She got the which of the what-she-did,
Hid the bell with a blot, she did,
But she fell in love with a hominid.
Where is the which of the what-she-did?
Only much later would he understand that she lived in constant fear of her own imagination,
that her mind was sectioned into areas of frightening possibilities
through which she moved like a comic-strip heroine
sending up balloons of alarm and self-doubt.
Am I pretty?
Is he looking at me?
What does he want from me?
Are my poems dull?
– Hilary Masters
When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him.
That was in the summer of 1926,
one of the most unimportant years in the history of the united States,
and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure
her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.
She was four years out of college then,
and she was twenty-seven years old,
which is as old as anyone ever gets,
or at least she thought so at the time.
She found herself thinking more and more and less and less of men.
That is the way she put it, and she knew it to be sure and right,
but she did not bother to expand the -ism.
“I think of them oftener, and I think of them less often.”
She had attained varying degrees of love, requited and unrequited –
but seldom the latter.
You disappeared, just like that.
For the whole evening the plane’s letter designation
and the name of the skipper remained on the bulletin board,
and those who had returned cast a sympathetic but relieved look at it.
Death was all very well for others.
Then the missing vanished.
The ground staff hastily packed up their belongings and arranged them,
carefully labeled, in the appropriate shed.
The names of those who had disappeared were mentioned for some time,
and then individual preoccupations took the upper hand and life went on.
No, only unthinking people could call it life.
Call it, rather,
forced labor under the threat of pitiless masters forever invisible
who struck down the offender or the laggard.
None of those already fallen into the molten fires returned,
and after all it was probably no more terrible than that.
As for the navigator, he never handled a weapon.
His war consisted in plotting courses,
measuring distances, degrees, and minutes
and taking bearings on stars while sitting over a charge of explosives
which might blow him sky-high at any moment.
During flights this thought sometimes made his heart miss a beat,
but then he would shrug his shoulders.
If he were not here, he would be somewhere just as bad.
If he refused to fight he would be shot.
Any attempt to escape the universal holocaust would mean
his being hunted and tortured wherever he went.
It was better to fight in a cause that still represented a certain freedom
and respect for the individual conscience.
Besides he had no choice.
He would never grow used to another country;
his own was enough for him.
This was how he solved the question – not very satisfactorily, he knew.
But how else could he solve it?
Channel went back over his life in his mind.
He thought of the things he had done…the things he had not done.
There were always regrets at the things that had ended before their time.
There was regret, too, at the loss of pain that was almost pleasure,
at the pleasure that was almost pain.
For many years these regrets had come back continually at the sight of a shop,
the name of a certain dish on a menu,
a word found in a book, at hazard, as you turned the page;
at a song,
at a bar of music,
at the turn of some woman’s head in the street,
at the color of a dress or the sound of a voice.
All this because it was not done,
because it had never been finished one way or the other,
and your heart had been left dangling like a puppet on a string.
What had she wanted of you?
You only knew what you had wanted of her.
You only knew your own desires, your own motives.
And even those you did not know fully.
You only knew what you were permitted to know of them,
for your personality kept its secrets from your person.
He thought of his own father;
he remembered him singing him to sleep,
walking up and down,
holding him in his arms.
He remembered him swimming with him sitting on his back,
his legs about his neck, his hands in his hair.
He remembered riding in the front of his saddle.
His father must have had similar memories of his father;
and his father of his father, and so on,
an interminable chain;
each generation tending to repeat stories that they remembered
from their own childhood…
fairy tales, folklore,
superstitions that came down like this by word of mouth
from the ancient past, were absorbed in the mothers’ milk,
transmitted by nurses, grooms, servants.
His father had been born in 1844.
His grandfather had been a boy at the time of Waterloo.
And it went on like that, back into the past,
each life overlapping another life, as tiles overlapped each other on a roof.
The more you saw of life,
the stranger was its variety and differentiation.