Re-run of a Re-run
My daughter comes home this afternoon with an assignment from English class. An assignment to interview someone (an adult...close to you...well maybe just your parent) about the subject of poetry. Which they are obviously delving deeper into now that they're on the backend of 5th grade. 10 and 11 year olds. Time to bite off more of a chunky scrumptious morsel.
Or at least I hope that's where they are in their educational process, because when Jo asked me question number 4- what is your favorite poem and/or who is your favorite poet? I spit out my knee-jerk answer before she even got to and/or. My favorite poem- that's easy- that's a cinch. My favorite poem is "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" by TS Eliot. (Though he is perhaps not my overall favorite poet- that position belongs more squarely in Whitman's camp. Or maybe Dickinson or Plath. Eliot is phenomenal, but really beyond Prufrock I'm not as rabid a fan.)
And I love how my daughter decided, after I read her the entire poem at her request that because of my choice, I am a 'sophistocate.' (Perhaps only by proxy, right? The poem is just about one of the most elegant collection of words strung together in the entire history of human writing. And though Josephine understood perhaps less than 10% of it, she did absorb the depth and universal ringtone.)
I took a 19th-20th Century Modern Poetry course in my sophomore year of college and thereupon had my mind blown open by the genius of the classics of that period. But by no means am I some sort of poetry guru. I feel as if saying Prufrock is my favorite poem is akin to confessing that the Beatles might be my favorite pop band. But who cares. To my rosebud 10 year old, just opening her petals to all the glorious pieces of human creation that are out there in this big old wide world, I am a giant of intellect. A monster of sophistication. Awesome- let's just let that one ride for awhile.
After my sincere presentation of the Eliot monument to my daughter, I sat a little breathless. Again wrapped in the clarity of this man's feeling. And how as I grow older (and roll my trousers ever higher) I just keep living this piece of poetry. I just keep falling down deeper and deeper into its beautiful human melancholy.
Which reminded me- hey! I wrote a blog about this very thing perhaps a little less than a year ago! The end of last spring. And I posted it up on my old blog on hollylong.com. It was called "The Fake Plastic Lovesong of J Alfred Long" because it was equally an homage to Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Watering Can". A dual love song, as it were.
So, I think I'd like to repost it here and now upon revisiting this poem in the most achingly gorgeous of ways-- me with a glass of wine in my hand, lemonade in my kids,' and quiet tears perched haltingly in each of our eyes.
I humbly present to you a re-run of "THE FAKE PLASTIC LOVESONG OF H ALFRED LONG." I hope you dig in:
I cannot think of a more beautiful poem than The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I had the distinct aching joy of a re-introduction today as I sat basking in a sea of my favorite songs of all time. Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" was spinning for the third time in a row- maybe fourth. I just kept pressing play as the swelling third verse brought stinging tears to my eye corners and burgeoning mucus to all membranes-- a barely leveed flood for the face and the heart.
And as "She lives with a broken man. A cracked polystyrene man who just crumbles and burns" floats out of Thom Yorke's blotchy redheaded mouth, I must read Prufrock. "She looks like the real thing- she tastes like the real thing..." Yorke pleads. And I'm pulling up All the Women Come and Go- Talking of Michelangelo.
And now the tears that were teasing and stinging in my ducts come roaring down, bellowing out like clear lava forming little caves and ravines of Prescription Formula Number 40 foundation on my cheeks. Because as it wears out Yorke's cracked plastic surgeon who eventually loses out to gravity every time, I am reaching desperately toward Eliot's "attendant lord- no- not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. One that will do, though, to swell a progress, start a scene or two. At times indeed almost ridiculous. Almost at times the Fool."
And I can no longer remain sitting up straight. I am bowled over from the middle - cut in half- reduced to wracked sobbing. Quiet, long streams of wails emitting out of my mouth with the searing gorgeous painful truth of these lovely, wretched human souls.
Because you see- my grandmother is losing her mind.
And I am going to visit her this weekend with my mother and my aunt. We are all purposefully traveling to the middle of the country- to the bread basket, the heartland of America-- to Salina, Kansas. We are coming to hold her and envelope her and guide her like whatshisname over the river Styx as her life passes from its final stages of rich independent livelihood to the waiting room of death that is Salina Kansas' best assisted-living retirement community-- The Manor. This barely disguised hole of finality. Encased in soft ecru and mauve tones-- damask on the pillows of the overstuffed couches. This is where my Nana Ruth will now reside until the last of her days. It is where her mother, Lula Mae Buchanan (nee Moon) spent the last decade of her years. It is where most of her friends currently live. It is the beginning of the end.
And there's something about being roughly half her age now, roughly half of what she's accumulated in wisdom and experience- in Prufrock's measured coffee spoons- that makes me swoon with recognition at both the Radiohead lead characters in "Fake Plastic Trees" as well as Eliot's Hamlet substitute. A man balding slowly- losing virility- losing gravity- losing sense of purpose and power that he is finding was all an illusion anyway.
So- perhaps- more the crumpled styrene surgeon coming to terms with the scales always being tipped in gravity's favor- I dig, I dig, I dig that space. I vibe to that- I get it. I live it. I awaken at 4 am to the hour of the wolf with sweaty palms and a heart beat too fast for such an hour lying in a supine position obsessed and anxious about only the big issues. Death. The end. The destruction. The last desperate squeeze of the heart- the squish of the blood through the valves. The end of being here and now as I know it.
And I wonder at what must be running through the brain of my grandmother. As her brain slowly calcifies- denying her access to the most basic of information that had been hers for the taking for decades. I wonder at her current concept of her reality. She forgets names, dates, having taken her multitude of medicines on time or not, the story she just told you 10 minutes ago that she'll tell you again...but perhaps is her reality any closer to actual reality? Now that she's sinking deeper into the chasm of The Manor? Of hospital-like fluorescents in the hallways (only turned on after 11pm through the night) and of oatmeal berber carpet on the living space of her 250 square foot apartment to enable easier cleaning? Is she somehow more able to grasp the moment to moment child like view of the world that allows her an ability to live somehow more presently? Or is it just a constant sea of confusion. That in and of itself, possiblly a more authentic way of looking at the human experience.
I am not a stranger to confusion myself. Though I have not been friends with it so much. Confusion has at times brought about rage at my own limitations or misfortunes. Confusion has convinced me that I have Not Done It Right so many times at the 4am witching hour. I wonder if Confusion is really a starting point- a launching pad from which we (I) should more often be comfortable launching. Or not. Perhaps just camping out upon.
"I grow old...I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
And now I am traveling back in time. To a world not so long ago- not so distant in time or space. A world right here in sunny smoggy Los Angeles. A world of beginnings and sex and possibilities where I am running--late-- to my 3rd quarter junior year poetry class at UCLA's Royce Hall. My long tanned limbs are beating the stones of the old-world section of campus clad in some short flowy 80's mini skirt. I most assuredly have some white high heeled leather booties on my feet, making it hard for me to run very fast. But I am not even 21, and so my joints and bones and cartilage are all very up to the task. No physical repercussions are forthcoming. And this poetry class is a course I had every right, and every privilege to be able to sign up for. Because, you see, I am a theater major- attaining my bachelor's degree as an artist. I am a student of every subject. And so I am allowed to take astronomy- ancient Chinese History, European Art History of the 17th-19th Centuries, a TV class where I learn how to run a 3 camera studio shoot a la "Cheers" or "Archie Bunker."
And I sail into class and find an empty seat near the door just as my efficiently artsy and bespectacled sweater vest professor jabs passionately in the air with his pencil and tells us vehemently to turn to page 426 of our Anthology Of Poetry. For today we will tackle Prufrock. Today we will start at least on the first two paragraphs- we will analyze, we will wrack our brains, we will work caringly, dilligently and slowly through this work. Because this might be perhaps the most accomplished of all the post modern poems- this just might be our anthem for the Western World through time immemorial. And I am engaged and titillated by such talk. I have heard vaguely about this poem- though I have no real knowledge of it. I'm just busy crossing my legs and adjusting my very short very fashionable mini skirt so that any of the potentially inquisitive men- young or old- sitting vaguely in front of me might not get such a wanton show should Prufrock not prove as absorbing as sweater vest professes it will.
And we begin our reading. And I remember immediately being drawn by the cadence of the thing. By the words themselves and how they presented next to each other. By the sheer juxtaposition of language- I remember thinking- this is deep. This is dense. This is a grouping of words that deserves my utmost attention and this is the sort of thing I hoped to encounter when I decided to enroll in such a course- this is the very kind of 'message' that I need to be able to learn how to take in and absorb. Yes- bring it, Prufrock. Bring it to my young eager overly sensitized intellectualized brain stem. Push this up past my white booties and though the cotton of my skirt up through the reach of my spine past any young bouncy bodily section of me and plant this firmly in the old tree root that I know is my heart.
Put 'er there, TS- you know you've got a friend in me.
But for all my yearning- for all my desire- Prufrock was no more than a beautiful masterful tapestry of divine syllables then and for a long time afterwards. It was strings of pearly words draped neatly and deftly upon each other. Back in 1991, I had no more idea what to make of J Alfred Prufrock than I would have a urine stained nursing home bed pan. And now... And now somehow. I am closer. I do.
Now I think no more of this poem in terms of its paragraphs- of its "stanzas"- of the Michelangelo theme refrain...of its catchy clever phrases. No - now I consume this poem as a whole. As a big juicy pear that doesn't actually satisfy, but feeds anyway. In fact- it is so nutritious for me, I almost don't even need to read beyond the first few paragraphs. Once the evening has spread itself against the sky like an anesthetized patient, and we're remembering the sawdust restaurant floors covered in oyster shells, I only really need to get to the yellow fog rubbing its back and muzzle on the window panes, and I'm already there. I'm already breaking. "Fake Plastic Trees" hasn't even mentioned the surgeon, and I'm gripped in the throes of the deepest most profound bourgois ennui that is so painstakingly executed by Eliot's Prufrock. And somehow so gorgeously set to music by Radiohead.
I am thankful for the recognition of this new juxtaposition for me. I am not looking forward to seeing my grandmother, though I do love her deeply and soundly and want so much to make a difference and help this passage for her be if only slightly less burdensome. As I hope some loved one will do for me one day.
"Streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question...Oh, do not ask, "what is it?" Let us go and make our visit."
I am coming to see you Nana.