An Aged Punk Is But a Paltry Thing: To Rage or Not to Rage

I remember going to a Warren Zevon show at a bar in 1992[1] and overhearing some kid say, “There’s nothing but old people here.”  He was talking about people like me, an overripe just turned 39.  As it turns out, coincidentally, the show took place a day after Zevon’s 45th birthday, and despite his semi-elderly status, he put on one helluva show. His encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin,” actually stirred for an n-second the dead embers of my long extinguished revolutionary zeal. 

Of course, 39 or 45 might seem ancient to a 20-something, but to my mother, 60 at the time, or to my 92-year-old grandmother-in-law, I was only on the second leg of my TWC[2] flight to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no tourist returns.

[montage of calendar pages flapping and tearing off in a really stiff breeze][3]

Yikes! Seems just yesterday being a boomer meant you were young; now it’s a term of derision, a descriptor of someone in the market for a walk-in tub, someone whose gauze-wrapped brain is incapable of gazing beyond his own limited experience. In fact, aging is such an obsession that our local paper has a weekly column on how to handle encroaching decrepitude. 

I don’t usually read the column, but glancing at this week’s edition, I did a double take when I saw this headline: 

Aging for Amateurs: King Lear shows how to find freedom in limitations

WTF, my inner keyboard typed. Lear as role model? He ends up In Act 3 evicted by his fiendish daughters onto a heath during a hurricane. Earlier, the doddering king had disinherited his one decent child, Cordelia, and at the end of the play (spoiler alert) he carries her corpse in his arms as he intones, “Never, never, never, never, never?”

So I read the article, and what the author cites is a brief moment in Act 5 when Lear mistakenly thinks he and soon-to-be-hanged Cordelia are headed to prison. 

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

The author of the article on aging, Bert Keller, concludes

The old king acknowledges the reality of his inevitable imprisonment. Looking beyond the literal, we know what the deeper meaning here is for us: not dungeon or detention center but the limitations and losses of advanced age. Our bodies weaken, our minds slow down, hearing fails and we move around with effort. And on top of all that, now we’re shut in by COVID-19. Yet here is 80-year-old Lear, saying “Let’s away to prison” with a willing heart! That is the amazing thing. He interprets unavoidable withdrawal in terms of inner freedom.

Then again, on the other side of the poetic ledger, there is Dylan Thomas, who suggests “[w]e rage, rage, against the dying of the light,”  like my man WB Yeats who asks:

Did all old men and women, rich and poor,
Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door,
Whether in public or in secret rage
As I do now against old age?

Well, all of this is a long-winded way to introduce a clever music video on the subject, which features for a second or two my brother, the musician and actor Fleming Moore, playing a punk who has made it to his golden years.” [4]  The songwriter Killjoy says, “The song is about growing old, obsolete, irrelevant, dying, nostalgia, and being OK with all of that.”

The band is Killjoy & the Cutthroats, and the song is “Golden Years for a Gutter Punk.”  


[1] 23 January, the Music Farm, Charleston, SC

[2] Time’s Winged Chariot

[3] I prefer this cliché to the fast-forwarding of clock hands doing the dervish, spinning like crazy as the sun rises-sets outside the window.

[4] He’s the bald guy with the rake.

Old Habits Die Hard

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Triumph of Death Wall Painting, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Photo Rob Cook, 2012)

 

“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague

Although avoiding skin-to-skin human contact makes a lot of sense during a pandemic, old habits die hard. Yesterday, for example, I attended a funeral. An old, dear friend invited me to share her pew, and as I leaned over to kiss her, she shied away — a not-infrequent occurrence of my youth, but one I hadn’t experienced in a while. After the service, as we entered the reception hall, two bottles of hand-sanitizer stood next to the guest register. Although I had never used a hand-sanitizer outside a cancer ward, I confess I did a couple of dollops.[1]

UnknownAt a funeral reception, you don’t want repulse people who need a hug. As we embraced, one of my former students said, “Corona Virus be damned.”  For a young person who most likely will face what amounts to a bad cold if infected, this attitude seems reasonable to me. For a woman in her eighties, not so much so. Anyway, at the reception, I let whoever was making eye contact make the first move, whether it be the awkward fumbling of an elbow bump, a handshake, or hug.

Of course, on the way out, I forgot to reapply the hand sanitizer, scratched my beard, tugged at my ear, covered my mouth as I burped, and headed straight to Chico Feo for a couple of beers.  Earlier in the day, I had checked out a bit of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and ran across this horror-inducing sentence:

‘That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained in that behalf.

Being of an advanced age, I would rather hazard death than be reduced to drinking at home alone. My sparkling wit might very well wither and die. “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas wrote sometime prior to bragging about having downed eighteen straight whiskeys, lapsing into a comma, and going ungently into that good night.[2]

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As far as sporting events go, the timing couldn’t be worse. Spring training and the NBA have been suspended, March Madness cancelled outright, and the Masters golf tournament postponed, which echoes precautions enacted in Defoe’s day:

‘That all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.

Even Donald Trump, a Corona-Virus optimist, “out of an abundance of caution” has postponed “the Catholics for Trump” event scheduled for 19 March in Milwaukee.  Sources say that Trump has shaken hands with a Brazilian who has tested positive for the virus, but the President himself doesn’t plan to be tested. On the other hand, Court Jester/sycophant Lindsay Graham is in self-quarantine, no doubt binge-watching Lady Di’s wedding while enjoying a hot toddy or two or four or eighteen.

Me, I’m sequestered in my drafty garret skimming Camus’s The Plague and Boccaccio’s The Decameron for quotable quotes, puzzling about how bear-baitings and Macbeth could attract the same audiences, and touching my forehead every five minutes to see if I’m running a fever.

So far, so good.


[1] Thirty-four years of classroom teaching has produced in me a robust immune system. The last time I took a sick day was in 2003.

[2] According to eyewitnesses, he only had, alas, four straight whiskeys. If you’re going to die, you might as well go whole hog, as they say in Wales.

The Towering Dead

me and the reaper seranade

Nor for the towering dead/ With their nightingales and psalms

Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art”

Hamlet describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveler returns,” phrases that betoken death’s mystery, a subject so profound that you can almost get away with slipping in a moth-eaten word like “betoken.”

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Don’t say “cheese”

On the other hand, Wallace Stevens designates Death as the mother of beauty.

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Woody Allen pigeonholes it as one of the two things that come only once in a lifetime.*

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*The other is sex

***

My first 3-D encounter with a human’s death happened when I was around twelve or so on a rare Sunday when we’d all gone to church together, even Daddy.  In those days TV consisted of a couple of channels,  so we would occasionally drive for amusement, motoring around and through Summerville, circumnavigating the past –  riding past clapboard houses where we used to live, past our former maid’s dilapidated cottage, past the crossroads where my grandfather’s gas station had stood before it burned down.

On this particular summer’s day, we encountered a cluster of hysterical people on the sidewalk right across the street from Dorchester County Hospital.  The windows of our un-air-conditioned Ford Falcon were down, and as we rolled past, I witnessed a Mahalia-Jackson-sized woman throwing her hands back in the air while screaming over and over, “My Mama left me, My Mama left me!”

As our car crawled on, I caught sight of the outline of the body, already covered, the screams receding as Daddy sped up and drove straight home.

Later that day, we traveled to Lake Moultrie with our neighbors, another rarity, and I saw Mrs. Delasanti’s pubic hair peeking out of her bikini bottoms.

A first for me.  Forbidden.  Thrilling.

So, on that Sunday, I sort of got a peek at both sides of the coin, the tomb and womb, and, unfortunately, the tomb won out.  Death had ruined my day.

“My Mama’s left me, My Mama’s left me!” rang out as I lay me down to sleep that night.

Horace Walpole has described life on this planet about as pithily as anybody: “This world is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”

Mahalia.jpg

Mahalia Jackson

***

Over the years, I have become much more of a thinker than a feeler.  I’d like to believe that education, fairly wide reading/traveling, my dabbling in Buddhism, and maturity have brought about my detachment (rather than a callousness acquired from the onslaught of horrific images I’ve been bombarded with in over a half-century of a media-saturated life:  JFK’s shattering skull, Vietnamese monks immolating themselves, starving African toddlers with bloated bellies, Donald J Trump raising his hand to take the oath of office).

Of course, since that first encounter with death, I have witnessed others, loved ones, shuffling off their mortal coils. As I held my mother-in-law’s hand as she was in the thrall of dying, she looked up at the ceiling, gazing intently at whatever she saw up there, and said, squeezing my hand, “Rusty, this is overwhelming.”

My beloved Judy had a harder time, though mummified by morphine, her breathing labored,  yet right before the end, she quieted down, and I recited to her over and over “may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and I’m also almost positive she was at least dimly aware of my presence and words because she sort of smiled for awhile before she became still.

***

I have an oncologist friend who once told me that out there (wherever that is) lurks enormous amounts of anonymous funding for a dedicated (if not fanatical) group of scientists/physicians who believe that they can conquer aging and death-by-disease, a prospect that frankly gives me the heebie-jeebies.  In that world, all deaths would be accidental, the afterlife a occupancy-challenged condo.  I imagine suicide rates would skyrocket. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable would seem the never-ending daily routines in that Malthusian nightmare of a world!

I told my friend, “They don’t know the story of the Sibyl.”

“No they don’t,” he concurred.

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Translation: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.”

***

No, I believe that Wallace Stevens got it right:  Death is the mother of beauty.

Who would trade his or her short-lived ability to discern beauty for the undifferentiated undying existence of amoeba and paramecia, or prefer the perfect two-dimensional monotony of prelapsarian Eden to the depth and complexity of postlapsarian Babylon with its gardens full of fading flowers and kiss-stealing star-crossed lovers?

Biologically speaking, sex is what creates diversity, and its cost is death, the cessation of being, or, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade”:

        [. . . ] no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.

Death for sex, not a bad trade off by my reckoning.

Unlike Larkin, death holds no special dread for me.  Although I don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea of having my short-leased indestructible matter recycled into another form appeals to me.  I think a burial at sea sounds exquisite – a quick re-entry into the animal world via ingestion.

In this interim between womb and tomb – let us be thankful to have ended up here and now and agree with Dylan Thomas that wise men at their end know dark is right.

Though, rather than raving as Dylan Thomas suggests, I’d like to think of myself in those final instants as surrendering to the fitting inevitability of it all.  To try to enjoy the fleeing images of my consciousness as they’re jettisoned into nothingness.

After all, form is emptiness and emptiness form.

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Hanging Out with Bob Dylan’s Namesake (or the Dangers of Memorizing Dylan Thomas)

Each winter, our English Department requires students to memorize a poem that’s at least the length and girth of a sonnet.  We select whom we consider the best, and they compete on grade levels to represent the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes in front of three judges and an auditorium packed with their peers.  We call the competition Porter-Gaud Outloud, and once students reach the finals, they’re spot on.  Believe me, choosing the ultimate winner is difficult.

I, too, memorize a poem out of solidarity, and even though I’m renowned (yes renowned, dammit!) for having put to memory veritable library shelves of verse, I’ve discovered this year that if I’m not all that familiar with a poem, I have trouble memorizing it.

Now, if it’s a poem I know well, like Yeats’s lament “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” I can memorize it in no time and spit it out like a Gatling Gun:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.[1]

 

Last year, I did “Adam’s Curse,” a poem of forty lines, and had it down in a day.

This year, however, I’ve chosen a poem I’ve read only a dozen or so times, Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” a hyper-Romantic ditty suitable for someone bound to drink himself to death at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of thirty-nine.  I chose it because I’ve always dug the lines

Nor for the towering Dead

With their nightingales and psalms.

I’ll go ahead and provide the text:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

 

You can hear Dylan doing it himself here.

The thing is, I keep mucking something up, like substituting “practiced” for “exercised” or swapping out a “nor” for an “or” or dropping the line “On the ivory stages.”

The good news is that I’ll have it down by the due date of February 25, but the bad news is that now I have Thomas’s rhythms and peculiar diction looping non-stop in the tape deck of my mind.

There’s only way to exorcise these voices, and that’s to write some doggerel, and because misery loves company, I’m sharing it with you:

 

 

From the Juke Box of Dylan Thomas

In my scratched and dented car,

With a broken right tail light,

I drive to and fro from bar to bar

Squandering a day that turns to night.

Not for the dead left in my wake I drink,

Nor for the lasses who have broken my heart,

But for the tunk-a-tunk-tunk, rinky dink dink

Of lovely pints on a luscious lark.[2]


[1]How apt a poem for the Age of Trump.

[2]If I weren’t channeling Thomas, the last line would be “Of yeasty brews on a beer-slopped bar.”