Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Noise the Hairless Make

Last night I went to a rehearsal for the "Good Friday Project, an arts event focusing on the human realities of suffering and death." It put me in a mood, especially the piece about a wife who had trouble forgiving her husband for being in the hospital and taking all her care for granted. It made me want to slap her, and the somber cello piece following did nothing to dispel my mood. I had to go home and read some poems from one of my favorite volumes of poetry, Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns.

"The Noise the Hairless Make" is the poem that did the most to restore my equilibrium:

How difficult to be an angel.
In order to forgive, they have no memory.
In order to be good, they're always forgetting.
How else could heaven by run? Still,
it needs to be full of teachers and textbooks
imported from God's own basement, since only
in hell is memory exact. In one classroom,
a dozen angels scratch their heads as their teacher
displays the cross-section of a human skull,
saying, Here is the sadness, here
the anger, here's where laughter is kept.
And the angels think, How strange and take notes
and would temper their forgiveness if it weren't
all forgotten by the afternoon. Sometimes
a bunch fly down to earth with their teacher,
who wants them to study a living example, and
this evening they find a man lying in a doorway
in an alley in Detroit. They stand around
chewing their pencils as their teacher says,
This is the stick he uses to beat his wife,
this is the bottle he drinks from when he
wants to forget, this is the Detroit Tigers
T-shirt he wears whenever he's sad, this is
the electric kazoo he plays in order to weep.
And the angels think, How peculiar, and wonder
whether to temper their forgiveness or just
let it ride, which really doesn't matter since
they forget the question as soon as it's asked.
But their muttering wakes the man in the doorway,
who looks to see a flock of doves departing
over the trash cans. And because he dreamed
of betrayal and pursuit, of defeat in battle,
the death of friends, he heaves a bottle at them
and it breaks under a streetlight so the light
reflects on its hundred broken pieces with such
a multicolored twinkling that the man laughs.
From their place on a brick wall, the angels
watch and one asks, What good are they? Then
others take up the cry, What good are they,
what good are they? But as fast as they articulate
the question it's forgotten and their teacher,
a minor demon, returns with them to heaven.
But the man, still chuckling, sits in his doorway,
and the rats in their dumpsters hear this sound
like stones rattling or metal banging together,
and they see how the man is by himself without
food or companions, without work or family
or a real bed for his body. They creep back
to their holes and practice little laughs
that sound like coughing or a dog throwing up
as once more they uselessly try to imitate
the noise the hairless make when defeated.

As the man from mars says in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, laughter is a kind of bravery. I've had times in my life when I wasn't brave enough to be able to laugh, but I'm not proud of them, and I don't see the sense in dragging them out for display once they're past. It seems a morbid fascination to me. I think it's nearly impossible to properly compose your thoughts to deal with the paradox of Good Friday while wallowing in other peoples' suffering. Because "only in hell is memory exact."


Teena said...

Remember how I wrote a paper just about the role of rats in Cemetery Nights? I think my thesis statement was "I really hate this collection of poems, but I find them strangely compelling."

This poem made me laugh because Lucy is learning how to laugh right now. Sometimes her laugh is genuine, but other times she is trying to mimic our laughter and it is hilarious.

She also mimics coughing-- I had a cough for weeks, and we thought she was getting it. We were a little worried because her cough sounded really weird. Eventually we figured out that she was just trying to cough like me but didn't really know how.

Jeanne said...

I do remember that paper. And I love that age when you can hunch your shoulders and say in a scary voice to your child "cough this way." Or walk. Or any of a number of things, really!