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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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Harold Arnett
by R. K. Arnett
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     I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
     Thinking of my failure, looking into the abysm,
     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
          Here with lungs,
     Though one must breatheæOf what use is it
     To rid one's self of the world,
     When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of

     --Edgar Lee Masters
     Spoon River Anthology,

Masters 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.

End Notes

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.

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