Watching Me Make a Fool of Myself

Just in case you thought that after watching too many war scenes on TV that I’d gone mushy, I’ll let you know that I’ve been reading Mark Strand Selected Poems, a healthy antidote to any sense of romanticism you might be harboring.

Strands’ poems are dark and mysterious. Like Bei Dao’s poems, they often remind me of The Surrealists, particularly in their dream-like, or nightmarish, qualities:

THE TUNNEL

A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.

After a while
I open the front door
just a crack and order
him out of my yard.
He narrows his eyes
and moans. I slam
the door and dash back
to the kitchen, then up
to the bedroom, then down.

I weep like a schoolgirl
and make obscene gestures
through the window. I
write large suicide notes
and place them so he
can read them easily.
I destroy the living
room furniture to prove
I own nothing of value.
When he seems unmoved
I decide to dig a tunnel
to a neighboring yard.
I seal the basement off
from the upstairs with
a brick wall. I dig hard
and in no time the tunnel
is done. Leaving my pick
and shovel below,

I come out in front of a house
and stand there too tired to
move or even speak, hoping
someone will help me.
I feel I'm being watched
and sometimes I hear
a man's voice,
but nothing is done
and I have been waiting for days.

Sometimes when I write entries for this blog, I feel like there is someone “out there” waiting for me to make an inevitable mistake, someone who thinks I’m a “raging liberal.” Not that there isn’t also a part of me that sits back thinking that much of what I write is meaningless drivel. In fact, isn’t there always a part of us, a critical part, that always waits, watching the other part make a fool of itself by weeping over the casualties of war or by making obscene gestures at those who would march in parades or even at those who would kill innocent women and children trying to rid the world of evil?

Sometimes we would do almost anything to escape that “watcher,” even if it meant tunneling through the subconscious in an attempt to escape, in the end only to discover that we can never escape the “watcher” because, as Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Too often in moments of great despair, we discover that both parts of ourself are frozen in time, incapable of solving the problems that face us, the hysterical part raging against the injustice of the world, the watcher “too tired to move or even speak,” only able to sit there watching the other driven crazy by fear.

19 thoughts on “Watching Me Make a Fool of Myself

  1. I like your insightful comments better than the poem.

    While i understand and relate to the poem, it somehow doesn’t strike me as being a poem…

    but then again my critical self has taken over and I have no idea what a poem is these days.

    I suppose I never did.

  2. Oh, that wasn’t meant as a slight against your choice of poems, btw..

    just something i’m dealing with in my own writing right now 😉

  3. I didn’t take it personally, and I’ll have to admit that I have to be in a certain mood to appreciate Mark Strand.

    One of his favorite poets is Wallace Stevens, I guess, and unfortunately I don’t find much to admire in Stevens.

  4. Drat. I’m very keen on the bits of Wallace Stevens that “speak to me” (I was going to say “that I understand” but that would be to misrepresent the relationship I think).

    I liked both the poem and your interpretation of the watcher watched in/by all of us. I wondered if, by the end of the poem, the watched has become the watcher, first refusing to help then unaided himself. Certainly fits how I mostly see (watch?) my own levels of self-awareness and empathy!

  5. i’m going to try to read more Wallace Stevens to find out how much of him I like, but it’s probably going to be like trying to read T.S. Eliot, who I generally don’t like.

    I think that is the idea of being the same, yet drawn separate that is both appealing and frightening in this poem. We are alienated from ouselves and, yet, incapable of helping ourselves.

  6. What part of my comment would suggest that I’m Jewish, Beyhudar?

    If you’d read much of my blog you’d probably figure out that I’m not any particular religion, though I come closest to being a Unitarian.

  7. OK, I will go through your blog first and then I will re-study Unitarianism this time looking at it from a different point of view and then I will answer your question. By the way, I loved your comment on the poem which was invaluable. And you are definetely unique if you are aware of it.

  8. I probably most reveal my philosophy in my analysis of Emerson and Thoreau, particularly since Emerson started out as a Unitarian minister but rejected it as “too rigid.”

  9. I hope you dont mind having the Turkish translation of Strand’s poem in your weblog.
    This almost a perfect translation made using some sort of an Anatolian dialect and includes no feelings of fear in it. Brb.


    Tunel

    Yav garde$im dikilmis
    Bi herif bahcaya
    Gunlerdir duruyor. Oturma
    Odasinin pencireden
    Bakiyom, uyku tunek
    Yok, geceleyin feneri
    Yakip sonduruyom
    yakip sonduruyom.
    Gimildamiyo hep orda.

    Gafayi yiyecem yav
    Azcik gapiyi araladim
    ‘Git len! Git burdan’
    didim. A-ah. Gozlerini
    gisiyo ve iniliyo sankim.
    Vurdum gapiyi ve mutfaga
    Seyirttim, yatak odasina go$tum,
    Ordan geri goridora.

    Gari gibi agladim yav
    El-gol hareketleri yaptim
    Pencireden, saydim, sovdum.
    “bah gendimi oldururum” diye
    Gocaman gocaman yazdim
    Kagida. Duttum pencireye
    Ogusun deye. Vallayi
    Oturma odasinin butun
    Esyasini talan ittim, girdim
    Yiktim. Gorsun de inansin
    Hec giymatli bi seyim yohdur.

    Gipramiyor namussuz. Oyle mi
    Oyle. Gomsu bahcaya
    Tunel gazmaya garar virdim.
    Gazdim mutfagin dabanini
    Eyicene inince girisi gozelce
    Tuglaynan ordum. Hizinan
    Gazdim, tunel oldu guzel. Gazmayi
    Guregi argada biraharahtan,

    Bir evin onune cihtim,
    Durdum, bi yorgunluh
    Bi yorgunluh, giprayasim yoh,
    Gonu$asim yoh, ah biri
    Bi yardim etse deye bakiniyom.
    Ana, sanki biri bakiyo gibi
    Oluyo, bi herif sesi gelir
    Gibi oluyo, ama hec bi sey
    yoh ve gunlerdir bekliyom.

  10. Below is some comments on the same poem which were sent to me by an Irish lady a while ago. As you can see, the her way of understanding the poem is quite different from yours. I am still busy with going through your site and doing some reading on Unitarianism. I’ll be back.

    You certainly have me scared!

    Anyway here are the results of 6 years and 2 degrees in literature and 6 years and 2 degrees in psychology;

    Firstly there are a lot of unanswered questions;

    How reliable is the narrator (is there really someone there?)
    Why does the ‘man’ never seem to respond to or communicate with him
    Why does he just stand outside and never try to approach the house
    Does he ever take a break
    The subject appears to have lost his sense of time
    Where did he suddenly get the materials to build a brick wall
    Does he ever venture further than the garden
    The sense of space seems to be lost
    The sense of perspective is lost.

    I did notice that the start of the poem is the reverse of the end. The insider becomes the outsider. A man stands in front of a house watched by a man inside whose voice he hears. Each is unable to identify with the other although they are the other. The sense of time and space is confounded. How can a person be in two places at the same time (inside and outside the house)? There is a sense of helplessness experienced in both situations. This is compounded by a lack of understanding and empathy, would understanding of the person outside have led to greater self awareness for the person inside and vice versa? The outsider is waiting for help but while he is inside he does not understand that this is why the person is outside the house, he assumes menace and attempts to avoid it, in doing so becomes alienated, exhausted and alone. The very avoidance of menace results in a increase in this. The frantic activity he engaged in while inside the house has left him completely drained and unable to do anything but stand still outside it. Of course the person outside is too exhausted to take any notice of the activity going on inside.

    ‘He’ will always be there, but he may be ‘I’. Both have condemned themselves to alienation from each other. Both have needlessly frightened that other.

    I have read less bleak and more cheerful poems. Maybe I should dig one of them out and send it to you!

  11. Seems to me that this poem might well be the postmodernist equivalent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Beyhudar.

    Doesn’t that play have such appeal because all of us have, or, at least should have, a little of Hamlet in ourselves?

    It seems to me that such self-doubt, such self-consciousness, is inevitable, though frightening, in a world where our values are constantly called into question.

    But because we indulge our depressive side doesn’t mean we don’t also celebrate our manic side.

  12. This for you if you don’t know it already. I’ll be back.

    —-

    http://www.forward.com/issues/2001/01.11.02/arts2.html

    The conference, it should be noted, celebrated not only Jewish-American writers, but also philanthropist Mr. Milberg’s gift of his collection of Jewish-American writings to Princeton’s library. To commemorate Mr. Milberg’s generosity, an issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle was dedicated to anthologizing 70 such writers living and dead; highlights include previously unpublished work by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Henry Roth. It also includes such noted writers as the poets Mark Strand and Jorie Graham, not often thought of as Jewish writers. “We didn’t do any DNA testing,” said Esther Schor, a Princeton literature professor and co-editor, but apparently, discrete inquiries were made. “Some of the contributors are only one-eighth Jewish!” boasted co-editor Mr. Williams, one of the event’s organizers.

  13. I’m not at all clear what you mean by this, Beyhdar.

    Judging from what I’ve been able to read online “Jewish diaspora” refers to the Jewish expulsion from Israel and living outside Israel.

    I don’t really see how that equates to the Unitarian ideal of unity unless you’re suggesting that we all live outside the ideal state and can only imagine what it must feel like to be at one with the universe.

  14. I have taken a liking to Strand’s poetry just over the last year or so. From my perspective, this poem is very literal. The Tunnel, is a poem. It is a means to escape and change from the man looking out at the world, to the man out in the yard. It’s a means of escape, and for Strand his “tunnel” is his poetry.

  15. I still don’t understand after it would seem about four years why that Turkish dude asked if you were Jewish. Why does that even matter? My best friend is Turkish (Muslim) and I am a Jesus Freak. Who cares?? Back to the poem, I see schizo tendencies in it. I am not projecting, they are just the classic symptoms that I am reading in this poem

What do you think?