Monday’s Poem: ‘Not Altogether Gone,’ by Christian Wiman

1.  DIPPED INTO FRENZY

Dipped into frenzy
like a tonged lobster

he squeaked a bit
then stopped

Overnight
his hair went white

Clean-suited
in a rocking chair
that never rocked
with a smile
that either included or excluded
utterly

he was every kind of crying
but the kind that you can see

2.  LIKE A DOG EXISTENCE IS

Lame, bees in his brain, two teeth shy
of total gum
he bites the air

Like a dog existence is
persistent in him:
he bites the air.

*

So gifted in misery, such disciplined self-pity,
and now, to make his helplessness a hell
for others, to make them loathe themselves
for loathing him:
his masterwork.

*

When there is nothing left to curse
you can curse nothing
but when there is nothing left to love
the heart eats inward and inward its own need
for release . . .

*

Chained to his fate, he spits
memory, wastes
to a gaze, and dies
with still-unexpended hatred in his eyes
like a dog.

3.  NOT ALTOGETHER GONE

Not altogether gone
his antic frantic penny-ante-Ahab stabs of madness

honeybunching the stewardess, teasing a little pile
of eyebrows on his tray-table like impossible pixie sticks

swiveling to give the loud grout rep what for
two cloudminded miles over Iowa

then subsiding spastically back
into his particular contortion of quiet

frieze-faced, mouth an unhappened howl, one arm
half-raised half-childlike as if to ask or answer . . .

before he’s seized again with a sharp impersonal turbulence
like angry laundry

4.  FUCK DOMINOES

“I’ll follow your toenails
into any hell that you propose
so deeply do they mean your feet
so purely is their pink my soul’s

Teach me to polka my walker
to hum dementia’s tune
and I’ll don diapers with a kinky gleam
slurp stewed prunes with oyster joy

O my pretties cantankered into twisty things
my lonesome irksome debutantes of death
I’ll be the girling dervish of Royal Estates
your bug-eyed undruggable, your ear-hair boy”

5.  AMERICAN CHEESE

To live amid the jackal looks of unlove,
all the relatives circling eerily warily the scent
of their own blood.
Some want money, some seek
only peace, but to you the teeth gleam with the same
obscene rapacity.
So you rouse yourself
of an afternoon, not leaving your lair
so much as carrying it with you, that moist, almost visible
nimbus of pain, urine, cold coffee, and cable news
crackling occasionally through the stale cloud of it all—

for an outing! a bit of nature, a refreshing stagger
through the fluorescent plains of Wal-Mart:

demons inked on arms, nicotine tans, hoosegow gazes,
chemical grins, galactic buttocks, some terrycloth termagant
shrilling at her overblooded underminded whelp
Slim!  That boy.  Goddammit Slim.  Slim!

Welcome to the hell of having everything:
one repentant politician on sixty screens,
van-sized vats of crabgrass toxin,
a solid quarter mile of disposable diapers:
all our impossibles pluraled.

Would Daddy like some rectal gel?
Would Daddy like some single use oral swabs?
Would Daddy like some Clonezapam Hydrocodone Lyrica Trazadone Cymbalta
Wellbutrin Lipitor Vesicare?

Yes, Daddy would.

And Daddy would like to go home, too,
you say without saying a word, minding
your invisible balance beam through the unfuturistic
suck-sound of the doors into the incinerator summer
even locusts have brains enough
to stay out of—
everywhere abandoned
carts, triceratops-looking trucks, mother upon mother
with a hungry aboriginal howl
coming not quite from her—
while beside you
some dropsical shambles of humanity
who could  be your grandson or your grandfather
slimes his sluglike fingers into your own
to press a little God is Love medallion still sticky
from its Cracker Jack box—

though, come to think of it, you’d never find such a thing there,
would you?

6.  AS IN A FREAK NOOK

As in a freak nook of cliff
it would take a lonely soul to descend and see
a kinked tree grows a moment
still as the rock in which it’s rooted—
I saw through his wildtime the childtime smile.

7.  NOW, WHEN THERE IS NO NOW TO BURN

Now, when there is no now to burn,
and those who, despite you, loved you, turn
back to their lives and the fact of your absence
the strangeness is how little strangeness there is
in the blank day, the meaningless depletion, the grief.
It was always all aftermath, your life.

© by Christian Wiman.  Reprinted from Every Riven Thing by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Christian Wiman, born and raised in West Texas, is the author of three poetry collections, The Long Home, Hard Night, and Every Riven Thing, as well as a collection of prose. Wiman has taught at Northwestern University, Stanford University, Lynchburg College in Virginia, and the Prague School of Economics. The editor of Poetry, he now lives in Chicago.

Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: One attraction of poetic series and sequences, apart from what Freud would consider a primal human compulsion to repeat, is the ways in which they allow a myriad of approaches to a given subject matter, particularly one with an obsessive emotional or psychological tide. The poet need not say everything she or he wants to explore in one poem but can constellate or otherwise tether individual poems so that they speak to one another in revelatory ways. One poem, for instance, might provide a “hot spot” in the sequence, embodying the entire series writ small and showing the reader how to read the whole. Or one poem might domesticate another’s wildness or provide a provocative, complicating, stereoscopic lens onto another’s ostensible singular dimension. Series and sequences can allow polyvocality, a range of points of view and tone, and lend the lyric poet some of the arc and propulsive, temporal momentum of narrative.

Christian Wiman’s seven-poem sequence “Not Altogether Gone” concerns an older relative (“Daddy”) plagued by dementia, a man whose entire life has been “gifted in misery, such disciplined self-pity” and who now, as a result of diminishing faculties, “[makes] his helplessness a hell / for others, [makes] them loathe themselves / for loathing him:   // his masterwork.” Dementia, with its harrowing obliteration of memory, logic, and personhood, is an unfathomable affliction, almost untranslatable (“Clean-suited / in a rocking chair / that never rocked // with a smile / that either included or excluded utterly // he was every kind of crying / but the kind that you can see,” Wiman writes at the conclusion of the opening poem). Working in series offers Wiman a way of handling the slippage and ineffability of Daddy’s condition and its effects on family members and other caretakers, articulating the aphasia, rage, and confusion from various perspectives.  Perhaps most important, just as “hell” is contained in “helplessness,” Wiman’s serial piece permits him to avoid merely demonizing or pitying Daddy. All of the humans in the old man’s zone are implicated in his misery.

The title of the sequence plays with the phrase “not altogether there,” something we might say of someone losing his or her mind. The twist in idiom emphasizes one of the travesties of dementia—that those who suffer from it die before they die. “Dipped Into Frenzy,” the opening poem, suggests that the transformation from whole self to fragmented being happens suddenly (“Dipped into frenzy / like a tonged lobster / he squeaked a bit / then stopped // Overnight / his hair went white”), but the comparison of the subject to a crustacean is a signal that the subject of the poem has always worn a kind of shell, the significance of which will be amplified in subsequent poems in the series. Poem two, “Like a Dog Existence Is,” is bleak meta-sequence of four strophes, evoking Beckett’s well-known statement that “Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit” and offering a glimpse into a completely impoverished soul: “Like a dog existence is / persistent in him: // he bites the air,” and later, “Chained to his fate, he spits / memory, wastes / to a gaze, and dies / with still-unexpended hatred in his eyes.”

But as we see in poem three, the title poem of the sequence, the afflicted subject has not entirely died. Mimetic in its depiction of Daddy’s “antic frantic penny-ante-Ahab stabs of madness,” his “cloud-minded” and spastic bouts of flirtation, “[contortions] of quiet / frieze-faced, mouth an unhappened howl, one arm / half-rasied half-childlike as if to ask or answer . . . // before he’s seized again with a sharp personal turbulence / like angry laundry,” the poem offers as powerful, dispassionate a portrait of a demented human being as I have read (Anne Carson accomplishes a comparably terrifying portrayal in The Glass Essay).

Two poems in the series, “Fuck Dominoes” (4) and “American Cheese” (5), do not take their titles from the poems themselves.  “Fuck Dominoes” would appear to be in the voice of the old man himself, and it is a dark and darkly humorous song, “dementia’s tune,” if dementia could speak, rife with fury, irony, and an Id-like, transgressive taunting akin to Caliban’s songs: “Teach me to polka my walker / to hum dementia’s tune / and I’ll don diapers with a kinky gleam / slurp stewed prunes with oyster joy.” Floating over this snarky ditty is the “cantankered” spirit of its singer, the “bug-eyed undruggable . . . ear-hair boy” of Royal Estates, stalked by death and damned if he’s going to play their games. In “American Cheese” Wiman widens the shot out a bit to include the relatives with their “jackal looks of unlove, / . . . circling warily the scent / of their own blood.” In this way, Wiman shows that it is not the dying man, biting the air with animal fury, who is the only dog in this endgame. And as the family takes an outing to “the fluorescent plains of Wal-Mart” (“Would Daddy like some rectal gel? / Would Daddy like some single use oral swabs? / Would Daddy like some Clonizapam Hydrodocone Lyrica Trazadone Cymbalta Wellbutrin Lipitor Vesicare?  // Yes, Daddy would”), we see that the flotsam and jetsam, the “hungry aboriginal howl” of Daddy’s deteriorating mind is manifest everywhere in the culture, “the hell of having everything: / one repentant politician on sixty screens, /van-sized vats of crabgrass toxin, / a solid quarter mile of disposable diapers:  / all our impossibles pluraled.”

The series concludes with two short lyrics. In six, “As in a Freak Nook,” the speaker is afforded a flickering, tenacious glimpse of the lost person amid his ravagement: “I saw through his wildtime the childtime smile,” reminding us, again, of Daddy’s humanity—or, rather, raising anew the question of what makes us human—and of the truth that even a busted clock tells time correctly twice a day. The rhyme here, as elsewhere, reminds the reader and the writer, when dancing around Daddy’s experience, to look in the mirror. The last poem, “Now, When There is No Now to Burn,” confronts the hard sense, hinted at in the first poem, that in the wake of the physical death of this difficult, angry, shut-down man, the survivors (“who, despite you, loved you”) feel little strangeness in “the blank day, the meaningless depletion, the grief” following his death because the man who has died was never really present to them, even in life, even before dementia: “It was always all aftermath, your life.”

How does one compose an elegy for someone who, because he never fully opened to his humanity, was not and will never be either altogether present or altogether absent?  Wiman’s series allows him to explore these paradoxes and to honor them. In a poem called “The Polaroids,” Charles Wright says: “We tend to repeat what we don’t know / Instead of the other way around — // Thus mojo, thus misericordia / . . . We tend to repeat what hurts us, things, and ghosts of things, / The actual green of summer, and summer’s half-truth. / We tend to repeat ourselves.”  Wiman’s constellation of poems is an inimitable portrait of the tragedy of dementia; in its honesty, music, dark humor, and manifold perspectives, it is also a portrait of the poet, and of ourselves—the brutal sadness, the beautiful human potential of who we are, all we might waste, or become.

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