The poem I sent into the aether yesterday, Probably the Last Dawn Poem, was an old one. It was already a slightly belated look homeward (angel) to a time of some social and romantic turmoil, when my life was at one of its all too frequent “crossroads.” I had written a series of poems ab0ut a young woman with the perfect name for all of this, whom I had fallen for, hard, but who was still entangled with someone else in our little, mostly work-based social circle at the time — and I had come to the conclusion that it was all for naught. I don’t think she ever knew she was my Beatrice for a few months or so, though she must have sensed some edge, some silent pleading in my eyes, my gait, my inconsistent confidence.
Wicca. She was beautiful, pagan, highly literate, a lover of poetry and novels and all the things that fired my imagination too. Calm, more than kind, more than centered, without a hint of smugness or arrogance, this child of Artemis was, I felt at the time, far too good for the person she had chosen to be with, and I thought that needed change. It needed to be me instead. But there was a bit of an age gap between us, with me being the elder, and then I became acquaintances with my “rival,” which complicated matters even more.
Too cautious by half. At the time, too cautious to the nth degree, this had hurt my chances with another young woman back then, too, obliquely from the same workplace social circle. Her name, unlike Dawn’s, didn’t fit her, at least to me. It seemed at least ironic, if not entirely in conflict with her rebel streak, her independence and her ethnic background: Kitty. And I loved her too.
He who hesitates and all of that. It’s true. It’s really true. And when we’re young, and we feel that so much is ahead of us, so much time, we toy with this more than we should. We tempt the fates and the furies and postpone this and that, again and again, endlessly. Until there is no more time. Not only in the sense that the door has shut in the present moment, but that our cumulative moments are fast approaching their end.
One of the greatest parables ever written about this and so many other things is Kafka’s Before the Law (Translation by Ian Johnston):
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the last. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.
Days, weeks, years pass by. The man spends all of his time, all of his energies and hopes, trying to find a way to get past the gatekeeper, to bribe, cajole, harass his way in. He is forever told no.
Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers up in his head all his experiences of the entire time into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the difference between them has changed considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”
Kafka’s story is complex, poignant and, of course, filled with ambiguity. Much is left unsaid. Do we know what the Law actually is? Do we know the ultimate source of power behind the Law? It would seem the gatekeeper and the supplicant don’t question any of that, but we readers should, and I think Kafka wants us to. Aside from questioning why the man never tries another gate, or to enlist others in his quest, he and the gatekeeper take it on faith that this local, state, cosmic or surreal bureaucracy is beyond questioning, just as it is, and that there is no other game in town.
Literature sends us on glorious hunts. Great literature sends us on glorious hunts that never end, leading to others even more diverse, multiplex, as they morph a thousand-fold. But we do that great literature a disservice if we fail to question our own lives the way we question and talk about great art. We do our one and only chance on this earth a disservice if we don’t fully recognize we can’t rewind, rewrite or reorder life to “make sense” of things.
But it’s okay to dwell. It’s okay to remember. It’s okay to savor the sweet smells above ground, even in times past, when baseless fears got in the way, and when they didn’t.