A Rambling Conversation with T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” is gorgeous and devastating and creepy as hell and it will tear your heart out and stomp on it and fill your mind with fiery words and make you think.  And it is Important even if It Hurts.  Advertisement over.

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Dude, you are not kidding.  April sucks.

And that whole memory plus desire thing is one nasty cocktail.  It will knock you flat, go through your wallet, and tweet pictures of your middle school self sporting a tee shirt buckle, a magic mushroom perm and neon elastics on your braces.  I wonder if the memory/desire combo is especially lethal to writers.  We cling to words past, fall in love with what we’ve already written.  And we desire so much that it chokes me to think about it.  On these dark nights of the soul, my so-far failure to make a career of what I love crushes me.  If I’d wanted to be almost anything else, I’d train and do my best and get a job at it.  Writing doesn’t work that way.  But even more than that, the desire to create and connect overwhelms me at times with its hugeness.  Sometimes even with a sense of futility.  Is anyone listening (other than my mom, who is contractually obligated by the Inviolable Laws of Motherhood to love stuff her kid makes, and a handful of friends whose loyalty is humbling and mystifying)?  I want to write a better world.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?  Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats…

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

You scare the hell out of me, T.S.  “A heap of broken images.”  Is that what we are, what we produce?  That fear cripples me–the lurking suspicion that this might be all there is–this awfulness, this ugliness, this stupidity.  It keeps me awake at night–this fear that I am a handful of dust, flinging words frantically into the void in a vain attempt to subvert my own mortality.

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair

Spread out in fiery points

Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

My words fall savagely still, T.S.  It makes me feel a little better to know that you felt it, too, you with your Monster Killer Allusions and your bazillion languages and your crit. partner Ezra Pound.  Writing kinda sucks, doesn’t it?  Because it hurts, and we cannot live without it.  Creation is like that.  It’s painful, whether you’re a writer or a mother, a musician or a painter, a photographer or a prophet.

“My nerves are bad tonight.  Yes, bad.  Stay with me.

Speak to me.  Why do you never speak.  Speak.

What are you thinking of?  What thinking?  What?

I never know what you are thinking.  Think.”

As a woman, I’m always wondering, is there a place for me in poetry–a speaking place, a place not on an urn or pedestal, but there in conversation with you?  I glean your words for meaning, you poets I’ve fallen in love with, searching for myself between your lines.  My nerves are bad tonight, T.S.  Speak comfort, tell me that I have a place, that I am more than body or a face.  Dangit!  You’re like jacked-up Dr. Seuss for brainiacs–read enough of you and I start thinking in rhyme and meter.

So rudely forc’d.

India.  Steubenville.  India again.  Again.  Thank goodness Dove comes to the rescue to remind me that all women are equally objectifiable.

Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter noon

Boston.  West.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits

Like a taxi throbbing waiting


I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

Did you mean that we can make anything connect, even nothing, that we can spin connections from thin air?  Or did you mean that we can’t connect anything, no matter how hard we try?  If we can’t connect, what’s the point, T.S.?  Why are we here, anyway?  Why write?  Why care?

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


Boston New York Washington, D.C. Aurora Newtown Blacksburg Littleton

Datta:  what have we given?

What have we given?  Is it enough?  Is writing enough, are words enough?  What do I do when words fail?  They are all I have to stem the tide.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Is this why we write?  Are we just writing like mad to try to stave off the inevitable?  I read your poem and know that for you, at least, it worked.  You’re still here, T.S., your voice breathing across time, whispering messages of terror and beauty and sorrow into my soul.  Smack, smack, smack, smack!  And then, then, T.S., you end with this:

Shantih       shantih       shantih

Which, according to my trusty Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., Volume 2, you meant to mean “the Peace which passeth understanding.”  So what am I supposed to do with that?  After all this business about April sucking and creativity lost and the general ickiness of human futility, you want me to buy this?  It’s so far past my feeble understanding that I don’t even know where to begin.  So much of this month has passed my understanding, and none of it was about peace.  Bodies ripped apart by bomb blasts, children violated, innocent lives cut short, devastation, grief, brokenness, anger, fear, hate.  And you say

Shantih       shantih       shantih

I read the words again and again, until they come like breathing.  Until their meaning is not lost, but so deep inside my mind that it becomes a feeling.  It’s a mantra, I suppose.

Shantih       shantih       shantih

You end with benediction.   A poem full of slimy rat-bellies and dead bodies and creepazoid baby-faced bats and bad sex and canned food, and you end with a benediction.  Of course, the Norton has to go and qualify it and point out to me that you putting it in another language suggests that it’s not going to work (um, Norton, post-colonialize much?).  Shut up, Norton.  I need this.  Quit eavesdropping on me and T.S.

Shantih       shantih       shantih

The peace that passes understanding.  This is a difficult concept for a writer.  We need to understand everything.  We need to put it into words, shape it, give it meaning.  We suck at just letting go.  At breathing.

But some things pass understanding.  Some of them in a bad way.  But I would be a pitiful writer if I didn’t have enough imagination to believe that some of them are beautiful, too.  So, T.S., I’ll shut up and let someone else have the last word for once.

Shantih       shantih       shantih

2 thoughts on “A Rambling Conversation with T. S. Eliot

  1. I love this and I’m glad I stumbled upon it. I’m off to California in an hour and I don’t do mobile devices but I’m bookmarking your corner of the void so I can check it out when I return. Thank you for a great read! Eliot is now comming with me on the plane thanks to you!

    1. Thanks so much, Ed! I don’t do the mobile thing, either. Thanks for stumbling upon my corner of the void. I hope you have a good flight and a great read.

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