Monday, May 15, 2006

I am a Pipe

At 4:45 on Mother’s Day, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my 4-door subcompact, hurtling, away from the in-laws, toward home. The dogs are in the backseat and my wife is driving. The situation makes me a tad uncomfortable, but it could be worse. One of the dog’s could be driving. I sometimes suspect that our Jack Russell terrier—having watched me adjust my wrists and dart my eyes around for the four hour trip to or from eastern Ohio—believes that driving is easy.

Alas, the world is rife with misinterpretation. Indeed, everyone in the world, excepting former politicians, believes that he or she could run this or that country better than this or that administration. Everyone, at one time or another has felt the sting (or consternation) of finding oneself in a relationship where one desires one a tad bit more than the other would like. Most people who purchase a new car believe that they managed the best deal possible through artful haggling, and yet only a small minority of consumers is correct in such an assumption. The world at large, as shaped by humanity, does not reach its conclusions through the use of logic. Of course, if you’ve been through puberty, your own hormones probably clued you into this unassailable fact when you noticed those first stirrings of desire, or at least by the time those stirrings became the torrent of emotion that begins your dating life.

Personally, I remember, painfully, a series of events during college when I simply misunderstood. At the time, I remember imagining reality with the rather cliche trope of a mirror, and that night, as I watched assumptions and desire evaporate into a nothing that was almost solid enough to cradle with troubled breath, I imagined that construct of silver and glass shattering in a background of endless black.

I dealt the best way I knew how at the time: day by day, moment by moment, finding comfort in a series of mildly illegal activities that I had clung to like a pacifier. For a couple of days, I was ok. I managed.

But, one afternoon, while sitting in a cafe, sipping coffee, playing cards, and practicing what once passed for witty repartee with a handful of friends—including the young woman who had been the object of my affection—the conversation twisted upon itself like a hairpin turn along a mountain pass. A sarcastic barb meant merely to taunt the object of my affection echoed through my head like some Alpine yodeler sounding for distance. And, honestly, there is an unfathomable amount of space in all of our heads—there are vistas, valleys, steppes, mountains, deserts, cities, towns, whole planets fragmented somewhere in the soft folds atop the cerebellum of even the most average human brain. But, at that point in my life, I don’t think I could recognize this. I don’t think that I could imagine that, in the worst traffic jam, thousands upon thousands of life stories are stacked, one behind the other, brimming with the infinite joy and sadness of waking each morning. Instead, I could only focus on that echo, bouncing around in the hollow of my skull and suggesting, not only that the object of my affection had done me harm intentionally, but that our friends—no, my friends—had been complicit in the havoc wreaking. I finished a cigarette, and left, dragging one of my friends in tow. I walked toward my apartment, past campus. Before we’d walked a mile, tears were trailing down my face and I was sobbing for breath. I tried to explain to my friend what was happening. I was upset neither by the dream that had been lost to me nor by the notion of a conspiracy against me. Rather, I was upset by the fact that my mind could construct the trellises on which such a scenario could entwine upwards into the light. I was floored by the recognition of delusion.

As I wept, my friend simply walked with me, patting his hand against my shoulder. Eight-and-a-half years later, he was a groomsman at my wedding.

Now, when I think about that time in my life, I realize I had problems, but I don’t find the difficulty interpreting the world so disconcerting. The world is difficult to discern. Other people are enigmas. And, chance, like it or not, is a primary variable in our lives. Even with flawless logic, we sometimes can’t understand it. Even with encyclopedic knowledge of the human condition, we can’t always discern the impulse that becomes a motive of action.

This, to me, is one of the primary values of poetry. Open a volume by one of the “deep image” poets like W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, or Galway Kinnell. In their belated American answer to French and Spanish surrealism, you can find metaphor and imagery working to avoid the trappings of a logical construct. The image works with the white space of the poem, suggesting gaps, directing us toward a kind of Jungian archetype. And here, we have a methodology for describing aspects of the human experience that prose, generally speaking, fails to approach. I won’t claim that such a methodology is effective or that it serves as the perfect antidote to logic, describing the way in which we foolish humans actually do make decisions. I merely want to suggest that such techniques offer us a way to open the trap door in the floor of the stage. I want to suggest that poetry is more, much more, than the simplistic use of motivated line breaks. Instead, poetry, from my admittedly limited perspective, is (like a Jackson Pollock painting) another way of describing reality and teaching us about the reality we all share (through our own tiny filters).

After graduate school, as the path I’d set for myself seemed overgrown with nettles of misfortune, milkweed of ineptitude, and briars of bad luck, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to write poems that would be dismembered in any workshop. I was experimenting—following my own surrealist inclinations. I wanted, for deeply personal reasons, to replicate the emotion of paranoia within my poetry. It was, at the time, incredibly difficult. At the moment, I can only think of three poets who’ve managed it: John Ashbery, R.M. Rilke, and the aforementioned Kinnell. Let me be clear here: I mean paranoia, not the generalized anxiety that seems to late 20th-century poetry what yeast is to bread. One poem I wrote, based entirely on a bizarre dream I had in the sweltering unemployment after graduate school, was composed through countless associative leaps with a narrative framed loosely around it. For some reason, after the first draft of semi-automatic writing, I wanted an epigraph. Thinking myself clever and learned, I referenced Rene Magritte: Je suis une pipe.

Eventually, I did realize my mistake, but isn’t that mistake lovely? There is no negation in it, only an affirmation of existence—a deeply flawed affirmation. Clearly, we are all constructs of one sort or another; no need to keep reminding us Mr. Magritte.

The background music in my office settles to a long rest. I imagine the musicians counting, years ago. It is no longer Mother’s Day. I’m weary. Time has passed differently on the page than it has for me. I’m in love with constructs now. There are many. Poetry. Fiction. The image I have of my wife. The image I have of my puppies. I’m not frightened of these constructs shattering into shards. I’ve learned to adapt. That object of my affection in the long-ago story—why, her name is Michelle, and her title in this context is "my wife." How this transpired is another story, and you see, there is always another story—there is always another performance that will spring the trap door.


Post a Comment

<< Home