Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Pursuing Prufrock

It fed my teenaged angst. In my 20s I defiantly challenged its protagonist. And by the time I reached my 40s, all I could do was giggle....

As a high-schooler I fell in love with T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", courtesy of Advanced Placement English. I did not have to memorize the poem for the course, but I knew it by heart because it had become my personal anthem.

I felt I'd measured out my life with coffee spoons ever since I started drinking the stuff black when I was 12. The hesitation, the resignation, the loneliness, the yearning, the unremitting self-consciousness, the sheer intensity of the poem had claimed me. By the time I got to the mermaids I was in tears.

In college I traded Prufrock for Sylvia Plath: angst with anger. I recited "Lady Lazarus" out my dorm window in the middle of the night as I bled from my own psychological wounds.

I used fantasy to heal those wounds. Usually I worked with my own cast of characters -- internal guides -- but after a trip to Florence, Italy, I had a brief tete-a-tete with Eliot's invention.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo....

Well, I'd seen David, and Michelangelo's series of Prisoners (partially finished forms straining to break free from the stone; they dazzled me). At 28 I was bursting from my own chrysalis.

They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”

I was still rejoicing after finding my first four gray hairs. They were my badge of survival. It was time for me to confront the poem.

Journal excerpt, April 12, 1987
(Rephrasing Eliot)
"There will be time to dream and to create;
and time for all the works and days of hands
that lift and drop a story on your plate...."

I see Prufrock, pants rolled up and bald spot heated by the sun, walking barefoot on a deserted beach. The voices of mermaids reach him from a distance.

I watch him covertly, his back to me.

Then I, hair loose and dressed also in white, rolled-up trousers and a thin white shirt, walk on sand almost too hot for my feet. He turns as I sing out to sea, to the mermaids. Echoes back and forth.

I turn to face him, having caught his attention.

"I do not with women come and go, talking of Michelangelo," I say to him, "but walk the Florentian streets instead, where Michelangelo is everywhere. I wave to lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows. And I am downed, not by light but by dark brown hair, not only in lamplight but out on the street, in the open. And when I do drown, luxuriantly, in living voices, I later surface and dive to the floor of a silent sea. And there commune with scuttling pairs of ragged claws, who move in the murkiness with a natural grace unavailable to them on land...."

"And how should you presume?"

"Presume nothing." I smile at him. "Leap."

I run as the waves roll in, and launch. My clothes fall away; I am a flash of nakedness arcing into the sea. What Prufrock does, is up to him.
By the time the year 2000 arrived I was buried in multiple-shift work and stuck in a rut. My midlife crisis had arrived right on schedule and I didn't give a whit about thinning hair or mermaids. I needed a nap. But when I lay down, tired and grouchy, a voice in my head intoned:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Elvis.

I cracked a smile and rolled over. I'd worked a long day job and done my freelance stint afterwards and wanted nothing more than to nod off. No such luck.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Elvis.

Oh, all right. I couldn't pass it up and spent a sleepless night giggling at my computer. Some of the cultural references are out of date (the following was written before the New England Patriots started enjoying their winning streak), and the opinions therein are not necessarily those of the author (I really do like PBS). Here's to you, T.S.
So, let's you and I vamoose
When the evening here is on the loose
Like a patient fleeing against doctor's orders.
Let us go, through certain streets you wouldn't be caught dead in,
Muttering with the derelicts
The one-night cheap hotels threw out the back door
And restaurants with waitresses named Rosie.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Made by an urban planner filled with bad gin.
Oh, do not ask, 'Where the hell?'
Let us go and ring the bell.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Elvis.

The pukey smog that rubs PCBs upon the window-panes,
The diesel fumes that rub CO upon the window panes
Belch from tailpipes coughing in the corners of the evening,
Leave oily rainbows in the pools that stand in drains,
Rise with soot from chimneys into the ozone layer,
Slip by the terrace, get picked up by satellite,
And, seeing that it's sweeps week this October eve
Become the visual for a spot on MTV.

And indeed there will be time
For the videos of yellow smoke on TV screens
Causing the backs of couch potatoes to kink;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare chips and beer to stuff the faces that you meet;
There will be time for murder mysteries and ESPN,
And time for all the works and days of hands
To lift and drop a Big Mac on your plate.
Time for Seinfeld, time for Cheers
And time yet for a hundred different reruns
Before the taking of a slice with anchovies.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Elvis.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder 'Do I click the remote?'
Time to turn back and head for the fridge
With a bald spot in the middle of my plate.
(They will say: "His reception is growing thin!")
My lucky shirt, my buttons mounted firmly so they don't fall off,
My belt real vinyl, but asserted by a simple pin until I find the buckle --
(They will say: "But does he have Cinemax?")
Do I dare
Disturb the cable company?
In a minute there is time
For commercials and commercials but PBS is worse.

For I have known them all already, known them all --
Have known the game shows, soaps and tabloid jive,
I have measured out my life with Ginzu knives;
I know the voices dying with a power failure
Beneath the music from the neighbor's teenage band,
So should I get earplugs?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all --
The eyes grown bleary from a formulated plot,
And when I guess the plot line, sprawling on the couch,
When pinup girls are wriggling on the screen,
Then how should I begin
To spit out these nuts no one eats from the bottom of the can?
And where are the rest of the chips?

And I have known the arms already, known them all --
Arms that are braceleted and seem to float
(But can I find the one with the remote!?)
Is it WD-40
Whose smell inspires this sortie?
Arms that crank an auto jack or wrestle on a table.
And should I then presume?
And how much should I tip?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through potholed streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the dough
Of pizzas burned by burly men in shirtsleeves?

I should have been a pair of vise grips
Clamping rusted nuts and stripping threads.

And the afternoon, the evening, snores through ambulance sirens.
Smoothed by droning emcees,
Jingles ... infomercials ... or Hardcopy.
Stretched on the floor, having fallen off the couch.
Should I, after beer and chips and pizza
Have the strength to force myself to my feet?
But though I have wept from football, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen the Patriots (grown slightly bold) brought in upon a platter
It's only a Carvel ice cream cake design and no great matter.
I have seen the picture on my TV flicker
And I have seen the eternal Salesman hold the door at Circuit City and snicker
And in short, I was in debt.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the VCR, the Sega games, the CB radio
Among the Chinette, among some talk of Wide World of Sports,
Would it have been worth while
To have bitten off the string cheese with a smile,
To have squeezed the white bread into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming dust bunny,
To say, "I am awake now and come from the bed,
Come back to call for more takeout for you all,"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, "I don't want more pizza, I want Chinese,
Not chow mein but spare ribs."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
With a 15 percent delivery charge,
After the phone calls and the changed minds and the sprinkled garlic,
After the extra hot mustard, after the fortune cookies, after the dropped noodles that trail along the floor --
And this, and so much more?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a Magic Chef decreed a universal pattern of mild and spicy hot,
Would it have been worth while
If one, throwing a pillow or dropping chopsticks on a shawl
And turning toward the window should say,
'That is not beef lo mein at all,
And what's this fly doing in my Peking Ravioli?'

No! I am not Martha Stewart, nor was meant to be,
And I don't even watch her show.
I'll nuke some Cheeze Whiz, start a burrito or two,
Advise on the cooking of Prince Spaghetti when I can use easy tools,
Glad to be of use and out of the kitchen,
Arguing politics, cautious with hot sauce, meticulous -- not.
Full of carbonated drink until my stomach is a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, burping.
Almost, at times, rude.

These crackers grow old.
I shall cover them with chopped liver so no one can tell.

Shall I wash my hair this week? Do I dare to eat that green thing in the fridge that I don't know what it is?
I shall wear black polyester so nobody sees a mess.
I have heard Ru Paul and Madonna singing on VHS.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding distortions on the airwaves
Until I move the antenna back
When the color turns muddy and then goes to white and black.

We have lingered until the National Anthem
Sung by pom pom girls exuberant and smug
Till someone rolls the TV table and pulls the plug.


Blogger Dale said...

O my God.

At times, indeed, burping.
Almost, at times, rude.

I can't tell you how much this made me laugh.

"Prufrock" was not the first poem I memorized, but it was the first I memorized because I couldn't bear the thought of ever needing it and being without it. I was about the same age as you, I reckon.

I summed up its message for me with reference to Thoreau: "If I'm going to lead a life of desperation, by God it's going to be LOUD desperation!"

1:32 PM  
Blogger twila said...

Oh, this is too, too funny!

3:11 PM  

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