Friday, April 3, 2009

The God Of Loneliness --- Philip Schultz


It’s a cold Sunday February morning
and I’m one of eight men waiting
for the doors of Toys R Us to open
in a mall on the eastern tip of Long Island.
We’ve come for the Japanese electronic game
that’s so hard to find. Last week, I waited
three hours for a store in Manhattan
to disappoint me. The first today, bundled
in six layers, I stood shivering in the dawn light
reading the new Aeneid translation, which I hid
when the others came, stamping boots
and rubbing gloveless hands, joking about
sacrificing sleep for ungrateful sons. “My boy broke
two front teeth playing hockey,” a man wearing
shorts laughs. “This is his reward.” My sons
will leap into my arms, remember this morning
all their lives. “The game is for my oldest boy,
just back from Iraq,” a man in overalls says
from the back of the line. “He plays these games
in his room all day. I’m not worried, he’ll snap out of it,
he’s earned his rest.” These men fix leaks, lay
foundations for other men’s dreams without complaint.
They’ve been waiting in the cold since Aeneas
founded Rome on rivers of blood. Virgil understood that
death begins and never ends, that it’s the god of loneliness.
Through the window, a clerk shouts, “We’ve only five.”
The others seem not to know what to do with their hands,
tuck them under their arms, or let them hang,
naked and useless. Is it because our hands remember
what they held, the promises they made? I know
exactly when my boys will be old enough for war.
Soon three of us will wait across the street at Target,
because it’s what men do for their sons.

---Philip Schultz

Philip Schultz's The God Of Loneliness

I’m unabashedly jealous of poets and writers who are blessed with the unique skill of what I’ll refer to as “linked vision.” They see a twig on the sidewalk and think of Huckleberry Finn on his raft scooting down the Mississippi; they listen to water dripping sporadically in the sink and hear the ritualistic drums of ancient man; they grab a hefty pile of dirty laundry and wonder if this is what it feels like to move boxes at the factory a long string of family members worked at. Admittedly, these are horrible made-up examples, but they illuminate my central idea for this entry: Poets (like Philip Schultz) who link quotidian elements of life with notable stories and characters from literature, history, the arts, and their own past are remarkable.

“Linked vision” requires an attentive cataloguing of details and a willingness to explore the far-reaching connections these details evoke. Allow me to explain: how many of us take the same route to work or school or wherever we go each day? On that route there are probably signs and billboards, if you’re lucky maybe it’s a natural landscape that changes with the seasons. If I asked you to close your eyes and visualize traveling that route you’d be able to visualize it with no problem, right? But would you be able to pluck the intricate details: which letter is slightly peeling and discolored on the GEICO billboard, which of the three pine trees is drooping over the sewer drain, what is the price of premium gas at the WaWa. These details may seem pointless, but they are, in fact, where many of the points reside. Details forge connections with other parts of our life, portions that might be tethered to past events and memories, or portions tied up in the arts, maybe books we read during our formative years---perhaps The Aeneid.

Philip Schultz’s speaker is one of the men in line on a deathly cold morning at a Toys R Us, but he’s able to step back from the situation and see these fathers are more than a string of shivering men. He immerses himself in the details, and as a result the details click around inside of him like pinballs until they find the right grooves to slide into: the Aeneid, the war in Iraq, Nintendo Wii, manual labor, and fatherhood. God, that is a random list, and yet it informs the poem with a reality sure to resonate with readers, a truth that can’t be faked. It also affords Schultz an opportunity to show off his "linked vision."

The first four lines of the poem are about the circumstances of sacrifice. It’s cold, it’s the weekend, and the store is a long distance, so long in fact that to go any further would land our speaker in the Atlantic Ocean. And why exactly is our speaker sacrificing---for a Nintendo Wii. If you’ve ever played Wii Sports or Mario Kart this makes perfect sense. All kidding aside, it actually does make sense: could there be a more plausible reason to do something counterproductive to your own health and happiness than for the good of your child? As Schultz writes, “Last week, I waited / three hours for a store in Manhattan / to disappoint me.” We feel that disappointment with him; many of us have been the parent or the child in this situation. The poem’s authenticity revolves around the quirks of these dutiful fathers. One man intends to buy the video game system as his son’s “reward” for breaking “two front teeth playing hockey.” The man is wearing shorts in the extreme cold and this thumps my soul with memories of my own father snow-blowing our driveway in shorts, a sweater, and a stocking cap.

But this poem is not all fun and video games. One of the fathers is waiting to buy the game for his son: a young soldier returning from the horrors of war in Iraq. This father tells the others how his son plays these games “in his room all day.” The responsibilities of fatherhood do not end when a child becomes an adult, instead they evolve into complex and delicate balances of compassion and understanding. This is certainly hard work, but these fathers are familiar with hard work. As Schultz points out, “These men fix leaks, lay / foundations for other men’s dreams without complaint.” They are a selfless bunch using their skills to do work that others scoff at only because it will equip them with the money and opportunities to deliver their own children’s dreams. There's an ancient beauty to this formula and Schultz seizes upon this, connecting these fathers with Aeneas and the tradition of the long death of self, the bittersweet god of loneliness.

A stigma seems to exist that men who work with their hands are uneducated and as a result found a trade that utilizes their hands, as opposed to their brains. What a misguided assumption that is, what a terrible mistake it would be to assume any less of a man who works toward a continual goal of precise perfection. Our hands are one of our most ancient tools; they help us nourish, clean, protect, communicate, and provide. To end the poem, Philip Schultz focuses on how uncomfortable it is when we don’t know what to do with our hands. For the men in the poem---men who make livings with their hands---the level of discomfort is amplified. And not just because their livelihoods are tied to their hands, but also because their hands “remember / what they held, the promises they made.” Schultz thinks of his own sons and the possibility of them going to war someday. We make promises to protect our children and we make promises to help them live a full life. Sometimes these promises collide and these collisions form the daily dilemmas of fatherhood. Thank you to all the men who reach these crossroads and discern a path with opportunities to learn and grow, not the path with the shortest route.


gerib said...

So who exactly was the God of loneliness? Not Aeneas though coz he was the a Trojan hero that lead to the finding of Rome.

Salute to you Mr. Philip Schultz for a good poem!

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Gerib for reading my blog and commenting on this poem. You're right, we should salute Philip Schultz for his wonderful poem!

Anonymous said...

The poem amd the post are beautiful.

Hsiaoshuang said...

This poem reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop's narrative, The Moose, the scene inside the bus:

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
--not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents' voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

By the way, I stumbled across your blog because I was searching for Donald Justice, The Evening of the Mind, which was quoted on p182 in a novel by Dean Koontz, Your Heart Belongs to Me. I didn't find the poem but saw this poem by Schultz whom I've not heard before. Regards.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks Hsiaoshuang for the kind comments and for sharing the parallel to Bishop's The Moose. I had never considered that link between God of Loneliness and The Moose, but I certainly see it! Bishop's ear for dialogue (while not directly being one of the speakers in a conversation) was epic. I hope you'll find a few other new poems on the blog worth discovering!

Anonymous said...

What would you say is the mood for "The God of Loneliness? And what is the reason Mr. Schultz has wrote this?