Here at the beginning of the 20thyear of the 21stcentury; in the spirit of “out with the old, in with the new”; bearing in mind the cartoon personification of the passing year as a weary white-haired fellow; in special consideration of those readers of age to shudder at Father Time; with a sympathetic nod to the male of the species who may in the present age feel unmoored and undervalued; in regards to certain 2019 Poem Elf pictures never posted; and finally, in celebration of using a year’s allotment of semi-colons in a single sentence—I offer you a few poems on men and aging.
(It’s true, I’m not the most desirable guest at a New Year’s Eve party.)
Anyway . . . as anyone who’s ever had to take keys away from an elderly male driver will tell you, this men and aging thing is fraught with loss. Loss of masculinity, status and potency. It ain’t pretty.
Full-steam ahead then.
I have six poems total and I’ll feature two paired poems per post. Today we have Thomas Lynch’s “How to Stay Alive” and Rick Cannon’s “Point of Arrival.” Lynch is a mortician and writer here in southeast Michigan. The Undertaking, his 2009 collection of essays, is one of my favorites, and he has a new one out this year, The Depositions. Rick Cannon is a poet and teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. (featured in an early Poem Elf post, link here) and not coincidentally my nephew’s favorite teacher.
I left Lynch’s poem on a bench in the New York City subway.
How to Stay Alive
by Thomas Lynch
He found he had nothing of consequence
to say about the weather so he went
noiselessly about his sorry business—
a version of himself in which he kept
pace with his neighbors but at arm’s length
because his arms were too short and he ached
in ways he thought they’d hardly understand.
So he kept his distance, and assumed the stance
of someone he’d seen one time in a movie.
The sad sack in the poem is familiar as Prufrock and Walter Mitty, those characters who ache for emotional richness and settle for nothing of value. Lynch’s version—keeping pace with his neighbors but at a distance— seems to be in a race that he doesn’t want to win. It’s enough to be in the pack, to exist, to survive. He mistakenly believes—how many of us do too?— that in order to stay alive his true self has to die.
Cannon’s “Point of Arrival” is marginally less bleak. I stuck it on a twig by a random mailbox. Apologies to the owner if he took it personally.
POINT OF ARRIVAL
by Rick Cannon
He stands barefoot on the gray concrete,
the iron season cooling the blood
dull red through his flat slow soles.
He’s forgotten why he came to the garage
and stands in his shaggy robe before hammer,
awl and ratchet, dumb, blank,
as if stunned by a piece of news.
Out the window he sees the tight copse,
stripped spar and mast shrouded in pale
yards of light.
Still he stands, lost,
but beginning perhaps to sense, as dawn
will seep beneath a blind, that from far away
and through much trial he’s come
exactly here. And as he stands issuing
breath, that slow rhythm leaf by leaf,
he feels the earth shift slightly
under tonnage of wind
toward white winter.
For several minutes he stays his feet flat
on the stinging stone, a robed man
in a cold garage accepting his extremity,
seeing it had always been so:
even from the beginning he’d been,
by far, out too far to survive
more than just this little while.
A man in his bathrobe standing stock-still in his garage in the early morning is always going to worry me. Something is dying here, and it’s not just the late-autumn leaves. Will it end in suicide? Are we looking at the onset of dementia? The tools of the man’s former industriousness, the hammer, awl and ratchet, sit before him like a language he doesn’t understand anymore. He’s come smack up against his mortality. Perhaps his failures too.
I say Cannon’s poem is marginally less bleak than Lynch’s because at least this man feels connected to the beauty of nature. And he seems to be a work in progress. His acceptance of his loss, whatever it may be, happens as we watch, whereas Lynch’s man is stagnant from the moment we meet him.
Gee, welcome to Debbie Downer’s New Year’s celebration. More to come.