Contributor’s Marginalia: Ryan Wilson on “From the Book of the Living” by Wesley Rothman
Most of us do not like often to think about death. Not as a real thing, anyway, one that we must at some point experience until we don’t. We say that it’s ‘creepy,’ or that it’s ‘morbid’ or ‘depressing.’ Maybe it is. But really we don’t like to think about death because to think about death is always to think about life, and nothing is quite so terrifying as life. Specifically, nothing is so terrifying as our own lives, which are always so much more valuable and meaningful than we perceive, more valuable and meaningful even than we would wish them to be. What we want most often is the exemption of meaninglessness, the spot in the juniper shade where we may be disencumbered of the light’s burden: what we want is to escape from time and its barbarous consequence into the elegant stillness of an isolated present.
Media vita in morte sumus. So goes the famous Latin antiphon, one of the funeral sentences in The Order for the Burial of the Dead. ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ It is a statement whose brute power has been, perhaps, diminished by familiarity, as the marble hand of the statue in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria has been thinned from the generations of passersby touching it. But the statement, if we allow ourselves to grasp it, remains chilling. It is chilling because it requires us to consider just how, while we lay nestled in the downy comfort of our routines, death has insinuated its shadowy fingers around our throats. It is chilling because, on considering it, we may begin to suspect that we are living something less than life, that we are somehow failing to live up to the splendors that life promises, that we have settled for the comfort of death, have buried parts of ourselves and have prevented other parts from being born for fear of some possible joy that would destroy us, that would transform us. What we want is control, the ability to circumscribe the consequences, and therefore the meaning, of our actions.
Perhaps this desire for control is why we experience so deeply both beauty and terror when we encounter images of the afterlife. From Book xii of Homer’s Odyssey, book vi of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Commedia to excellent recent poems by the likes of A.E. Stallings and Joanna Pearson, the image of the afterlife is almost always an encounter with what Freud calls Das Unheimliche, or the ‘uncanny,’ a sort of skewed likeness of our world that, for all its likeness, is not governed by the same rules we suppose to govern our world and which, therefore, forces us to question whether or not the rationality by which we navigate through life is, ultimately, sufficient. That is, the image of the afterlife terrifies us because the existence of an afterlife suggests we do not, in fact, possess the control which we desire and which we pursue with our rational minds through abstract thought, and it seems beautiful to us because of its appeal to that which is irrational—the bodily, the primal, the imaginative, the animal, the stranger—within us. We who generally proceed by a breezy casualness are suddenly struck by the possibility that all is not as we supposed, that though we are subjects and live for better or for worse with subjectivity, we may yet be subject to a pattern or order beyond our comprehension.
One shudders at the eldritch chill of such Twilight Zone-type moments. And that shudder, precisely, is the effect of Wesley Rothman’s ‘From the Book of the Living.’ Mr. Rothman’s greatest technical achievement in this poem is his management of tone—newsy, almost flippant, unmistakably and perfectly casual. And, in the poem’s most brilliant turn, it is the very casualness of the tone that horrifies. When Mr. Rothman writes, ‘in all, / it’s your average town. Now / and again, new neighbors move in / to the blue two-story, or the brick / brownstone, sometimes single, / other times whole families,’ there is a split-second before one realizes that the appearance of these ‘new neighbors’ means their disappearance from life, that the speaker is casually describing the deaths of ‘whole families.’ Indeed, the effect of the casual tone here is similar to the one produced by the narrator’s laconic description of his dismembering the old man in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ The effect is horror, and that horror is so much more horrible because it’s so familiar, so much the tone of the nightly news, so much our own detached and rational tone.
Similarly, we might also note that Mr. Rothman’s poem diverges from other poems about the realm of the dead in its absence of plot. In Homer, Virgil, and Dante, as in Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’ there is a journey, a quest, which leads into the land of the unliving. These poems all chronicle the journeys of their protagonists, who are men apart and who must, by venturing into the underworld or the wasteland, discover their proper places in the order of things, their proper identities, which reside in their relationships to others. Odysseus and Aeneas must accept the burden of the past in order to fulfill their future destinies, and the destinies of their countrymen; Dante must face the realities of sin and atonement in order to be redeemed in love and in order that others might follow his example toward peace and reconciliation; Childe Roland must venture alone across the barren plain on which ‘a burr had been a treasure-trove’ to find his place among ‘the lost adventurers my peers,’ suggesting his reconciliation to the common fate of man and the eradication of his earlier vitriol toward the ‘hoary cripple’ and his own morally deficient predecessors. The coup of Mr. Rothman’s poem is that there is no such quest. This absence of the quest, or of the journey, suggests that, in our time, death is not a realm apart from life, but is intimately bound up in life. One needn’t go anywhere in order to enter the wasteland. In fact, it is not, Mr. Rothman’s poem suggests, the thwarting of the quest, as in Eliot, but the absence of the quest that is the true sign of the wasteland. We drowse placidly in the selva oscura, and are undisturbed by Death’s quiet ministrations.
This notion is heightened by the subtlety of the poem’s opening lines, ‘The city of the dead is bloated / with life. People go on sowing…’. The paratactic relationship between the first two sentences leaves it unclear whether or not the people who ‘go on sowing their gardens’ and so forth are in the ‘city of the dead.’ The effect is that life and death are blurred, merged; the ‘going on’ and ‘death’ become synonymous. And this effect is amplified by the poem’s entirety, which depicts the ‘city of the dead’ in such a way that it is not easy to discern immediately what differentiates it from our own cities. And here, I think, is the point: that our lives have so much of death in them, the death of being changed utterly, and the death of being utterly unchanged. At least, I think it’s part of the point. The other part comes from asking what it is that’s missing from the ‘city of the dead.’ The obvious answer is ‘authentic life,’ but what is it precisely that inheres in life that is missing from Mr. Rothman’s necropolis, which is, after all, ‘bloated with life’? I suppose it’s something like, ‘the unforeseen,’ or ‘the wild,’ or ‘the disorderly,’ or the ‘un-stereotypical,’ an access to that spiritual wilderness in which empathy and love flower terribly, for the town Mr. Rothman describes, pleasant as it may seem, smacks of the rosy-cheeked nightmares of Norman Rockwell, of a life so perfectly ordered as not to be life at all. The ‘artists’ of this town are, after all, grouped with the ‘biotechnicians.’ Even the ostensible wildness of the children, who ‘prank the neighbors’ or ‘blow up / mailboxes,’ seems somewhat antiseptic, not spontaneous but sterile and typological, a kind of conformist disobedience in which rebellion is reduced to a gesture. What’s missing in this town is genuine terror, and genuine joy.
It was Coleridge, perhaps, who most memorably approached this theme. In his Ancient Mariner, the crew of the ‘painted ship / upon a painted sea’ is doomed because it denies the wrong of killing the albatross, and, in this denial, the sailors have denied that part of themselves which Freud would call the ‘id,’ and Jung the ‘shadow’ or ‘the undiscovered self.’ They have separated themselves from nature, and live in a kind of idealistic delusion, an artificial world of their own making, which is the justification for the description of the ship given above. And this artificial world is their death, or life-in-death in the case of the ancient mariner himself.
Of course, this theme of our alienation from our deeper selves has been a common one in poetry of the last 200 years. It is, mutatis mutandis, the theme of Wordsworth’s Prelude, in which the developing poet struggles against the abstracting intellectual power of William Godwin; it is the theme of much of Arnold, that great neglected poet who was always after ‘the knowledge of our buried life,’ or that ‘central stream of what we feel indeed’ that lies beneath ‘what we think we feel’; it is what Yeats has in mind when he speaks of ‘the uncontrollable mystery of the bestial floor’; it is what Stevens sought to capture in ‘ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds,’ and it why Robert Penn Warren spent his illustrious career pursuing that ‘colder fire’ in which ‘all voice is but echo caught from a soundless voice’ and in which ‘all joys should rejoice.’ That this theme keeps reappearing in our own time is telling, for not only is this the theme, as it seems to me, of Mr. Rothman’s excellent poem, but it is also the theme, or very close to it, of Caki Wilkinson’s recent ‘Welcome to Pleasant Bluff,’ a necessary dagger of a poem about gentrification, both physical and spiritual, that appeared in a recent Kenyon Review. I say it is telling that this theme keeps reappearing because it suggests that, for all the cultural advancements of the past two centuries, we continue to lose touch, or to have lost touch, as a culture, not only with Nature but also with our own nature, with ourselves. When we distract ourselves indefatigably from our own inner darkness, when we assume that evil and death belong to others but not to ourselves, when we serve as our own ‘biotechnicians’ and isolate ourselves in illusory worlds where ‘People do not die, nor / are they born,’ we do not, as we might hope, elude death’s grasp: we merely ensure that ‘The city of the dead is bloated / with life.’ We may hide in our routines and in our material comforts the way children hide by covering their heads with their blankets, and our hiding may keep us from seeing Death, but Death is always in the room, always watching us with a tender, doting eye.
And this last is, I think, the sense carried by the moon’s appearance at the conclusion of Mr. Rothman’s poem. Clearly, Mr. Rothman’s is not the mystical ‘moon of maiden stars’ from Crashaw’s elegy for St. Teresa of Avila; rather, it is a moon akin to that one, triste et beau, which is the presiding influence over Verlaine’s exquisite ‘Clair de Lune’ and Wilde’s Salome. As a brightness in darkness, the moon is a figure of life-in-death, a symbol of the lost soul. Indeed, readers of Dante may recall that in Inferno x, Farinata refers to the face of the moon as la faccia della donna che qui regge, or ‘the face of the lady who reigns here.’ The moon, for Dante, was another figure for Hecate, or Proserpina, and was the emblem of the Queen of Hell, or, alternately, a figure for Cain, as Vergil points out at the conclusion of Inferno xx. In this context, Mr. Rothman’s last lines are brutally ironic: ‘And the moon is always shining, / a blue comfort on our dark town.’ The irony is, indeed, almost too perfect. On the surface, these lines obviously point to the sentimental cliché of the moon being a ‘comfort’; however, when we recall that it is the pursuit of comfort itself, at the expense of spiritual or moral honesty, that separates these townspeople from the living, we find that Mr. Rothman’s poem is most savage in its criticism of life when it seems to be most conciliatory.
Such an effect is masterful, and the last lines work in harmony with the rest of the poem, succeeding in offering a brutal criticism of our age without hectoring didacticism. The poem succeeds because the speaker doesn’t point fingers, because the speaker is one of us, is inculpated as much as those he inculpates. If we do live in the wasteland, if this is the selva obscura, our true consolation and hope must reside not in the prettiness of the moon but in the fact that there remains the potential within us to balance, as Mr. Rothman does in his fine poem, such a trenchant, individualistic, and critical vision with the humility to affirm our communal unity. It is only in the balance between such honesty of vision and the recognition of the ultimate, mystical unity of all people that our deepest love and joy are possible, and it is only through love and joy that we may pursue that way, that truth, that life that leads beyond death.
Ryan Wilson holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and Boston University. Recent work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in a number of journals, including Able Muse, First Things, The Hopkins Review, The Journal, Measure, Raintown Review, River Styx, Sewanee Theological Review, and Unsplendid. He is currently a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America. He and his wife live in Baltimore.