The Beauty of Our Weapons
My father has become a poet
He spent forty years managing construction sites. Building houses and bridges. Churning up the earth with great yellow machines bright as wasps. And when he retired at last, forced out of work by a deep recession, he turned to a different kind of construction.
He left school at sixteen. His formal education is even more insignificant than mine. Until his retirement, his reading consisted mostly of stereotypical Dad-lit. Tom Clancy and Bernard Cornwell, with their techno-thrillers and historical fiction. Now, he discusses Seamus Heaney with me over the phone and sends me books by poets I’ve never heard of.
He doesn’t show his own poems to me, and I don’t ask. He writes for the best of all reasons: the pure pleasure of the creative act. As his physical world grows smaller with age, his mental one expands. The people and places of his past swim around him now as he conjures up old memories and nails them down to the page.
His father died completely senile. Confined to a bright hospital room, not knowing his wife was already dead. Not knowing who his children were. A series of strokes tore apart the delicate structure of memory like a hornet tearing through a cobweb, making him almost a blank slate.
Almost. The last memories to recede, it seemed, were his oldest. His childhood on a farm on Ireland’s west coast. Memories that smelled of peat smoke and rain, punctured by the reliable rhythm of the Angelus.
My grandfather’s progression into a vanished Ireland was involuntary and unstoppable, the last thin line glowing in the face of the encroaching darkness. My father, on the other hand, goes there deliberately. It’s the difference between diving and drowning. The difference between falling and flying. The tragic accident and the intentional voyage.
My father bore the brunt of his own father’s senility. One of the hallmarks of dementia is that it’s often less hard on the person who has it than those around them. And as my father approaches his own father’s final age, his greatest fear is that the same thing might happen to him.
So he’s writing his way out of it. Keeping his brain occupied like a muscle by offering it the infinite challenge of poetry. Developing his powers of recall and creativity at a time when they are usually in decline. He writes his poetry because it makes him happy. But also, he writes in defiance of his biggest fear.
He’s on to something. This study found that a creative pursuit such as poetry can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 73 percent. I ought to have decades to go before I have to worry about the dementia that afflicts just about every member of my family who gets old enough to experience it. But if I do get to that age, I hope the same will be true for me.
I already know that I’ve written my way out of plenty of other dark places.
I’m sure you know what I mean
Some people seem to think a writer should view the blank page as an enemy to be conquered, but I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s more like the block of stone that imprisoned Michelangelo’s angels until his chisel set them free. A place of infinite potential, containing greater possibilities than I could ever fully realize.
Still, there are times when I wonder why I bother. Every artist has to contend with the indifference of the crowd, and I’m less successful than most. Even my own family don’t read my writing.
Still, lack of recognition doesn’t scare me nearly as much as lack of ability. When I sit down to write, the real fear is not that no one will read it, but that it will be garbage. It’s my own arbitrary standards that determine my writing’s success or failure. My inner critic is firm but fair. He operates on my work the way lions operate on the herd, ultimately making it stronger. Ultimately requiring better lions.
Sometimes, I suck. Sometimes, the words run away from me giggling, and I’m left grasping rails of cold sunlight like bars between me and some unattainable beauty. Other times, I’m proud of what I’ve done. And then I send it fluttering out over the horizon to disappear with yesterday’s rain.
Making beautiful weapons
I was going through a rough patch when I picked up Primo Levi’s magnificent autobiography of his time in Auschwitz, If This Is A Man. In Chapter 11, he writes about his attempts to teach Italian to a fellow prisoner.
On a long walk to fetch the day’s soup ration, Levi attempts to recall and translate Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno. And in doing so, he remembers the humanity the camp was intended to strip away from him. The long line of the Carpathian mountains in the distance becomes the mountains of Dante’s poem and the mountains of Levi’s old life, “which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin.” It’s vital to Levi that he remember the lines in his own version of hell, that he communicates to his friend what Dante’s words mean, for “tomorrow he or I might be dead.”
That’s why we do this, isn’t it? To triumph by the beauty of our weapons. If Levi’s words arose out of the corpse-flecked smoke of the extermination camp, to outlast the barbed wire and barking dogs and the unearthly stench of mass murder, then the right words can triumph over anything. Sometimes, Bukowski wrote, all we need to keep going is the noise of the dead rattling the walls around us. Primo Levi died by his own hand, another victim of the death camps long after the gates shut forever. But before he died, he left us his unconquerable gift.
The weapons of nature are ugly
Teeth and claws and horns crush and rip and tear. Ragged wounds in flesh spray gallons of hot blood before the massacre is finally over. We humans are cursed with the knowledge that we are the most ruthless killers this planet has ever produced. But at least our weapons are beautiful.
The sword of Charlemagne rests in the Louvre, changing color thirty times a day in its tomb of glorious glass. The sleek shapes of fighter planes haunt boy’s bedrooms, dangling from invisible strings in a simulated dogfight with no casualties.
There’s something hauntingly beautiful in the bright annihilation of the mushroom cloud, the sublime eruption of the fundamental forces of creation unleashed by us murder monkeys. Just as in nature, what is terrifying can also be beautiful.
But our art is a beautiful weapon too. A way to pierce through the veil of self-involvement that causes so many of our worst crimes. A method to shatter the glass between us and ultimate reality. A rifle with a scope that can pierce through any smoke.
It’s there any time you come up against a work of art with that mysterious and unutterable glow about it. Something that reaches out and grasps your heart and plucks it out of your chest like a fish hooked in an eagle’s talons. The aesthetic bliss James Joyce wrote about, the annihilating rapture that dissolves the self. The destruction that is also creation, like the unimaginable birth of the universe condensed into the space at the back of your eyes.
If my writing helps stave off the madness my genetics doom me to, I’ll be forever thankful. But art already has my sincere thanks. For pushing back the fog of depression. For piercing through the dangerous self-absorption that would otherwise make me believe too strongly in my own well-crafted bullshit. For continually planting seeds in the wasteland and making it bloom.
I have no idea if my father is a good writer or not
At least by the standards of technical virtuosity and meter and prosody. Those are the things they teach you in the colleges neither of us went to, too busy trying to make a living in a difficult world.
But that’s missing the point. He writes to preserve his faculties, yes. But he also writes for the same aesthetic bliss I know so well, the shattering feeling of peering into the unbearably bright furnace at the heart of everything. If he’s wrong, and the gray fog of senility does claim his mind in the end, at least it will be a mind worth claiming. A mind that forked what lightning it could while it was able. It’s a noble pursuit, whether anyone hears us or not.
It’s all any of us can ask for.
© Ryan Frawley 2020.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.