Last Tuesday I made my way to Left Bank Books, a St. Louis favorite, to listen to William Gass read from his newest book, Middle C. As some readers may know, I am a fan, or maybe even a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic fiction; thus Gass really caught my attention when he read one of the most searing scenes of apocalypse survival I’ve ever encountered, something that makes most works in the post-apocalyptic genre seem exuberantly upbeat.
While this scene is not written as a poem, it is one long sentence written with the attention to cadence and sound that you expect of poetry, and so it qualifies for this week’s Sunday Poem. As for a possible science-related theme, aside from the association I see with my favorite subgenre of science fiction, this passage from Middle C describes the narrator’s speculation that the human species will somehow, despite losing Armageddon, squeak through with its fundamental biological drive to reproduce intact.
The context is this: Joseph Skizzen, a professor of music at a small Midwestern college who has faked his C.V., has been worrying a sentence about human extinction which once popped into his mind:
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
Each revision of the sentence is the launching point for a riff on the theme.
Mostly, I’m looking for an excuse to present something by a remarkable writer, author of one of the darkest books I’ve ever encountered (his 1995 The Tunnel), and of some of the most jaw-dropping English sentences found in contemporary fiction. Squeamish readers should know that what follows is quite brutal. Other readers might get angry. This is not a disclaimer, I do not disclaim, but I’m giving you fair warning.
The thought that mankind might not endure has been replaced by the fear that it may luck out. End zone to end zone, Armageddon's final field was nearly laid out once before. It was half a cataclysm - a clysm - maybe. Preliminary bout. A third of the world sickened during three years of the Black Plague: 1348 - 1349 - 1350. And the plague swung its scythe four times, its last swath reducing Europe to half what it had been the century before: in 1388-1389-1390. They believed the disease was Evil advancing like an army. They said it was Satan's century. Diabolus in musica. That was before Passchendaele. The population of the planet diminished by a fifth. Those who suffered the plague and survived: they suggested to Joseph Skizzen the unpleasant likelihood that Man might squeak through even a loss at Armageddon, one death per second not fast enough, and outlive the zapping of the planet, duck a fleet of meteors, hunkerbunker through a real world war with cannons going grump to salute our last breath as if horror were a ceremony, emerge to sing of bombs bursting, endure the triggers of a trillion guns amorously squeezed until every nation's ammo was quite spent, and all the private stock was fired off at the life and livestock of a neighbor, so that in the battle's final silence one could hear only the crash after crash of financial houses, countless vacuum cleaners, under their own orders, sucking up official lies, contracts screaming like lettuce shredded for a salad, outcries from the crucifixion of caring borne on the wind as if in an ode, the screech of every wheel as it becomes uninvented, brief protests from dimming tubes, destimulated wires; though the slowing of most functions would go on in silence, shit merded up in the street to be refried by aberrant microwaves, diseases coursing about and competing for victims, slow-downs coming to standstills without a sigh, until the heavy quiet of war's cease is broken by … by what? might we imagine boils bursting out of each surviving eye … the accumulated pus of perception? a burst like what? like trumpets blowing twenty centuries of pointless noise at an already deaf-eared world … with what sort of sound exactly? with a roar that rattles nails already driven into their boards, so … so that, as the sound comes through their windows, houses will heave and sag into themselves, as unfastened as flesh from a corset; yet out of every heap of rubble, smoking ruin, ditch of consanguineous corpses, could creep a survivor - he was such a survivor, Joesph Skizzen, faux doctor and musician - someone born of ruin as flies are from offal; that from a cave or collection of shattered trees there might emerge a creature who could thrive on a prolonged diet of phlegm soup and his own entrails even, and in spite of every imaginable catastrophe salvage at least a remnant of his race with the strength, the interest, the spunk, to fuck on, fuck on like Christian soldiers, stiff-pricked still, with some sperm left with the ability to engender, to fuck on, so what if with one leg or a limp, fuck on, or a severed tongue, fuck on, or a blind eye, fuck on, in order to multiply, first to spread and then to gather, to confer, to wonder why, to invent, to philosophize, accumulate, connive: to wonder, why this punishment? to wonder, why this pain? why did we - among the we's that were - survive? what was accomplished that couldn't have been realized otherwise? why were babies born to be so cruelly belabored back into the grave? who of our race betrayed out trust? what was the cause of our bad luck? what divine plan did this disaster further? why were grandfathers tortured by the death they were about to sigh for? why? … but weren't we special? we few, we leftovers, without a tree to climb, we must have been set aside, saved for a moment of magnificence! to be handed the trophy, awarded the prize; because the Good Book, we would - dumb and blind - still believe in, said a remnant would be saved; because the good, the great, the wellborn and internetted, the rich, the incandescent stars, will win through, that … that … that we believed, we knew, God will see to our good outcome, he will see, see to it, if he hasn't had a belly full, if the liar's, the liar's beard is not on fire like Santa Claus stuck in a chimney. The thought that mankind might not endure has been replaced by the fear it may make it though another age of ice. - William H. Gass, Middle C, p. 51-53
If you’re in the St. Louis area, Washington University is featuring an exhibit on Gass this spring that is worth your while to check out.