[Note: the subject of the poem has consented to its publication.]
I was talking about this latest breakup
To one of my work-husbands—
Once you’ve started a company with someone,
Anal sex would be a mere decoration—
And he was like: you know, my dad
Was a therapist whose specialty
Was middle-aged dating. He used to say:
At twenty-five, you’re single. At forty
You’re single, with an asterisk. “Of course
You have the best possible asterisk.”
Well—at least this one came out peaceful,
No doubt due to the lady’s experience.
Another friend had said: “she’s a charmer.
I know these charmers—it’ll never work.”
I was born in the Nixon administration
And have seen an asterisk or two, even
From my utterly boring closed marriage;
But the judgment remains superficial.
True: it was never going to work.
The tragedy, for it is a tragedy beyond
The scale of any coupled fling, is that
It nonetheless should have worked.
In addition to being an amazing person,
A success in every sense of the word,
This one could have been a great wife,
And hopefully will be for someone—
Though I could be more optimistic.
The tragedy is the shape of the asterisk:
A star that tangles many of the great—
The shitty thing about human biology
Is that greatness, or not, is in the baby,
But is almost always somewhere ruined.
Ruin and tragedy is a human universal.
But the ruins of our age are not lonely.
They are whole systems of human ruin.
When we see such systems, we speak.
When you break up as a parent, you see
Something funny. You see the children
You would have had, fading from the Polaroid
As if airbrushed out by life’s commissar—
Over some vapid quarrel about lunch.
(Not that lunch is ever the reason! But
Some seem little heavier than lunch…)
Intellectually, I understand that singles
Lack this reflex; when they see children
They see abstractions; one more fragment
Of the many realities that divided us.
After a blue-sky phonecall I said:
“Well, I see why people from your tribe
Are more tentative about early relationships.”
“A hard-won tentative,” she replied.
Indeed. It is a jungle tribe! Some
Dick on the Internet once was like:
“When dating in the jungle, never forget
The laws of the jungle. And remember:
You can take the beast out of the jungle—
But not the jungle out of the beast.” This
Too, while hardly untrue, is a shallow,
Mean and caddish vision. The rainforest
Is full of incredible animals—superb
Animals, supernatural animals; I am not
Sorry that I walked into the trees,
I am not praying to the logger-gods.
I would see that jungle fenced and posted,
Not paved into malls and lawns and grills.
But the place is small. Another friend,
A poet half my age, said: “the only
Tribe I ever wanted to be a member of
Is the Tribe of Normal People.” That place
Is not small. It contains all the multitudes
Any fool could need. It could even
Contain the jungle—but that the jungle
Is too good for it. The jungle is the jungle
Because it is better than the paved world;
But can never know or contain that world,
Only observe it with a paper hauteur.
The jungle is Neverland, without the chimps.
The jungle is refined human experience.
One problem with my instinctive reaction
To the rainforest way is that, as a parent,
I cannot question the childlike quality
Of living in the moment for raw experience,
For this is merely the way all children live.
The most advanced species have the most
Adult play, a sign of intellect
In the dolphin and the raven—here too.
And children say “I love you” to all
Their little friends; they have not yet
Learned to contract their intimacies
To smaller, closer, deeper circles;
This child’s-love is an inflated bill,
As if the Fed was writing love notes.
The child whose body is grown has a name:
Teenager. And in the land of Peter Pan
One is often reminded of high school,
Sometimes favorably and sometimes not.
No teenager is master of her own heart.
Her relationships fly like fledging birds,
Straight or where the wind will take them,
Straight up to the sky, straight into a tree.
In the paved world this wildness is caged
In the old and happy pattern. Tolstoy
Teaches: all happy families are alike.
But the jungle, way wiser than Tolstoy,
Will tolerate no chain or cage, no
Welded template of human conformity.
The unmastered heart is the whole point,
Something to see in a woman near forty.
The unmastered heart in man is a wolf;
In woman, a tiger. The laws of the jungle!
They are real and you must obey them
Or fall prey to some unguided missile,
An orange lightning from the tall grass.
But the wider world has its laws as well,
And one of them is that fatal asterisk.
A cruel friend tweaks a crypto motto:
“Have fun staying childless.” Too cruel
By far; yet the pill of Peter Pan
Still eludes Silicon Valley, and the
Chilling progeria of the sixtyish child,
A little girl in vulcanized skin,
No longer a tiger or even a cougar,
Still at least the life of the party—
Something for salvage in every wreck—
Occupies my still-concerned heart,
Ideally from pity not schadenfreude.
A fine person, lost to her century.
The suffering is particularly exquisite
When the asterisk is made and not born,
And as often in a man-grinding epoch
Is not handspun, but industrially cast,
A system; a platform; a whole ecology;
A human forest of broken choices.
Fate always turns up with her answers,
And karma is as real as the freeway.
Yet I would not see that jungle logged.
It is at least natural; no one planted it;
It grew. True, it is too young to be old
And to grow old in it may be terrible,
But we cannot deny it is beautiful now.
We cannot deny it suits the trees in it,
For now. As for the future—the best
Will always find a way. As she put it:
“It isn’t a small world, just a small
Aristocracy”—fare thee well.