Friends, we come again to a year’s end, and a beginning. I’ve been pondering holidays this month and felt this would be a good Friday to devote to something poetic in that vein. In part, this is a way of apologizing for not having offered reflections on Christmas, as was promised. I could tell you that the week before Christmas was busy (it was) or that my feelings about the holiday had rapidly become too complicated and potentially easy-to-miscommunicate for me to blog about them (they had), but I think more than that I have been detached this holiday season from holidays. There is something strange about being so far from everyone I’ve known (with a few delightful exceptions—you know who you are), and I hadn’t realized how much that would affect my experience of December. The time has been out of joint for me (though not quite in the same way it was for Hamlet). New Year’s Eve looms close and I find myself as unprepared for it on an emotional level as I was for Christmas. This driftwood feeling is probably good for me, but I can’t call it enjoyable. I’m the kind of fellow who likes an anchor, or if not an anchor, at least a sail by which to steer. I don’t know where the current is going.
All of that is a rather cryptic and probably confusing way to say that I haven’t known what to say. I went looking to see what poets have said about new years in the past, and found most of them saying all the things I can’t find right now. This poet, though, got a hold of something somber that got my attention, at least. I don’t think she and I are in the same place. But I felt a connection with someone who (presumably) won’t be wearing a party hat tomorrow because that’s not what the new year will mean for her. Her name is Linda Pastan, and this is a poem called “The Cossacks” that bears the inscription “For F.”
For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year’s Eve by counting
my annual dead.
My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.
But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you’d never have, I couldn’t explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial
laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English—
Brontë’s Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.
I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year’s famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.
I warned you it was grim. But I think sometimes we need to be honest—to acknowledge that beginnings are not always exciting because sometimes we are sorry to leave behind whatever is ended. To acknowledge that sometimes we are people who dwell on sorrows because that’s the kind of people we are: we haven’t read a self-help book that tells us this is a good idea, we haven’t weighed our options and decided this is the most productive way to go, we are not proactive. We simply enter the doorway in front of us.
Pastan here is wrestling with this because the one she misses, this new year’s night, is someone who (ironically) didn’t wrestle with this. Pastan, at the brink of something new and full of possibility is struck by her apprehension and fear. And that this absent friend of hers managed to walk to the edge of death—of the denial of possibility, the end of hope—with optimism and cheer is beyond her ability to take in.
She can’t get free of it. In the end, for her, no music can drown out the sound of the approaching horsemen and what they bring with them. I wonder how much of this is a choice. We believe in free will as humans (and as Americans, in particular, I think)—we like to commit ourselves to the idea that we are in utter control of ourselves, at least. That all our actions, our thoughts, our emotions are at our disposal at any given moment. Pastan faces the fact that we do not have that kind of freedom. Is this brave? Is it wallowing in depression? Maybe more importantly, can it possibly be both at once?
I don’t know. I have a lot to be glad about, and yet I can’t shake the shadow this evening—the feeling of “growing gloom” that Thomas Hardy wrote about in his own New Year’s poem for 1900, “The Darkling Thrush”, where he goes for a walk in despair and is surprised to find that a little bird can sing so brightly, as though it has access to a hope he is denied. No catalogue of my many blessings is an adequate response.
These feelings pass. Sometimes in cliché fashion, when we see the sunrise or hear a baby laugh or smell a flower, but not usually. Life is more complicated than that. Complicated enough that I both understand Pastan tonight, feeling (like her) that a new year is a chance to reflect on the dangers of the possible, and I do not, because I am not overwhelmingly convinced that a Cossack is at my door. When I reflect on the dangers of the possible, I am more likely to realize how far off the Cossacks really are. The danger gradually dissipates. Calm returns. I’ll do that, tonight, and perhaps you will too—or perhaps you’ve been free of this kind of melancholy lately. Either way, may 2012 exceed your expectations, and bring you (among other things) plenty of excellent poetry and prose.