Psalm 14—The Food That Is Eaten In Dreams

"You will need your sad things. Do not send them away."

  
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Notes on the Poem

Just as Psalm 14 and 53 are related, so I have made the two poems for Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 related.

Each poem has three parts.

In the first part of both poems, a character finds himself in a chaotic, den-of-sin type place. I drew inspiration for the setting from Stephen King’s Las Vegas in The Stand, T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, Dante’s Inferno, and the three songs quoted in the epigraph. In the first section, the character has unsettling experiences and then flees. In the poem for Psalm 53, he meets a stranger at a bar. In Psalm 14, he meets his father.

In the second section of both poems, the character finds himself in a garden and has a conversation with a figure who bears resemblance to God. In Psalm 53, he speaks to a Jesus-like figure who is then taken off to be crucified. In Psalm 14, it is a being that is like the Holy Ghost who gives him a gift and a prophecy then departs.

In the third section, people from inside come out into the garden and continue their conversation with the character. In Psalm 14, the character’s father emerges but seems to have undergone some transformation. They talk about the past and his father leaves after hearing the sound of something coming toward him in the garden.

Like the poem for Psalm 53, this poem is full of allusions. It is like a camel with lots of supplies strapped onto it. The poem is the camel; the allusions are the supplies you’ll need if you are going to make it through the desert. The meaning in the poems happens at two levels: the words themselves and the quoted or alluded source material. It is a dense poem, so I’m going to give you some handholds as far as the allusions go.

Just like the Bible, when I quote or allude to something else, I’m evoking not only the exact words of the quote, but the entire context of the quote. When I quote The Waste Land, I want you to be thinking of the entire second movement of that poem, A Game of Chess. When I quote Hamlet, I want you to think of the whole context of that story, especially the beginning and ending. Make sense? In biblical studies, this is called metalepsis. In English studies, it is just called “literature.”

Now let’s get into (some of) the allusions.

The poem opens with a melange of images from Hotel California and The Waste Land and Dante’s Inferno. The sevenbranched candelabra and the coffered laquearia are from the second section of The Waste Land, A Game of Chess, in which a wealthy man and woman are completely unable to communicate. She is neurotic and he is depressed; they are both perhaps mad. The line about rat’s alley in the third section is also an allusion to this couple.

The bodies flying through the air near the ceiling are a reference to the circle of Dante’s hell where fornicators are blown by a great wind, but can never touch.

As I was writing this poem, Hotel California became an important source. I’m intrigued by a place from which you can “check out anytime you like, but never leave.” That eery line evokes something true about the human condition and the traps we make for ourselves. The hotel from the song fits snugly into the setting of the poem and you’ll recognize some lines from the lyrics in the first stanza.

“I had a vision once.
Three men appeared
At the foot of my bed and
One said, ‘You are released.’”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
He shrugged, “I don’t know.
The universe does not explain itself.”

The father’s vision plays an important role in the questions the poem is asking about what it means to be “released.” It is a question about the meaning of freedom and autonomy. Is freedom or fidelity a better path to the good life? As the last lines of the poem tell, I think the poem points toward an answer to the question.

There was a piano playing itself in the corner,
But we weren’t listening.
He tipped an oyster into his mouth and
put his arm around me.
I pulled away, but couldn’t break his grip.

You’ll recognize these lines from the poem for Psalm 53. I pulled several key images over to increase the ways in which the poems are informing and deepening each other. I wanted the images and objects in each poem to resonate with their partners in the paired poem. What does it mean that the father in the Psalm 14 poem is doing to the oyster what the Jesus-figure’s interlocutors in the Psalm 53 poem wished they could do to God? Something to think about.

I found a gate unguarded
And stumbled into a garden.
I heard something in the dark,
“Who’s there?”
I could almost make out a figure,
Like a king that’s dead, a ghost.
“If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me,” I shouted.

The second section opens with the character stumbling into a garden. The “gate unguarded” is a nod that this garden may have something to do with the Edenic garden of Genesis 3.

The character implores the ghost to reveal itself with words from Act 1 of Hamlet when Hamlet entreats his father’s ghost to reveal its purpose to him. Words from Hamlet appear again when the ghost departs at the end of the second section:

Then the cock crew
And it was gone.

Then he lifted something and shook it at me.
“I have a gift for you,” the figure said.
“This is a black bag for you to carry.
“It holds only terrifying things
That should not have happened.
Reach into it every day
And eat what you find there
Until the bag is empty. Then
You will find inside it
Treasure for anyone who asks.”

Theological questions about why a good God would allow evil are sometimes laid to rest by good answers, but mostly the real answers are an experience—and the experience takes time, sometimes all the time you have (as the Jesus figure says in the poem for Psalm 53, echoing the final chapters of Job). That black bag points to this.

His eyes shined like opals.
He held his limbs with care,
As if they were made of jagged coral
And might snap off.

The third section begins with the reappearance of the father, but he is strangely changed. You’ll recognize some resemblance to some lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, another piece of writing about fathers and their children.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Poem for Psalm 14—The Food That Is Eaten In Dreams

“From this day on I own my father’s gun.
We dug his shallow grave beneath the sun.”

My Father’s Gun. Elton John.

“When you comin’ home, Dad?”
“I don’t know when,
But we’ll be together then.”

Cat’s In The Cradle. Harry Chapin.

“You can check out anytime you like,
But you can never leave.”

Hotel California. The Eagles.

I.

The door opened and the house
Smelled of colitas and embers.
A woman waited there. She was barely clothed.
She took a stub from the sevenbranched candelabra and said,
“Choose your breakence; everything here is free.
You can dance in the courtyard with the others,”
She gestured to bodies
That spun like ghosts above our heads
Beneath the mirrors in the coffered laquearia.
“You can climb the pyre
To find yourself flying in the fire.
Or you can talk and eat and enjoy yourself.”
She handed me pink champagne on ice.
I didn’t dare take it.
“I came for my father,” I said.

She walked me to the booth where he waited.
He didn’t look up when I sat down,
But started talking.
“I had a vision once.
Three men appeared
At the foot of my bed and
One said, ‘You are released.’”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
He shrugged, “I don’t know.
The universe does not explain itself.”

There was a piano playing itself in the corner,
But we weren’t listening.
He tipped an oyster into his mouth and
put his arm around me.
I pulled away, but couldn’t break his grip.
“Now that you’re here,” he said
Let me whisper how the world is.
When the pain years set in,
And the nights of fever dreams come,
You will learn a lot about evil
In the memories of my methods.
But be careful. There are deep games played
In the lightless corners of the mind.
You’re like to go missing
In your sleep.”
He tapped my forehead with the hand
That held his cigar. Ashes fell down my face.
“Touching those days
Will be like touching a snake.
But you know what, m’boy?
It doesn’t matter where it came from.
It is still your snake.”
He laughed as though he’d made some joke.

“The riverboat sails for New Orleans.
Come with me and I promise
You will understand every one of my choices.
We will struggle to feel things, but
We will have the food that is eaten in dreams.
Take my advice: tomorrow may be too late
For your last supper. Take your filling now.”
He slid the plate in front of him toward me.
“We can fly away like things do
When they want to become something else.
Freedom or fidelity?
It is a gamble either way.”

I nodded.
His words were only mirrors,
But they were the fear
That runs like a song every day in my head.
I fled.

II.

I found a gate unguarded
And stumbled into a garden.
I heard something in the dark,
“Who’s there?”
I could almost make out a figure,
Like a king that’s dead, a ghost.
“If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me,” I shouted.
And this is what it said:

“It is a frayed world and I can see
Your edges ripple and snap.
I know how young you are.
I know your father is in the wind
While you are in the water.
Nobody’s son and nobody’s daughter.”

It cupped my chin and lifted my eyes.
Its hands were cold but solid.
“I know you thought there would be a voice
That said, ‘I am here. You are here.’
But instead, you have been alone
In the strange expanse of the present
You have the sense of moving at speed,
But you don’t know where.”

Then he lifted something and shook it at me.
“I have a gift to give you,” the figure said.
“This is a black bag for you to carry.
It holds only terrifying things
That should not have happened.
Reach into it every day
And eat what you find there
Until the bag is empty. Then
You will find inside it
Treasure for anyone who asks.”
He tossed it at my feet like a snake.
I didn’t want to touch it.

“Here is a prophecy. Keep it with you also.
There is a bench at a beach on a cliff above the sea
That awaits you somewhere. There is a distant morning
When you find the bench and watch the gulls
Wheel and dive. It is January
When the snowdrops writhe underfoot
And you think about what is real.
You will know where you are, and
How you came to be there.
That morning is a cold, clear cutting.
When it finds you, it finds you out.
You are exposed
And it will not matter at all.

Until then, you will need your sad things.
Do not send them away.
You are your father also.
Hidden in the gift is the pain.
Hidden in the losing is another life.”

Then the cock crew
And it was gone.

III.

The ghost receded and my father
Appeared out of the darkness.
I said to him, “Things happened while you were gone—
Things you weren’t there for.
In the silence of memory
I can see how much was wrong.
But what I can’t see is
Why the lie lasted so long?”

“Do not ask questions
If you don’t want answers,” he warned.
Something had happened to him
In the time that we were apart.
His shoes were gone. He was balder.
His eyes shined like opals.
He held his limbs with care,
As if they were made of jagged coral
And might snap off.

“Do you remember when you took us
To her house. You put the TV on and went upstairs
With her, up the spiral staircase.
Surely now you know
You were not upstairs at all.
You were downstairs
Behind us as we watched cartoons
Eating us one by one.”

“One day you will understand,”
He said and fell silent.
He watched the trees around us
For some sign.

“You thought a healing would come—
Your little angry ones,
Were resilient, after all.
But those days were a seed
That only yielded its fullness in time.
We took it and ate of its fruits.
What you didn't know, you chose.
What you didn't eat, we ate.
What you spread out in ruin, we built our ruins on.
The fathers ate sour grapes
And the children were pressed to wine.”

Then he asked me,
“Ok, what does closure look like?
What do you need?”
I answered, “Become a completely different person.
Settle your bulk down in the chair of faith.”
That drew a laugh from him.
“Repent thou, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
“Is it so much to let
Belief take hold of you?” I asked.

“You would have me cast my lot in with God? That ghost?”
He laughed again with wide, wild eyes.
“I followed him once. It availed nothing.
We are still in rat’s alley.
Where the dead men made dice from their bones.
Time still tumbles pips up
And he holds the rattle bag.
He takes and takes and takes.
We are such things as fire and powder.
You call me Saturn, but
Christ burns, kid. We he consumes.
So shall I play chess with my misery and wait
For a knock upon the door?
Shall I wait for the violent ends
of these violent delights? I think not.
What if there is no shore, no seaside,
But only the darkness that laps at love like the tide?
What if there is only
A vast and birdless silence?
Would you make the exchange
To be there when the sky opens?
To be carried across the chasm
On a rainbow bridge?”

“Yes,” I answered
And I thought that it was true.
He flicked his hand to dismiss
My thought and its easy form.
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws.
Time heals nothing.
The past only becomes a grinning skull.”
The sky was lightening and I could see
He was half gone already, half hollowed,
Half faded into death’s dream kingdom,

The sound of something in the
Surrounding forest startled him
And he stood up.
“We have come to the end
of our time together, I am afraid.”
His eyes were fixed in the darkness
At something only he could see.
“Good night, sweet prince.”
Then he was gone.

He was wrong about the vision.
The meaning to me was clear.


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