Cyrano de Bergerac
A couple of weeks ago, on my Quotidian page, I posted the following long poem, which my nearest and dearest (and perhaps a few of my former students) will recognize as a long - time favorite of mine.For those who have not read it before, here is one of the best parables I have ever encountered on the topic of sacrifice and the price of experience. This man does not cut off his nose to spite his face. No, he does it to gain both the world and his soul.
I think perhaps rather than sacrifice, this poem may really be more about an idea that came to attention ~ coincidentally! ~ as I was turning the calendars ahead to July: opportunity cost, i.e., "the cost of any activity measured in terms of the best alternative forgone . . . the sacrifice related to the second best choice available to someone who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices . . . the basic relationship between scarcity and choice. The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources [ ~ such as true love ~ ] are used efficiently. Thus, opportunity costs are not restricted to monetary or financial costs: the real cost of output forgone, lost time, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility should also be considered opportunity costs" (see Wikipedia for further explanation and footnotes).
An even better explanation is provided by the young entrepreneurs who designed the Indiana Council for Economic Education 2011 Economic Concept Calendar. The featured concept for July is "Opportunity Cost," illustrated by fifth grader, Abbie S.: "When you make a decision, the most valuable alternative you give up is your Opportunity Cost. (Opportunity Cost is NOT what you pay to buy something.) There is always an alternative to any decision, so every decision has an opportunity cost" (click ICEE, scroll down to page 7 for calendar contest winners; clicking on the winning entries link will give you a preview of next year's 2012 calendar).
Another way to think of it is the passage from George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara (but also ascribed to novelist H. G. Wells; a discrepancy that I have not yet resolved to my satisfaction):
That always feels at first
as if you have lost something."
If there is a decision, an alternative, something to learn . . . then there will be a cost, something forgone, something to lose.
Following Lee Perron's poem, you will find a couple of letters. All the connections are self - explanatory, I think. So, please, read on and enjoy:
from Desire, a Sequence (1977)
by Lee Perron, California Poet & Antiquarian Bookseller
there are so many innocent little things we want
with application and luck and a good nudge from the gods
we may have any of them
it's those gods -- they bestow all things upon you
and they do not ask for much in return
they will give you everything & they will ask back from you only
some small thing --
for instance, they might ask for your nose
come on, they say, why don't you just chuck it in
put it down the garbage disposal and as soon as it works its way
back into the earth we'll give you whatever you want
the deciduous idea! trees die for half the year & take all else in
-- i can hear what's going on in your mind: what, my nose? oh
no, not me, you must be thinking of some other guy
but you know, a man might do it
he might take a knife & cut a little deeper every day
and if by the second week he's still only through the skin and
hasn't really gotten to the bone yet
in that second week he decides to lob off the whole thing at once
and there he is with no nose
people laugh at him
but immediately the gods start bestowing their gifts
they give him patience & application
he learns how to do things right
slowly he grows in command of his will & intellect
and with these he acquires whatever he feels he needs:
a wife, lovers, respect in his community, a drum set
the capacity to drink limitless quantities of gin
but what is hard right from the start is that nose
he sighs often (through his mouth) and is heard to say
without my nose sometimes none of it seems to make sense
his friends show up and remind him of the cold hard facts of
his noseless life
they tell him to apply himself
and he's back at work again, gathering his desires
sometimes he wonders if he really had to go out & cut off his
nose just to learn how to get things
maybe he could have just gone out and gotten them
but no, he looks around & sees that no one with a nose has
anywhere near the things he does, not a tenth so much,
not a hundredth
whenever he takes a trip to one of those big medical cities --
boston, baltimore, houston, he'll go & talk to the medics
what can you do about this nose? he'll ask
what nose? they reply
he has learned to be earnest always: can you do anything about
getting me another one?
but when the doctors hear the circumstances
-- his confused early life,
his vow to the gods, the garbage disposal
-- they won't touch him with a ten foot pole
there are good years and bad
he goes through periods where he is a great complainer
what is the point of it, he says, if i have no nose?
his friends show up to console him
well at least you'll never have to rub your nose in your own
filth, they say
his friends become his tormentors
there is a long time he won't speak to anyone
night after night he dreams his nose has come back
each night it's the same shape, but a different size
somewhere along the line, tho, he stops fighting things so hard
there are always people to make jokes, even upon the wealthy & successful
he makes them himself in moments of despair
he will howl, every yes must have a no
but every ass must have a nose!
and on his tombstone the universal jester gets off a last good one:
an excellent man / got everything a man / could want; said yes
to all / but could have used more nose
so they laugh at him in the graveyard
but you listen, when that man died he had finally achieved every-
children, grandchildren, troops of friends
the warm feelings of all who knew him
earlier on concubines & no desire left unfulfilled
an animal park names in his honor
real progress in the field of cancer
a fully benevolent philosopher-king in charge of his country
universal justice prevailing throughout the land
at the end they hear him say
you know, if i had it to do all over again, i'd like to try it with
my nose the next time
and he dies
& it is nothing like the death of priam or macbeth
or any of those other simpletons
this man got everything
you have seen it perhaps
there is always the time the car stops
in front of the big white house
or gray house, or blue
it will not go any further with you
the car is stopped
and one of you must get out
and the other drive off
it is all that simple
-- do you think i am talking of love?
or you will be driving down a country road
and there are two sparrows
or buntings or bluebirds
and you hit one of these and it lies by the roadside
and its mate circles about chittering
and then sits on a fencepost
and sings something
this mate, perhaps, is inconsolable
i am not talking about love
your mate dies, or parents
or one of your other friends
there is nothing fearful in the death
the deadman is not the problem
his letters perhaps
some phrase he spoke that rings every after
the way he died, what the surgeons did to his brain, or kidneys,
what you & he would have been doing now
next week, all summer long as you always did
the deadman did not die
your plans died
and this is what is so upsetting
this makes us so sick we cannot even think
i have seen all the trees
and the great views from mountains
the tiniest flowers within inches of my eye
but i have seen nothing more beautiful than human desire
in the country, the lawns just going purple with violets
we would have these violets and one particular friend
we have shattered the glazed bowl and make another
rounder, or less symmetrical, or with a plainer glaze
who could blame us? at sunset, we ask for wine
in white dawn we take coffee
we make lovely worlds more & more lovely
and then we see they are better simple
and then we make them simple
this desire is very much like song
our melodies everywhere about us
like butterflies, our desires hover about our heads and our hands
in this beauty
the car stops
the arm reaches for the doorhandle
and there is nothing left to it but the pulling up on the handle
there is away the eyes have of gazing intently downward
the legs slide onto the pavement
and one of your looks back through the car widow
you may touch one another's lips, or not
it hardly makes any difference, so beautiful is desire
Letter from Ben McCartney to Lee Perron
28 March 2003
Dear Mr. Perron,
I am a 7th grade student, writing to you from St. Peter's School in Philadelphia. I want to tell you what a remarkable and memorable impression your poem "from Desire, a Sequence," has made on me.
Every month, every student at St. Peter's has to memorize a poem and recite it before his or her class. Then a few speakers from each class are chosen to recite their poems before the entire school. About a year ago, my mother showed me your poem, about the man who cuts off his nose in order to get whatever he wants from the gods. After reading your fascinating poem, I knew that I wanted to recite it at the next poetry declamation. I was successful in my class presentation and went on to win the award for the month and the all-school Declamation Award for 2002. I had several other successful poems throughout the year, but yours was the best of all.
In our family, we refer to your poem as "The Nose Poem," and we all love it. My mother (Kitti Carriker) learned of this poem years ago when she was a student of Professor Jim Barnes and Professor Andrew Grossbardt at Northeast Missouri State University, Kirksville. She discovered your poem in The Chariton Review, 1977. After college, she became an English teacher, and she told me that she taught this poem to her students every year. But I think what made her the happiest was being able to share it with me and my dad and my brother.
Since your poem appears in The Chariton Review titled "from Desire, a Sequence," we have always wondered if there is more to the sequence than appears here. We would all be greatly interested in learning more about this poem, as well as other poems that you have written. Please let us know where we could look for more of your work (so far we have not been successful in the library or on amazon.com).
Thanks again for your wonderful poem about the man who understood the price he had to pay in order to get everything!
William Benedict McCartney
P.S. I hope you will enjoy the enclosed video tape from Friday, April 26, 2002. Despite my very best efforts to do your poem justice, I accidentally omitted a few lines right near the end. I was mortified, but luckily no one in the audience (except maybe my mom) seemed to notice.
Letter from Lee Perron to Ben
25 April 2005
Your letter was a most pleasant surprise. Thank you so much for it, and for the tape of your reading, and for the news that you and your mother have memorized my 25 year old poem. I'm quite honored by your appreciation of my unassuming anti-hero. In truth, I had long since forgotten the poem. I can hardly describe the eerie, wonderful feeling of learning that it lives in the memory of people two thousand miles away and is still mentioned on occasion in classrooms.
The situation reminds me of a matter in the life of the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who wrote a poem of protest against the imprisonment of her son by the oppressive regime of Joseph Stalin. She was able to recite it in public one or two times before the authorities stepped in and destroyed all written copies of it and forbade her to recite it again. Twenty years later, under a somewhat more open government, she wanted to work on the poem once more, but didn't have a copy. However, there were people from her audiences years before who, having heard it just once or twice, had memorized it. They were able to bring the whole text -- many pages in length-- back for her.
To answer your questions: I'm not sure now whether or not I had other poems in a group to be called Desire, A Sequence. At any rate, no such book appeared. While writing has always been an important part of my life, I have tended not to publish work. Someone once invented the term "privishing" to designate printing & distributing written work to a few friends, as distinct from putting work out to the publish ("publishing"). I've been a privisher, customarily sending one poem a year -- a winter solstice greeting -- to family and friends. Something in this practice gives just the right amount of emphasis to the fact of my existence, and I take satisfaction in it and don't seem to want anything more of writing.
It happens my wife and I are moving . . . this spring. In order to avoid moving excess baggage from one attic to the next, I'm attempting to look over every piece of paper in 8 large and ponderous boxes of old poems and daily journals. Somewhere in the mass I'll find a copy of from Desire, a Sequence and will look at it for the first time in all these years and consider whether or not to hang on to it. To hear that both your mother and you have memorized is sure to land it in the keeper file.
Are you a writer yourself? If in the future you should publish a poem I would be delighted it you'd make a photocopy and forward it here.
Many thanks again for keeping my poem alive and for you your letter.
P.S. Enclosed a copy for you of a small "book" of mine that did manage to find publication -- something to be carried around in a shirt pocket.
Letter from Jim Barnes to Kitti
6 May 2003
Thank you for the nice letter -- and the copies of your son's and Lee's letters. Happenings like this make all my years of editing worth it. The reward is the work and the knowing that it has meant something to someone out there in the world.
Let me hear from you: what you are up to, where you are teaching, what you are writing. You have a near - teenage so! My goodness, where has the time gone? Rhetorical question, of course. The mirror tells me each day: I am not Dorian Gray.
Peace and love,
Letter from Jim Barnes to Kitti
8 July 2011
Did I tell you of my encounter with Lee--after having published several of his poems in Chariton? Spring of 1978: I was giving a reading of my work at U. Cal.-- Berkeley. I dropped a hint that I needed a ride, after the reading, back to my hotel at the San Mateo airport. Several offers were presented. One big fellow (6 feet, 6 inches, I'd say) stepped forward barefooted and stuck out his front paw. It was Lee, who'd seen the announcement of the reading in Poetry Pilot and had driven up from Walnut Creek. We had a great drive to my hotel and some really fine conversation. As it turned out, I discovered that Lee had a good friend in Lafayette, Indiana, at the university--Neil Myers, who ten years later, was to be one of the editors for my Purdue book La Plata Cantata. But now Lee and I somehow have lost contact . . .
Peace and love,
See? In every encounter there's a coincidence!
Now, we just need to get this blog post to
Mr. Perron to complete the connection!
[Additional posts on Jim Barnes, Andrew Grossbardt, and The Chariton Review include: Missouri Poets, Quinton Duval, Tomatoes & Gravy, Parallax, and Penelope]
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, July 14, 2011
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