Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie



October made Cross unspeakably happy. Between the turning of the season, that first wonderful chill and gray light, and the approach of Halloween, still his favorite holiday, it was a month in which he felt comfortable in his own skin. So it was odd that this October made him uneasy. While shaving one morning, reviewing in his mind his calendar for the next few days, he was brought up short by an uncertainty: was the ninth his grandfather’s birthday? It had been 19 years since he watched the motorized lift lower his father’s father’s coffin into a green-fringed slot in a Michigan cemetery whose name he couldn’t recall. What should it matter if he’d forgotten his grandfather’s birthday as well? Still, it gave him pause, and in that pause the remembrance that October was the fifth anniversary of his father’s death suddenly came to him.

Cross’s father spent a great deal of time with him; far more time than when his father was alive. Once a month or so, he appeared in Cross’s dreams, suddenly mercurial: kind or witty or silly or simply odd—in short, anything other than who he actually was, the immature, insecure bully whose ashes Cross cradled in his arms the way his father had once cradled him. His father always came as a stranger wearing his father’s face, a true Dream Father of sorts. Cross often wondered if the concept of heaven didn’t arise so much in a fear of death as it did in the fact that people who died constantly showed up in dreams—were somehow more present in them than in waking memories.

Cross’s father spoke to him, told him things—mysterious things that seemed of great import in the midst of the dreaming, but faded so quickly upon waking it’s as if they had never been said. All that remained was the probably erroneous feeling the something vital was communicated, some answer or admonishment (or even—why not?—praise). Cross often spent the rest of the day after one of these dreams in a sort of bright fog. He thought, You turn to a friend at some point and say “I had a disturbing dream last night,” but you can’t say what happened in the dream, or even what made it disturbing. You’re left with less a feeling than the ghost of a feeling.

It seemed to Cross that most of our feelings are ghosts. Reading back through his old journals, Cross got the impression of a graveyard, filled with dead feelings—if you’re lucky, thought Cross ruefully, for some feelings linger on like zombies, ever-ready to eat your heart out after they’ve finished with your brains. Like graveyards, those journals were at once serene and creepy, full of transcendence (I’m so glad that pain is gone) and horror (Could I have been any more full of maudlin self-pity?). But Cross thought that the little graves of yourself matter less and less as you approach the big grave, the one in which all hopes and fears will cover you like so much dirt. He wondered now at the memory of himself at 21, watching his grandfather sink, and at 36, watching as the attendant (it was hard to think of him as a gravedigger, without a proper coffin sitting nearby) wrestled his father’s granite-gray urn into a hard plastic case for internment at the Veteran’s Cemetery.

Cross finished shaving (he couldn’t shave anymore without thinking of a line by a friend: How many times must a man shave before his chin gets the message?) So, thought Cross, like the turn of seasons, the ghost feelings touch you lightly and pass on. Whenever autumn approached, even in the midst of his pleasure, Cross always heard Leonard Cohen singing “I Can’t Forget” in his head: The summer’s almost gone/The winter’s tuning up/Yeah, the summer’s gone/But a lot goes on forever… Leonard Cohen was his father’s exact contemporary. How strange that was—the thought of Cohen singing of Joan of Arc while Cross Senior sat behind a big glossy desk, going over new listings, complaining about taxes, looking forward to voting for Nixon… Cross shook his head in a momentary fit of not so much cognitive as epochal dissonance. The irony was that, in his dreams, his father was always someone other than that narrow, parochial, abusive, Republican workaholic. It wouldn’t have surprised Cross if one night his father didn’t open his mouth and speak in that rich, deep voice: I stepped into an avalanche, it covered up my soul…

Cross watched the lathered water sink down the drain with a soft belch. Part of the reason, thought Cross, that he loved autumn, which felt as much like a time of renewal to him as did spring, is that spring itself is embedded within it, in a crimson-chilled blaze of glory. Those ghost feelings crowd in, perhaps, because they know they will be far paler, far thinner, by the time another spring arrives. The October Country is always a stone’s throw from the Undiscovered Country. That used to make it sweet; today, the chill cut a little too deep.

Only my father continues to follow me through it all, thought Cross, turning away from the mirror with the uneasy feeling that he wouldn’t remember his grandfather’s birthday; only my father, wearing the masks that some mysterious functionary in my mind assigns him, reminding me in weird, myriad ways—ways that would never have occurred to my father during his life—that he is dead.

Reader Comments (3)

The way you write warms me and my own chills! Thank you!

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Buttery smooth. An odd description, I know, but really the only one that comes to mind. I love the rhythm and flow of your voice.

Yep. Buttery.

October 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNykki

I am going to think about the contemporaries of my own father now.

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterD

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