Monday, January 12, 2015

Analysis of "To my Oldest Friend, Whose Silence is Like a Death" by Lloyd Schwartz

Poem found here:  "To my Oldest Friend, Whose Silence is Like a Death" by Lloyd Schwartz



I'm the silent one in the poem.  Not literally, but I know that I don't talk to people in forever and I don't tell why.  This poem is sentimental -- which is against everything that I was taught how to write as far as content is concerned, but as a reader, this poem hit me pretty hard.

The poem is written in couplets with the occasional one off line -- which can easily represent either the "friend" or the "speaker," but first exposition:

     In today's paper, a story about our high school drama
     teacher evicted from his Carnegie Hall rooftop apartment

     made me ache to call you--the only person I know
     who'd still remember his talent, his good likes, his self-

The line breaks in this poem makes these lines, the end of the first line with "high school drama" to reinforce the connection between the speaker and the friend, " the only person I know" foreshadowing a more serious connection, and the abrupt line break of "his self-" is assumed knowledge.which sets up the next couplet, "We'd laugh (at what haven't we laughed?), then / not laugh, wondering what became of him.  But I can't call,"  when I read this couplet,  The parenthetical.  "(at what haven't we laugh?)" adds a sense of internal drama which comes out in the singular line of, "because I don't know what become of you."

Now the poem could go off into different directions from here, but this line is the basis of the poem.  What has become of you?  The speaker sets up the friendship:

     --After sixty years, with no explanation, you're suddenly
     not there.  Gone.  Phone disconnected.  I was afraid

     you might be dead.  But you're not dead.

And very quickly the speaker takes out any sense of elegaic quality.  This isn't honoring the death of someone.  No on is even dead -- physically.  The speaker has a huge sense of confusion or rather loose ends that he explores, literally, with the following actions:

     You've left, your landlord says.  He has lost your new unlisted
     number but insists on "respecting your privacy."  I located

     your oldest son, who refuses to tell me anything except that
     you're alive and not ill.  your ex wife ignores my letters.

So the speaker goes down the list of any way he could contact them from the most logical, a landlord, to the most personal, awkward and kind of desperate with ex-wife.  So when the speaker questions himself, "What's happened? Are you in trouble? Something / you've done? Something I've done?" note the sense of frustration, but also the order of the focus: you, you, me.  This list and the frustration gains my trust as a reader. The speaker really doesn't know what is going on, and not simply hiding anything.  From this point, I think, what is the speaker to gain by confessing this vulnerability?

Especially what they shared:

     We used to tell each other everything: our automatic
     reference points to childhood pranks, secret codes,

     and sexual experiments.  How many decades since we started
     singing each other "Happy Birthday" every birthday?

     (Your last uninhibited rendition is still on my voice mail.)

the last part made me sad based on the image. of it.  How the speaker would have the phone up to his ear and listen to the rendition.  I think it's enough detail to make the image vivid without being over the top.  As for the list of sharing, yeah that, "sexual experiments" one made me think of certain things like how close, what are these exact secrets, but this poem is not focused on the secrets, but on the silence.

     This mysterious silence  isn't kind.  It keeps me
     up at night, bewildered, at some "stage" of grief.

     Would your actual death be easier to bear?

I know it's three lines but this is to show the alternating couplets and single lines effect on the poem.  Note that the couplet is a jumble of emotions about silence -- bewilderment and grief.  Then the rhetorical question of "Would you actual death be easier to bear?" heightens an image for me.  This speaker, in bed looking up at the ceiling then back at the clock at what time it is, then back at the ceiling, and then boom, would your actual death be easier to bear?  Well would it?  It's another thought that shifts with what the speaker misses, but then there's the quote from Pound, "'When one's friends hate each other,' / Pound wrote near the end of his life, 'how can there be / peace in the world?'"  How can there be peace in the world if the emotion is static -- hate which is born from the lack of communication, the silence.

So here's the part that hits metaphorically and aesthetically for me, "We loved each other Why why why / am I dead to you?"  I understand the frustration and on an emotional level it hurts, but on an aesthetic level, this repetition seems more and more childish, and yes, it could refer back to the speaker's childhood, but is it too far back?  It takes me out of the mood and poem a bit too hard, at least for today, maybe not later.

The ending lines bring an interesting scenario, "Our birthdays are looming.  The older I get, the less and less / I understand this world, / and the people in it/"  When that birthday comes what does the silence mean?  And the admission of not understanding.  But to me it's the transition of talking to a friend always known to the change of just being another person in the world.

I'm the another person in the world.  I suck.

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