Friday, October 15, 2010

A Gala Night

Holidays provide a marvelous excuse for this sort of thing. Mark your calendars. Even something as fundamentally silly as Halloween can be put to use in just this way; a comfortable chair, a strong light in an otherwise dark room, and a book of poetry or two, and I can justify reading right out loud poem after poem, about death, for instance. Now, I know that death isn't quite the word usually paired with holiday, but come October and the furnace kicks on and the nights get long, what could be more appropriate than a deathless line -- or twenty -- on the one end to which everything comes? What could be more deliciously indulgent, less adult, better fun?

When I was a boy of nine, I dearly loved mumbling my way through Poe; imaging a raven just above my bedroom door, a ghost rising to rattle the sash at the window, until I had to sneak down the stairs and reassure myself there were still real people down there, just watching the television, or dozing on the sofa, but very much alive, everyday and quite real. In imitation of Vincent Price, I might recite a bit of "The Conqueror Worm" as I walked home alone along the dark and light-less road from the Grange, knowing I'd run the last stretch across the moonlit grass, to the safe circle of porch-light I could see through the trees. If the moon was slight and the wind was loud in the brush and the frost made the path crackle underfoot, the poem might come, faster and faster, in nervous little puffs, but by the time I ran, I would already know safety just ahead of me and then giggle at at my escape.

There's not an occasion for which there may not be a line of poetry with which to mark it. I wish that I had the kind of mind and memory that could call up what I've read, as needed. I've known people with that power. I'll always envy them. But as Lamb says, "... I cannot sit and think. Books think for me." Another, the best reason to have books of one's own, always to hand, if but for a bit of hunting, is to pull out something better minds might know. Halloween rises and I want the company of ghosts? Here they are. Some tempting wraith from Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a brief conversation between the dead, as overheard by Emily Dickinson, anything that whispers of the grave, I've only to look among the tombstones on my shelves, and open a book to release the very things. I've only to turn the lights a little lower and say the lines aloud to fill my otherwise cheerful study with a chill and make a shadowy gloom, appropriate for disembodied voices, a haunt for sighs and spooks and settlings that might happily unsettle a hour -- before I set the lights blazing the whole way to bed and the comforting sound of a snoring husband, already abed.

How many forgetful sentimentalists have lamented down the years the loss of childhood and innocence, of things felt intensely and then abandoned as a child might? It's nonsense. Childhood is in us. Innocence is as simple as opening a book. It's the quiet we forget. If I open a book of Bradbury's stories and the house is silent around me and the chair is snug, and the blanket warm and the light just bright enough to read, where am I if not the very place I would remember? Who am I by the second page if not the boy I was when I first read of the monster that answered the lighthouse? It's the quiet, and the dark, that makes the world small enough that we might fit in it just as we did, occupy the same narrow space, forget our present selves; so loud and bulky and constantly aware of every external to a story.

And if I read a poem by Poe tonight, and do it in the all but dark? Read it out loud and let my voice hiss in a whisper and growl and moan with just that same abandon I indulged at nine, without any attempt at being fine, or thought to my supposed dignity -- that posture adopted for fear of sounding as silly and giddy as I know I must or fear I might should there be anyone hear me? What child of nine doesn't trust his dignity to survive any freak that he might feel the sudden need of? Who doesn't occasionally shriek for no better reason that to be scared first? Imagine bones rattling in a box of matches? Die a thousand hideous deaths for the sheer joy of dying bravely, or badly, and really not at all, as there might still be half a sandwich somewhere in the refrigerator? If I can't imagine murder, then I'm very old indeed. If I can't open a book and let ghosts fly out, I must be too near to being dead to bother. So, Poe it is. And aloud. And now, with just the one lamp, and not anyone the wiser, save you of course, whoever you might happen to be. Where am I, if not exactly where I want to be, with a cold night tonight to read in, and Halloween coming?

"Lo! 'tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres... "

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