Written, obviously, after the notorious mass murders committed by Richard Speck and Charles Whitman, both in the summer of 1966. Speck killed eight nurses in a hospital, Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and started shooting; he killed 16, wounded over 30. These are names that should best be forgotten, but of course we know that infamy is as effective as fame in service of the common good as far as the immortality of one’s name goes, from Hitler and Pol Pot to Gacy and McVeigh, and scores more. If their names are known, it’s nevertheless due to their legacy of villainy and disgrace. Not a pleasant topic on my last vacation morning at the beach, but I don’t get to choose.
The first stanza is the only one with any complications. There is at first a desire for company that for the moment goes unfulfilled, which we’ve all experienced—it’s unremarkable to have an immediate desire for company and everyone you know is out of reach or busy. Happens. “Shall I follow my dream?” At first, this would seem to be the broad dream of pursuing one’s art and resultant fame, again, pretty level stuff, considering. Maybe it changes some in the stripping that happens, but really, again: Unremarkable. When alone, it’s entirely within the realm of normal behavior to take one’s clothes off and assess the beauty as well the ravages, as pocked and weird as the vision may appear as we age away from the smooth and gleaming youth we so took for granted when we were young. The real turn and complication in the poem comes because this weird, aging and lonesome vision naked in the mirror leads to the stories of Speck and Whitman, with horrifying details. Time ravages our bodies and eventually kills them just as dead as any murderer can: Time/age has proven itself the greatest and most effective of all history’s mass murderers. There’s that. But there’s also this sneaking arrival of a new reading for “my dream” planted in the poem. “Who is what he seem?” indeed. The potential for a false representation of the body and the persona to the person is not necessarily easy to spot, though if one is indeed responsible for one’s face (which I do more or less believe), then the correlations are there to mark. But it takes time, experience and wisdom to see, and danger can be quick in arriving. John Wayne Gacy affected clown makeup to lure the children he murdered, living out a terrible and demented twist on this: If the intent is indeed apparent there in the face, then it is best hidden under makeup.
It comes and goes in the poem, the evil dream vision of the horrible self rising then sinking away again, at least how I see things. The disturbance gives way to the overwhelming reality of actual murder. Look, we all have criminal urges lurking in our depths like psychic barracudas in the colorful, beautiful wonders of a coral reef. They stay hidden when we learn to recognize them and chase them off. There’s nothing at all sick about acknowledging this. In health, revulsion in the contemplation of satisfying these urges wins the day. So it does here, so the details of the knife in the eye and the fusillade of bullets into the bodies of innocent strangers are actually a necessary component of psychic health. Urge? Fine. These things do rise from our depths. Now take a sec to think of the consequences, and that gives us the power to right ourselves. That’s this poem’s motive, a snapshot of what weird loneliness or rage can lure into the open, and a comment on how we deal with it. At the end, the poem also takes an appropriate turn to what we would now in the current political moment call Second Amendment Rights, which has become all about claiming the “rights” of people to arm themselves so that the weird, violent but natural urges we normally experience are given the opportunity to explode into an immediate and unnatural violence that can’t be recalled. (That it’s in reality driven by the profit motive of gun manufacturers is actually a different issue. The consequences of gun marketing [the NRA] feed a gun culture.) Gun culture, the consequence, is profoundly, profoundly and fundamentally sick because of this unnatural acceleration it provides for of normal urges that bloom into scarlet stains of violence—that cannot be recalled. Whitman and Speck did not represent that: They were psychopathic monsters who acted with deliberation. But their presence in the mind of the poet (and which thus find their way into the poem) triggered an engagement with the id-driven violence that fleetingly bubbles up from time to time, which smells like sulfur for a moment but blows away eventually as long as we don’t have weapons in easy reach, when for just the briefest of critical moments “respect for guns” outweighs respect for people, the consequences of which are permanent and will never just blow away. As hard as it might be to swallow, this poem is okay.