“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I believe it’s because of what I’ve been reading and teaching lately—the Fugitive poets, Eliot, Lowell, John Gardner’s Grendel—that I’ve been thinking so much about the past. At 51, I fear I have become like Eliot’s crabby Prufrock, scuttling sideways as the world in which I grew to maturity (and in which I at least had a comfort zone) continues to morph, seemingly out of my control, into something evermore distasteful, a wasteland in which I find it hard to move forward and fight. Have I become like Allen Tate, brooding at the gate of the cemetery, eyes turned to the “immoderate past,” “a mummy in time” not yet allowed into the “ravenous grave” but biding my time here in a brutal present, “sentinel of the grave who counts us all,” turned to stone already turning to dust? Too dramatic? Perhaps.
If the world is too much with me, and if this has caused me to turn inward and backward, I can at least claim for my ennui legitimate cause. It wearies me to even begin what could be a list that goes on for pages, for ages: morons, racists, shameless sniffers of the frilly underwear of the ultra-wealthy, politicians who have surpassed even their worst historical counterparts. When, in 1905, George Santayana wrote his famous sentence, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I’m pretty sure he didn’t have in mind that the odious among us ought to learn how to become a worse sort of George Wallace, Richard M. Nixon, or Joseph McCarthy, yet that seems, to me, to be what is happening. At least that’s how it appears to this aging guy, a moderate guy (never a liberal except when it’s come to social issues) who sees extremism, on both sides, crushing the life out of those who desire only balance. Sometimes it makes me so angry and alone I feel like monstrous and desire revenge.
But we are our politicians even as we are ourselves. If I’m like Lowell in “For the Union Dead,” standing there with my nose “pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence,” watching as the past is paved over with the pipe dreams of the future, then what of it? It’s a future I am more excluded from every day, no? And if I dread the monsters I see emergent before me—the Paul Ryans, Mitt Romneys, Rush Limbaughs, Michele Bachmanns, and more—then I at least know, as Grendel comes to learn about his own monsterhood, the role of monster is crucial. It defines us and gives us something to fight against, and those of us who stand opposed to those monsters are monsters ourselves when viewed through the eyes of the other. As much as I would like to, as does Lowell’s island hermit in “Skunk Hour,” buy up all that I find unappealing about today’s United States—from Justin Bieber to reality shows to governors who fear and so wish to undermine liberal arts education to corporate entities that farm us like cattle to mountaintop removal and fracking to blacks voting with crackers in opposition to the rights of gays to drones to mindless religion to the diminishment of healthcare to GMOs to you name it—and let it fall, I know it’s not within my power to do so. “My mind’s not right,” wrote Lowell. Mine isn’t either, but I have the balm of empathy I find in poems such as those by Jane Varley in this month’s Congeries, the poetry of friends like Natasha Trethewey for whom the past is both recoverable and, to an extent, even transmutable, truth be known. And I have a ten-year-old stepson to whom I’ve made a commitment to do my best. So I’ll turn, as I can, when I can, from the past and vote and rabble-rouse and teach and write and support local farmers and small business and grouse and drink too much and pray and like that. And if you find me odious, then know I am a monster. I define you, monster. And we’ll all live ever after.