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Phony Suicide Hotline

 

At the dissertation defense, the psychology grad student is saying

            that oxytocin is essential to feelings of social affiliation

and belongingness. What is social affiliation? I know what

            oxytocin is; it’s a hormone that plays a role in intimacy

 

and social bonding and is not to be confused with either oxycontin,

            a highly addictive drug, or oxycodone, which is essentially

the same as oxycontin yet is less addictive because it is usually

            combined with something else. Is belongingness even a word? I do know

 

that you don’t have to know what social affiliation is to know

            that if you don’t have it, you’re in trouble. When she was younger

and filled with despair, a friend of mine walked till she found

            a pay phone and called the suicide hotline, only it turned out to be

 

a tape and not a hotline at all but a religious scam: a voice says,

            “Life is full of troubled waters” and then urges you to go to church.

That’s not affiliation. Nor is it belongingness, though it would be

            were you to walk home and hide your sharp objects and sleeping pills

 

and wait for Sunday to roll around and put on your church clothes

            and go to church, though how could you do that if you’d killed yourself

already? If you asked two lovers pulling the sheets up after sex

            like sailors hauling in a mainsail what affiliation is, they’d look at you

 

as though you were an escapee from a mental institution

            who’d climbed through the window and watched as they

finished their frenzied coupling and then pulled up the bedclothes

            to cover their cooling skin. And you’d get a very different answer

 

altogether if you asked serial killer Ted Bundy. His biographer,

            Ann Rule, had worked with Bundy earlier in Seattle when he was

a law student, and she said there was something that was very odd,

            which is that she always brought her dog to work,

 

and the dog, who was friendly to everyone else, kept its distance

            from Ted—he was the only person the dog didn’t seem to like

or trust. Ann Rule’s dog was probably just perplexed:

            he knew Ted Bundy wasn’t a man but an animal, yet he didn’t look

 

like an animal. It’s been years since my friend wanted to kill herself.

            She finished her education, got a good job, married a man

who loves her. Now she tells the story about the phony suicide

            hotline at parties, and everyone laughs, my friend loudest of all.

 

 

What the Great Poets Say About Love

 

            “I would my love could kill thee,” says Swinburne in “Anactoria.”

I wonder what he meant by that. I could find out if I actually

            read the poem, but it’s well over 300 lines. I like short poems,

don’t you? Also, what’s with the “thee”? Scholars think

            “Anactoria” may have been written in 1863, by which

 

            time I’m pretty sure people were saying “you” when they were

referring to the person standing in front of them, or at least

            Walt Whitman did. Whitman! Now there’s somebody who

knew a lot about love, probably because he didn’t seem to

            have a lot of it in his life—well, the cosmic mystical double

 

            whammy woo-woo juju kind, yeah, but not the kissy

cuddly kind. For that, you have to go to, I don’t know,

            Allen Ginsberg, who lived in a day when you could talk about

that kind of thing more freely. Actually, the poet who

            may have known the most about love is George Herbert,

 

            who tells us that “quick-eyed Love” beckoned him, yet he

drew back because he felt himself so unkind, so ungrateful

            that he wasn’t worthy to even look upon Love, who tells him,

“Who made the eyes but I?” and he keeps protesting,

            and finally Love tells him to sit and “taste my meat,”

 

            and he says, “So I did sit and eat.” Thing is,

when you really love somebody, you really

            do want to kill them or at least you want to pull

their flesh off in handfuls and stuff it down

            your gullet, but only if you could do that

 

            and still have the person appear before you

unharmed once you’ve had a chance to rest up

            and get ready to devour them again. That’s the thing that’s

baffling and irritating about love, that makes

            us come back to it again and again, try to get it right.

 

 

Grumpy Old Woman

 

            Florence. Or Rome—really, anywhere in Italy

 

            She’s everywhere in this city: I see her behind a cash register,

                        ironing some  guy’s shirt in a doorway, sweeping the courtyard.

She’s grumpy already, and if I say “Buon giorno!” to her,

            she’ll look up, scowl, turn grumpier still. I blame her husband,

who was probably mean to her while he was alive and then

                        did her the disservice of dying before he could mend his ways

or she could take her revenge. Or it could be her children,

 

            the ungrateful parasites. Who wants to get pregnant? I know,

                        plenty of women, but just as many don’t, yet they meet some

careless fellow, and there you have it. How I love the angels

            in the great paintings who tell Mary she is with child, some

as pushy as door-to-door salesmen and others contorting their

                        bodies like wrestlers, trying to get under the guard of a woman

who just wants to sit in her garden, read her book, nibble

 

            her apricots, and drink her tea without taking on the problems

                        of the whole fucking world. And if Mary looks mildly pissed,

there are plenty of other women who are out of their minds

            with rage: look at the Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting,

cutting off the head of Holofernes—girl’s sawing

                        away as her maidservant caresses the tyrant as though

he’d just had a mani-pedi and were settling down for

 

            a shampoo and a light trim. Judith’s mad about something—

                        mad about everything, probably. And who can blame her?

For centuries the church fathers have been telling women

            they’re temptresses, they’re bad just for walking down

the street, for looking pretty, for smiling, for saying hello

                        and also for not saying hello because either way they make

men mad, make them do things they wouldn’t do otherwise,

 

            women are horrible, they’re everything that’s wrong

                        with this world, don’t blame me, I didn’t do it, they did,

it’s their fault. Men, we can do better. Men, look into the face

            of your grumpy old woman. Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin

tells that the tired old faces we see in paintings delight us

                        because they show beauty that is not skin-deep but life-deep,

and if that is true for a work of art, how much truer must

 

            it be for your Luisa, your Francesca, your Gemma, Gina,

                        Beatrice. You were Adam once, and she Eve, and there

was a garden, and a snake, sure, but there’s always a snake,

            and here’s the road that leads from that garden to this world,

which isn’t worse, really, just different, and you have to

                        work now, but there’s something about work that satisfies you

deeply: you’re making things that people want, and if

 

            your boss is a little stern, he smiles at you from time

                        to time, and you sense that he sees something in you

that you don’t even see in yourself, and you like

            Tommaso and Michele, the guys you work with, and nobody

liked Andrea, but he’s gone now, and if the hours are long,

                        the pay is good, and when you come home, there she is,

and you have your whole lives ahead of you.

 

 

To an Athlete Dying Young

 

Three tall young women all but trample me as I walk

across campus, so vigorously are they horsing about—

punching each other, whooping, receiving greetings

from passersby and returning same—and I think,

volleyball players, and then, how glorious to be

a top athlete, to give your body directions and have it

obey instantly or just after, should the situation call for it,

as when the forward fake-pumps the ball to confuse

his or her opponent and only then flips it through

the net. Or when the fullback crosses the goal line, say,

though not before gesturing with his head toward

the snack stand, as though to suggest to his would-be

tackler, “I hear it’s two-for-one quesadillas today—

how about I treat you?” Housman wrote of these things.

In the poem for which my own poem is named, he writes,

“The time you won your town the race / We chaired you

through the market-place; / Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.” Later,

the same people bear the runner though the streets again,

only dead this time. Housman seems to think that’s

a good idea: “Smart lad,” he says, “to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay.” And maybe

it’d be better not to become famous; then you wouldn’t

have to worry about dying on time. Last week, a student

read a poem asking whether you’d rather watch

your parents have sex every day for a year or participate

with them just once, and someone else asks if suicide

could be a third option, and the student says no,

because everybody would choose suicide. One person

says she’d jump right in and get it over with, but another

says no, then you’d suffer forever from PTSD, and yet

another student says, yeah, Parental Trisexual Stress

Disorder. Don’t die, athletes! Don’t die, anybody.

Oh, go ahead: it’s not as though you have a whole lot

of choice in the matter. Circus performer Mario

“The Human Cannonball” Zacchini said that flying

isn’t the hard part, landing in the net is. Fly, athletes!

We all land in the net. Not everybody flies.

 

 

I’m Gonna Stomp Your Guts Out

 

After the wedding, I play I’m Gonna Stomp Your Guts Out! with

                        half a dozen amped-up kids, which is easy: all you

            have to do is shout, “I’m gonna stomp your guts out!” and then

the other players shout, “I’m gonna stomp your guts out!”

                        and then you growl and make a face and start

            stomping everybody’s guts out. What fun! Everybody knows

 

exactly what to do. In a 1986 study at the University of Pennsylvania,

                        students were asked to put labels reading “sucrose”

            and “sodium cyanide (poison)” on two identical bowls

of sugar, and even though the students could put either

                        label on either bowl, once they’d labeled them,

            they were reluctant to sweeten their coffee or tea with sugar

 

from the one that they’d just labeled poison. Silly students!

                        I would have done the same, though. Who knows whether

            something might have happened in the interim to alter

the chemical composition of the two substances,

                        even though that interim would have been less

            than the time it took you to read this line. Salman Rushdie

 

says there is something lost in translation but something

                        gained as well. Fun, for example: when my student

            Nick Sturm tells me that sometimes he thinks

of William Carlos Williams as Tom Waits and T. S. Eliot

                        as the Eagles, I laugh so hard I almost wet my

            pants. To equate Dr. Williams with the Grammy Award-winning

 

singer/songwriter whose voice, according to one critic,

                        sounds as though it was “soaked in a vat of bourbon,

            left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months,

and then taken outside and run over with a car” is a

                        great stroke, but to turn that brilliantined

            stick-insect Eliot into both Don Henley and Glenn Frey

 

as well as all the other Eagles is nothing less than a signal day

                        for American humor, also literary criticism. I myself

            take on different names from time to time, imagining,

for example, that my first name is that of Arcangelo Corelli

                        as I finish my exercises and make a protein shake

            while listening to that worthy’s “Concerto Grosso Opus 6

 

Number 4.” Archangel! Who among us would not be

                        a prodigy were not this his or her name, the fact

            notwithstanding that there have been no doubt

many mediocre, not to mention downright incompetent,

                        Arcangelos in the history of our glorious if not

            always totally stellar race. Still, may one not be Arcangelo at

 

one moment and oneself at another, just as Winnie the Pooh’s boat

                        is sometimes a Boat and sometimes more of an Accident,

            as he says, depending on whether he is on top of

or underneath it? Why, to go through life as oneself

                        seems like a kind of imprisonment imposed upon

            temporarily inconvenienced noblemen or bosomy gypsy girls

 

by a cruel despot in a medieval fable or allegory of some kind,

                        although in this case, the cruel despot who imposes

            the terrible punishment would be you. After 20 minutes or so

of playing I’m Gonna Stomp Your Guts out, the kids run off

                        to get more soda and cupcakes, but one little girl comes

            back and says, “I was just playing.” “I know,” I say. “I was, too.”

 

About the Author
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David is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. A finalist for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the international Griffin Prize, he is the author of a biography of Little Richard, a textbook on poetry writing, two children’s books (both co-authored with Allen Woodman) and dozens of other books. His latest collection is Get Up, Please (Louisiana State University Press, 2016).