A Few Thoughts on the Title Poem of my Second Book, "Eternal Life"
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
When I was a little kid my brother Bill had a fish tank with several tropical fish in it—guppies, tetras, mollies, some angelfish, two catfish along the bottom, one of them albino. I think he wanted us to call it an aquarium—my brother, that is—and I’m sure eventually we did, but I’m sure, too, that, with some malice aforethought, I frequently undermined his preferred nomenclature by way of being the annoying little brother I seemed determined to be.
Both my brothers had great patience with me, and Bill, whose chosen avocation as keeper of the fish I sometimes rather pointedly and sarcastically refused to respect, was generally disinclined either to blacken my eye or bloody my nose. Instead, he would turn away from me in big brotherly resignation and continue guiding a little wire-handled sieve along the surface of the water, skimming out algae and other impurities as the fish darted around in a fit of pique, flashing their brilliant tropical colors.
Despite my need to be a jerk about my brother’s fish tank, when he was out somewhere engaged in big brother things I would venture quietly—I didn’t want anyone to see me—down to the basement where the aquarium sat level on a window sill above the laundry tub, and gaze in a kind of trance at the delicate creatures flitting about in it, flashing and iridescent in the sunlight. There were other things in the tank, of course, that could easily distract my attention. Lodged in a substratum of bright green, blue, yellow, white, and onyx-black pebbles, a pirates’ lost treasure chest kept opening and closing to give a glimpse of gold coins heaped inside and to belch bubbles of oxygen up into the water. There was a mermaid on a rock, too, topless, because since she was a mermaid it wasn’t a sin for her to show her breasts—she didn’t know any better.
There was a little plastic diver along the base of the tank, pressed against the glass as if trying to find a way out.
But the fish were the main attraction for me, the way they moved at will in whatever direction they wanted, as if merely thinking they were going toward something was the same thing as going toward it. Their mouths were like tiny suction cups opening and closing, and their gills throbbed rhythmically as they stared out of the sides of their heads with unblinking eyes.
I wasn’t able to articulate it to myself, but, in a real sense, as I watched them I felt their existence.
I also felt how different that existence was from mine. They were almost literally at one with their environment, which was as much inside them as they were inside it. Because their brains were as small as the smidgeons of food they gulped in, they had no apparatus for conceptualizing the passage of time, nor even for recognizing themselves as, well, themselves. And, as long as they had food, and there was enough oxygen in the water, and there was nothing coming after them to eat them—all which my brother took care of with priestly devotion—they also lacked the apparatus to feel anything like stress or anxiety, mental states that depend for the most part on having a sense of time. They sliced or sheered through the water, or they bobbed for no apparent reason before the shaft of bubbles coming out of the treasure chest, or they just hovered in a beam of sunlight, needing nothing more than the moment they were living in. When they moved, they moved entirely through space, not time. They anticipated nothing, and they regretted nothing.
Nor were they proud of how beautiful they were.
After all, it wasn’t their doing.
Deep down, I wanted to be one of them, I think—intimately. I wanted to know their oblivion.
I was only a kid, of course, but my life was populated with all sorts of worries and regrets—those products of our consciousness of time—so oblivion looked pretty good to me. I had plenty of fears, anxieties even. At seven years old I had two or three facial tics, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all I found it hard to breathe. In school, there were tests and homework and report cards, and the good nuns, being human and all, were often a little cranky, especially with the boys for some reason. We could always tell which of them had grown up in large families with plenty of brothers, because they were the ones who knew how to deliver a punch directly to the jaw. So did various of my peers out on the street, and the necessity of establishing pugilistic competence on a fairly regular basis was an additional source of tension.
I had the most inclusive brothers in the world, but, being the youngest of three, I was perpetually driven to prove both to them and to myself that I was as fast, as strong, and as smart as they were. This, of course, was impossible, so, not admitting of proof in any way, it remained merely an occasion for desire. I couldn’t be somebody I wasn’t.
In this latter regard—that of not being able to be anything other than what I was—there was an additional factor that was really like a factor of ten driving me, so to speak, further into self-alienation—namely, the fact that I’d been baptized in the Roman Church. This circumstance brought with it an added layer of moral dread. At every moment of my waking life, it seemed, I conceived the very real possibility that I had or would say or do something unforgivable that would catapult me right out of whatever wiffleball game I happened to be playing down, down, down into an infernal abyss designed specifically for little boys and girls who hadn’t succeeded in being something other than little boys or girls.
In this regard, it stung a little that my brother’s beautiful fish were allowed to be just that—fish. The mermaid, too, was allowed to be a mermaid, with her breasts on display for all to admire. Even the pirates, the ones, that is, who had lost that chest of gold, were, well, pirates. And they were allowed to be. They were even admired for it, despite being vicious robbers and murderers with peg legs and hooks instead of hands and those redoubtably evil eye patches they insisted on wearing.
I, on the other hand, was not allowed even to be a little boy—even though, like mermaids and pirates and fish, I couldn’t help myself. My little boyness made me say things that hurt people, or do things that violated unstated codes that could only be discovered—and only with the back of someone’s hand—when you violated them. I had desires that were “unclean” and impulses that made me, in the nuns’ shared vocabulary, a decidedly “bold and brazen article.”
In this regard, you might say I was tragically different from fish and mermaids and pirates. In fact, I was really more like that diver, probing along the bottom of the tank, trying to figure out what he was doing there—or anywhere.
These observations are, I think, key to explaining all that went into writing the title poem of my book Eternal Life, but before I go into that, lest I seem at this moment to be descending into an infinite regress of self-pity, I want to clarify straight up that I was really a happy enough kid, all things considered. I had great toys and sports gear, lots of friends to run around with, plenty of trees to climb, and I had a gentle and kind mother who honestly loved me—not in spite of my being a little boy, but precisely for being the little boy that I was. It was as if she never wanted me to grow up. She thought I was funny and cute—“charming” and “debonair” were her words for it—and full of life. She liked to do things with me and talk to me about her own childhood and sing with me. She even taught me how to make scrambled eggs.
Additionally, as I’ve already suggested, I had two brothers who included me in all their adventures and disputes, and who looked out for me and advised me and consoled me when I was overwhelmed by one thing or another. Bill let me help him clean out the fish tank from time to time, and Bob, my next older brother, made me a boomerang once out of balsa wood that really flew. I was never abused or belittled by them, even when I deserved at least a little pushback for my behavior. I couldn’t have asked for two better brothers and I never have.
As for my hard-working dad, well, as the bread-winner of the family, he had a lot of stress in his life, too. He was always having to prove himself in the hyper-competitive world of work, and I suspect that in a number of ways he felt he couldn’t just be what he happened to be either. Additionally, he saw himself as a representative and agent of the church in all things familial, and, having a great sense of duty in this regard, he took our moral education quite seriously. Whenever we messed up he saw it as a teaching moment and his methods, while sometimes a little too emphatic, were always effective. When these considerations weren’t driving him, however, he could be a lot of fun. He made us pancakes on Saturday mornings, took us on vacations to Disneyland and Gettysburg, and loved to sing to us in the car, his pure-as-honey Irish tenor voice swelling over us all and suffusing us with the sheer joy of being alive.
So, really, it was only when I looked at the fish that I became aware of the gulf, as it were, between their existence and mine.
This perception was complicated during these years by a bit of theological nuance regarding the afterlife that, in fact, heightened my desire to know what it was like to be a fish, and even made me consider fish luckier and freer, all told, than I was. This had to do with a middle tier in the architecture of the afterlife, called Limbo, which a sweet-tempered and poetical nun had described to us one day in a way that made me feel it wasn’t such a bad alternative, really, even to Heaven, as heretical as that thought may have been. Limbo, Sister Mary told us, was a place to which souls were relegated who had not been fortunate enough to be baptized, or had lived in periods of history, or in cultures, that had no access to the Good News of the Gospel, and so could not be held accountable, strictly speaking, for their ignorance and their blasphemous behavior. They couldn’t exactly be glorified by the eternal presence of God in Heaven and all, but neither should they be subjected to an eternity of being roasted and grilled and charred in the fires of Hell. Instead, in Limbo, they just floated around as in a kind of very large fish tank—okay, an aquarium—peacefully suspended in the water, flitting here and there, or bobbing in place, not exactly happy, maybe, but at one, you might say, with their environment, and, vitally, with themselves.
I happened to know, of course, though at that age only vaguely, what sorts of inappropriate behaviors these unfortunate and blasphemous souls were receiving a pass for. I’d seen all those movies on TV in which Turks and Mongols and Babylonians with their turbans and scimitars and baggy pants and curly mustaches, made caustic comments all the time about Christians and threatened to cut off their heads if they didn’t convert to whatever idolatrous religion they happened to espouse. I had also noticed that they were often attended by slinky women in beaded veils and sheer attire, who would fawn on them and feel their muscles and sometimes dance provocatively in front of them, or, as they reclined on couches and cushions, plop big fat grapes in their mouths, using their beautiful eyes above their veils to flirt suggestively with them. I didn’t know exactly what they were flirting about, but there was something going on there that definitely interested me, and my sense that someday these guys sure would regret their sinful lives was counterbalanced by the equally credible possibility that in fact they never would.
So when I found out that in the afterlife all that happened to them was that they got to swim around peacefully forever and ever, that they would not be held in the least accountable for their pleasure-filled and arrogant lives on earth, and that, therefore, they would never “know any better,” well, I was, to say the least, confused. The fact that I had been baptized, of course, meant this third option—Limbo, that is—was unavailable to me. My life, therefore, was all about walking a tightrope of sorts above perdition, trying to proceed in as straight a line as possible because, well, that was the only way to proceed.
In short, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself or anyone else, I felt trapped.
Guppies and tetras were free.
Turks and Babylonians were free.
I was trapped.
Later in life, of course, when I read Freud, I was able to resolve much of this confusion into concepts like tribal taboos, cathexis, sublimation—even, when I considered my relationships with my parents, the Oedipal Complex, although there was never anything explicitly Sophoclean going on in our family. Still, it’s not an accident, I guess, that my mom is in the poem and my dad, that sturdy defender of the faith, isn’t.
It’s not an accident, either, as it wasn’t in the actual event, that in the poem my mom is the one who has brought me to Aquarama.
What has stayed with me longest from my reading of Freud, though, was his crazy notion of the Death Wish. The way Freud explains it, the Death Wish is actually a life wish—a desire to return to the original fish tank, the womb, the desire to be a fish. In the womb, Freud explains, we were in something he called an oceanic state, which he sometimes also called oceanic bliss. This consisted of being completely at one with our environment, which was, of course, our mother’s body. We didn’t have to struggle to maintain our existence, we got all the food we needed without even knowing we were getting it, we were warm and buoyant, and there was music all around us—the music of our mother’s body. We floated ensconced in a kind of symphony of expressive vowel sounds: the gurglings of her digestive tract, the rush and return of her blood, the steady thrumming of her heart, even her voice sometimes, which was probably the sweetest song of all, although we didn’t even think to want to understand it. In our embryonic state we had no notions of either time or place, and we had no concept, either, of a self, a soul, that had to be cultivated and taught things and redeemed. In this sense, there was absolutely no border at all between us and the little sac of water we were in that was also our cosmos.
Birth in this regard was actually a kind of death according to Freud, involving the catastrophic loss of our timeless and eternal connection to the unity that is the universe itself as we experience it in nature—life unbroken by ego and all its attendant anxieties.
Freud suggests we all have a subconscious desire to return to that state, although this, of course, is impossible to do. It was his way of explaining the odd and strictly human phenomenon of suicide, the wish, simply, to put an end to our life—that is, to our suffering ego. This wish is not only suppressed but overridden in most “normal” instances by Eros, the libido, the drive for sexual fulfillment that keeps the species reproducing.
Oddly enough, despite all the wonderful things in my life that made it worth living, I received any number of messages from my environment that Eros was on most occasions to be more or less violently suppressed, and that death, the afterlife, was what we should all fix our sights on.
Needless to say, I spent quite a lot of years working out my position with regard to this strange complex of messages.
A poem—informed, as most poetry is to one extent or another, by memory—can be a powerful way to take a stand against death and against those who would urge it upon us. The child in “Eternal Life” doesn’t really have a stand yet. At the end of it, he’s just whirling around. But the voice of the poet “sounds” a kind of stand, certainly by the end.
In this regard I agree wholeheartedly with Robert Frost when he says in one of his letters that style—here, though, I’d say writing itself—is informed by, and, by extension, is the act of, taking a stand vis-à-vis the world we were born into.
Writing, Frost implies, is how we “take” that world.
It might be, too, how we take possession of it—for ourselves.
Sister Mary, whose hands were delicate,
had explained to us
that Limbo was an underwater world
where pagans floated, not in pain,
but in a kind of joyless suspension.
So when mom took me to Aquarama
to see porpoises tumble and soar
in sunlit tanks, I asked if fish
were punished too for lack of faith.
No, God did not expect as much
from fish as from men—even Babylonians,
who had never heard of Christ
and so could not be blamed
for their unclean lives.
Walking hand in hand with her
down a corridor lined with tanks,
I thought of sultans lolling on pillows
as smooth-skinned women fanned them
and fed them grapes. Secret garments
swished beneath her dress,
her heels clicked on the tiles, then
scraped when she stopped
to gaze into a tank: Those
are colorful fish! she laughed,
and I whirled around and around
until rainbows exploded from the muck.
Eternal Life (2015, Anaphora Literary Press) is available from
terenceculletonpoetry.com or from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other similar online venues, as well as select local bookstores.