I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” William Butler Yeats
The widening gyre of the year spins outward as it pulls inward, inviting reflection, daring us to look ahead. This is a liminal place in the year–perhaps the most liminal. It has me looking back, returning to memory, to favorite poems, while dreaming of the future. I was unsurprised to recall that I’ve used these lines before.
At about the ripe old age of twelve, I decided that my New Year’s resolution would be not to make any resolutions. The wise and truth-speaking Vanessa encapsulated and articulated this spirit perfectly in a recent post titled “Resolutions Are Dumb (and you will fail)”. For many years now, I’ve stuck to my non-resolution.
This year, though, calls out for something different.
It’s been a hard year. A very hard year. The transition to a strange new place, a new job and then another new job. A child in crisis. A child with covid. Separation from family and friends. The screen-destroying disaster that is palm rats. There is too much to list, and anyway that’s not the point.
The point is that after a hard year, I am looking to the new year with a lot of hope. Naïve, perhaps. A lot of intentions. Misguided, maybe. Overly ambitious. But the point is that it feels good to hope, to dream, to imagine that, in the words of the Counting Crows, “maybe this year will be better than the last.” Maybe my resolutions will come to naught. But that’s not what they’re for. They are hope. And I need this.
So, like the dying year, I spiral back to the start–to the hopeful beginning, to a time when I believed that a resolution was change. Time to lie down where all the ladders start.
But there is where I take issue with Yeats (because, let’s be real here, half this blog is me yelling at dead poets with whom I have a passionate love/hate relationship). John Keats is my dead poet boyfriend, but my relationship with Yeats is pretty much exactly my relationship with my maternal grandfather. I adore them both forever. And some of the stuff they said and believed is just never going to be okay, and I am eternally making my peace with that, with my adoration of these men of almost unspeakable beauty and spirit who were also phenomenally wrong about some pretty fundamental things.
It’s the word “foul.” I know what he’s getting at. “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is the aging poet looking back at what he’s done, mourning the failures he perceives in his ambition. He failed, as we all fail, but maybe his biggest failure was in failing to realize exactly how he failed. Yeats was so right about so many things, but he really mucked up some other stuff, and this is where I have to yell at him. So often he associates the female with corruption, with the physical, and he does it here, too. The rag and bone shop is staffed by a “raving slut/Who keeps the till.” In the association of the feminine with the heart, the origin, Yeats seems to be implying flaws in all three. The rag and bone shop is a womb of sorts, but is already/always old and corrupt. He seems to be attempting to shift blame from his masculine poetic ambition to a feminine origin that is eternally, inherently flawed.
I did not come here to say this. I came here to talk about gyring back to the beginning, but with a difference, and how this, for me, is the cycle of the year–not an exact repetition, but a pattern that widens and expands, offering in the process infinite possibility. As ever, it is in the process of attempting to articulate a thought that I discover what I really think. Yeats is the old year. He got some things right. A lot of things. Some of them are beautiful. Some are terrifying. A few are both. But he didn’t get it all right. What a new year is about is hope–not the assurance, but the possibility, faint as it may be, that this time, this one time, maybe, just maybe, we could get it right. Or at least less wrong. Maybe this year will be better than the last.
There’s more to say, but I’m not sure I’m ready to say it, capable of articulating it. So I’ll leave this here, a few rags and bones, with the closing thought that rags and bones are useful. For cleaning. For bone broth. Cleaning, cooking–so-called women’s work, the unglamorous but necessary work of transformation, transmutation. Alchemy. Old magic. Rags and bones only look, on the surface, like something to discard. They are like vultures–maybe you don’t find them lovely, but we need them, and there is a keen beauty in that. The place where all the ladders start is not foul but rich with possibility, a crucible where old becomes new eternally. We are always beginning.
The raving slut who keeps the till here, signing off until next year. May this new year bring you exactly what you need. I still believe that it can.