I no longer have the arrogance to believe I will live beyond this word, this thought, this sentence. And as for being understood, that hardly seems important. Do I understand myself? Am I even meant to be understood? And if I think I am understood, does that mean I am? And is that really desirable? I go on writing and publishing. None of it is for me to decide. After all of these years of loving it and doing it, I am still loving it and doing it, and I am loving it and doing it more. In this it is obvious that I am like countless others. Are you one? Reading this, do you smile? Do you laugh? Do you shake your head? Do you nod?
Do Not Be Crippled by Reason
“Do not be crippled by reason.” These words I uttered in a lecture once, though the hall was empty and no one came. In the foyer, Van Gogh was painting tickets. He finished three. They’re in a museum now, inside a glass display. His chair and pipe are beside them, wilting beneath the artificial light.
It was a night in September, in the year 1890. Sentimental, weary, and wise, I had been asked by the Academy to recall the journey of my life. I was flattered, of course, and paid quite well. A loaf of stale bread it was, and one bitter onion. I was to read, then sign, copies of my work, which was published only in my head.
“Let me begin by explaining who I am.” I always started that way. How else was one to know? Yesterday was different, and the year before. But I seldom could remember. That night was the same. At the age of eighty-nine, at the expense of so much fame, I fumbled at the lectern, coughed, adjusted my necktie, said, “Now, where was I?”
Though it frightened me to do so, I imagined a bright child sitting in the front row. It was the first time she’d been away from her mother, who in haste had left her father, and then returned to find him gone. Though he had only left to buy tobacco, her story was more than sad. She looked at me and smiled.
With my death bed on the stage behind me, I hoarsely rattled on. It was someone’s idea of a joke, I know, down to the last candle and flower. How spectacular it would have been, had I sputtered in one last convulsion of joy, the truth, or something very much like it, and then gratefully expired.
But that was not to be. Honesty forbade it, and the boredom of the hour. If it weren’t for the girl, I would have concluded. Outside, my carriage was waiting. The driver was asleep, warmed by the contents of an empty, well-turned bottle, while snow was falling down. He snored patiently, wrapped in his old wool coat.
“And so it was in the Seventies,” I managed to relate. My room had overlooked the river, my stove was above the gate. I used to work for days on end, with scarcely food or water. My rug was braided horse hair, my hearth a fallen tree. I killed a man for bread once, or was about to, when the church bells rang.
I felt a pang of guilt. It is one thing to be hungry, quite another to interrupt one’s work. I saw the bishop begging in the courtyard, and a raven pecking in the dirt. The choir followed slowly, marching up the street. They called for revolution, and an end to dogmatic dread. I heard them singing. That is what they said.
My book was never finished. The city I lived in was burned. I walked out through the cinders, met orphans at every turn. The river was red with blood. The church bells pealed on. Confusion reigned on horseback, solitude and mercy were twenty cents a pound.
“You were lucky not to have been there,” I confessed somewhat at length. For my other volumes, Fate decreed the same. My lifetime passed, with nothing ever gained. I worked my fingers to the bone. I wrote and starved and wept, and lived my life alone. My presence here is a savage miracle: the others have died, but I am still alive.
The audience was stunned and silent. The girl and I were married, then we rode around the square. We lived happily in a village, and on the open plain. My bride grew up before me as I wrote my life away. One by one, the children came. I kissed them each new morning, and in the evening did the same.
And that, dear friends, was my last speech before the Academy. I must confess, it wasn’t taken seriously. Now I am two hundred and four, the father of seventy, and the grandfather of many more. And I am proud to say, not one of them is crippled by sanity. There must be a reason, but what that reason is, I’m not sure.
Songs and Letters, April 10, 2005
I think of this as a poem. But it’s also a story. I suppose it’s both. Whatever the case, I am almost certain it appeared in Barbaric Yawp in 2008 or so. Old email correspondence in which the editor proposes the July issue of that year bears this out. For now, that will have to do, as I don’t have the time or courage to dig through the stack of old Yawps in my Small Press Closet. Avalanches, you know.
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Categories: Songs and Letters