It’s one of those odd things, the way the news filters through, and the way the words turn into clouds of meaning, and then into other things entirely. I was talking to my friend Jim Nightshade about the recent accidental death of a celebrated Australian reptile wrangler, and there’s a strange sort of imbalance in my head, a sort of frustrated awareness that I’ve been sold a bill of goods and have come to treat celebrity disasters as somehow related to my own life, as if these people are real people with real lives, while remembering that they are real people, at least in their own worlds.
I hear about deaths like this and I’m reminded of the one key moment that redefined the last decade of my life, when I finally had to let go of the childish notion that there would always be someone out there to look out for me when times get rough, someone who could fix anything.
“I feel so bad for his family,” Jim said, and he’s had his life similarly turned inside-out by a sudden, unexpected loss, so I let myself think past my knee-jerk responses and the unshakable false faith we’re all bred to have that people get what’s coming to them. His wife and his family were out in the wilderness doing what they love to do, just like he was, and I know that shocking moment of understanding, when the news finally sinks in that it’s all over, that there’s not one goddamn thing to be done, except to figure out how to live all over again.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they’ll be well provided-for, and I think there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that he went out like he lived, with energy and bravado, doing what he loved to do.”
“That’s very poetic, but…” Jim said, and it was part of the obvious refutation of that sort of softening of the impact, something I understand all too well and that he understands better than anyone I know. It is poetic, and right now, just now, when the whole world’s hanging on the shoulders of a bereaved family, it doesn’t mean one goddamn thing, nothing more than words and platitudes, just like everything we say to survivors.
Thing is, right then, words don’t matter. They’re nothing more than clouds of sound, hanging in the gloom, full of hopeless, helpless glory that’s best spent on the living.
It’s all just poetry.
It’s later when it matters, when the lyrics condense out of the clouds and fall over us like cool rain, bringing us back from the brink, when we take the first lonesome walk on an empty street and finally hear what’s been there in our heads and hearts all along.
It’s all just poetry.
See, the thing is, it’s all poetry, all of it—everything we love, everyone we treasure, every moment that’s so full of meaning that it makes us want to sing or scream or smile or just laugh a good, long laugh over the amazing absurdity of the world. You can see life as little more than chemistry, electricity, and physics, and it is all those things, but there’s more, and it’s that part of our lives that really matters. Chemistry, electricity, and physics will go on long after we’re gone, long after we’re all gone, in fact, when the world’s just a burned-out little rock whirling around a bloated, dying sun, but that’s just the boring part, just the canvas.
We’re the painting, each of us, each of us dancing in Van Gogh’s Starry Night or hiding in the Mona Lisa’s smile or playing in the wild colors of a Kandinsky. We’re the words on the page, the life in the lifeless volumes of pages that make up this book. There’s a joy and deep wonder in the glorious clockwork of science, where strict rules still allow nearly infinite diversity, but we’re the icing on the cake, the first animals to ever describe another animal as having sad, beautiful eyes, the first animals to look at each other and the world around us and mark the walls at Lascaux and Chauvet, the first animals to say “I love you,” the first animals to look into the sky and think that maybe, just maybe, we’re here for some special reason.
It’s easy to point out how we get it wrong, how we lose the balance and turn on each other, and turn the world into great ugly slabs of concrete and steel, monstrous architectural soldiers marching over the landscape in a cacaphony of noise and smoke, and that’s not something we can explain away very easily, not without love and compassion and an understanding of who we are.
It’s all just poetry, you see.
We’re monsters like children are monsters, selfish and cruel and unable to see beyond ourselves, and full of love and dreams and magic, too. We live like this because we are children, the first of our kind, in a line that’s only a few hundred thousand years old, just a blink of the eye in the impossible stretch of the history of the universe. How can we expect to be anything else? How can we be so hard on ourselves?
I choose the alternative view.
I choose poetry.
We are all made of poetry, whether it’s in the word or deed, in the delicacy of a drawn line or the application of sublime pigment, in the way we love or the way we grieve. It’s a sickeningly triumphalist view of the world, steeped in saturated storytelling and a general preference for joy over defeat, but I don’t care.
Why should I? What’s worth saving in the grim calculus of hard facts?
Even the hard facts are ripe for poetry, whether it’s the incredible progress of the Mars rovers, chugging along as slowly as snails in the red dust of a whole other world or the anticipated mysteries of Antarctica’s long-buried Lake Vostok. I’ve waxed romantic about the Voyager Probes and about the 2CV, about nothing more than machines, but it’s all more than that, it’s all more than just the ugly truth. Reality is hard enough without us pretending that we actually live in it.
So I think of Steve Irwin and his family, and maybe I’m not all that sorry for them, because for all his blowhard, cartoonish excesses, he was a man who lived and lived like he meant it, and went out the same way. In time his family will know that, too, and it will bring them joy to wash out the pain, and the fire to live like life’s just too damn short, and to carry on what he did best. Right now, it’s all just words, all just clouds in the grey, just poetry that doesn’t mean a whole lot, but that’s how life is. Pain before poetry, loss before redemption, horror before awareness.
It’s all just poetry.
“Son, we’re gonna side-slip here, so do me a favor and please don’t holler in my ear,” my dad said, piloting his ratty old ‘47 Aeronca 7AC Champion into Laurel Suburban Airport, a grassy little airstrip on the wrong side of town. It was an apt warning, as his flying habits had a way of making me holler. The Champ was an old-school cloth-sided plane with no flaps for deceleration, so the side-slip was a way of knocking down the airspeed for landing, turning the whole plane to a slight angle off from the direction of movement in what felt sickeningly like how it must feel to be about to crash.
We skidded sideways into the wind, with the trees rising underneath us, and I bit my lip, sure once again that the old man was finally about to do me in. My heart would be pounding crazily as we touched down, and I was always still shaking a little as we pushed the little faded blue plane back into its open hanger along the runway.
I always hoped he’d get rid of that damn plane. I was sure he’d die in it one day, going down over the Chesapeake on a return flight from Tangier Island or failing to clear a ridge on his way out to the old airport in Hancock. There was wicked cachet to having your dad have a plane, though, a not entirely secret sense of being potentially idly rich, so I didn’t push it.
Twenty years ago, my dad could have sold our family business for ten million dollars.
Today, well—there’s just poetry left.
So I always thought he’d go down in flames, that little blue plane helplessly spiraling down over the rolling farms that are themselves decades gone now, and that I’d hear the news and wouldn’t know what to do.
The reality was so much uglier, so far from poetry, so far from truth.
Right then, it was nothing but reality.
All the words were just clouds, hanging heavy over me.
Much later, I was at a birthday party in Baltimore with a best pal, one of my oldest friends, a poet and teacher who’d drawn me in with her amazingly bizarre dress sense and wry, open humor, celebrating her baby’s first year in the world, and it was a fun afternoon with good gossip, great storytelling, and decent architecture, and at the end of the day, after the party, she found that the reason her father hadn’t called to wish her daughter a happy birthday was that he’d died that afternoon.
He went young, too, but I felt a sort of mean, ugly jealousy, something I’ve never really talked about because it’s just so absurd. I envied the poetry, and the way it’d happened. He’d been out hiking with his beloved and boisterous giant black lab, a dog so enthusiastic that he’d joyously lick my own dog until her entire head was dripping with drool, and he just went, right there under the endless Wyoming sky, with people not far from his side. He’d retired to a place he’d loved, and had enough money to keep himself and his family and a motorcycle with which to devour the boundless western roads, and it all ended too soon, but it ended in poetry. Even the dog got a loving home.
I burned a little, back then, even when I should have been there for my friend.
My dad didn’t go down on his ’72 Triumph Daytona (rusting in a shed somewhere), or hit the trees in his Champion (sold in the aftermath). He’d spent the last few years restoring the old plane, which was a relief to me, as he couldn’t crash it while he had it in pieces in the garage. He didn’t wrap his magically smooth-running twelve-cylinder Jaguar XJ-S (replaced by a Buick as the business collapsed) around a tree, or fall while climbing around inside the support frame of a bridge just for the sport of it. He just sat down in a dirty little workroom in the tiny quarters left to our company after the collapse of the business, opened his paper, looking for a moment of refuge from the ongoing disaster, and dropped dead there, bashing his head open on his way to the stained industrial yellow carpet, leaving behind three hundred thousand dollars in unpayable debts, a ruined business, and an endless thicket of loose ends.
Sometimes the poetry fails us.
So maybe I’ve spent a decade relearning how to rewrite the world, how to find the magic in all of this, in all of these moments, even when they’re just nothing, just empty little stretches of time between others, and maybe it’s not a skill that comes easily. Maybe it all falls apart sometimes and I fall into the blue, blue emptiness where stuff just is, and there’s not a thing you can do about it, or a word that would make a damn difference.
Maybe that’s not all that bad.
I used to think that there was a sort of state of grace we could all find where we just get there, by whatever means necessary, and then just live at that level, content, forever. It’s a misconception that’s hardly rare, virtually universal. Less Christians seem to think of salvation as that be-all-end-all, a cure for all ills, while the wise ones see it all as an endless task, while modern Wal-Mart spiritual types go for a one-time transformation through meditation and the more circumspect ones know that you can’t be a better person—you can only be you.
Me, I find more poetry by the day, more when I’m happy, more when I’m sad, more when I’m lost, and more when I’m lonesome, and there will never be enough, not by a long shot. Sometimes, there’s nothing but that cold, hard, ugly truth, sitting on your chest like a sumo wrestler, pinning you down to the way things are, and it’s just too hard to daydream then, to find the magic in the situation. Sometimes, all you can do is be raw and sore and connected directly to world by red-hot cords that bind you up, and that’s a way of being fully present in your world that’s far removed from beauty and love and joy.
It’s no less valid than any other route to being right here, right now, though, and that’s where everything that is truly magical and truly real happens. It’s the wellspring of poetry, and of the world we actually live in, and not the one we hope for, or regret, or imagine. There’s world under this one, one that’s all made of stones spinning around in space, and there’s one that’s nothing but dreams and nightmares and everything we can imagine, and somewhere in-between, somewhere close by, there’s poetry—the life that’s all of these things in that rare and delicate balance that we all need.
I’ve been a little lost, myself, lately, not finding that balance like I could, and it’s something as simple as riding a bicycle, as letting your muscles and your brain and your heart all come together in concert, but it’s too easy to get preoccupied with the things that really don’t matter, not in the long run.
“That’s very poetic, but…” Jim Nightshade said, and right then it all started to clear up again, with the clouds slowly turning back into words and back into poetry, back into songs and stories and the world as I see it.
The way I see it is not really the way it is.
It’s all just poetry.
Matisse made his beautiful cutouts in his sickbed, carefully composing his colors and shapes, with the help of assistants, finding that elusive spark of poetry amongst his illness, when it would have been just as easy to slip backwards into himself, back into the glories of his past work. With cancer raging and an unsteady hand, he kept on reaching out.
Sometimes it isn’t easy.
A long dead president said, of our attempt to go to the moon, that we do these things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and that’s where it lies, the root of this poetry, of all the swirling words and colors and notes and everything, because the alternative is so ugly and so empty, so we rewrite the world to make it all make sense, and to find a home in all the chaos.
You can’t stop the pain, or the loss, or the loneliness of being human. It’s not in our power. You can’t hold back the tide of history, or undo the disasters. You can’t even help yourself, sometimes, and that’s just about the most desperate feeling there is, to be so helpless.
In the face of all there is, there is the pen, or the brush, or the instrument.
Then there’s the heart. In poetry, it trumps all.
It’s all just poetry.
The world, and all the other rocks whirling in the void, exists with or without us, but love belongs to us, and so does joy and wonder and beauty, and there’s no pain so great that poetry can’t overwhelm it, no despair so boundless that it can’t be boxed up in a cage of well-chosen words, until it’s time for each of us to go wherever it is we go when all is said and done.
So we beat on, as I’m prone to quote, boats against the current, but we can write our own endings, and our own interpretations, and live our lives in such a way that it isn’t always futile, or always tragic. We can lie in bed like Matisse, long after we should have given up, and search for that specific, absolutely perfect blue, that rare and magical blue that brings something back that we’d almost forgotten, from a time that’s decades gone by now.
I stand back and stare at one of his cut-outs at the museum and it’s not entirely clear why the blue he tried so hard to find all those years ago is so familiar, not entirely obvious that it’s the exact color of blue that my dad’s old ‘47 Champ was painted before the restoration, faded to that precise tone by years of sun and weather. It’s not obvious why I feel something like sadness and joy all at once, looking into that blue, and when I step out of the gallery, squinting into the sun, I’m not entirely sure why I instinctively look up into the crisp, cloudless sky, as if I might just see a little blue airplane up there, flying off to where it was always meant to go, if only things had been different.
It’s all just poetry.
Matisse continued to make his cut-outs until the day of his death.
© 2006 Joe Belknap Wall