When my brain finished integrating last fall—last stage in healing the mental fractures that nearly killed me, after 25 years of misdiagnosed and untreated PTSD—I came back to myself less than two weeks after an illegitimate election placed an unstable and corrupt would-be dictator in line to be the next US president. In other words, I finally knew myself in the world just as the world I knew tilted on its axis and began slipping away.
The core challenge that posed has taunted me ever since: how do I normalize this overwhelming new sense of self I am experiencing, while at the same not normalizing this overwhelming new world, filled with political chaos targeting every social principle I believe in?
As a human being, feeling at home within my mind and body is everything. Is life itself.
As a citizen, feeling at home within this burgeoning autocracy would mean death.
Do you ever skip around when you are trying to broach a difficult topic? Sidle up beside your point, see if you can spot it in your peripheral vision without being seen in turn?
Oh, do not ask what is it.
I wouldn’t tell you yet anyhow. Instead, I’m going to share with you the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s early modernist poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…”
I have been trying to memorize these lines for years. For decades, perhaps. I rarely get beyond “Let us go then, you and I.” By the second line, I’ve usually botched it, and by the third it’s always unrecognizable.
After the first few years of inexplicable failure, I got the idea stuck in my head that this poem was a talisman, of sorts. That if only I could remember these lines exactly, then the rest of the poem would follow. And if I could remember all of the poem, then that would mean…well, something. Something inchoate, and hard to put my finger on. But stupendously important all the same.
I think I decided remembering these lines would be the sign my brain had healed, long before I had ever acknowledged just how broken my brain felt.
I am not a politician. I hold no influential position. The best I can do—the least I must do—to confront the madness overtaking my country is to exert pressure on the politicians elected in the name of representing me. I can, in short, make phone calls.
And still I don’t.
Meaning I haven’t.
Meaning that at the mere thought of making such a call, my skin goes numb. I start to stutter. The one call I tried to make, even with a script my words came out more garbled than my worst attempt at “Prufrock.”
This is not normal, I tell myself. It is not normal to fear a telephone that rings and rings. To fear that it will never be answered, to panic that perhaps it will.
Such pep talks haven’t helped.
Have I mentioned how I first encountered Eliot’s work? My freshman year of college, I studied with a modernist poetry scholar. The class was a two-semester survey—one of those “Everything ever written worth reading, in 9 months or less!” sequences—but he still managed to work in some of his favorites. I was so smitten (with both the verse and the professor), I signed up to take his seminar the following fall.
In between, of course, was the summer I spent the next quarter-century not thinking about. The months of impossibly bright days and unspeakably dark nights, when a shitkid with drunk and eager fingers banged on my bedroom window and in a trauma haze of fear and compliance I jerked out of bed and let him in. Before my mind could come awake. Before the noise he made—shocking and loud as the ringing of a midnight phone call—woke my parents down the hall.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about that summer any more when I went back to school and sat in the front row of Lawrence Rainey’s lectures on Eliot, Stevens, and Pound.
I am not thinking about that summer now, either.
Sometimes I read each line aloud before repeating it to myself, as if following the officiant’s guidance at a wedding.
Let us go then, you and I, [“Let us go then, you and I,”] / When the evening is spread out against the sky [“When the evening is spread out against the sky”] / Like a patient etherized upon a table [“Like a patient etherized upon a table—”]
Such practice hasn’t helped.
Eliot wrote most of his best known works during the time that the First World War was still known as “the Great War.” The war that would end war. Humanity had yet to realize its own utter annihilation would need numbering. Quaint ignorance, to our modern sensibilities.
With repetition—even repetition of horror—comes normalization. After Brexit and the US presidential election, the Russian-led dump of hacked documents from the Macron campaign in France at the 11th hour seemed scarcely to raise an eyebrow. The US dropped a never-before-used megabomb (the “Mother of All Bombs”) into the Afghan desert for seemingly no tactical reason other than the patriotic rush of good press war evokes . . . and for the orgasmic rush good headlines give our ersatz president.
Am I the only one concerned WWIII is already well underway?
“Let us go then, you and I, / Where the evening lies spread-eagled against the sky—”
A few years after graduating, I adopted a pair of kittens that I named after my favorite poets. Eliot the cat was huge and beautiful, long-haired (even to the tufts between his toes), and dumber than toast. I adored him.
Eli died suddenly and without warning when both cats were nine, within an hour of what should have been a routine vaccination. The vet, almost as shocked as I, struggled to explain what might have happened. Bad heart, he said, by which he meant fat, by which he meant don’t blame me.
…against the sky / like a patient euthenized…
Eliot’s littermate, Hildi, outlived her brother by another twelve years. She passed away quietly cradled in my arms, under the care of a vet with loving and skillful hands.
“Hildi” I had named after Hilda Doolittle—”H.D.”—another modernist poet who wrote in classical fragments.
H.D. was a woman. H.D. was, and remains, far less well-known than T.S. (Please note: I have merely juxtaposed these facts. I have not told you these facts are related.
Or have I.)
Much as we may wish our politicians (or our veterinarians) would be completely truthful, the fact is: we generally cope just fine with them lying to us, too. Meaning: we understand the rules of a lie. We understand the basic principles of a cover-up, or of manipulation.
We use words ourselves, after all.
What makes the present moment so challenging, intellectually and emotionally as well as politically, is that even the rules of lying are being abandoned. Belief in the very existence of facts is mocked like a weakness.
When language itself feels solid, we are less concerned with our grip upon its every specific. We fret less that uncertain facts may be running from even our friends’ mouths like so much sand through our fingers. But when all goals of communication feel compromised and abandoned, we will squabble even amongst our allies over every detail, petty or consequential. We strive frantically to guarantee a precision that words never held to begin with.
I am a trauma survivor. I know this panic well.
Let us not go then, you nor I
For more than a year after fully reconstructing the events of that long-ago summer, I struggled with sleep. Night after night, I clenched my arms tight to my chest and refused to close my eyes against the darkness, terrified that the world in which I went to sleep might cease being the same world before I woke up.
“I will forget,” I insisted in desperation to my therapist. “I will forget the things that happened; I always do.
“I will forget and then these things will no longer be true.”
Let us not go
For mine was the body.
Seven years after publishing “Prufrock,” Eliot completed his magum opus “The Wasteland”: an epic built patchwork-like from a compendium of references and quotations ranging from ancient Greek texts, to Celtic myth, to closing hour at the pub down the block. Scholars refer to “Wasteland” as a work of mythopoesis, or the narrative invention of a new mythology, and perhaps rightly so—but it is a mythology built from debris. Like erecting an altar to a dead god by piling up rubble from the carpet-bombed temple where She died.
Other modernists took their horrified senses in other directions. Eliot’s early supporter Ezra Pound, who had inaugurated the spare, sparse verse of Imagism, after the war embraced the fascism and autocracy of Mussolini and Hitler. (Credit where credit’s due: none of his poems ever included so unpoetic a line as “grab ’em by the pussy.” But by any measure outside of wordsmithing, they might as well have.)
No matter how long we hiccup through haunted memories of our irretrievable past, personal or collective, eventually we need a mythos that can carry us forward. In that quest, I believe Eliot had it exactly right. We work what we inherit—even language that comes to us like stubborn, sullen clay—until at last it gives way to become something else. Until, at last, something new can flourish.
Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a crimson field of tulips.
Or a heart in full, fat bloom.
Monday afternoon. I pick up my phone and tap out a number on its screen. Wait for the ringing on the other end to stop. My voice at first barely a whisper, so I clear my throat and start again.
“Hello. My name is Alice Isak, and I am one of the senator’s constituents…”
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world
This is the way
the way the world
“Not With a Bang But a Whisper” is part of an ongoing collaborative project between a playwright friend and me, to explore using myths & fairy tales as tools to critique, resist, and heal from the impact of gender & sexual violence.
For more from my half of the project.