the anti-psalm

Posted by on May 12, 2010


Leap Before You Look

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.

  1. Beth
    May 12, 2010

    I really like this poem Julia, especially the reference of people being like sheep and what I take to be following blindly. My husband loves Nietzche and I love Merton and both make references to the temptation of succumbing to the world and becoming one of the herd. This is not the life Christ promised; it is not kingdom living.
    I also appreciate your thoughts and your criticisms of Auden's work because you are right about the psalms and that in a sense the incompleteness of Auden's vision. Thank you. And prayers for your home state.

  2. anna j
    May 13, 2010

    Thanks, Julia . . . and, for the record, I missed your poetic musings last week ๐Ÿ™‚ I've been thinking a lot about the illusions of control in our lives, and about a moment can change all we thought was true: so this resonates. And it does inspire as well, to live in such a way as to do works of radical good in the world . . .

  3. Veronika
    May 13, 2010

    1. I was worried as to what happened to Poetry Wednesdays. I kept checking back home for a new post – and here it is. Thank you!

    2. I also, was reading Brodskiy lately – I love him: his poetry, his interviews, his thought process. He mentioned that among the poets he really valued Auden. And so, I've been reading Auden lately as well.

    3. Worrying about chemicals wasn't last on my list either. We have almost everyday discussion with Lucas about getting a microwave (which I refuse to do). If I have something – I'll use it and if I don't – I don't even need it.
    The need goes away eventually. First couple of weeks you feel that you can't warm up a thing and somewhat stuck. Next few weeks you feel that with microwave would be faster, but you are used to spending a little extra time. And then, you don't even think about the microwave. I've got off topic, though at the same time your post felt connected with many things I'm experiencing.

  4. Julia
    May 13, 2010

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments. For the record, I like this poem too and think it deserves a closer reading than I gave it here. I think I used it as a starting point for what I wanted to say and wrote the post very quickly. I wasn't totally satisfied with this, but this is about what I can do right now, or else opt out of writing altogether.

    Veronika, I understand what you are saying about microwave dependency and how it connects. I (think) you're using it as a metaphor for how we perceive our need for things (the long list of things–including all the chemicals in the everyday things we use, which were developed to make things function a certain way in order to make our lives easier) that we use or consume but know, or half-suspect, are not really good for us. We can adapt to life without those things but the perception that we need them–and the desire to believe that they are really o.k.– is strong and not always easy to resist.

  5. Kris Livovich
    May 17, 2010

    This has been rumbling around in my head – i do like Auden, but agree with you that this poem is incomplete. I agree we need to put aside our fear to sleep. But I believe we need to put aside our fear to live. After all, isn't faith in Christ an embracing of death with a , some would say, naive hope for life? I prefer to look boldly at the dangers and the suffering and know that we can embrace them because Christ has embraced us. So now that I took your post in a whole other direction, thank you for these thoughts. I so look forward to wednesdays.

  6. Nostalgia
    May 20, 2010

    Yes, Julia, that's exactly what I was feeling, thank you for putting it into words.
    Wednesday passes by and I can't wait for another post! I start checking on Tuesdays, just in case. ๐Ÿ™‚