A Poem with Commentary
Wally Lee Parker
(Reprint from Issue # 47 of the Bogwen Report — July 5, 2010)
(all rights retained by the author)
One of the things habitual to writing verse is that people assume poems constitute the equivalent of a psychiatric blueprint of the poet’s disarranged mental processes. In truth, verse is probably less revealing of one’s internal self than how that same person drives their car or talks about their neighbors. One of the reasons for this associative lack between verse and the writer’s mental state is that verse requires a high degree of deliberate construction. Versification is a process that impresses a contrived stilting on the alleged stream of consciousness which in turn washes away most of the self-revelation people mistakenly believe lies within poetry. For the most part, the only revelations buried within poetry’s meticulously processed phrases are those the versifier has consciously placed there. What revelation remains is more revealing of the reader than of the writer — which is as it should be.
In other words, if you want to read things written by certifiably crazy people, look at those practicing that improbable juxtaposition of fragmentary sentences called free-verse poetry — which Robert Frost suggested was the equivalent of playing tennis without a net — a.k.a. batting practice.
The artificialness inherent in most versification is one of the reasons I think I’ve moved away from poetry. Unless you can rise to the level of Edgar Allen Poe — and who can — it’s just a hobby. Doing it well is very much an art — or an accident. And if you have anything you feel you absolutely need to say, it would be best to put it in prose — which is hard enough without making it even more difficult by imposing the strictures necessitated by rhyme — or worse yet, free-verse. (Yes. Free-verse has structure — or so I’m told by those with all kinds of letters after their names. And if you listen to it being explained by these ‘lettered’ practitioners of the art, you’ll know what it feels like to be fleeced by a carny.)
As for depression, I suppose in my younger days I had my share. Since then such has evolved into the chronic melancholy common to a very high percentage of the elderly. Just a few weeks ago we were at my doctor’s, and he said to me, “Considering all your medical problems, how are you handling your depression?”
I thought that was a unique question. But with the general aging of the population doctors are being urged to ask it of most everyone over a certain age.
I growled, “What depression?” It seemed impertinent, so I responded with my full grumpy.
“It just seems that in people your age depression often goes undiagnosed.”
“Well,” I replied, “I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work. If someone pisses me off, nowadays I can tell them exactly what I think — after all, it’s not like they can fire me. And if they try beating me, it’s elder abuse — meaning hell for the attacker is just a phone call away. I know that because I’ve had a run in with the elderly police — and can certify through personal experience that they’re nasty (but that’s a story for another day). So I’m not really sure what I’ve got to be depressed about. But I suspect you’re going to tell me.”
Doc raised an eyebrow at my brusque reply — denial must be one of those tale-tale symptoms — and we moved on.
Somewhere along the line I seem to have figured out that the best antidote for melancholy is a steaming ladle of hostility and/or sarcasm. Sarcasm is an art that can reach a degree of literary subtlety as lofty as the most high-brow poetry imaginable. As such, I’m finding I have more native talent for it than I’ve ever had for poetry. But sarcasm, like poetry or prose, is something that must be practiced, and practiced often, to reach its natural eloquence. (Samuel Clemens was a master of the art.)
It reminds me of the first time I talked back to my doctor. It was a Friday afternoon just this spring and I’d come in with chest pains. I had a miserable cold and wanted to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia. We ruled that out, so I was ready to go home. And then he says, “We need to make sure this isn’t related to your heart — so — I think we need to send you to the emergency room.”
Important guideline for retired people — never go to your doctor’s office late on a Friday afternoon unless you’re spurting blood in time with your pulse, vomiting from both ends, or it’s actually obvious you’re going to die otherwise.
“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve gone through this,” I spit back. “Every time I get a pain I get to lay in the emergency room for four to six hours — until they’ve exhausted every excuse for keeping me. Then they tell me to go home and call my cardiologist during regular office hours. I go through this about twice a year. Now that we know it isn’t pneumonia, I want to go home.”
“I really feel uncomfortable with that,” he said. “I think you need to be checked out using equipment I don’t have in my office.”
Finally, after going around and around, I say, “Okay. But I want you to understand that there’s only one reason I’m doing this — and that’s quite simply to humor you. I understand that you wouldn’t want the liability of me going home and dropping dead on either your or your lawyer’s conscience.”
On my part, that was a revolutionary breakout of sarcastic hostility — especially considering that we all know lawyers don’t have a conscience. (Our family lawyer — Harvard educated and doubtless something of a campus radical at the time — an exception.)
So I went to the emergency room. I lay around for six hours. They finally came in and said, “We can’t find anything significant, so you can go. Just check with your cardiologist during regular office hours.”
After meeting our insurance deductible for the year (I went on Medicare the very next month), the simple act of humoring my doctor cost us over one-thousand dollars.
Anyway, for a number of years I’ve had a few fragment of this verse lying around. Someplace in the last six or so months it’s occurred to me that this poem should be about a few of the more fun attributes of growing old. With that revelation, I came up with what I’m calling ‘Fossil Fires’.
I should point out that I’m not terribly happy with this bit of versification. Something just isn’t settling yet. So it will probably have to change a few dozen times more before I do get happy with it — if ever. But I’d rather get it into print so at the very least what little’s here will not be lost — should I otherwise never find the time to set it right.
I sit at night within the light
Within the circle of my lamp
And open up a cardboard box
Of bundled letters, cancelled stamps
Lost shreds of thoughts, lives, and events
Sprinkled with dreams and sentiments
All yellowed by the stain of time
A sound like dusty fossil fireCrackles through each unfolding sheet
And though these words were meant for me
Somehow it still seems indiscreet
To rummage through these former thoughts
Lost artifacts that one should not
Retrieve from silence much deserved
Old hands that will no longer brushIn passion ‘cross a creaseless cheek
Caress these posted messages
As if the yellowed pages speak
And as each scribbled line appears
Old eyes unstring each word to hear
Its hand traced bit of evidence
When older eyes that never cryAnd seldom see what isn’t there
Are recollecting younger dreams
They see what young eyes never dare
They see those sullen days to come
When youth’s heated delirium
Dissolves in chill reality
Traced as a cursive residueThese words the passing years have made
Dim as a color photograph
Oozing contrast as it fades
Suggesting time is merely death
Bleeding life from breath to breath
Till little’s left but what has been
Thin strips of newsprint I have clippedRecall the many I have known
A few more clippings every year
And every year I’m more alone
With little need as day begins
To rush through it from end to end
As if there were someplace to go
Outside the circle of my lampDarkness creaks with old concerns
Cold shadows flow with images
Of battles lost and lessons learned
Echoed hurts, tarnished regrets
All conjured up by ancient frets
Though most of such seems pointless now
Regrets and dreams both need their restOr so the passing years have shown
Those youthful hopes, the weigh too much
When pressing down on fragile bones
But very much like passing friends
The moment’s melancholy when
Familiar wants are laid to rest
There is a comfort age can bring
When lending fault to memory
For when I close this cardboard box
The past will lose its clarity
And shreds of thought, lives, and events
Sprinkled with dreams and sentiments
Will dissipate — as well they should
Links to other poems by Wally Lee Parker
Email comments, concerns, corrections, and additional data to firstname.lastname@example.org.