Slightly Horrifying Knowledge: How Sometimes Whitman Can Only Take Us So Far

My Life Among

I’m beginning to dream again of my life among
the ornamental, the vaguely functional,
the doorstops and paperweights, my tenure
in the legion of lawn gnomes, my brotherhood
with novelty decanters, my solidarity
with the generally useless, the inscrutably devised,
the deformed idea, the Elvis clock,
the flea market phantasm, the broken
stapler clicking toothlessly, the pen caddy unpenned,
I’m driving towards nowhere,
I’m listening to the station
broadcasting the weather,
I’m forgetting the weather,
I’m shutting my vinyl coat in the car door,
I’m leaving it there in the door
like a strange maroon pelt,
I’m  dreaming of all the use I could have been
but was not, the clock repairman
lost in the Swiss coils of time,
eyes ruined by the hours
and the hours, the antiquated milkman
leaving frost-rimed bottles
on the doorstep of a 1950’s educational film,
that burred boy at the door
terrified by the split atom,
by Sputnik, by his mother’s zombie absolution,
that was not me, no, not so
specific as that, not this morning
which is not the same
morning in my dream, strange
to think now there are two
of them, one in which my name is Paul Guest
and one in which I can’t read
the tag pressed to my chest
or the name on my birth
certificate, nothing in this morning
speaks any language
I know, maybe I’ve fallen into the mind’s endless
Russia, maybe this dream
has piled against my mind
like snow and the cold radiates everywhere,
through the windows and the door
it comes like a battering
ram, announcing itself with splinters,
but no dream ever lasts,
not even the terrifying ones,
the ones from which all floors have fled
and everything is gravity
and velocity and at the dream’s end is death.

This is a poem by Paul Guest, from his third collection, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge. I will acknowledge now, because it is pertinent, that Paul Guest is paralyzed as the result of a childhood bicycling accident.

So now we play the “Where’s Whitman?” game. The first hint is the catalogues. The poem starts as a list of “vaguely functional” things, a quality the speaker feels he shares. The list grows more pointed as it goes on: from “doorstops and paperweights,” which have a nominal (if largely unneeded) function, to a “broken stapler clicking toothlessly” and a “pen caddy unpenned,” things that once had use, but are circumstantially unfunctional.

Then the poem makes a sharp shift to action. The speaker is “driving,” but “to nowhere.” He is “listening to the station / broadcasting the weather,” but he is also “forgetting the weather.” Every performative statement is undermined in some way.

Using Whitman’s crisis-and-recovery model from class, Guest has established quite a crisis. He addresses it directly as the last entry in this second catalogue, “I’m dreaming of all the use I could have been / but was not.” And here we are treated to a third catalogue, a looser (and shorter) catalogue of people who in some way share the speaker’s despair: an increasingly blind clock repairman, an anachronistic milkman, a boy diffusely terrified by technology and adulthood.

The speaker seems to find it necessary to reassure himself that he is not, after all, that boy. Not exactly, anyway, “not so / specific as that.” It’s here he starts to split into two people: “one in which [his] name is Paul Guest,” and one that I can only assume is his previously-possible self, the self that might have been. This is a more difficult self, a dream-self, one he can’t name (“I can’t read / the tag pressed to my chest”). These two selves are so separate they cannot exist at the same time. This morning is “not the same / morning in [his] dream.”

And here the crisis is full-force. This (non-dream) morning, he is unable to communicate, or as he says “nothing in this morning / speaks any language / I know.” The dream becomes a barrier, “piled against [his] mind / like snow and the cold radiates everywhere.” It attacks him “like a battering / ram.”

“But,” he says, “no dream ever lasts,” and what a strange comfort that is! When a person’s dream causes them so much pain, it is after all a comfort to think that, no matter how terrible it may be, it is only a dream, and will go. “Even the terrifying ones,” he says, where “at the dream’s end is death.”

And this last line does its part to undermine the (already small) recovery of the poem. The mention of death at the end of a dream implies the non-dream kind, and the terrifying comfort to be had from it. It is implicit that, just as dreams can be horrifying and just as they end, so too can life, and so too does life.

The poem, to me, operates as a kind of back-and-forth crisis-and-recovery. The speaker finds himself despairing his reality, and he searches for relief in a dream. The dream, however, proves despairing in a different (or not very different, really) way, and he retreats back to reality, which is at least, well, real. This cyclic process is even present in the first line, where he is “beginning to dream again” of these terrible things. The “again” there implies an endlessly-repeating crisis-that-never-quite-recovers. It’s a kind of half-Whitman poem, or a poem that wants desperately to follow Whitman, but is held back by unerring honesty (and a tinge of well-bought cynicism).

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2 Responses to Slightly Horrifying Knowledge: How Sometimes Whitman Can Only Take Us So Far

  1. James Hess says:

    Very nicely done, friend. No matter how many literature classes I take, I still find it difficult at times to effectively explicate and dissect a poem. On my first two readings I could feel the tension and the sense of “crisis” but wasn’t aware of how personal that crisis was before your side note. Also, I thought his catalogs and lists were interesting too. At times, I wonder if poets realize when they’re being influenced by their predecessors, or if it is something that happens entirely subconsciously since we have all been taught those poets’ literary merit via the canon. Brilliant job.

  2. Maria Martin says:

    Dear Jared,

    I thought this post was really interesting! In my poetry independent study right now we just brought up this strange question: what if there is something that all poems do?!

    When I read this post I was reminded of that, especially because within this class in general it has seemed like there is a possibility to find Whitman in any poem. For a minute I thought, hm maybe I should try to think more about what could be the thing that all poetry does? Does Whitman do it? But then I got plum worn out!

    So instead I’d like to add to this that there is also a reflection of Whitman in that Guest allowed his dream self to take form. It reminded me of Whitman’s strategy of taking on personae to better understand his thoughts and his placement in the world. I think that this is especially seen in “Song of Myself”, that Whitman allows himself to take on all of these personae not only because he is trying to assert himself as a man of all people but also because he is trying to better understand himself. In this poem, Guest has used a dream self beautifully to try and understand what it means to him that he is paralyzed. It is useful in the way that one can become so cold that he forgets how it feel to be hot, like there has never been heat in this world.

    Aha! And I have just remembered, Jared do you remember Paul Guest’s talk on Persona Poems when he visited the College? I have nothing really to say on that except for interesting, interesting.

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