Groping for poetry when prose and Prozac won't produce


Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look
At this sacred heart
Before it blows.
Everybody knows.

Leonard Cohen

Last week left me groping for poetry. Prose wouldn't do. Prozac might have helped.

A person far wiser than me once said we are never given more than we can handle.

We were given a lot to handle last week. From northern Uganda to the outback of Arkansas, the great electric bloodstream of consciousness filled its screens with images of hollow-eyed children killing children.

We were given a lot to handle last week. From northern Uganda to the outback of Arkansas, the great electric bloodstream of consciousness filled its screens with images of hollow-eyed children killing children.Men of estimable morality and women of steely purpose purveyed their opinions on the whys and wherefores. Preachers plucked garden variety kernels of comfort from their musty silos of solace. Sociologists and shrinks scored substantial face time on the tube. Philosophers were not consulted, as usual.

Recent events have waxed so bizarre that far better writers than me have crashed and burned. Trying to explain the insanity of the instant, a New York Times media critic last week composed and published 800 words of rambling toward no point at all. Which may have been his point.

As a lesser mortal steeped in the tradition of proper Christian guilt, I am always mindful of avoiding the long forgotten sin of presumption. That's where some peon professes to know the mind of God.

We are always superstitiously seeking portents and clues in nature, organic e-mail from The Almighty. That's alright. Whatever gets you through the dark, dark night.

An old friend who last week lost his longtime beloved called to offer a clue which helps explain the unexplainable. He reminded me of the story of Dr. Calhoun's Horrible Mousery which I first wrote about in 1989.

I related the tale told by the late Stewart Alsop in his Newsweek column of Aug. 17, 1970. Dr. John Calhoun of the National Institutes of Mental Health had been conducting experiments on mice in extremely overcrowded conditions. The results provided a glimpse into an apocalyptic future, a world gone mad. Shorn of any societal order, the critters consumed each other. Overlords dominated, submissives submitted, as though drugged. Passives put up no fight when gnawed by aggressives.

Alsop was also shown a collection of refugees from this rodent version of Soylent Green. "Six survivors, terrified of the unaccustomed surrounding space, huddled together, clinging to each other desperately as though in a great cold," Alsop wrote.

"In another, a male mouse viciously attacked first one female, then another. In nature, Dr. Calhoun said, a male never attacked a female," Alsop reported. "The experience of overcrowding, Calhoun explained, did something to the 'programming' of the central nervous system of the surviving mice. It remained to be seen whether these survivors would reproduce. In three similar experiments with rats, there had been no reproduction at all."

We live in a fast world speedily pursuing its suicidal spin toward the sun at 66,600 mph. At the surface of friction, change increases at an increasing rate. We puny people pop under the pressure. Kids kill kids. Fathers and mothers dispatch daughters and sons and sometimes themselves.

We weep and wonder why. I won't presume to argue cause, but I will offer hope for one beneficial effect. Perhaps we can seek solace that the sinless souls of the small were sacrificed at the altar of societal revulsion.

Only when everyone's family comes in contact with common tragedy does peer pressure develop to change behavior. The cocaine epidemic which killed countless people at the turn of the century finally ebbed when almost everybody personally knew someone felled like a fly.

Coca-Cola removed cocaine and added caffeine in 1903. By the time congress got around to outlawing the stuff in the 1930s, usage had dwindled to negligible levels.

So it must be with violence. Perhaps therein lies posthumous purpose providing some solace for survivors.

Beyond that, I can offer no original prose about random death. I can only repeat the poetry of the greatest moralists of our time, the Grateful Dead:

Reach out your hand
if your cup be empty.
If your cup is full,
may it be again.
Let it be known
there is a fountain
that was not made
by the hands of men.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go,
no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.
Ripple in still water,
when there is no pebble tossed,
nor wind to blow.
You who choose to lead
must follow.
But if you fall,
you fall alone.
If you should stand,
then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way,
I would take you home.

— Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, "Ripple," 1970

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 3/29/98.