To Infuse (As Life) By Breathing
Facing a grim diagnosis, a man has a charmed collision with a poem. A story by Elaine Segal
("Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Bruegel)
I don’t believe in ghosts, gods, miracles, unseen hands, cosmic plans, none of that. As far as I’m concerned, barring reality, there’s nothing in the world stranger than people. Only once, in an elevator, did I experience something so sublimely peculiar it seemed nothing short of an intercession by the brand of agency I have forbidden myself to believe in. Though the rent made that night in my steely worldview has long since closed, I recollect the luminous oddness of the event as being so much stranger than reality or people it seems a strangeness of another order—quite possibly just a humdrum little order where incredibly steep odds are routinely beat—somebody always wins the lottery, after all, no mystery there. That said, it was certainly the strangest thing that ever happened to me. And, possibly strangest of all, at the center of this charmed collision was a certain poem. Out of all the poems ever writ, it had to be exactly that one. Otherwise, it would have been just another ride down to the lobby. But I am getting ahead of my story.
It so happened that one fine August afternoon in the year 2000, my faithful friend the painter Lance Richbourg received a diagnosis of such brutal dimension it frightened the doctor who immediately upon reciting it fled the examining room.
Up until this moment, Lance’s life had been dominated by the pastoral. Forty years off the farm, he had retained the rustic accent and quaint manners of his Southern ancestors who moseyed on horseback through the turpentine forests of the Florida panhandle on cow hunts, roped deer for fun, and lectured their mules on the wages of unchristian behavior. Lance attacked his art in accordance with the grim work ethic of the rural frontier, cranking out painting after painting of baseball players laboring in their fields, every now and then producing a work of lasting museum sadness. In matters of love Lance played any part necessary to achieve his aim—the drooling swain, the suave gallery guide, the absent-minded professor, the tormented artist. In other words, he was a rogue of the first order, though an appreciative rogue who often remarked that no matter the scope of our personal disappointments, we were as lambs gamboling about the meadow.
The examining room was cruelly lit, the better to reveal the body’s facts but worse than useless when it came to illuminating any sort of meaning that might be attached to the fact of having a body. It was a poor light in which to wish or aspire or comprehend. I watched my friend bow his head before the sudden fact of his mortality in that dumb institutional glare and thought, Too much rain loosens trees. In the hills, great oaks fall upon their knees. You can touch parts you have no right to. Places only birds should fly to.
It wasn’t an original thought, that is to say, it didn’t originate with me. It was a poem by Kay Ryan I had recently memorized called “Crown.” I memorized it as I’d memorized other poems before it so I could occupy my mind with quality thought when I was out of ideas. I didn’t often say the poems out loud, though once in a while, to prove him wrong, I’d tell one to Lance, who insisted he didn’t get poetry. A ridiculous claim, in my view, for a literate person forever spouting queerly apt imaginings—a person who was put in mind of American Psycho when he read The Iliad for its maniacal litany of chariots, armor, and divers gear adducing the West’s everlasting obsession with product. A person to whom it was revealed that Picasso’s invention of cubism arose from the artist’s urgent need to see simultaneously vagina, asshole, and breast. Who dispatched in exactly six words the tangled purpose of all human striving: “There is no goal, only appetite,” he announced one night while drunk.
“I can’t spell, I’ll never speak French, and I don’t get poetry” is something Lance would very often say, as if pronouncing the elements of a uniquely enlightened guiding principle.
“Oh, don’t be such a snob,” I’d say. “Listen.” And then a variation of the following conversation would proceed to its customary halt.
E: Are you listening?
E: I said, listen.
L: To what?
E: (forcefully) Yes! In the sea of life enisled, with echoing straits between us thrown—
L: I don’t get it.
E: Whaddya mean you don’t get it—there’s nothing not to get—it’s all there. Maybe if you’d let me finish. . .
L: I still won’t get it.
E: You got The Iliad.
L: The Iliad doesn’t qualify as a poem. I could understand it. Did I ever tell you how it put me in mind of American Psycho. . .
If you’ve ever been scheduled for major surgery, then you have surely known the eerie honeymoon that intervenes between the bad news and the violence ahead. Your old life, the one you’ve been told you’re about to lose, is already behind you, has nothing in common with your new life, the one on the line like a hero’s is, to be tested against fate and significant pain. You are facing a bona fide event: major surgery. It’s like a joke and not the least bit like a joke. And that’s OK with you. Finally, you feel ready for anything. And what better spot than New York City in which to enjoy that fantastic sense of irresponsibility you awoke to the moment you signed your will?
Lance and I are waiting for an elevator on the ninth floor in an apartment building on Fourth Avenue between 11th and 12th. Lance is admiring himself in the full-length mirror adjacent to the elevator. Specifically, he is admiring the stains on the pocket and right lapel of his white linen jacket. “You know,” says Lance, “Auden’s summer suit was so bespeckled with red wine it turned pink.”
“Yes, I know,” I say. I know this not because I have any special knowledge of the poet’s sartorial quirks but because Lance recollects the state of Auden’s summer suit every time we take the elevator.
“And that’s what I’m going to do to this jacket, by God,” says Lance. “I’m going to spill wine all over the goddamn thing. Then I’ll never have to worry about keeping it white again. I am done worrying.”
“So you’ve said,” I say. Unlike Lance, I am poured out with worry. Unlike Lance, I have had major surgery. Lance is having big major surgery. Big, major, long, dangerous surgery. I don’t know how much worse that is but I do know this: when you wake up from an ordeal even as lenient as major surgery, if you don’t pray, you better have something ready-made to say to yourself so as to have somewhere to put your mind besides your body. Lance does not pray. He dreams of making a bumper sticker that says, ANYONE WHO BELIEVES IN AN AFTERLIFE SHOULD BE SHOT.
“You really should memorize a poem, Lance,” I say for the nth time.
“I got all the inspiration I need from Auden’s suit,” says Lance.
“I don’t suppose you ever read one of his poems.”
“Funny you’d know so much about his suit.”
“The fox knows many things.”
“You know, inspiration is not the point.”
“Of poetry, you blockhead! Do you paint paintings to inspire people? No. You paint them A, to get laid, and B, to have something to do.”
“And your point is?”
The elevator arrives, carrying one passenger. A woman of no particular age wearing a fanny pack, a sensible citizen of New York, not happy or unhappy, mildly glowing with the unpretending confidence common to those in possession of a rent-controlled apartment.
“My point is,” I say, as we step into the elevator. “Oh. My. God.”
“What. Did you forget something?”
“MUSÉE DES BEAUX ARTS!”
“What about it?”
“It’s a poem. By Auden. About that painting, Landscape With The Fall of Icarus. You know the one. It is such a fucking great poem. You would definitely get it. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.”
“Do you know it?”
“Yes. No. I used to, but I lost it. Damn. I wish I had it with me.”
“I’m carrying it,” says our fellow passenger.
“Are you kidding?” I say.
“No, not at all. I have it right here.” She fishes into her bag and produces a battered Xerox of “Musée des Beaux Arts,” copied from an anthology organized by theme.
Lance and I are struck dumb for once, two noisy cynics in a down elevator with their mouths hung open, letting in light, that’s us. Our companion smiles and takes out a pen. Says, “You can borrow it. I’ll write my name on the back. When you’re done, leave it with the doorman. Here.”
“Myra,” I say, for such is her name, “how do you come to be carrying this particular poem?”
“Oh,” says Myra, “I used to know it and I forgot it, and I wanted to remember it again, so I take it out on the subway and get a couple lines at a time.”
“Auden spilled so much wine on his summer suit it turned pink,” Lance tells Myra.
“Really?” says Myra “I didn’t know that.”
“I guess this is the poem I’m going to memorize,” Lance says.
When Lance woke up from the operation, his first act was to prove me wrong. Just because the foremost definition of inspire invokes the kind of occult process I renounce—just because people are generally made even stranger, often dangerously strange, when they feel themselves to be inspired—just because I’d as soon eat glass as read one of those pastel tracts flung from the heart of capitalism onto the shelves of the ever growing “Inspirational” section in the bookstore—just because the term has from centuries of use, misuse, and wishful thinking become debased is not, as it turns out, sufficient cause to dismiss it from the point of poetry. For when Lance, having been anesthetized for fourteen hours, came to, he wasn’t breathing much; there were, according to the nurse, two means of supplying him with oxygen—they could throw a hose back down his throat or he could talk at length and having at that point not much to say, he recited at top volume: ABOUT SUFFERING THEY WERE NEVER WRONG, THE OLD MASTERS... And by the time he reached SOMETHING AMAZING, A BOY FALLING OUT OF THE SKY, he was well and truly inspired, both in the sense of being spurred to exaltation—I never saw someone so glad to shout out song into the world—and as in 2 b archaic: to infuse (as life) by breathing.
Paintings by Lance Richbourg
Portions of the image of "Musée des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden have been blacked out to conform to fair use standards.