I wanted to let Thanksgiving pass, and the Chamber of Commerce's holy days go by as well, before speaking of holiday burdens. I'm not one to write a diary about emotions in any case, and I beg pardon now.
Holidays, though, can make those of us who are alone or depressive feel as if we are pregnant with a void. This weight of nothingness in our stomachs grows and grows as radio, television, and shop windows chant the days left until it's delivered -- just as they do to gravid women (whose bellies become community property by virtue of "Awww, cute"). Each B-roll crammed television ad, every news story about traditions and shopping stampedes makes the birth ever more implosive.
Lousy metaphor, but it fits the feeling. All that really arrives at a holiday is expectation, but expectations make for long and painful labor.
I don't believe "seasonal affective disorder" is worth much outside of a clinical setting. If it's a disorder, then it refers to inappropriate emotions, and it's not inappropriate for unmarried, childless people to feel melancholy, nor for those suffering financially or medically. If it's a sickness to feel sad about being alone or poor or sick, then America's industrial efficiency at building whole-life experiences called "holidays" is a public health menace.
So I'm not going to talk about seasonal blues. I'm going to talk about Thanksgiving day, Christmas day, and New Year's Eve.
I know, as the fellow said, that "I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in." What most depresses me about the holidays is how darned whining I can be about them, and I get like that because of two fundamental mistakes: looking at others, and looking at what I have given back. If you follow below, I'll use two poems -- Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Thou art indeed just Lord if I contend" and John Berryman's "Dream Song 385" -- to show how these two fundamental habits of looking at others and looking at one's worth lead to that ethereal, ghostly feeling that often makes the holidays wretched.
I love poetry, and I have read a great deal of it. One consequence is that some snatches of verse can come to my lips or sound themselves out in my mind compulsively. When they do, there is usually something they want to show me about what I am doing. The concluding lines of G. M. Hopkins's "Thou art indeed just" and the opening lines of John Berryman's "Dream Song 385" come upon me when I am reflexively moody and surly on holidays.
I have thought about what the lines mean in my case, what I am telling myself, and I could sum it up by saying that my chief miseries come from envy and mortality, but no bald nouns can do justice to the experiences of the alone. Most depressed people are not very fond of themselves, so dealing out the additional insult of reduction is no help.
A note on the texts of the poems:
I do not want to fondle, much less violate, copyright, and if I can convince any readers to go out and purchase a Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins or the combined Dream Songs of John Berryman, then I will have done that reader a favor. All that I can say with any certainty is that other people have already made these works available online, and I will link to those sources. With good intentions and strong trepidation, I quote both poems below.
See how the rest of the world prospers?
This is the first crime, the principle mistake, the misplaced stone at the base of the wall, and it can make the alone lonesome.
If you read Gerard Manley Hopkins, you cannot miss how, for him, feelings were not just vivid, but vital. He did not write pastorals or eclogues -- no looking at nature as a lesson or a prop for fair Daphne and the cruelty of love or a symbol of the devil's misrule or the raw material of creation. Instead, he felt in nature a seamless fabric of essence and creation. Yvor Winters complained that, although he bred championship Airedales, he would never compare one of them to Jesus Christ, so Hopkins's "The Windhover" is a bit absurd, but Winters can only say so by misunderstanding the peculiar faith and feeling Hopkins has. Hopkins does not compare the bird, and the bird is not a symbol, nor an allegory; it is a reiteration and reenactment of Jesus even as it remains a bird acting in accord with simple animal life. It shines out the "deep down things" of essence and God's truth, which runs like blood in the flesh of the world.
Hopkins was a Jesuit, and yet the Jesuits did not like him very much. He got poor marks and was treated poorly. His poetry was not published, for the most part, either. Nor has Hopkins's poetry fit with any movement -- least of all those of his age, for it was an age of narrowly academic and broadly colloquial newspaper versifiers. Poetry as worship, as sermon, and occasionally as the only voice that the profound truths of metaphysics could speak was (and still is) hard to consider.
Just listen to this:
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-That's the opening of "The Windhover," and most first time readers are stunned by it. They try to solve it -- which is what one does with sentences -- and that means decoding vocabulary that is archaic and just plain odd, and the words are packed into phrases that are non-idiomatic and bizarre as well. It is almost as if the poet is trying to paralyze one's translating/paraphrasing mind. Did you also notice, though, that all the lines are enjambed? There is no end stopping. The syntax and form actively combat sentence solving, because these lines are all one breath. This opening is read in a long, excited rush of syllables that undulate and hang like the bird in the air. At the same time, the syllables act like a koan, in that they send the left brain scurrying through the whole house of memory so that it cannot interfere with the right brain.
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!
Have you ever heard someone speaking in tongues? Glossolalia sounds like an hyperventilating warble, with joyous sounds in a frenzied fencing match. (There are YouTubs of it, but I do not feel anything would be gained from a link.) The opening of "The Windhover" does not mean very much: it enacts; it enacts the ecstasy of contemplating Christ.
Hopkins wrote of joy so achingly that he could be the saint of joyful verse, but, like John Donne before him, and St. John of the Cross before him, he also wrote of spiritual pain. The "terrible sonnets" cover feelings of doubt and spiritual aridity. For those of you who are not religious, "spiritual drought" is a dread part of every religious life, and you can look at John of the Cross's The Dark Night of the Soul for a theological account of it. The body and mind have pains we know well and anodynes we swallow readily, but the soul has pain, too, and there are fewer things on the shelves for it.
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c
THOU art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, 5
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again 10
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
The poem seems to ask the eternal question of theodicy: as Tom Waits put it, "Why are the wicked so strong/ How do the angels get to sleep,/ When the devil leaves his porch lights on?" As with other Hopkins poems, he practically begs us to misread him. In this case, he offers us a chance to think he's repeating Job or the even more hopeless maelstrom of why the wicked flourish and the virtuous suffer, and he has those syntax-in-bondage structures, too, but for a different reason. "Just" takes on two positions in the two opening lines: God is just, and the petitioner's question is just. God is in the right, and the man is in the right, because both can be true. Without ever arguing, Hopkins cracks the dichotomy we are accustomed to of accuser and accused. He is not doubting God's justice, just asking why "Disappointment" seals all his work.
He has "spent" life on God's cause, and "spent" is multivocal -- sold, used up, worked -- but this spending is all he ever does. He is doomed to spend, not get, and "spend" corresponds with the later complaint that he has no progeny, but only "strain."
The dichotomy is not between a just and unjust God, but between those who achieve wickedness and those who achieve nature. A horny couple will make a baby in its "spare" time, but his works will not "wake" (and the verb is ambiguous; his works are stillborn, they are dead, and they do not wake sinners from their paths). Those who do no toil (such as the lily of the field) also achieve and mock him, for the fields renew in obedience to God's nature.
"Birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain" is one of the saddest lines I know. The wicked and the natural both create, but he is too sublime to be nature's and yet something in providence will not let him achieve the service he longs to give.
Ultimately, the unitary opposition of God's justice serves only to heighten his own worthlessness. He rejects himself as what Alexander Pope would call "amphibious" and a "vile antithesis." The living world's dichotomies reject him, as he rejects them: the carnal do their lusts, and the natural act their nature, but he -- he thinks, strives, works, and is forever caught in toil, strain, and work.
That last agonized cry sounds out across the centuries: to become one of God's creatures rather than the desiccated seed.
* * *
"Birds build, but not I build" is something I mutter to myself quite often when I get near the conventional holiday celebrations. When I am completely alone, I'm alright. The freshly grated rind of Hell is when I am put in a pen with the others.
Each is mated, while I missed that window of one's 20's. Each has a house, while I rent. Each has children, where I . . . . (It's complicated. I helped raise twins until they were three. Everyone in my family thinks that's weird.) I'm simply across the border for them, and each probably has an explanation for "what went wrong." I think generally they don't think about me at all.
Many of you will have run into the same Island of Misfit Toys. What turns me from an outsider to sad, though, is that there is a ritualized game they play, and I can't join in. The reason being at a family gathering makes me sad is because the same groups lay out the same course of conversation each time.
What makes me want to run the high hurdles down the interstate is the nauseating spectacle of man talk and woman talk, boys work and girls work, and the way that every person goes right into the game of personae (and they know mine won't fit). First, topics are laid out along which each participant will compete for place. For men, it will be shooting a goose or deer or ATV's or gas grills, while for women it will be ChildName-ie's school or after school program or the very best dessert ever. Even in the worst of years, they have new guns or paintball simulacra or boats or golf scores. The players then talk to one another and compete to know most or have most. The sex lines only cross on mortgages and promotions.
Don't get me wrong: the academic world is at least as phony as anything I'm talking about here. I have quotations at the ready and aphorisms of my own that make me a hit at urbane gatherings of sophisticates. I'm much worse than Mr. Douglas or Ava Gabor in the family game: I become Arnold Ziffel. All the while, though, I hear a voice: "They build, not build I."
Whether articulated command by law of Caesar (Augustus to Diocletian, they made laws demanding the marriage of Romans to make more Romans) or of religion, or the cruel accountant who measures achievements against capabilities and reports the negatives, holidays loop and hook us back into the network of mortality and generation. The achievements of the flesh and mind that defy erosion are hidden in the boiler rooms and steering houses of the human machine, and so, whether we are voluntarily alone or not, the flesh -- awakened as if magnetically by the nearness of others -- transmits the familiar ancestral demands and omens.
All are sentenced to death, and growth is another way of sinking deeper into the ground. This is the other source of sadness around holidays, an awareness of one's emptiness before the void. What have I made, and how funny is it to even ask?
If only the sea were somehow more like the sky, and if only we used our wings before we grew too fat to fly.
Dream Song 385
My daughter's heavier. Light leaves are flying.
Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying
and other birds, all their wings.
They never greatly flew. Did they wish to?
I should know. Off away somewhere once I knew
Or good Ralph Hodgson back then did, or does.
The man is dead whom Eliot praised. My praise
follows and flows too late.
Fall is grievy, brisk. Tears behind the eyes
almost fall. Fall comes to us as a prize
to rouse us toward our fate.
My house is made of wood and it's made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that's fairly old.
If there were a middle ground between things and the soul
or if the sky resembled more the sea,
I wouldn't have to scold.
my heavy daughter.
I found the text online here.
John Berryman was an alcoholic who killed himself in 1972. I went through college (1980 - 84) at just the time when my professors had met/heard him and consequently despised him, because, like other alcoholics, he disappointed those who looked up to him -- repeatedly, according to them. Further, I heard only dismissals of his poetry. Either he was lumped into the porridge of "Confessional poets" or dismissed as a "New York intellectual fad." I tried to convince my professors that meeting the poems without any sense of the man or the publisher's hype, there are jewels to prize. I made it clear to them that I loathed confessional poetry, but I liked him, and I didn't know nothing about no Book Awards.
Explanatory notes on the poem so we can get them out of the way
The poem makes two allusions: Ralph Hodgson and "Henry." Ralph Hodgson was something of a poet's poet, because he countermarched his age. While Modernism operated by the infamous dictate that "this age does not deserve beauty" and that the twentieth century was incapable of beauty, Hodgson wrote as if immune to not only the movement but even World War I. He wrote eclogic poetry in praise of nature. In particular, he had written a lovely, long poem, "The Skylark." Like Vaughn-Williams's "Lark Ascending," it is evocative of a beauty that is beautiful because of it must evoke and cannot speak itself to us.
* * Back to the poem * *
Berryman's poems look and sound tipsy. They read as if they were tossed together in a single draft by an indifferent "sot to lusts," but it takes a pile of work to sound casual. It takes immense care to look easy. In fact, each poem in the three hundred eighty-five poem sequence has structural development, word play, and extremely rewarding figurative language.
In this case, the poem gains part of its power by what it doesn't say. The prior poem in the sequence addressed the poet's father. The Wikipedia biography is serviceable for background. John Smith, Berryman's father, used to swim out into the ocean with the child on his back and threaten to drown him. He was alcoholic, depressive, and violent. Finally, he killed himself, and the boy discovered the corpse. In "Dream Song 384," the poet imagines visiting Smith's grave, digging up the coffin, and chopping up the cadaver. It is a moment of supreme crisis, and what follows is this. . . the infant daughter's first Thanksgiving and her father's effort at thanksgiving amid death.
I once thought this a strange anti-climax of a poem, but it is no such thing. Look at the nouns; only one of them is alive, and that's the daughter. Everything else -- leaves, house, Ralph Hodgson -- is dead. The daughter is an infant, which is when we measure growth by weight, but it is obvious that the poet is thinking of a different sort of weight.
His daughter is getting heavier. Turkeys have wings, but they do not fly (because they are too heavy). He, himself, once could fly, but now cannot even recall it. Ralph Hodgson, who flew in his verse, is dead and cannot teach him desire for life. Unlike things, which we can make well, we grow heavier, and our wings are less and less a match for our weight. Once he could have escaped to sky or sea (the unknown of death), but growing heavy is silent and eliminates prayer, desire, and death. If only there were a way that we could be between, truly between, spirit and thing, dead and living . . . if we could fly, then he could allow his daughter to sink ever more deeply into the tread of life.
* * They never greatly flew * *
When I am alone, I hear that line, over and again. "Did they wish to?"
When I have the seasons bleeding through the walls, I do not need animated polar bears with soft drinks. If I go out into the wind, or even drive my car past the carcasses that intersected the highways, I won't worry about what letter every kiss begins with or how I could show her I love her with a year's salary in a form that could be dropped down a Dispose-All.
Again, it is when the others are there that I need props to keep me screwed into a present moment so short that I can believe that the waitress at Shoney's really wants me to have the best day ever. Death is neither good nor evil, since every bug and saint and king is under the same sentence, but Thanksgiving deceptions, and the multi-generational photos try to rob us of our place.
The weight accrues, and we can almost Fall. Grievy, brisk times at Thanksgiving through to Christmas to New Year's, and what makes me sad is, after all, the happiness I am not having. When I was young, I could scorn their paths by taking flight. Now, I only know I need to flee.
My favorite Thanksgiving alone was spent in Chapel Hill. The whole town evacuated, it seemed like, and so I went out to the Botanical Gardens (if you're a New Yorker, this is nothing like what you're imagining). I hiked out about a mile or so, up hill upon hill, and I just looked. I did not feel failed or incomplete.
I looked and looked, and I realized something hieratic at the time: there is more to see above me than before me.
It's not much of a lesson or moral or meaning or motto, but there is more above you than before you. In other words, the tug that says, "You haven't checked the boxes we told you to need," is coming from beside you. The chains that are made of exigency, failures, and mistakes are coming from behind you and your other side. Misery is starting from looking at other people. Looking ahead is needful, but not now -- not on the holiday. On a day like this, being alone gives us the freedom to count the bolts of cloth in the mantle of the sky.