Friday, September 16, 2011

Men at Fifty

And I know you're waiting for the ironic ending,
And I know you're waiting for the punchline,
And I know you're waiting for the rain to come by.
So am I.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Seed Song”

I remember when, years ago, I would read Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” with a kind of anticipatory nostalgia, imagining the sweet melancholy I would feel when I left my thirties behind and joined the legions of men who must, as Justice puts it,  “learn to close softly / The doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to.” I imagined what it would be like to stand before a bathroom mirror and encounter my own image in precisely the manner that the poem describes –

And deep in mirrors 
They rediscover 
The face of the boy as he practices trying 
His father’s tie there in secret 

And the face of that father, 
Still warm with the mystery of lather

 –  past and present merging in the very features of my face, a face that would have become more like my father’s than that of the child I had once been. “They are more fathers than sons themselves now,” Justice declares with a kind of forlorn certainty, the scale of time finally tipped from one side to the other, and I imagined that this would of course be true.

It was not true for me, though, when I turned forty. I continued to feel then more son than father, though my father had already died. Now that I am fifty – past fifty, having turned fifty-one – it does indeed seem true, indisputably and inconsolably true. Any childhood photograph of me looks a great deal more like my son than like me, this son who now at seventeen looks more like a man than a boy. And I am startled from time to time when I look in the mirror and feel that I have caught a glimpse, brief and unsettling and spectral, of my father’s weathered face, my startled expression become his, as if he too is surprised to have stumbled upon me in such an otherwise insignificant moment.

As for the photos I have of my father, they have begun to look – not more like me than him, not that, but more of me, as if they were taken as sly predictions or gentle warnings (to which I was, of course, always much too young to attend) that this is what I would become, the expression I would bear, the lines and folds that I would wear as though they were etched there, as indeed they were in a way, in some act of ritual scarification.

Something is filling them,” filling these men, Justice goes on to write at his poem’s conclusion,

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgage houses.

And I used to snicker a little, way back when, at the sweet sad irony of that final line, of the mundane earthly debts and responsibilities – the mortgaged house and all that comes with it: the slope behind it with its inevitably disappointing lawn and the gray mulched flower beds and the scattering of sticks and snake holes and dried leaves – so many inconsequential annoyances and obligations intruding upon that immense and somber and crepuscular sound, the universe’s holy shimmering that the man who has turned forty has just begun to detect.

I don’t snicker any more. I don’t snicker because I know what I didn’t know at thirty or even forty, what even Donald Justice may not have known when he wrote this poem.  He was, after all, only just past forty himself when the poem appeared in his 1967 collection Night Light, and so perhaps he was still caught in the sweet pleasures of its sad embrace. I know now, a man at fifty, that even our mundane earthly debts acquire, as time passes, as the scale dips further down, their own spectral grace. We begin to sense that these too – and not just our mortgaged house but the spindly trees we planted, the weedy beds to which we seasonally attend, the dry leaves spilling from the woods’ edge, the sputtering car with its cracked windshield, the flat-tired wheelbarrow, the unwieldy unreliable rake, the vines creeping around porch rails and above doorways, the wasp-infested birdhouse, the nest spilling twigs and cloth from its perch, the carpenter bees’ tunnels of mud and spit, the aching joints, the calloused hands, the cloudy eyes, the stacks of bills in their leather folder, the empty bottles and cans in the kitchen cupboard, the unsprung mousetraps and garbage bags and dryer sheets and wicker baskets and clothes yet to be ironed and nearly spent candles and loose change on the counter – all of this, every bit, are merely the notes composing the grand elegiac hymn, a million and a million more droning voices. They are all, all of them, that twilight sound I hear. It is immense, unceasing, terrifying, as haunting and beautiful a sound as anyone would ever hope to hear.

And I know this, too, I guess, or suspect it – that at sixty I will finally understand that at fifty I had not yet heard the half of it, did not have a clue of the great, magnificent sounds the earth could make, the giant crash of thunder or an axe raised high against the darkening sky to again and again split the wood.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rain Song

The rain came down,
soaked the old hibachi.
And I wish I could sing
like Allen Callaci,
and then you would know
how sad it was
when the rain came down.

Drop by drop,
gallon by gallon.
Brother, if I could sing,
if I could sing like Allen,
you would know
and understand
how sad it was
when the rain came down.

-- The Mountain Goats, “The Rain Song”

It’s going to rain all week here in Virginia, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee slogging up the east coast like a stained dish towel slowly covering a bowl of already-bruised, fruit-fly-infested peaches or a tired waitress’s wet gray rag swirling over a dirty formica countertop or the foam-edged tide inching across the cracked shells and oozing jellyfish skins and tar-coated stones of a faded-corduroy-brown Florida panhandle beach stained by the shade of the third-rate timeshare condominiums looming overhead, their dust-specked and dirt-smudged and cobwebbed once-white ceilings plastered with precisely the same swirling patterns as the storm itself.

All of which is to say that the rain – day upon day of it, that is -- makes me regard the world, the natural world, in the worst possible light, which is itself the very darkened light of an overcast sky: not pewter so much as a pale and hoary gray, the gray of expiration, of skin and mold and fire-damaged clothes, of true tin and not aluminum, of an unslaked thirst, a sky with no heaven propped behind it, the dull blanket swept over a pauper’s corpse.

I know that there are words for this, that there’s diagnosis and treatment, an easy cure for what ails me, but there are times when you don’t want to name what you feel. You want instead to burrow down into the comforting imprecision of metaphor. You want to know how I feel? Then I will tell you how I feel. And what I tell you will be everything except the thing itself, for the thing itself is of little interest. It is not how I feel that matters; it is not what I want you to know. It is how I choose to say how I feel that matters, how I bend the objects of the world closer and closer to how I feel without ever truly touching it. That’s one of the key rules, of course: Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it. It hurts too much. (If it sounds to you as if a small child has made the rules, then you already know more – much more – than you thought you did.)

This is why, perhaps, I’ve got a litany of questions for the famous – famous to me; we’ve all got our own – forever scrolling through my head, though they’re always, I’m well aware, the wrong questions, ones unlikely to lead anywhere productive or particularly telling. And some of them, to boot – the questioned famous, that is – are already dead:
Rilke, Lorca, Pistol Pete, my father, Walker Percy, Thelonious Monk, maybe Gandhi and Jesus but only if this were one of those after-dinner who-would-you-invite-to-dinner affairs and I could make some awful rightwing lunatic sit smackdab between them and get a good talking-to. All men, it seems, though I can think of a few women: Billie Holiday. Well, that’s one – though I wouldn’t dare ask her a thing, would simply get down on my knees and beg for one song, even a verse or two of something, anything, a children’s lullaby or a hymn. Because if there was ever someone who knew how to truly answer the question without needing to say the word itself or even directly suggest it, she was it. She was the one.

So here are a few questions for the living:

For Bob Dylan: Can I have your boots when you die?
For Philip Levine: Can I have your favorite pen?

No, that’s wrong, though it’s true I would like a token or talisman from every person I admire. I need to ask questions that can be answered.

To John Darnielle: What were you thinking when you wrote “The Rain Song”?
To Everyone Else: What is that voice I hear in the distance? Whose voice is it? That quiet one? Yes, that one. Will the news be good?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

To Take To The Highway

I took to the highway
The highway took to me
Like a second skin
Rolled around in the evening
Circling like a buzzard
Trouble in mind
Excavating the space
We left behind
Yes, I took trinkets with me
Left them by the crater
Here ghosts, old ghosts
    - The Mountain Goats, "Design your Own Container Garden"

The trip between home and my high school was 53 miles, an hour of clean, straight highway we drove regularly for three years. That hour, and the early mornings it insisted on, taught me to love coffee. It was that hour when  I first heard The Decemberists The Crane Wife , Margot and The Nuclear So and So's The Dust of Retreat , and Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Menderthe first albums I really loved in my own right. In that hour I tried listen to Guns, Germs, and Steel  on tape and decided there were some things I just wasn't willing to do to be smart.  And  it was that hour that taught me the romance of distance, of leaving, of mile marker signs, and being gone. 

It isn't surprising that at fourteen, when we started making that drive, I was feeling the tug of division between myself and my family and the small town where I grew up. This is every new teenager's narrative: separateness and selfhood, a rabid need to call themselves by their own, individual name. And yes: part of the charm of those miles was that they actualized  the psychological space between my  childhood and my adolescence.  There was literal travel. A place that I could call my own. A record store and restaurants I haunted alone. A geography the rest of my family and hometown couldn't claim. 

But my impulse for leaving was more complicated, and has outlasted that first stretching; it tugged me to Massachusetts on my seventeenth birthday, and a year later it was already stirring, preparing to take me West. Two years in New England and I was counting mountains on a plane to California.  

I've been here eleven months and seventeen days, and the call for motion is waking and shifting like a bird in my throat. A year ago I might have called it loneliness, mistaken it for discontent. There's still a measure of ambition in it,  an ache for adventure, a piece of something like fear ... but it's none of those things exactly...

I am not lonely,  at least not on any daily level, perhaps for the first time in my life. I have the kind of friends immediately around me  who throw birthday parties, pick me up from hospital, invite my parents for dinner when they arrive to visit, and finish my sentences.  The climate  is gorgeous and navigable, the intellect and opportunity are striking. The late light is lilac and familiar. I'm happy.  Successful. Known. Still I wake up thinking get ready to go. I spend afternoons wandering steadily farther afield of my daily territory. I close my eyes and want the road. I have fantasies of a city I am calling Berlin, but it could just as easily be Moscow, or Austin or Dublin or Chicago. I dream Southern red clay and Italian water, a low lit bar, a red apartment, a flatbed truck.

The romance and danger of someplace far off: there are stories of it everywhere. Willy Nelson sings On The Road Again,  Icarus flies too close to the sun and drops like a flicker in the corner of Bruegel's painting. Scores of beautiful, sharp-shouldered teenage boys carry Kerouac in their back pockets. I'm smart enough to count myself among these masses, and to check the romance of the new against the boxes I'll have to pack, the life I'll have to disassemble or leave behind: from wheelchair to beloveds, and the one I'll have to build: from a new sense of direction  to an assembled library. 

I know enough to know that part of why I'm going is youth and  that part of what I'm fleeing are my own limits: the fact that my body means I will never live in the third story of a Brooklyn brownstone, or take photographs alone in the wilds of Cambodia. I can't run, can't travel on impulse, can't take off at the drop at the hat.  My chest goes tight with terror when my mother, well meaning, looks around Manhattan and says: you could live here, as long as you developed a real routine, and only had to travel a set path.  A small, set path.  

We all fight, I think, the sense that our lives are circumscribed beyond our control, and ever since I can remember the limits of my existence have felt steel  and close and central, decided too soon. Your body will do this but not  this. you will need people like this,  just to stand. every place you go you will call ahead to ask if you'll be able to use the shower. It would be so easy, at any given moment, to think: it's pretty here, I know my way around, it's interesting, my knees don't hurt too badly: i could stay, and wake up twenty years later  having done just that: stayed because that was the simple thing , because I wasn't giving up anything I could name, because I was tired. 

And the world feels too big, and too wild for that. A writer I admire, talking about Emily Dickinson, once said: she must have felt like her head was on fire. I  wake up every day lucky to feel on fire, burning and light and alive. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein by twenty, and there are continents where I've never been.

 It's a delicate state.  When I wake up straining towards the road I have to put my hand on the hurried little thrush inside me, the heartbeat rattling at my ribs.  it's good here. I have to whisper, and there's more of it  than you can see from your window. You can be still a little longer, you can look a little harder at the corners of things. You'll go eventually. I promise. I swear.  

What do you want? I've been asking myself, and maybe it's trite to say that what I want is to always be heading toward something, not just away. You'll go when something else is calling, I  tell that shaking piece. For as long as I can, however long that is,  I want to be the  one who is not afraid  to be where the world beckons This means I want to get good at packing a car and reading a flight map, at taking taxis at twilight, and talking with strangers in dive bars and conference rooms. More than that though, it means that I want to hear what other people don't, in familiar places and far off ones,  so that wherever it is the world finally sets me down I will know how far I am from Frankfurt, and that the mountains  at sunup are just the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, that all over the world there are people I love, and that just where  something  looks finite and small there is space and space and space enough to live a hundred lives.