by W.H. Auden
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
* * *
A few days after the oil leak began in the Gulf of Mexico, as I was going to bed, I closed my eyes and had an involuntary vision of oil, spurting with terrible force, in a deep, faraway underwater place, and the thought: “This is happening in the present tense.” And my brain, which had been sleepy, felt suddenly alert, my body tense. Everyone else in our household was already asleep, our home all dark, and I of course needed to go to sleep. A scary environmental disaster bordering my native state, and all its import, beckoning me to enter into a mild anxiety attack, would be no good. It would be no good for me or anyone. So I successfully pushed the entire Gulf of Mexico–sand and water, fish and fowl, inky oil–away from me and slept in the end.
It just so happened that, around this time, I had also picked up a book at the library about the unchecked chemicals that are surrounding us in ways we do not suspect, with affects we cannot entirely control or predict. Its (albeit sensational) title is Slow Death By Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. Did you know that canaries cannot tolerate the fumes produced by heated Teflon? If you cook with Teflon around a small bird, its lungs will fail and it will die from the fumes that are–supposedly–harmless. He also describes the baffling stubbornness of human beings toward mercury, one of the oldest known toxins, which continues to be used again and again in careless ways, without regulation, even though the amount of mercury in a tiny thermometer is enough to poison the fish of an entire lake. This and other alarming facts I learned from this book were on my mind the day the President used the word “unprecedented” to describe the environmental disaster happening in the Gulf.
Auden is probably right to burst the bubble of the dream, on the one hand. Babies are born into the dream of safety. I’ve seen how they are born putting the entire world into their mouths. Maybe it takes a lifetime to unlearn the childish dream that the world is truly safe. On the other hand, I disagree with Auden that solitude sustains the bed on which we lie, or anything else. We function in an unsafe world only together. Our beds are sustained by one another, and by a great cloud of witnesses who have weathered all of the disasters there ever were on earth. We cannot live either in a false denial of death, or simply in the raw reality of all the evil that is immediately in our line of vision. We need to put aside anxiety so that we can sleep, and we need to sleep so that we can function in this world, taking care of ourselves and each other. And nothing is unprecedented. And there are the Psalms, so unlike Auden’s poem, which does not go far enough. And there is in fact a certain kind of dream-of-safety not of this world.
More poems for Poetry Wednesday here.