Deepening Shades

 

The death of friends, or death

Of every brilliant eye

That made a catch in the breath –

Seem but the clouds of the sky

When the horizon fades;

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

Yeats, “The Tower”

 

Cast a cold eye,

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by!

Yeats’s Epitaph

 

Because I’m retiring at the end of this year, I’m often asked if I’m “counting down the days.”

Actually, I’m not.  When this semester ends, I’ll be not teaching at Porter-Gaud for the rest of my life.  Why rush that?

Instead, I’m relishing – or at least trying to relish – the last opportunity of teaching specific content: poems I love, vocabulary lessons I know by heart, characters who are more real to me than many of my acquaintances. For example, my main man from Heart of Darkness Charlie Marlow and I will part company in May. Every spring for thirty years he and I have hung out for two weeks or so. I’ll miss the sound of his voice, what he has to say about truth and lies, of savagery and civilization. Of course, I could look him up next year or the year after, but I know I never will. There’s no need for me to accompany him up the Congo River ever again.

Yesterday I taught Blake for the last time.  We read and discussed the Chimney Sweeper poems, “London,” and “The Poison Tree.” It suits me to be done with those poems; nevertheless, I savored intoning each syllable to the class and afterwards enjoyed exploring the poems’ meanings.

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 

And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

 

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

 

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

 

I tried as best I could to convey how these rhythmic, rhyming words capture the toxicity of repression and deceit and how the consciousness of the speaker of the poem is not universal, i.e., that his consciousness is not ours nor ours his.  We talked about existentialism and how the theory of existentialism ties into Wordsworth’s perception that reality arises — is concocted — from “eye, and ear, — both what they half create, /And what perceive.”  I cited Hamlet’s observation that “Nothing is neither good or bad but thinking makes it so” and his claim that he “could be bound in a nutshell” yet think himself “king of infinite space,” that is, if he didn’t have “bad dreams.”

The speaker of “The Poison Tree” is pleased that his foe is dead, so, according to his reckoning, “God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.” After all, the speaker has invested a lot of energy cultivating the poison apple.  His joy in his neighbor’s demise contradicts traditional religious and secular moral teaching and perhaps is off-putting to many readers; nevertheless, it makes sense that he expresses his thoughts in jaunty, happy rhythms.

After all, as Pope says, “The sound must seem an echo of the sense.”

In these dwindling last weeks, I’ll also bid adieu to Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Conrad, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, and Auden as they sing their swan songs. After that, I’ll be free to “embrace the trivial days and ram them with the sun,” to paddle out in glassy surf while my colleagues are taking roll or telling some boy to tuck in his shirt.   I’ll be free to read what I choose, to make some new literary friends.  It’s about time I got acquainted with Swann and his daddy Marcel Proust.

Until then, I hope to savor each and every class period rather than looking ahead and counting them down like Advent calendar squares, or a prison sentence, or the way I count down the essays left to be graded or the report card comments left to be composed.

Yes, I am looking forward to not grading essays and writing report card comments. I have three sets left to finish before 8:00 a.m. Wednesday.

Post Retirement Projects

Now that my career’s closure lies a mere nineteen months away,[1] I’ve started thinking about how to spend the overabundance of free time that a retirement without ailing parents or wastrel children or impending lawsuits provides a relatively well-to-do Late Empire US citizen.

Some people have suggested I write a book about growing up in a small Southern town teeming with lovable oddball characters (and few mean-as-cuss rapscallions), you know, back in the days when polite whites called African Americans “colored people” or “Negros.”

Hasn’t this story already been done a time or two? Anyway, because my sensibilities run closer to the filmmaker David Lynch’s than to Ferrol Sams’, I can’t see myself pulling anything off that print publishers would touch, even with gloves, certifiably impermeable, approved for Ebola victim corpse-removal. [2]

The character Bobby Peru from David Lynch's "Wild at Heart"

The character Bobby Peru from David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

Thinking, as they say, outside of the container, it occurred to me that I might come up instead with a project that benefits society, something like a post-Trump etiquette manual to help citizens negotiate the shifting sands of what’s now socially acceptable while providing them with a historical context for cultural changes, a sort of map of decline in manners over time.

Excerpt from working manuscript:

On Chivalry

In the Age of Elizabeth (1558-1603), an act of chivalry might be a courtier’s removing his cloak and throwing it over a puddle so a lady wouldn’t get her dainty foot wet.

In the Age of Eisenhower (1953-1960), an act of chivalry might be a gentleman’s getting out of the driver’s side of a car, walking around to the passenger’s side, and opening that door for a lady sitting there.

In the Age of Clinton (1993 -2000), an act of chivalry might be a dude’s submitting to a chick’s request that he use a condom.

In the Age of Trump (2017- ), an act of chivalry might be a dudebro’s refraining from grabbing a bitch’s snatch even though she’s oh so fuckable.[3]

Emanuel Gottilieb Leute "Elizabeth and Raleigh"

Emanuel Gottilieb Leute “Elizabeth and Raleigh”

Or maybe I could spend my days in fantasyland, Walter Mitty style, imagining myself riding around in a backseat of chauffeur-driven Cadillac with Memphis Minnie, me in a double-breasted suit and matching fedora, she in cotton dress while playing her guitar and singing about how much she adores me.

chauffeur

 

Worse idea: Out-Milton-Milton and memorize the Holy Bible and Sartre’s On Being and Nothingness word-for-word.

Better idea: Take golf lessons. Play nine holes a day.

Even better idea, enlightened hedonism: go through the stages of Yoga’s sun salutation upon awakening each morning. Then mindfully concoct breakfast, noting the crack of eggshell on skillet rim, the rain-like sizzle of the bacon. Eat those eggs, bacon and grits deliberately, mouthful by mouthful, savoring. Go retrieve the paper and peruse it on the deck or screened porch while sipping coffee. Discuss the fall of civilization with also retired spouse. Afterwards, meditation followed by a walk on the beach or a paddle on the river or a bike ride off the island to Fort Henry. The remainder of the morning spent reading or writing. Tomato and cheese sandwiches. The NY Times crossword. Happy Hour. Preparing dinner with spouse followed by TCM or conversation. More social media. A nightcap. Yawn. Morpheus descending. Sweet dreams . . . ennui.

Okay, what was the name of the pervert in my hometown who dressed like Castro and rode his bike around town dragging behind it underwear he had traded newcomers for firecrackers?

[1] Discounting the possibility of a nuclear exchange with China

[2] As I write this, I suddenly remember a woman and severely mentally challenged grown daughter who used to patronize my granddaddy’s gas station. I can’t remember the daughter’s name, but she always carried a baby doll with her and spoke in garbled cassette-tape-getting-eaten slo-mo. My Aunt Virginia told me my grandmama forced Virginia to play with the girl/woman. Click here to see why that might not have been such a great idea.

[3] On the function of scatological language in satire, click here.

I Think Perhaps I’ve Taught Too Long

distruption-copy-copy

 

I think perhaps I’ve taught too long —

None of my pop cultural references register.

 

Allusions to Barney Fife, Ricky Ricardo,

Beaver Cleaver, Hoss Cartwright

Produce stares as blank as if I’d dropped

Anaximenes’s or Parenides’s names

at a Tea Party conclave.

 

Anyone out there have any idea

Who has replaced Eddie Haskell

As the prototype for insincere obsequiousness?

Or Ozzie and Harriet as avatars

Of wholesome vacuity?

 

If you know, please text me.

 

The teenagers I teach have never listened to

Mitch Ryder and the DE-troit wheels

Or Wicked Wilson Pickett,

Have never heard Koko Taylor sing

“Wang Dang Doodle.”

 

When the fish head fills the air

Be snuff juice everywhere

We’re gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

 

All night long . . .

 

What’s an uncomfortable kind of old scarecrow to do?

Bone up on Dr. Dre and Beyonce?

Binge watch Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory?

 

No suh, un-uh, no thank you.

 

I think it’s time to take that proverbial timecard

And check out of this here career,

Transplant my ass to Lisbon’s Bairro Alto

Spend the uneventful

Dwindling days sipping IPAs

In that lovely park overlooking

The lower, less ancient, sections of the city.

the author and his son, the King of Nowhere

the author and his son, the King of Nowhere