Although I’ve been urged, now and then, to go there, I’ve never been to Hell. A good Minnesotan might say, “I hear it’s nice there in the winter.” They say war is Hell, and I’m pretty sure they’re right about that, so that means there’s a little Hell here on Earth. Two arid locales come to mind, and, in case we forget while the “battle” over heath insurance rages, dozens of other wars churn around the globe today.
Of course, Hell is a state of mind, really, not a place, and
it befalls us all from time to time. And, as is the way with most things, Hell
comes in degrees. There’s the burning, piercing Hell of torture and war, and
then there’s the low-grade fever variety that catches us between what we have
and what we want, leaving us feeling either stuck or adrift.
Thankfully, this is in the province of poetry, and this week’s poem, “Hell,” by Sarah Manguso, marches in triumphantly. “Hell” first appeared in our “Dumb Luck” issue (#14). It was then selected for Best American Poetry’s 2005 edition, edited by Paul Muldoon, before appearing in Ms. Manguso’s Siste Viator.
In this lovely prose poem, full of humanity and humor,
Manguso uses short declarative sentences and longer winding ones that arrive
just where they should to the reader’s great pleasure. Somehow she manages to
say things, wise things, you wish you had. She does this often, yet the poem
doesn’t prescribe a remedy, it is a remedy.
-- William Waltz
The second-hardest thing I have to do is not be longing’s
Hell is that. Hell is that, others, having a job, and not having a job. Hell is thinking continually of those who were truly great.
Hell is the moment you realize that you were ignorant of the
fact, when it was true, that you were not yet ruined by desire.
The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I am dead is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then.
There is music in Hell. Wind of desolation! It blows past the egg-eyed statues. The canopic jars are full of secrets.
The wind blows through me. I open my mouth to speak.
I recite the list of people I have copulated with. It does not take long. I say the names of my imaginary children. I call out four-syllable words beginning with B. This is how I stay alive.
Beelzebub. Brachiosaur. Bubble-headed. I don’t know how I stay alive. What I do know is that there is a light, far above us, that goes out when we die,
and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun. It reminds me of everything I failed at,
and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of