“Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers into your hair. Bellow at cataracts” (David Wright).

Ian McKellan, "Blow winds. . ."

Ian McKellan, “Blow winds. . .”

In case you haven’t read Shakespeare’s King Lear lately, here’s my synopsis:

King Lear asks his three daughters how much they love him. Cordelia the youngest, his favorite, tells him the truth—as a daughter should, “no more, no less.” The other two fawn over him, and he divides the kingdom between them. They run him out of the castle, and he goes mad out in the country, running around naked in a storm and saying all sorts of crazy things that have become famous poetry. Cordelia, marries a prince, and finds Lear and takes him home with her. He realizes she loves him the most. Her sisters throw them in jail. In a jealous rage one commits suicide and poisons the other, but not before they order Cordelia hanged. One of their husbands tries to stop it, but he’s too late, and Lear ends the play by saying more famous things over Cordelia’s dead body and then dying.

David Wright (1920-1994) was a South African poet who lived most of his life in England. I stumbled across his poetry some time ago. I have no idea who Richard Pacholski was (is), but David Wright wrote him a poem that’s his synopsis of King Lear.

I found it awhile back, and it’s now a favorite. “Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear.” I thought about it yesterday.

I note with certain trepidation that Wright died when he was only four years older than I am now. Cancer. I don’t have cancer or any disease I know of that’s going to kill me off at 74, but you never, ever, know about these things.

His “Lines on Retirement” begins

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys
.

You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will offer when they really want your office. . . The department office is moving from the big hall (national register of historic buildings) to the more modest hall where most of us low-ranking professors in the program have our offices. Of course, I’m moving out—and the program director wanted to know if she could move into my office—before finals were over. There wasn’t any sweetness to go with it, all very business-like. They even offered to have the work-study students help me move out.

Of course they didn’t offer to send the students over to my apartment to do the laundry which has piled up while I was sick for two weeks and then began the horrendous task of grading final student papers to get the grades in before the registrar starts sending nasty emails.

David Wright, by Patrick Smith

David Wright, by Patrick Smith

I’ve been thinking more than I should lately (some of my friends think I’m obsessed with it) about the passage of time and getting old and those other unpleasant things people say a fellow in his 70th year either ought to be thinking about or should never think about—depending on the grounding in reality the person you ask has. And I like the fact that other beginning-to-be-old folks think about time and death and all those topics forbidden in America (which may be why we let Ted Cruz and Harry Reid and Ben Bernanke and Jamie Dimon take from us every shred of dignity and our share of the resources of the country—we’re just mostly out to lunch when it comes to reality).

At any rate, thinking about the headlong rush toward death we’re all in isn’t so bad, especially if you can think about it with some sort of elegance and style.

My last day of classes a couple of days ago left me wired and happy. High as a kite, really. My students hugged me and shook my hand and told me such things as I’m too young to retire and the university needs me and mine was the best and most interesting class they’d ever had. It was genuine and heartwarming. The university doesn’t know I’m leaving (not even my department), but the people who are important—the students—do.

Wright continues his advice.

So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save
.

Babble as if you thought words could save. I do that. Constantly. When I was young (a couple of years ago and back), I would have said I understand Wright’s poetry. Now I don’t need to understand it because it simply slips right in under my skin and sits there as a new little dose of reality to help me through today (and perhaps tomorrow).

I babbled on Monday, a Last Lecture for my students. They were receptive and polite—a few of them much more than that.

I’ve been in something of a quandary for the last 24 hours or so. I’m depressed. Yep. Crying. The “s” word has slipped through my mind. But that’s merely habit. I mean none of it. Crashed, that’s all I’ve done. Postpartum blues.

I have some affinity with old Lear running naked out in the countryside and shouting,

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
— (Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene 2)

It may be a bit difficult for the next twenty years to figure out what’s the old demon depression and what’s the new demon reality. Rapid cycling of Bipolar II Disorder –or, for once, a normal feeling: being in one’s 70th year takes some getting used to?

“Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear,” by David Wright
for Richard Pacholski

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.

Lear. Kent to Oswald: Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?

Lear. Kent to Oswald: Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?

 

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