Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors
by Dara Wier
A man looked at us across his little dish
Of watercress and peas and said he’d wasted
Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?
He said he knew he’d let some thing alive die
And didn’t know how to get it back again now
That it was gone. He looked as if he were
About to cry, as if a fresh death wanted him
To mourn. He talked as if the place he’d been
Had so unwelcomed him it had ruined his soul,
As if it were a place into which drained an
Absolute dead air. He said he’d left no friends
Behind, no one who’d notice he was gone.
And here he was without a job, no place his to
Live, no one his to love. We said welcome home.
As I write this post, a man and woman next to me at Starbucks engage in an electric exchange. The man, bald with a salt and pepper beard, looks ten years older than his companion, although her long dark hair curtains my view of her face. He leans forward; her body is angled awkwardly towards the exit. He has a briefcase at his side; a stack of papers covers the table. Amidst the clatter and phizzes coming from behind the counter and the loud laughter of a group of old Armenian men, I can only hear dollops of their conversation. You have never supported me, she says. Just hear me out, he replies. Later he says, Let me tell you a story about my 69-year old father.
She never seems as relaxed as he is. At any moment she may spring up on her high heels and leave. Without hearing much of their conversation, I don’t know if their debate is personal or professional, and I can’t gauge the degree of their intimacy. I’ll leave without ever knowing what their issue is and if they resolved it. But I do know that that there is some kind of hurt between them that matters deeply to both of them; and I’ll think about them all day and perhaps tomorrow too.
And so with Dara Wier’s poem “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors.” Reading this poem is as frustrating as my eavesdropping on the couple in the noisy coffee shop. I don’t fully understand the relationship between the three characters and I never will. I could dismiss it, the way I dismiss other things not easily understood, like computer codes, economic policy, complicated driving directions. But I don’t dismiss it. Something pulls me towards it.
Wier gives out just enough information to give the reader a toehold on what’s going on. Two people listen to a man’s anguish. He is eating a watercress salad on a little plate. I get a whole picture of the scene just from that little detail. It’s the only visual detail in the entire poem, but the watercress on the little plate is so evocative of gender and class that it carries the rest of the poem on its delicate little legs.
The salad and the “torn out interiors” of the title suggest a renovated space, a restaurant, as I see it, a ladies’ lunch kind of place with windows and lots of light. There’s a sense of unreality and inappropriateness to a man unburdening himself of his suffering in such a public, feminine space.
The man speaks of spending five years in a toxic, soul-destroying atmosphere. He describes a passive role in letting something die. His anguish extends to this new place where he has no friends, no job, no place to live. The women listening to him say, perhaps sarcastically, perhaps with genuine warmth, Welcome home.
The reader can’t help but feel sympathy for the man’s situation but also strangely distant from it. The woman’s uninflected summary of his words and that odd detail of the watercress salad lend a sense of the absurd to the episode. I’m reminded of Russian writers who color expressions of oversized emotions with a certain comic detachment. Think of the opening lines from Chekov’s The Seagull:
Medvedenko: Why do you wear black all the time?
Masha: I’m in mourning for my life.
My toehold in this poem never leads to stable footing. “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors” is as cryptic and mysterious as its title. I’m left with these questions:
1. What is the nature of the relationship between the two listeners and the man? Is he a stranger? They refer to him as “a” man so they don’t seem to know him. He’s a very strange stranger, voluble, perhaps mentally ill, an ancient mariner spilling out his shame. At the end of the poem the women (or maybe they aren’t women) welcome him home, so perhaps he isn’t a stranger after all. And these lines puzzle me:
Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?
Why can’t they ask him how he wasted five years? Do they know the awful answer and are too polite to mention it over the watercress salad? Either a lack of intimacy or a lack of stability on his part prevents an open conversation.
2. What was the “something alive” that he “let die”? A relationship? A cat? A house plant? Some quality in himself he failed to nourish?
3. What does the ending mean? Is it a deadpan joke or a genuine welcoming? If he has truly come home and they are holding out their pineapples and leis, are they hurt when he says he has no one to love here?
Feel free to weigh in with your own impressions. I may have talked myself into a version of this poem that’s mine and mine alone.
I taped the poem to a shelter that offered a little protection from rain and bitter winds at a train station. I left it for anyone returning home and for those welcoming someone back. I was thinking in particular about college students coming home for spring break. Adults love to tell kids that college is the best four years of their lives, but sometimes it isn’t. College can be dreary and lonely. Roommate issues, homesickness, regrets over hook-ups and drunken dramas, grade stress and money worries can all be dispiriting and sometimes even soul-crushing. Home, I hope, but of course it isn’t always, is a place to take rest from all those wearying tribulations. Home is where you are welcomed. And judging from my own college kids’ homecoming,
home is where you can do your laundry for free.
Dara Wier was born in 1949 in New Orleans. Despite her parents’ sensible wish for her to become a pharmacist, she got her MFA at Bowling Green and became a poet. She has published 11 books of poetry; her work has appeared in several anthologies and she has won numerous awards and fellowships, among them a Pushcart Prize and an NEA grant. She directs the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst where her husband, poet James Tate, also teaches.