Tuesday, March 30, 2010

`The Adult Subterfuge'

Monday we observed R.S. Thomas’ 97th birthday but I was reading Clive James’ Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008 as I sat in the high-school dispensary beside the cot where my student was resting. She had had a seizure Sunday morning and was more lost and medicated than usual. She couldn’t focus to sort shapes or do her other tasks, and wobbled dangerously while walking the halls. The nurse suggested I let her sleep it off so I reread James’ “Special Needs,” a poem which plays with the ambiguities suggested by its patronizing title – a euphemism applied to kids like my student:

“I can look down again, two thoughts
Contesting in my head:
`It’s so unfair, I don’t know what to do’
Is one. The other is the one that hurts:
`Don’t be a fool. It’s nothing to do with you.’”

The choice James offers we negotiate each morning, between pity and paralysis on one side and numbness on the other. There’s too much work to do to grow contemplative, kids to feed and diaper, messes to clean up and reports to write. Neither option is genuine, theoretical only, and theory can kill. Later in the day my wife asked, “Doesn’t it depress you?” Most of us are too busy and too grateful to feel depression, a decadent luxury, after all.

Compassionate in his idiosyncratically icy way, R.S. Thomas knew something of children and choices and the ways we deal with them, as he suggests in an early poem:

“We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.”

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