Illustrations by Sammy Harkham
The poet and his wife were young, and they were just married.
They had an apartment near a grocery store and a post office. The poet walked most everywhere. The first floor of their building was brown-painted wood. The second floor was like imitation stucco. Rent on a second-floor apartment was $100 more per month on account of it being less noisy.
You know, the woman from the rental office told them, nobody living above you and that sort of thing.
They took a place on the first floor. They didn’t have much money then.
The poet was, at the time, a promising writer. Several established poets had told him his work displayed a certain promise. He had entered his poems in a national contest, and while he didn’t win one of the prizes, the judges included his name on a list of poets to watch. He had also published a poem in a literary magazine, and an editor at another magazine read and passed on six of his new poems, but wrote a note at the bottom of his form rejection: pls try again. The poet’s wife had a good job, in a nice office that paid health-insurance benefits for their entire family. The poet had a job too, besides the poetry, stocking shelves at an office-supply outlet. It was fairly menial and mindless and didn’t pay well and offered no benefits save a slight discount on office supplies.
When the baby came, the poet stayed at home with him. Daycare for the baby, when they looked into it, proved too expensive, many multiples more than what the poet earned from his job and his poetry. The choice was plain.
Raising the baby was hard work. The poet told friends of theirs it was the hardest job he’d ever held, but also the best, far and away the best. That was his pat answer. When anybody asked how it was going, staying at home, he’d just deliver his sound bite. He didn’t even need to think.
But like so many of the things he repeated, it seemed less true the more he said it. The poet had a friend with a young child and, like him, she stayed at home, caring for the boy. The poet’s friend lived far away, but they wrote back and forth when time permitted and sometimes talked on the phone. The poet felt close to her, though he hadn’t seen her for years. The poet simply could be more honest with her, especially if he took the time. Her child was older than his by a couple of years, so he listened keenly to her stories. She came from his future. She brought back detailed reports of life there. So when the poet’s friend asked him how it was going, being at home, he didn’t give her the usual sound bite. He would never. The poet’s answer, when it came, was halting, however, and confused. It’s weird, how time feels now, he told his friend. The baby affects everything. I mean, even my sense of time. Whole days can fly by, he said, but in another, maybe bigger scheme, everything seems longer somehow. Does that make sense? The poet knew it didn’t make any sense. He only ever asked if he was making sense when he knew full well he wasn’t. I’m afraid I can’t explain it, he said.
A few days later, or maybe it was a few weeks, who could tell anymore, the poet talked to his friend again. His baby was napping, or was supposed to be, anyway. Her child was at preschool. I’ve been thinking, the poet said, about what I was saying before, about time. His friend said she remembered. Sometimes, the poet said, I don’t know what I do with a day or a week. I can’t tell you what I did yesterday. And if I tell my wife a story about something the baby did, I often try to say, This was yesterday or whatever, but I often can’t remember what day it was. I’ll say I don’t remember and apologize, but I’ll also say it doesn’t matter. Because when I think back to how much time has passed, the poet told his friend, it feels like a great deal of time. He paused, listening back over what he has just said. I’m not sure that’s any clearer, he told her.
The poet’s friend understood, though. I have a friend, she said. She once perfectly captured what you are trying to say. She had asked me how I was doing at home, as I asked you. Like you, I sort of stuttered out a response, not really making my point. Anyway, my friend nodded her head and said, The days are long, but the months are short.
The poet thought about that for a few seconds. It was like trying on a new shirt. You had to look at yourself in the mirror first, maybe turn a bit. The poet decided he liked it, he liked it quite a lot. What his friend’s friend said was true. It was, in fact, perfect. The poet repeated it to himself, listening to the words. That’s it exactly, he told his friend. The days are long. And the months are so short. The poet was impressed by people who could boil something down with no appreciable loss of complexity. There was real beauty in it. Epigrams—the poet thought that was the right word, though he often confused it with epigraphs—could be like sculptures. He wanted to walk around them, admiring them from every conceivable angle.
he baby was a wonder. At birth, his arms annoyed him more than anything else, equally liable to knock himself in the head or scratch his cheek. It was as if his hands were worked by someone else’s mind. Once, the poet was holding the baby. He was leaning against the wall with the baby riding high on his shoulder, when the baby started pawing almost blindly at a light switch. A few weeks later, the baby brought one steady finger to bear on the same switch and then simply flicked it on. It was something else how that could happen, this change, his control. The baby was so pleased by such small things, like seeing a beetle crawl across a window screen or holding his bottle in one hand without dropping or fumbling it. His willpower astounded the poet, his determination, say, to move and then, later, to pull himself up an entire set of stairs as the poet followed behind, there if the baby should slip.
It was easy for him to get lost in the baby’s antics. They crawled together and played. The baby crawled around chairs and then ducked to peer underneath, to look back at the poet. The poet waved to the baby and called out his name. When the poet crawled toward the baby, he took off, laughing as he went. The baby had the laugh of an evil genius.
The poet liked seeing things from the floor, things like the underside of tables and the long, bobbing shadows cast onto the ceiling from the street. While lying on the floor, the poet said, even a door appeared great.
e told himself he’d get writing done, but of course he didn’t, really. He worked erratically, in spurts punctuated by long, restive periods of inaction. During one spurt, though, he managed to produce a long poem about Dubai. He had never been, but he caught part of a documentary on television one night and was quite taken by the look of the place, especially the hundreds of manmade islands off the coast which, from the air, resembled a map of the world. At a shopping mall, people skied on indoor slopes and a store sold Ferraris. Not Ferrari t-shirts or key chains or toys, the poet said to his wife. The actual cars. Dubai was, as he imagined it, like some giant playpen. The rich were shaping Disney Worlds from the desert sand. The poet reached for comparisons, anything, but could think only of movies about a coming time when men and women are ruled by robots. That’s what Dubai looked like: a place made for robots. The skyline was a work in progress, jagged, futuristic. Most buildings were under construction still, with cranes pivoting from the rooftops and crews of workers laboring through the day and the night. Thousands of mercury-vapor lamps illuminated the sites at night. The chilly white light of another artificial day.
The poet’s poem was long but had come to him easily, with little revision required. It was as if a spaceship landed on my desk, he told friends. He pressed the finished work on his wife and a few others, people who loved him and whose opinion he trusted. He told them, You know Kafka wrote the novel called Amerika without ever visiting. Not, he added, that I would compare myself to Kafka, but I do like that whole idea of writing about someplace without seeing it.
His readers liked the poem, or at least they said they did, but weeks and then months passed without the poet producing any new writing. The Dubai poem soon felt old, the work of a former self, someone who reminded the poet of a person he knew. What’s more, no editor seemed keen to publish the stupid thing. It was too long, it turned out, for most magazines even to consider.
The poet told himself he’d review books instead, to keep abreast or whatever, but he didn’t do much of that either. He did manage, however, to interest an editor in his proposal to write a review essay about an old satirical magazine, a publication that had begun with little fanfare in 1957 only to promptly, and sadly, fold, as most satires are wont, just 11 issues later, in 1958. The old satirical magazine had been long forgotten but was set to be reprinted in a stately two-volume boxed set. The poet wanted to review it, or at least use it as a launching pad for an argument he’d been thinking about off and on, for, he supposed, at least ten years. He had not known of the old magazine, but he thought of satire as one of a very few subjects that he knew better than almost anybody. Satire was one of his things. He loved when a satire masqueraded as something else. Report from Iron Mountain was, to his mind, the gold standard, just the way it pretended to be the leaked proceedings from some secret quasi-government study group, with hardly a wink or a nudge to the ribs, just that mask, a perfectly fitting mask.
The poet’s essay, as he imagined it, would suggest that what we typically call satire is not really satire at all, but just humor tossed out to audiences already primed to laugh. The Onion and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, as funny as that publication and those television programs sometimes are, attract audiences that know exactly what they’re getting. And never mind that the audience is seldom, if ever, the object of any of the jokes. The audience gets off easy, too easy, in favor of other targets—politicians, say, or celebrities, professional athletes, and so on. The old satirical magazine was no different. If anything, it was a kind of model for what would come to pass. The ur-Onion, the poet called it. The writers and artists for the old satirical magazine took snide swipes at pop culture—movies, books, television shows, even other magazines—but let slide by without comment the consumers of all that junk, the people who made the crap so popular to start with. All of us, in other words.
Real satire was rare stuff. It unsettles and riles. It also makes people exceedingly uncomfortable. Satire is not some balm or some half-hour-long respite from a crazy, mixed-up world. Genuine satire does not amuse or alleviate stress. It should, in fact, disturb and interrogate, all under the guise—and this is the hardest trick of all, the poet thought—of humor.
A professor the poet had once likened satire to being cut by a sword so sharp and wielded so artfully that a person doesn’t even realize he’s been cut in two. The more the poet thought about satire, it seemed less a species of comedy than a strategy of rhetorical attack—withering, exact, unsparing, even violent. All this brutal language, this talk of target and attack—it was military language, really—was no accident. One scholar describes how generals of ancient armies placed the rhetorically gifted on their front lines, employing them to hurl curses and insults ahead as they charged the enemy.
So went the poet’s idea anyway. The editor gave him a generous deadline and a lot of room to flesh out his argument—4,000 words. It was the most anyone had ever asked him to write. The poet got to reading back issues of the old satirical magazine. He read slowly, when he found time and had enough energy. Sometimes weeks went by, though, whole weeks in which he read no pages. His hopes and plans, such as they were, exceeded his time, or maybe it was just his energy. It didn’t matter which it was, really. He did finish reading the back issues, eventually, but by then, his deadline was looming, and he’d written hardly a word. He contacted his editor and apologized, asking for more time. His editor said all was well. He wanted the essay done right, not hastily.
The poet began reading interviews with the founders of the old satirical magazine. He also located critical articles about the publication. As before, he read slowly, when time allowed. He began looking at other work by the founders, so that he could understand the old satirical magazine in the context of their various oeuvres. The poet was nothing if not thorough. He approached the project as if it were his dissertation and filled the margins of his research with arrows and his ragged handwriting. He posed questions to himself and underlined bits that would, if he followed up on them, open whole new avenues for further research. He took pages of notes.
The poet’s wife gave her husband every opportunity to work on the essay. She was just so glad he was writing again. It made him happy, having something in the works. On her days off, she took the baby out of the apartment, to run errands and whatnot, so that he could have a quiet space in which to think.
A couple of months later, the poet completed his study of all the secondary material. He could have gathered more, he knew, but he had to tell himself, finally, to stop already. By then, though, his memory of the primary sources—the actual issues of the old satirical magazine—had faded, so he went back through all his notes and typed them into his computer. The work was tedious and even repetitive, but not without occasional rewards. He came upon particularly perceptive notes and was pleased to see how clear-sighted he had been, back when he had only just started to work on the project. In addition, he found a few meaty notes and was able to expand them into complete sentences or even, in one or two instances, a paragraph, text he figured he would return to and incorporate directly into the finished essay. By the time the poet was done, he had 42 pages of notes, double-spaced. The essay was already there, in his notes, sort of. It was a mess, still, but he could see it starting to take shape.
His second deadline loomed, however, and so the poet had to ask the editor for just a little more time. He apologized for being so slow. I’m making good progress, he said. I want to finish this for you. The editor was kind, unfailingly, but he was also firm. He needed the essay no later than two months from that date. The poet thanked him and then apologized once more and said he would not let him down.
It had seemed like enough time, but the two months passed quickly and with little actual progress. The poet’s wife asked him how the essay was coming along. He was sitting at his desk, and she was standing behind him, to the side. Her hand rested on his shoulder, and then she let it fall to his chair. She tried to be gentle and tried not to push. She didn’t want to make him feel bad or pressure him in any way.
The poet told her he needed more time. It’s not enough, he said. You leave the apartment for two hours here or an hour and half there. What am I supposed to do with these little snatches of time?
I can’t keep the baby out all day, his wife said. He needs to nap.
I think I know about naps, the poet said. Thank you, though.
The poet’s wife started to walk out of the room, but got only as far as the doorway before she turned around to face him again. I stay out for as long as the baby can stand it, she said. But we do need, at some point, to come home, you know?
I’m not talking about naps, the poet said. My god.
The poet’s wife was silent. She would let the poet do the talking. It was the only thing to do, really. Just let him go and go until he tired of it. Or else leave. Not that anything changed anything.
You see the trouble, the poet said. Don’t you?
She didn’t, but she didn’t say.
I never know when I’m going to get any time, the poet said. That’s what makes this so hard for me. Maybe I’ll get an hour tomorrow. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll get a little time next weekend. But maybe not. How can I work like this? the poet asked.
The poet’s wife just listened.
The answer is I can’t, the poet said. I can’t work like this. It’s just no way to work.
The poet’s wife suggested some new way they might eke out a little more time for him, both during and in between the naps, at least on the days when she was home. She would do anything for him. She wanted to make that plain. And she wanted her husband to write this essay. It was important. That’s what she told him. I want us to find a way, she said. I want to make this work.
It doesn’t matter, the poet said. It’s not going to work. Nothing will work. Even when you two leave, I have to do so much to get you ready to go that by the time you actually clear out of the apartment, I feel too tired to do much work. What the poet said was and was not true. He tended toward melodramatic overstatement, especially when trying to be persuasive. He didn’t have to do that much, not really. He did feel tired, though, but then he always felt at least somewhat tired.
In the end, the poet failed to turn in his essay. He failed even to start the thing. That was the sad truth. After all those months—how many exactly he didn’t want to count—and he had not written a single word. All the time his wife gave him, her support, her patience, her forgiving him his moods and his impossible brooding, plus all the editor’s understanding, and the poet still had nothing. He had spent so much time reading and note-taking, never mind the time he then spent organizing his notes. It was absurd. Maybe he had just been stalling all along. The poet had to wonder. Did he need the notes? Did he need them typed? He had wasted so much time. Maybe he just got bored. Or maybe the idea grew old and, in his mind, started to seem like something he’d already written.
Sometimes still he burned with the idea. A little fire that rose and fell. He could feel it. He considered making one last push, a final attempt to get the thing done, but after dragging all his books and research out and sorting them into neat stacks on the kitchen table, he decided he didn’t have it in him, he just didn’t.
The poet wrote the editor, telling him the bad news, and a few days later, the editor responded. Very sorry to hear this, he said. Why don’t you send me what you have, though? Maybe we can figure something out…
The poet stared at the ellipsis at the end of the editor’s message, trying to divine what those dots might entail, what he could do and what the editor would then say and so forth. He thought he might tell the editor the truth, or something close to it. Instead he told him that his writing, what he had, was just too bad to show. It’s really, really rough, he said, in its current state. I’m sorry, but I’d rather just pull the plug on the thing and be done with it.
A few more days passed, and the editor wrote back. Plug pulled, he said. Be well.
The poet imagined then that he might start to write in short forms, the epigram, say, or maybe the couplet, but that never worked out either. He could never say anything much in a line. He did, however, start one new poem. He had only a couple of lines in his head, yet they seemed to hold some promise. For several days, he thought of the words, repeating them to himself, listening to the sound they made. He wanted to give them a chance to build, to grow, to become something, but when nothing seemed to be happening, he opened a new document on his computer and just typed the words in already. The man was tired, he wrote. Too tired even to sleep. That was it. It wasn’t complete, but that was all he had. Over the next two weeks, he went back and looked at what he had done, tweaking what was there, bending the lines first one way and then another, breaking them into even smaller pieces only to put them back together again, exactly as they had been before. He elaborated and embellished plenty, but then ended up deleting his efforts until he was back with just those original two lines. Nothing new ever lasted long. As he worked on the poem, he thought chiefly of himself. Once, while staring at his nine words on the screen, he thought of those small lead weights used for fishing, sinker weights. He imagined them secured to a thin line and then hooked into his face, right beneath his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. The weights stretched his skin, tugging at his features, pulling them down. That was how he felt, he thought. He just didn’t know how best to put it. The more he read the poem, though, and the more he worked those two lines over, the more self-pitying he found the entire undertaking. Everybody is tired, he thought. Everybody is always tired. Eventually, he just quit the thing. It was stupid, he told himself.
For the first time since he was a teenager, the poet started to keep a notebook, just a place to jot down ideas for lines or overheard dialogue and occasional thoughts, but after filling a few pages with writing that seemed, on reading it over, slack and meandering, if not self-indulgent and pitiable, he let the notebook get buried underneath other papers.