In Elizabeth Bishop’s gem of a poem, One Art, the refrain that knits the entire poem together is so simple as to fall below the radar screen: The art of losing is hard to master/It is not a disaster, the poem repeats several times, gathering around the word—and the act—of losing a honeycomb of images and meanings. This internal motion continues until the last line, when the poem comes to an abrupt jolt, as though the speaker has suddenly realized that all she had been writing up to this point is really not what she wanted to say, that it was after all a refrain, perhaps some sort of justification, certainly words repeated with such regularity as to lose their charge. In the final stanza, the cool, detached, slightly cynical attitude is reversed; the act of losing things and empires is now wedded to the idea of lost love.
The last two lines put the breaks on the thrust of the poem and give it its final unsettling twist, catching the reader off-guard and casting a question mark on every word that has preceded the final stanza:–Even losing you (the joking voice,/a gesture I love) I shan’t have/lied. It’s evident. The art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.
I return to this poem every time I, too, am caught off guard (as I was today). I have tried to feign attitudes, choreograph stances, skirt around issues, or simply laugh in the face of things that hurt, that refuse to fold themselves into resolutions, that stare back from the mirror; things that trip me when I am trying to speed down the stairs, or finish a student draft, or remember the name of a street or a date decades back—things to do with the passing of time, the aging of the body, the stubborn presence of unresolved matters of the human heart.
Like the speaker of Bishop’s poem, I have struck a cool pose—sometimes clever, sometimes dismissive, rarely taking this most important of matters—this slow crawl of getting old—seriously.
Until something makes me stop in my tracks. In the last two lines of her poem, Bishop feigns dramatic reversal (Write it!) but we know that there’s something else going on, something less dramatic, more mundane, something that slides and slithers into the final stanza, as it did into my consciousness today when I did the unthinkable: I used my senior citizen status to get myself a reduced membership at a not-for-profit movie theater, here in Boston. Of course I have used my age as a way of getting discounted tickets for the cinema, on some rare occasions even before I was ripe for such benevolence which, unlike the philanthro-capitalism of the for-profit market, in this case is sincere. But today was different. Write it! That’s the command of the poem, of the second voice that interferes in the poem’s flow, and for me it was the same: Say it, first to yourself, and then to the screen, and then click it.
For a moment I froze. On humid days like today, when every bone and tissue and fiber in my body is aching, I continue to strike a posture, to dismiss the creep and crawl of aging, to laugh in its twisted face, to say—without believing it—that you are as old as you feel; that your mind is what determines your age. I’ve heard them all, the lines, the words, the platitudes, which are only half-truths because we age, we don’t function as efficiently as we did when we were twenty-five. And then, slowly, I clicked.
I am always a bit shocked at human adaptability, how much more supple we are than we think we are, how much more willing to find reasons and justifications, how creative in turning adversity into opportunity, heartache into second chances, loss into writing. And so too, with me, today. In an instant, I imagined all the paths and avenues this little membership will hurl me onto, beginning with the discounted ticket I immediately purchased within minutes of the click for a film I have wanted to see for a long time, and which is playing this weekend. And there in that moment, the resistance I had held so dear to my chest, the unwillingness to say it, to write it, to click it suddenly gave way to something sweet, perhaps even resigned though I don’t think so, but certainly surprising.
And then I thought of Bishop’s poem, turned to it, and read it again. And suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps it was not so much the actual admission that I had resisted all these years (well, since I turned fifty, for sure) but rather that designation, the written words. Senior citizen—senior: with its intimations of high school and college (as though we older folk need to be consoled with a word which tells us we’re still post-pubescent, full of a certain kind of promise which is hatched in dorm and locker rooms! If we’re seniors, then the rest of society must be juniors, right?) And then add to it the word citizen, with its largeness, its patrician overtones, certainly its suggestion that we older folk make a difference in the polity, in the collective; that we are somehow in an elevated stratum of society, that we are visible and vital and consequencial—which we know we’re not. Not in this society, for sure.
If not senior citizens, then what designation? Definitely not cougars, nor lecherous old men and women, nor les veilles (so beautifully and painfully immortalized in Jacques Brel’s song with the same title). We–or, I should speak for myself only– don’t want any designation, any definition, but if I must have one, it has better be sweet and un-pretentious, moored in the flounderings and follies and (occasional, only occasional, mind you!) wisdoms of us, old fogies. It had better be inspired by what a friend, in a different context, described as “the good-natured kidding, ribbing, poking kindly fun.” Write it!Now.