Jul 10, 2012

Linda Pastan, "The Deathwatch Beetle": Spirit, Flesh, and What Might Be Ridiculous

The Deathwatch Beetle by Linda Pastan : Poem Guide : Learning Lab : The Poetry Foundation

                    Practically every line of Linda Pastan’s “The Deathwatch Beetle” is appropriately assertive and menacing. The cardinal is also fitting as a metaphor for the human spirit. In the first case

Nightmare Cardinal

there is a battered red bird, probably as it tries to escape a vision of itself seen in a window. Then, in the final stanza, another cardinal is “blood brother” to the spirit of the deceased, which is desperate to escape the dead human body restraining it.

In addition to the nightmare quality of the poem as a whole, I want to look at three specific images that I find new, fresh, and compelling because they are original and so aptly jarring.  

First, body parts. Most people love cardinals, which can be the only color in North American winter landscapes. Now the “crimson bird” is more or less insane, an imprisoned victim trying to escape a cage of skull through—of all things—a nostril, or possibly an ear canal. I wonder if Linda Pastan is referring to some particular belief system, but whether or not that’s the case, I’m taken aback by her strategy of emphasizing mundane, unglamorous body parts. They form walls and create a lunatic frenzy in the spirit, which is personified as a beautiful, beloved red bird. 

Hungry Cardinal

That in turn might be a hint that “blood-red” is the end result of the war between the flesh and the spirit, in which the spirit loses—or in any case the spirit is painted in the carnal color of the human that trapped it, at least for a time.

In that nostril and that ear canal, I feel I’m in a scene from Bosch or Dali.  I hope readers from the art world will offer names of other painters who might fit here.  

The second image—or is it a concept?—that slapped me into longer consideration is,  “I will be left—ridiculous.”  In the wake of a loved one’s death, who among us worries about feeling ridiculous? I suspect all of us—if we were honest and perceptive enough to say so, though we’d probably point first to more obvious conditions like loneliness, emptiness, helplessness.

Pastan makes me uncomfortable taking those more predictable states for granted and skipping straight to the less expected and more embarrassing “ridiculous.” She disturbs me just the way good poets are supposed to stir us, get us off the couch. It’s at least possible that we fear looking or feeling ridiculous as much as we dread the emptiness of life without the deceased.

What a powerful question to have dropped on our plates:  Bereavement, this new-to-me condition, this stripped down way of being in the world, is so disarming that I feel ridiculous.

But maybe I am ridiculous. How so? Where did that condition come from? Maybe it feels like nakedness in a blizzard. The ice and cold are obvious; pain is obvious. But as  much as cold and pain, I also feel  . . . ridiculous. Actually, I especially feel ridiculous. There are support groups for the grief-stricken, for the newly widowed, but what about the newly ridiculous? 

Spirit Cardinal
Maybe, “She’s too young to be widowed. That’s a ridiculous state of affairs.” Or, “He’s too old to be that moved by his father’s death. It’s ridiculous.” Or, “He broke down in tears? There?! In front of all those people? That’s ridiculous.” Or, “She has no idea how to balance a checkbook? Ridiculous.” Or, “She just had a year-long affair with the dog trainer. This show of grief is ridiculous.”

Applied to an individual human, how many adjectives are as dangerous as “ridiculous”? 

The third item that seizes my attention is “ticking.”  Whatever the literal sound of the death beetle is, I cannot imagine that it’s more alarming than “ticking”—first as a literally odd noise from a bug and secondly with its connotation of clocks and therefore mortality . . . for us all.   

So, in an All-Star poem—oh yes, the game’s tonight—those three specifics are Hall of Famers.

My hunch is that this will be a popular poem here and probably already is out there in Anthology-Land. How well do you like it?  Respect it?  Scale of 1 – 10?  I welcome responses to that or anything else Linda Pastan and I have said. Regulars here know I always want to know what their favorite parts or aspects of the poem are. 

One question nags me. Do we need to know more clearly who’s died, or is it enough to feel sure it’s someone near and dear?  


-K- said...

Wow. Love the "Nightmare Cardinal."

Pasadena Adjacent said...

The idea of "the ridiculous" and your concentration on it interests me. I've often been sought out for the confessional - that raw moment when one is untethered. I listen, I cup my hand and collect tears. No judgement.

Then comes that day when the other's moorings are back and the "ridiculous moment" becomes the "cringe moment." I've come to recognize it and call it - if you want me there when your on your knees, you better want me there in the good times too. Having attended more funerals then weddings, I'm putting the "ridiculous" on notice.

Hows that for a dose of blood and feathers?

btw: I do know of a French artist who collected dead birds off the streets of Paris and cloaked them in hand knitted dresses.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that poem is so good and a kick in the head or nostril or ear, I have nothing to add.

Jean Spitzer said...

10, but then I'm not much of a poetry reader.

Banjo52 said...

K, I'm sure you see how technically brainy that shot is! Oh well, it's a little different.

PA, blood and feathers indeed! (Is "blood and feathers" your own phrase? I've never heard it; I like it). I think I landed on "ridiculous" because it's the least obvious IDEA in the poem and because it's an underestimated motive for some of our dumbest behaviors. We feel ridiculousness--ineptness, awkwardness, fearfulness--coming on in some situation, so we behave in ways that might prevent its arrival, and those behaviors are more ridiculous than the original, honest vulnerability would have been. Says one of my good friends: "People say, 'If you _____ (do this or that), what's the worst that can happen?' You can end up feeling worse about yourself than you did. That's what can happen." That's a train of thought/feeling that can lead to paralysis, but it's also a good retort to yet another bromide.

PA, I think this is the first time you've mentioned your role as frequent counselor. And then there's a betrayal after you've been the good listener? Ouch.

AH, good. I'm surprised I haven't done more of Linda Pastan's poems here.

Jean, but sometimes a 10 is a 10 to everybody. All of what I've read of Pastan is pretty accessible, but I think a lot of it would cause an ooohhhhhh from both expert and novice. I wonder if Pastan scholars (there must be some) find her, as I do, stepping toward Plath/Sexton confessionalism, but never quite crossing the line--and that can create a powerful tension in the poetry.

Banjo52 said...

"least obvious IDEA in the poem"--I think I mean an idea that comes up least often in good poetry. Death, grief, birds as central images, madness, flesh vs. spirit--those are widespread. But "ridiculousness" seems new, important, and wise as a subject.

PA, I'd listen to more about that French artist if you care to get into it.

Jean, that would be a good "ooooohhhhh."

Pasadena Adjacent said...

your going to love this...The post is titled "The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things"


The artist is Annette Messenger.

Banjo52 said...

Ridiculous. But thanks. Will check on it.

Stickup Artist said...

When I read 1., I said to myself, I feel like that sometimes, hurling myself about frantically, beating my mental wings, trying to "penetrate" my own "reflection." Then read thru the chilling words and states of being to the end, where the the poet comes round to express that thought. Said so powerfully. And I love the word-ridiculous. One can get so much milage out of it...

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Curious, what are your thoughts on the way this poem was broken up? it's form ( 1 - 2 and 3). Does it enter into the arena of gimmick for you?

btw: I put it up on Face Book, and it was well received

Jean Spitzer said...

BTW, I read "ridiculous" differently: she will be the last one, so that writing "condolence letters to myself" will be ridiculous.

Jean Spitzer said...

While re-reading the poem, I noticed the comic strip, which led to my realizing that the Foundation is a place, in Chicago, that one can visit. Cool.


Birdman said...

I'm intrigued by this beetle's ticking. Take a beauty bird and tie him together with this such ominous death... waiting for the 'ticking to' explode.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, I wonder if Pastan knew--and if so, HOW she knew--that the images and ideas would register with a lot of readers.

PA, checked on Annette M. Very interesting. I recommend others check out that site and one or two others.

I wonder why a taxidermist bothered with a bunch of sparrows? Hmmmm. Some good commentary by the blogger, I think.

Stanza arrangement--I didn't fuss, though the placement of 3 is a jolt, but I think it works. But I did fuss--and always do--about lines shorter than three words. I always think the poet is hearing something I'm not about the importance of those one or two words.

Jean, the condolence letters to myself are not my favorite part of the whole Ridiculousness theme, but on the level of plot, such letters make sense as the cause for her feeling. For me, it increases my unease about her not identifying the deceased. A husband would make sense; for a parent or anyone else, the extremity of the emotions and pondering would seem extreme to me. I'd need to know more about the relationship(s).

Jean, Poetry Foundation is my favorite poetry site. As far as I know, no other site comes close to the wealth of poetry, commentary and info. Also, that organization's magazine, titled Poetry, is probably the most prestigious place in America to be published.

Birdman, yep. ONce again, juxtaposing opposites is the root of all--well, not evil, I suppose. But consternation? Provocation?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Did you read the linked interview from the blog? if so, your a more dedicated academic then me.

You may have seen this link in the response section of my blog - but if not....I'm putting my response to Stick-Up Artist here. The section about the birds is 27 ish minutes in. I wonder if Annette Messenger's birds were the result of light overload?

"Our Editor Responds: I just finished watching a PBS film called “The City Dark” It presents an interesting idea – night wilderness. Examining how “we” are effected by light pollution. (light pollution – “occurs when light shinning upward bounces off dust and particulates in the air, causing the very sky to glow to live in [insert big city here] is to live under an illuminated tent; a dome of light”). How bird migrations, governed by the night sky, hit city centers with their lit up skyscrapers – a carnage that is being counted (more dead birds then ever).

Also, a place called “Sky Village” in Arizona – home of astro photographers. You can watch it in the link below"


Banjo52 said...

Thanks, PA. Re: birds, there was just (Mon. nite?) an excellent documentary on HBO titled something like Birders in Central Park. Might be available On Demand or something.

Lovers' Lane