POETRY

How otherness dissolves

A poem by Thomas Lux provides an opportunity to reflect on similarity and difference in human experience

By Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP

As psychoanalysts we deal all day long in stories, stories that never begin at the beginning or end at the end, stories often barely articulated or relying on words with unfamiliar shades of meaning, about people who may seem very little like us, different in age, in gender, in values, in native tongue, told by people whose lives have been led in other parts of the world or in other parts of town. Yet, the mystery: however strange, the stories speak to us.

How is this possible? Is it the essential shared humanness of the teller and the listener? Is it the medium itself, the way narrative (even when composed only of narrative gestures) organizes experience for both teller and listener?

Here's an example. "Dead Horse" is by contemporary poet Thomas Lux. The poem's rural American, conversational setting is reminiscent of Robert Frost. But the diction is even plainer: Lux does so much with (apparently) simple, direct speech. As with Frost, a deep sophistication is folded into the simple language.

This little report of an ur-American childhood experience is, to say the least, a long way from my own childhood experience in the Bronx. And yet, I get it.

And what we understand, as a matter of deep apprehension, is that this tale of a small tragedy, and small awakening, is a moment in a much larger narrative. We understand that although a sharp new awareness for the boy, the death of a horse, is not an exceptional event for a farm family. Death, certainly an animal's death, is part of life's routine. These would be people with little patience for sentimentality, with no time left for mourning a loss as usual as this.

And this is a life where words have little use. What happens gets summed up in a kind of grunt: Happens. The people in their own way are as dumb (that is, inarticulate, not stupid) as the cow. That inarticulateness can also be seen in the way the lines often break in the middle of a simple thought: one pauses for breath, for orientation, in the wrong place. The poet may rely on words and we may rely on words as readers, but he and we understand that this is a concatenation of events, large and small, mysterious and inevitable, in which words will make little difference.

The people are almost as helpless as their animals, that is, at the mercy of the natural rhythms they can only struggle inadequately to mark with significance. Because this was a good horse, he's given the dignity of being buried in the field. "Makes sense", we're tempted to grunt, too.

And there's a recognizable ordinariness, a neighbor proud of his tractor, happy for an excuse to use it. We all know that kid with-a-new-toy helpfulness in our own neighbors. (One of mine has a snow blower.) We understand too when ordinariness becomes maddening, because without imagination, "every Friday, hot dogs and beans." We all live and have lived with such near-ritual, homely repetitions, family things which upon examination or looking back on later we realize don't or didn't have to be that way, but are and were. There are many similarities across all our childhoods.

Finally, there's a wonderful irony in the fact that the poet, the child of an inarticulate world, should be able to tell his story so well. It takes two: the reader gets it because the teller knows how to tell it. Lux, with a deceptive artlessness this too, somehow, learned at home, turns up stones never seen before by a human's eye. Not that the stones weren't there; they were simply never seen. Lux does what poets do; he uncovers the mystery in the ordinary in his own life and in ours. With poet or with psychoanalyst, it's in that uncovering that, at least for a moment, otherness dissolves.

A Poem by Thomas Lux

Dead Horse

At the fence line, I was about to call him in when, at two-thirds profile, head down
and away from me, he fell first to his left front knee
and then the right, and he was down, dead before he hit the...
My Father saw him drop, too,
and a neighbor, who walked over. He was a good horse, old,
foundered, eating grass during the day and his oats and hay
at night. He didn't mind or try to boss the cows
with which he shared these acres.
My father said: "Happens." Our neighbor walked back to his place
and was soon grinding towards us with his new backhoe,
of which he was proud
but so far only used to dig two sump holes. It was the knacker
we'd usually call to haul away a cow. A horse, a good horse, you buried where he, or she, fell. Our
neighbor cut a trench
beside the horse
and we pushed him in. I'd already said goodbye before I closed his eyes.
Our neighbor returned the dirt. In it, there were stones,
stones never, never seen before
by a human's, nor even a worm's, eye. Malcolm, our neighbor's name,
returned the dirt from where it came and, with the back of a shovel,
we tamped it down
as best we could. One dumb cow stood by. It was a Friday,
I remember, for supper we ate hot dogs, with beans on buttered white bread, every Friday,
hot dogs and beans.

From New and Selected Poems, 1975 - 1995, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Copyright © 1990 by Thomas Lux. All rights reserved. Used with permission.