"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dark Within Dark Within Dark

Romantic Sheepskin ~♥~ Wallet

"Keep the Faith" might not be an obvious love poem, but I think it's a good one for today, with its theme of darkness and depression to match our collective SADness, winter blues, and sunlight deprivation. And, sweetly, after all the darkness, there's a happy ending that revolves around the image of a folded heart -- a Valentine!

I've had a fading, mimeographed copy of this poem by Jack Butler in one of my old notebooks since college days, though in all honesty I cannot recall how or where I first came across it, back in 1983 or so. Was it a class assignment? Did Butler visit campus and give a reading that I attended? Despite my hazy memory of how the poem made its way into my collection of favorites, I could never forget the narrator's despairing descent into that "darkness somewhere in which you do not love me":

Keep the Faith
I think perhaps there is some darkness somewhere
in which you do not love me. Falling to sleep,
I cross that simple zone in which I keep
my solitary vigil. I am there.
And the blue truth of my being is also there,
that I am worth nothing, a heatless flame.

I am that territory and its name.
It is no place for strangers: Beware, Beware
floats over its dark coast in letters of blue fire
that are not reflected in the dark water lapping rock.

Falling to sleep, I think there is some darkness somewhere
In which you do not love me, dark within dark within dark.
I think, Maybe my wallet, folded like a heart
in the dark of my locked briefcase, in the dark of our bedroom.

And then tomorrow, standing in the stink and fume
at the daylit gas-pump, all of us hurrying to work,
my blunt fingers will be astounded to discover
only green bills, that I love and have a lover.

by Jack Butler
American poet (b 1944)

Two more descriptions
of the interior of depression, the "solitary vigil":

1. from Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
by Harriet Chessman, American novelist (b 1951)

This is a work of historically accurate fiction narrated from the point of view of the artist Mary Cassatt's sister, Lydia. Chessman's lengthy description of the taunting message of self-doubt that plays over and over in Lydia's head reminded me of Butler's poem. Lydia's specific doubts are about being a suitable artist's model for her sister; but more generally, for Lydia and for everyone, the doubts are always about being lovable, worthy of love. In a vivid and painful image, Lydia refers to the emotional noise as a "thousand bees," buzzing all around and stinging her. She berates herself mentally, but her anguish feels nearly physical, akin to the tortured practice of girls cutting themselves. In a similar manner, she goes on to explain that she is both the queen bee and the "object of their attacks," which I now realize is the same thing Butler means when he says that "I am that territory and its name." The problem is circular, not linear:

". . . I think to myself, with hesitant pride, yes, I am, I am quite a good model, and as soon as I think this, I chasten and mock myself, sending my thousand little bees to sting me, and sing their disdain: How could you think, the song always begins, and the thousand bees hum and mumble and murmur into my ear, adding new verses as they find new places to thrust their stingers in. All you've done is sit here, they hum, and you're not even pretty, you're pale as a ghost and a bag of bones too, and then the fiercer ones sing, She's changed you into a figure of beauty, through oil and canvas, but how can you think she's pictured you as you really are? I'm used to these insects. I seem to own them, after all. They occupy a special place on my acre, complete with bee - boxes I myself seem to tend, in my veils and gloves. I'm their queen, as much as I'm the sorry object of their attacks. They fatten on my clover and apple - blossoms and honeysuckle, and they practice their songs in the warm sun on my meadow. So I can't blame anyone but myself when they come to sting" (31 - 32).

Five O'Clock Tea, 1880

2. from The Dogs of Babel
by Carolyn Parkhurst, American novelist (b 1971)
(see Highlights from 2006 on my Book List)

Parkhurst's character Lexy Ransome would understand the buzzing, stinging bees of Lydia's self - doubt. Lexy too is trapped in a relentless cycle of replaying the negative interior tapes, hearing the harsh criticism, trying to tune it out, recognizing that she herself is the source of the noise, imploring her smart voice to repeat all the wise mantras that she knows to be true, anything to shout down those bees. Again, I was reminded of Butler's poem: "the blue truth of my being is also there, / that I am worth nothing, a heatless flame." The voice of worthlessness, doubt, and insecurity keeps buzzing: you're so stupid, you're so stupid . . . you shouldn't be here, you shouldn't be here . . . sorry sorry sorry. Things like that. Lexy wonders how alien such internal conflict must seem to the self - confident:

"You wake up and you feel -- what? Heaviness, an ache inside, a weight, yes. A soft crumpling of flesh. A feeling like all the surfaces have been rubbed raw. A voice in your head -- no, not voices, not like hearing voices, nothing that crazy, just your own inner voice, the one that says 'Turn left at the corner' or 'Don't forget to stop at the post office,' only now it's saying 'I hate myself' . . . you try to find pleasure in little things . . . but you can tell you're trying too hard. You have breakfast with your husband, your sweet unknowing husband, who can't see anything but the promise of a bright new day. And you say your apologies -- you're sorry, you're always sorry, it's a feeling as familiar as the taste of water on your tongue" (252 - 253).

What would it take for Lydia and Lexy to feel "the promise of a bright new day," to "Keep the Faith," to believe that they are worthwhile as they are? What magical formula, prescription, philosophical stance or inner resources could redirect the bees and quiet the voice of judgment? How did the bees get in there in the first place? Who installed the tapes?

How profound, how accurate is Butler's description of the hurtful, doubtful landscape of isolation inside one's head: "no place for strangers . . . dark within dark within dark." The only way to feel loved once again is to extricate yourself from that "dark coast . . . the dark water lapping rock" -- not always easy. No one can come in and get you; you have to save your own life -- by believing that you are likeable and lovable. I've never really come up with a totally satisfactory interpretation of Butler's closing wallet image, except perhaps to assume that in broad daylight the narrator gains the perspective and security to see that his night fears are unfounded. To see, in the restorative light of day, "that I love and have a lover."

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, February 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Lydia Cassatt Working at the Tapestry Loom, 1881

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