Storm windows rattle and fall out of place. Clouds move in.
My daughter turns a small house upside down.
The idea of rain comes. Then light. The widow at her door,
her plants hung off the side porch. First a long drought,
and then fireworks. A little dog up against the chain link,
howling. July Fourth, four children die in Missouri and Tennessee lakes,
electrocuted by a line running out for a light
on a dock, some charge carried down a houseboat’s pontoon.
Was there music playing? The obituaries are too factual;
the elegies, too romantic. My daughter turns her house
right-side up, the tiny people fall out. Midnight or later
two days ago, someone drove their car into our neighbor’s house.
A bed moved across the room. A window bent like a willow.
Today she’s out in her flower bed dividing lilies.
Anger somehow has a certain charm with roots.
All these years, and we can never thank her
for anything that might grow. There are curses,
and there are blessings. Things happen, you see,
and then they happen again. I have nothing decent to say
to someone in pain. I hear a child scream up the road,
an old tire rolls down the street. A storm moves in,
the sky blossoms with light and shades of green gone gray,
but no thunder follows. Still we wait for it, our eyes
lifted and held there. Sometimes it never comes.
It takes years to cultivate a dark and mysterious aura. I’m still learning to tailor the guise to accommodate any situation: pained looks in the grocery store, oscillating between a bag of store brand frosted cereal in one hand and a box of unfrosted name brand in the other. Aloof lean in the office elevator, peeking over the pages of an open book as the numbers alight floor by agonizing floor, like a man counting his steps to the guillotine. Drinks of all sorts are to be stared into quizzically, longingly, and especially those of the alcoholic variety. If the stars are out, then my head is upturned and the slow dance I do in the middle of the abandoned street, tangled in my dog’s leash, is the dance of awe.
Probably, these tableaus succeed only in making me feel better about my own loneliness, as if I could project alienation onto a version of myself. If I could parse my identity into a reliable cast of characters, then I could sustain the story I tell myself about that charming and boisterous alter ego—the one who makes wild and unexpected appearances, grand gestures of love, and sweeping assurances of solidarity. I could go on believing that a better me could be summoned like an understudy to stage—or, better yet, like a genie who could cure all of our ailments with the snap of his fingers.
But how many years until your persona becomes your life? How long until that glass, that cereal box, and all of those empty expanses of night become more important than the people orbiting them? How long until you can’t even remember who it is you set out to be? Or why?
Lately, despite my best efforts to be silent and stormy, a monologue keeps pouring out of me. This tends to happen when I reach a certain threshold of drinks, and each narration contains blurry revisions to the particulars. Patterns. Entropy. Tragedy. The kinds of catchphrases and bar blather that only capture the attention of burnt out hippies hoping for a coup, as if a single justified conspiracy among millions could validate a lifetime. If you would just shut up, my friends say. But sometimes I prefer bums to blondes, blank stares to quick smiles, open arms to open legs.
Which may just be another story I tell. Most days, whoever I seem to be probably has more to do with pleasing the person in front of me than sorting out crises of identity. Ultimately, this makes me a pretty likable guy. Most days, I’ll appease you. I’ll bury my inner life because it tends to step on the toes of everyday life. I’ll ride the elevator to my blue collar office job and I’ll put my book away and prattle about the weather or the boss or can you believe Suzie was late again this morning? And was her mascara running? I don’t hand her a tissue. I’m not sure she’d want me to.
Most days, I’ll walk right past those burnt out hippies and say whatever it is I think I need to say to the most beautiful girl in the bar. And maybe I’ll take her home for a night or a year. Regardless, we’ll wake up one morning to find that we’re strangers, and we’ll be amazed it took us so long to recognize our incompatibility. Maybe there’ll be fights or tears or maybe just the hurried collection of disheveled clothes, but someone will walk out the door and never come back. And I sense this doom in all of my relationships—the way I navigate them feeling like a fraud that will eventually be found out. Worse, I don’t know what it is I’m afraid people will find, whom I’m doing this for or why—questions I’ve always put off for another time, another place, another life.
Maybe it’s the dawning of an adult routine, the meaningless tedium of office work, of getting by, or maybe it’s my burgeoning fascination with the way people keep quietly bowing out of my story—but, whatever the reason, my inner life won’t stay buried these days. Effusiveness storms my consciousness like a throb of the undead—confused and disoriented. Relentless. Hungry for something it cannot name.
I’ve been trying to follow the line to the center of this thing, the crux where Matthews’ poem, the world, and my life intersect. This has very little to do with scholarly exposition, and nearly everything to do with the haunts of the world, the way they follow me to even the most mundane corners of my life. And, assuming you’re the type of person I think you are—an assumption for which you’ve implicated yourself by your very presence—then you know all too well the way contradictions and memories fester, how they tug at your shirt, whisper in your ear, and then crash through the fucking ceiling. I’m talking about the urgency of everyday life, the self you’re left to reckon with when you shut the door behind you and there’s no one there to reflect the person you want to see.
If these concerns seem conflated, that’s because they’re conflated. Often, what I see best in the fog, is the fog.
The first event to cut through this most recent bout of murkiness was the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370. I kept obsessing over its symbolism (and god…what a thing to do, to turn tragedy into metaphor). About a week or so after the plane disappeared, I watched an interview with the wife of one of the lost passengers. She said her husband had portentous visions of disaster during the weeks leading up to his departure. Right before he left, he took off his wedding ring, handed it to his wife, and instructed her to give it to their son should anything happen to him. Here, the camera cut to a fullscreen shot of the wife, snot and tears and swollen eyes. In between sobs, she coughed up her rebellion to the audience. Even now, she said, I refuse to give the ring to my son, refuse to give it to anyone but my husband, because I KNOW he’s coming home. I know he’s alive. She must have sensed the impossibility of what she was saying. And we sat and watched in our houses and apartments, in cities and states with names and numbers, sex crimes and taxes—something resembling permanence.
How many doses of delusion does it take for each of us to get through the day? How many gods must we create? What would we do if we could, for once, really see ourselves?
And then the event itself. The disappearing act. If there are bodies to bury, then the flight’s narrative changes—it’s tough to swallow, to live, of course, but it fits a pattern. We were promised an end, and maybe it will come quicker than we expected, but there will be a box and a long line of loved ones and a touching toast. There will be some kind of understanding. But this sudden departure into oblivion reminds me that it’s all a vanishing, of sorts. A grave marker and a coffin don’t make any more sense than a ring without a finger. And at the heart of this is the entropy we try to resist and to ignore and to subdue and to deny and it always, always wins—and, often, it makes the routines we try to establish even more painful—the grocery store, the kid kicking the back of your seat, small talk on the elevator.
The flight feels like a synecdoche, a reminder that it’s all unanswerable and what did we expect? And from whom? I keep wishing for the improbable—the crash landing on a deserted island—and I want that interlude for all of us, for all of our stories. But the truth is in the oil slicks. Rings. The ineffable. The unchangeable. Out there and in me. Powerlessness.
The monologue devolves like this into a litany I can neither control nor understand. And then there’s the quiet that follows, the emptiness I swim in for days as if it were the middle of the ocean.
That silence is the right place for poetry.
I find all of these complexities in Clay Matthews’ poem, and they feel clarified and true. Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, what I need to see (it would certainly be fitting), but I don’t think so.
Calamitous vignettes are strewn throughout: a widow tormented by draught, the absurdity of a car suddenly appearing where it should not, children taken in the midst of play by the very thing meant to contribute to their leisure, their youth. A little dog howling. All of these images point to questions: Howling at what? What do we really know about the forces that surround us, electricity, for example? What about the tranquility we’re told will spring from tragedy?
But this poem looks out as we look out—panoramic, a lack of linearity. Mostly sadness. And if not sadness, then the “idea of” it, which is enough. Maybe, even, the idea of rain summons the rain, and that’s how everything begins—the seed from which suffering blossoms.
Then the question of what to do with pain. It would be forgivable, even redeemable, if we could understand its purpose. But “Things happen, you see, // and then they happen again.” A widow finds no peace—she plants her anger again and again despite herself, despite the draught. A car crashes into a house, but there’s no mention of its inhabitants, of the body that may’ve been in the bed that was launched across the room. Even a simple question like, “Was there music playing?” can’t be answered. The obituaries and elegies have already rewritten that story, burying the truth right along with the dead. There’s no good way to talk about these things. There’s nothing decent to say because all we can offer are lies—things will get easier, they’re in a better place now—or the truth, which is maybe even worse.
But the poem resists this kind of synthesis, resists telling us how we should feel about these things we can’t control. As if on queue, an old tire rolls down the street—an eerie and displaced image. It’s a tumbleweed that’s wandered onto the wrong set, a strange remnant of desolation, as if the poem, too, is caught up in the narrative of itself—as if by telling one story, you have to tell them all.
And this, I think, is the crux I’ve set out to find, the synecdoche that summons the fog.
These threads, seemingly disconnected, can only be held together by the story writ large. And who’s writing that book? God? Fate? Our speaker gives us his daughter, and she seems oddly in control. She’s a benevolent god. Innocent. But even this is of little solace. She “turns her house // right-side up, the tiny people fall out.” Regardless of her efforts to fix the world she created, things still fall apart—the story is writing itself. Ultimately, we aren’t plucked by fate, by god, or by a little girl tipping her dollhouse, nor is there much of a difference between the three. Entropy is the writer, the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
This isn’t a nod to nihilism. It’s not meant to be hopeless. I want to understand these “things that happen.” I want to sort out their implications and to arrange them in a way that makes sense for us, for me. Maybe I should know better than to obsess over these things. But this, I suspect, will be my life’s work—to agonize over intricacies, the unexplainable. A plane disappears. A widow waters her plants. Four children go for a swim and never come back. A dog howls. I dance in the street or I don’t. Regardless, I want to believe these things mean. Like the wife in the interview, I want to say that I KNOW they’re all connected.
David Foster Wallace calls this feeling “the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” Maybe, in this way, we’re all widows—angry, plunging our hands into the soil. Maybe we all have rings in our palms, and the ubiquitous sky is a constant reminder of what’s been taken from us.
But what can we do but wait for the next thing to happen? Something to make us believe in the cohesiveness of our existence. Or, even, something to shatter that fallacy, once and for all. I only want the truth. “There are curses, / and there are blessings. Things happen, you see, // and then they happen again.” Patterns and explanations are rarely satisfying or complete—they’re only a partial glimpse into a story we can’t begin to conceive, though “still we wait for it” and “sometimes it never comes.” Despite myself, I try to imagine those other times, those blessings. Seedlings push through soil. An empty bed means someone gets to go on living. The night tells me exactly who I am.
Sometimes the sky blossoms with light and shades of green gone gray.
Sometimes the midday quiet is broken by the unmistakable hum of a faraway engine—growing louder, roaring closer.
*T.J. Sandella is a recent graduate of Georgia College’s MFA program, where he was the assistant poetry editor for Arts & Letters. He’s the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry (Passages North) and two Academy of American Poets University Prizes. He was a finalist for Agnes Scott’s Writers’ Festival Award, and has been nominated for the AWP Intro Awards and Best New Poets 2014.
Most recently, his poetry won a William Matthews Poetry Prize, which was selected by Billy Collins. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Passages North, Asheville Poetry Review, The Tusculum Review, and The Fourth River, among others. For the moment, he lives, works, and wanderlusts in Cleveland, Ohio.
On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style will feature a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our seventh month with a guest post.