I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
Thinking of my failure, looking into the
Weak from the noon-day heat.
A church bell sounded mournfully far away,
I heard the cry of a baby,
And the coughing of John Yarnell,
Bed-ridden, feverish, dying,
Then the violent voice of my wife:
"Watch out, the potatoes are burning!"
I smelled them -- there was irresistible
I pulled the triggeræblacknessælightæ
Unspeakable regretæfumbling for the world
Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathingæone cannot breathe
Though one must breatheæOf what use is it
To rid one's self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal
--Edgar Lee Masters
Spoon River Anthology, 1915
used a simple method to assemble the names of the dead in Spoon River
Anthology. "The names I drew from both Spoon River and Sangamon
River cemeteries, combining first names here with surnames there, and
taking some also from the constitutions and State papers of Illinois."(1)
With them he created the poem titles for ghosts who tell their stories
in verse. Their voices seem more credible when combined with the image
of a name chiseled on a tombstone.
I was intrigued on discovering that his
random selection had formed my father's name. The poem's first line wholly
engaged me.(2) Dad was a manic-depressive, and on those occasions when
I remember him sinking into an emotional depth beyond my reach, the image
of him leaning against the wall, his head pressed against a braced forearm,
is what I see. A chill washed over me, merged with the lines on the page
and held me, helpless, fearful, unable to resist what that vision instills.
Each verse that followed absorbed me further, drawing me in, draining
me, making me feel ever more vacuous at the end of every stanza.
I can't express what I felt when I first
read it through. There are no words, no possible description. To this
day, I don't know what to say or how to say it, and never will. It is
simply beyond trying.
On a hot August day in 1976, my father shot
himself. I could believe selecting his name a fluke of chance. I may even
allow for the first line as some astronomical coincidence. The bells of
Jefferson Baptist can be heard from our house and it may not be uncommon
to live a small distance from a church, but for a poet's musing to mirror
so powerful an instant as this goes far beyond ordinary.
How can I consider the fusion of these things
as random; deny it as nothing more than collective happenstance, a hapless
reaction of words to the catalyst of time? The confluence of my reality
with images written more than sixty years before the moment sends a shock
through my soul. That electric surge remains, deep, hiding, waiting to
stun any hint of reason and robs me of breath until I can find no voice
within me to contest it as an apex of casual occurrence. My heart will
not allow me to dismiss it as an accident of poetry.
I have to believe there is somethingæsomething
that in some way cast its reach beyond time and space to whisper in Masters'
ear as he wrote through the night. I have no theory or metaphysical explandum.
I don't question it or analyze it. It simply is. And because it is, I
believe I'll see my father again. The thought of hearing him laugh is
a comfortæ beyond words.
1. Swenson, May. Introduction to Spoon River Anthology. Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1962.
2. Harold Aaron Arnett, Jr. held a BA in English from LSU (1955). He was
a staff member on Delta , Vol. 8 (May, 1954) and Editor of Delta,
Vol. 9 (May, 1955). He was also a contributing writer to both issues
in the category of short prose. "Omnipotence" was included in Vol. 8,
and "The Sacred City" in Vol. 9.