A recurring nightmare with variations: I’m on a stage, about to give a reading, but when I open my mouth, no words come out — or a kind of gargling sound does, which makes my audience yawn with impatience then file out of the room. Or, I’m stuck in wet concrete and can’t reach the podium. Or, bending to read my poems, the words scramble, blur into nonsense, appear to be in a foreign language. Not uncommon themes for writers I suppose, who daily weigh, scour, reject, seek adequate language, and for whom, as Thomas Mann said, “writing is more difficult than it is other people.” If this pressure is a daily, occupational hazard, then it shows up most ferociously when words are most needed, in response to enormous, unthinkable events.
Months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’m still trying to get my bearings, to steady the wobble between a fearsome sense of fragility and a jarring sense of normalcy. As a poet/essayist – and as a citizen and mother: what to speak of? And how — grieve, accuse, rage ? To whom? To what end?
A first step: examine the shapes fear takes. The weird guy whose house I used pass every day on the way to class when I lived in Iowa – he owned a gun (why make a point of telling me, I wondered, even then.) Might he crack? And why not? Pain abounds, much of it private, relentless, unsolvable. Would she lose it, home all day with two kids, a loud dog, a frayed marriage? What about the agitated guy in line at the post office yesterday? Reading another’s demeanor is complicated, intensified now: is that normal impatience, or a very thin, internal wire about to snap? Was he a “disgruntled employee?” I’ve certainly been disgruntled at work. But the word no longer means “displeased, discontented; sulky, peevish,” hitched, now, as it is to “gunman” and mass killings. I used to like crowds — the press of bodies, moving as part of an organism. In seasonal crowds, say at Christmas tree lightings, I used to feel taken in, part of a surging, expressive moment. Now, just sitting in traffic makes me nervous; with nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, rush hour downtown looks like a tragedy waiting to happen. A “powder keg” with “sitting ducks.” In elevators, offices, stores, I start dividing people — possible shooters, likely victims — and then subdivide the victims: the canny, the lucky, the doomed. I devise escape plans in grocery stores. In the very aisles where I used to edit poems in my head, listen for interesting conversations and phrases, I’m now sharply alert, suspicious of anyone lingering. At the movies, anxiety nibbles the edges of what used to be a delicious moment: the lights dimming, the dark rising. The loss of imaginative civic space, peace, reverie, a sense of sanctuary in the small, inconsequential seeming moments of a day. . . we’re all suffering that.
And this, too, feeds my unease: that mythical sense of elsewhere, the illusion that mass shootings happen in far off cities and neighborhoods, has dissolved completely. I tally my own list of proximities: a writer friend of mine taught the Virginia Tech shooter. The granddaughter of a family friend was shot in the head at the movie theater in Aurora, Co. In Baltimore, where we live, the DC sniper slept overnight in the parking lot of a 7-11 not three miles from our neighborhood. And just recently I learned that the partner of a friend is related to the Sandy Hook shooter.
In trying to think, speak and write about the unspeakables, the language we use takes on the predictable features of disbelief: it was a normal evening. It was a beautiful day. They’d just eaten dinner. They were on vacation. On a whim, she stopped in at a coffee shop (as I did, in Tacoma, WA recently – the very same shop where, just months later, four people were ambushed and killed). He seemed so harmless. He never spoke. He was odd but never bothered anyone. We didn’t know. We hadn’t guessed. The guns were stolen/hidden/legal. Rampage. Gunman. The heroes. The miracles. After a while, the plot feels predictable. The scripts, the characters, the grief: familiar.
And here’s the twinned anxiety, masquerading as reprieve: for big swatches of time after the shooting at Sandy Hook, I’ve moved about normally – -and then, been rattled by normalcy. I remember eating a carton of yogurt that day, then unloading the dishwasher, for long minutes completely unencumbered by thoughts of the scene. By way of a phone call or the small task of an egg to boil, shock and disbelief flip over and the underside of a day shines on with ease. Rows of collards flourished in our neighborhood community garden all winter, and even now, when I stop by to pick some for dinner, the beds richly mulched, promising, serene, the scene often flips again, and having any bearings at all feels wrong, misaligned, insubstantial.
Just yesterday, while walking my dog, very suddenly, the opening lines from Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” came to me:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along . . .”
To say the poem “came to me” understates the experience. The stanza burst back, wholly unsought. As I spoke it aloud, I wanted to know again what the Old Masters – Breughel, and by extension, Auden – understood about suffering, what certainty about it might be had. At home, I took down my Collected Poems of Auden, and read the whole poem. Here’s the final stanza, where he deepens that phrase “the human position”:
“In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely form the disaster: the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
The poem was not a “comfort” or a “balm” though it confirmed my own experience of brutal simultaneity, of the inexplicable, side-by-side existence of the mundane and the tragic.
I remembered my first reading of the poem in high school, where it was presented as a study of indifference. Easy enough to see – the turning away, the frightening, calm ease with which people remain absorbed in their lives, in the midst of the falling boy’s tragedy. Now, though, the poem weighed differently. Its more shattering feature was its patience, the way it studied the vastness of co-incidents. Of course, a poem takes on and throws off different lights, and a reader absorbs angles of the spectrum at different ages and times of life — but something else happened, too, when the poem returned with such force. A clear, new thought formed: “what is the myth that’s taking place now, that none of us can see, that we’re living alongside? How will it be told and by what Ovid? Will it be pinned to the sky, like Orion’s belt, and used to navigate epic journeys? Will its telling become a seasonal event, the way Demeter’s loss of Persephone overlays fall?” With this briefly flowering question, finally, a nap of thought caught, a kind of phrase/image cluster. It’s the sensation of passing a rough hand over silk, or when a pencil catches on paper and produces a pleasant snagging resistance. This is the moment the bolt slides out and the gate swings wide — and I know I’m “in.” Language roots. The wavering firms. Here was a moment I recognized. It opened, breathed, extended in familiar ways. A working thought is a promising thing, a solidity to move into, live with, lean on.
Writers labor under many anxieties – a common fear, shared by many is that one’s chosen genre isn’t agile enough to respond to the violences of the day; that one’s work, or soul, as it wrangles with a poem, or story, is not up to fulfilling Wallace Stevens’ definition of the imagination, the force that “Press[es] back against the pressure of reality”; a “violence within that protects us from a violence without.”
A moment when all air has been choked out, when one can hardly breathe for the grief is not necessarily the time to make something. In this moment, on my walk, Auden’s poem confirmed a vast and frightening vision, but it also kick-started . . . something. A trail, a thread, an inkling of my own to follow.
Reading “Musee des Beaux Arts” again, at this age, at this time, I had the sense that the poem knew me better than I knew myself, that it had been waiting for me to grow into it. Or waiting for this occasion to speak again. Or really, who knows why, just then, it surfaced. The finely shaded responses to suffering (the ploughman may have heard the splash, the ship must have seen the falling boy), those degrees of complicity, the way in which fate – ours, others’ – is ever-present, at work, concealed, partly glimpsed — I’ll study them. I’ll weigh, repeat, live with Auden’s words while I sign petitions, get up and do my part, lobby for the basic rights of children to be safe in school; that is, while I wait for language of my own, some way of seeing, recording and shaping that might be adequate to the violence without.