Monday, January 30, 2017

"Who can point out a smell...?"

Some people, when stressed, are characterized by self-doubt, indecision, and procrastination. In interaction with others, they tend to look for hidden agendas and can be accusing, especially of those they perceive to have power over them. To counter their driving force of fear, they may exhibit a kind of reckless courage, then worry they've shot themselves in the foot... which often they have! 

I once asked my friend Joseph about a mutual acquaintance. "Oh he has to be in control," said Joseph. "I can smell it!" In his characteristic view, the world was dangerous and needed sniffing out. As Rita Dove points out in her poem Three Days of Forest, a River, Free:  
The terror of waking is a trust
drawn out unbearably
until nothing, not even love,
makes it easier...

Who can point out a smell
but a dog?
You may have heard, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you." That's the problem with anxiety. There's always some real danger, some anticipated threat that proves the point, and also develops the ability to foresee potential roadblocks -- warning barks if you will. Dove pictures the price paid for being constantly on guard:
... duty's whistle
slings a bright cord
around their throats.
After mentioning "the things I've carefully left out / descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily / people behave toward each other," John Ashbery (The Problem of Anxiety) leaves the reader slightly nervous:
...I've saved the descriptions of finger sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
We all have our glass eye that will never be appeased. Be honest. Do you get on an airplane without feeling the tiniest flash of possibility this will be the one that crashes? When you're walking home alone in the dark and you hear an unexpected sound, do you calmly keep walking"? Do you really like snakes? 

In Lizards and Snakes, Anthony Hecht's Aunt Martha had "an unfair prejudice" toward reptiles, an inflexibility that he and his friend Joe teased out as boys by leaving one in the basket of socks she was mending. They got their comeuppance when Aunt Martha outclassed them in scare tactics: 
... we never did it again after the day
        Of the big wind when you could hear the trees
Creak like rocking chairs. She was looking away
        Off, and kept saying, "Sweet Jesus, please
Don't let him near me. He's as like as twins.
        He can crack us like lice with his fingernail.
I can see him plain as a pikestaff. Look how he grins
And swings the scaly horror of his folded tail.
At some time we must all move into the dark of fear, because "in a dark time, the eye begins to see." In his signature poem, In A Dark Time, Theodore Roethke expands on that first line with, "I meet my shadow in the deepening shade." I can't imagine more moving or disconcerting lines than these:
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
Roethke also provides a formula for transcending fear, one that echoes Rita Dove's notion of moving through the forest toward freedom:
...A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Though the wind continues to blow, instead of falling prey to the terrors our minds create, we can enter within, find our courage, and become "free in the tearing wind." Instead of letting fears lead us by the nose, we become like William Stafford in With Kit, Age Seven, At the Beach. "What would you tell your child?" he inquires, if you were gazing at a turbulent sea and he asked, "How far could you swim, Daddy, / in such a storm?"
"As far as was needed," I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
"This could be forever.../ from here to the distant edge / where it looks like / you can fall off the world," warns Sharon Thomson in On The Flatlands, "... but you don't.  We know that. / Breathe..." 

Yes, breathe.

The images in Nina Bogin's Initiation II imply a realization of maturity ("When I walked up the road, the string sack / heavy on my arm, I thought / that my legs could take me anywhere..."), of moving through our feelings of powerlessness and into our own "home," as Bogin did:
...I climbed the pink stairs, entered
the house as calm and ephemeral
as my own certainty:
this is my house, my key,
my hand with its new lines.
I am as old as I will ever be.
Note the paradox in "ephemeral as my own certainty." Certainty may be transitory, but we will keep finding our way home when we realize that -- however blown about by external circumstances -- only we have the key.  Stephen Spender gives us that key in his poem about Dolphins leaping out of the waves, "The sun fragmented / To broken glass / By the stiff breeze... / their delight / Outside, displaying / My heart within":
...The dolphins write such
With power to wake
Me prisoned in
My human speech
They sign:
'I AM!'

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