy me a hundred-dollar horse; I certainly met a lot of people and learned a lot I never would have otherwise.
“But thinking about James makes me wonder about the poets upon whom I’ve probably just as gullibly shaped my life in poetry. It was certainly wrenching to find out that Rilke, my first and enduring model as a poet, could be a terrible hypocrite, a lackey of the rich, a cad with women and worse with his own wife and daughter, and that he was at times a crude antisemite. Where do I fit all that into how much, really limitlessly, I esteem his poetry? We talked about this earlier with Pound. But what about Eliot: besides his not-at-all unspoken contempt for the Jews, in prose and more shockingly in his poems, there’s his cultural elitism, his royalism, and his general social contempt. And what about Yeats, another of my heroes, dabbling with fascism?”
“As with Pound,” I said, “you can’t let the moral and political failings blind you to the poetic achievement, any more than you can let that achievement blind you to the moral failings. The response has to be doubled and anguished.”
“Except, Alan, the truth is, it isn’t for me. Maybe it was once, but it isn’t now. The truths, the sensitivity, wisdom, and nobility in the work these and other great but surely flawed poets have brought forth I love wholeheartedly. I believe everything the poems say, every radiant image they gather, every metaphor they imagine, every nuance of experience they register, believe it all with unquestioning conviction. Yeats of The Tower, singing his magnificent grief at a nation, and a world destroying itself; Rilke in The Duino Elegies, finding a way to figure human spiritual aspirations in a way they never had been before, and probably never will be again: that particular fusion between an age’s moral desolation and a genius’s transformative brilliance happening twice is inconceivable. And Elizabeth Bishop, who drank too much and seemed to love ineptly (by today’s mores she’d have lost more than one job for sexual harassment), and yet who softly records in the intricate stanzas of “The Moose” the human microcosm, on a bus ride, of all things, which becomes a repository of human longing, resignation, and joy. And William Carlos Williams, whom I heard once with Mike Wallace saying that maybe his friend Pound’s raving antisemitic broadcasts for Mussolini were possibly credible; Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” his sinuously graceful summation of a complicated marriage, and of the history, private and public, flowers and A-bombs, lived through during that marriage.
“No, we shouldn’t be surprised that the voices that inhabit works of imagination don’t necessarily jibe with the identities who create them, or with present-day moral codes. But in order to not deprive ourselves of what is morally and aesthetically valuable (even if maybe too narrowly exercised at times), we should forgive their fallibilities. And if the great masters need our forgiveness, then who doesn’t? Who won’t?”
“What do you mean, though,” I asked, “when you say ‘too narrowly exercised at times’? Does the beauty of the Faerie Queene make up for Spenser’s implacable hatred for the Irish, for the thousands he slaughtered?”
“No,” he said, “of course not, but that doesn’t make the beauty worthless. By ‘too narrowly exercised’ I mean values, intrinsic goods, available to only a small segment of society. The Athenians invented democracy, but it was democracy for the aristocracy only, a democracy compatible with a slave economy. The problem wasn’t with the value of democracy but with the too restricted application of it. The evil or insufficient application of a moral or aesthetic virtue shouldn’t invalidate the virtue or keep it from refining our understanding of what it means to be alive. Pound’s lines from the Pisan Cantos are beautiful and hopeful, and cause for gratitude that such things exist for us, even if he didn’t mean them for us.”
“Intellectually,” I said, “I get that. Sometimes I even believe it. But most of the time I’m so revolted by the vicious politics and antisemitism that the very beauty of it makes me hate it even more.”
“Our personal histories can limit and in some cases totally disable our capacity to respond to certain works of art. But that’s our loss, not the art’s.”