Friday, September 17, 2010


In 1964, a college friend introduced me to Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972).  I recently rediscovered this poem of Patchen's, "Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?" (1939) :

     The old guy put down his beer.
     Son, he said,
             (and a girl came over to the table where we were:
             asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink.)
     Son, I am going to tell you something
     The like of which nobody ever was told.
             (and the girl said, I've got nothing on tonight;
             how about you and me going to your place?)
     I am going to tell you the story of my mother's
     Meeting with God.
            (and I whispered to the girl: I don't have a room,
             but maybe ... )
     She walked up to where the top of the world is
     And he came right up to her and said
     So at last you've come home.
             (but maybe what?
             I thought I'd like to stay here and talk to you.)
     My mother started to cry and God
     Put his arms around her.
             (about what?
             Oh, just talk ... we'll find something.)
     She said it was like a fog coming over her face
     And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
     You can stop crying now.
             (what can we talk about that can take all night?
             and I said that I didn't know.)
     You can stop crying now.

What an absorbing poem.  Published in 1939 when I was minus-seven, it still speaks to me today.  There is much going on in it:

I like the set-up: two guys talking in a bar; the pull on the reader to attend to alternating narratives (a meeting with God, a meeting with a woman); and notably, the antithesis of the two narratives.  That is, the meeting with God results in a profound contact which is permeating and boundary-erasing –– as ambient fog, light, and soft voice merge with and comfort the mother.  Contrast this to the meeting with the woman, which begins with sharp outlines (“ ... asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink") and ends with neither merger nor comfort.  

This back and forth pull is due to a nesting of narratives.  The biggest containing narrative is the poem itself, the story Patchen is telling us. But Patchen's story houses two parallel stories: that of an "old guy" telling a story to a young guy who isn't listening, that of a young guy who is involved in his own story with the woman.  Most of the poem portrays these two narrative perspectives, the old man's and the young couple's.  Interestingly, although narratives alternate, they seem simultaneous.  This is like watching split-screen film images, shuttling between images yet aware of both.  A kinetic poetry, as if the poem were a kind of mobile.  As such, the poem never really settles down, and neither does the reader.  I find it a bit jangly.

Then in the last line the poet himself appears, stepping from behind the poem-world to enter ours, speaking directly to us: You can stop crying now.  This is another unsettling movement.  As if stage actors suddenly spoke outside the play-illusion to the audience.  Patchen must necessarily be assuming that themes inherent in this poem apply to our own human dramas, that the poem's stage is also ours.

What would those themes be?  Here we travel into the elusive territory of understandings:

I think "Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?" concerns several dualities that can be collapsed into being lost versus being found.  On the side of being lost is the social emptiness seen in the young couple. They don't have a place, they lack effective speech and intention, they are isolated and poorly oriented to one another.  Nothing is born of their encounter: no common understanding, no empathic connection, no anchoring anything.  They are as unmoored at the end of the poem as they are at the beginning.

Mind you, this is true as well of the relationship between the old guy and the young guy.  These two are also misattuned to each other.  And so all these people meet and talk, about Godly matters or earthly matters, but nothing mutual comes of it.  In effect, the poem's characters are more concerned with passing time, killing time, than with living in time.  As such, they appear unaware of the limits of time, of the fact that time and life run out.  There is a listless quality to their movements, an absence of spirited living and creative intercourse.  For that reason, they seem lost, fog-bound within themselves and with each other –– "dead" to the possibility of quickening, collaborative activity.

But where in the poem is the being found part of the dialectic?  Is it only an implied opposite to the pervading mood of isolation, or does it reside somewhere?  Is there a "room" in the poem where someone is not alienated?

I think there is, in the moment that the old guy's mother finds and is found by God.  But if so, what exactly can that mean, since it is unlikely that "She walked up to where the top of the world is" and talked to God. Certainly there is an illuminating, transcendent contact of some sort –– inaugurated by God's saying, "So at last you've come home."  A homecoming then, a comforting re-union, some deeply human experience of soothing and merging seems to be in play.  Even if the mother's story is totally imaginal, it counters the detached alienation of the bar-life down below.

Plus, I don't think we should too quickly dismiss the idea of a meeting with God.  Such an encounter is worth considering.  After all, some things may be untrue but real nonetheless.  Let us imagine, say, that the mother's meeting with God is a dream, a dream of intimacy and overwhelming sensory intensity:

     My mother started to cry and God
     Put his arms around her.

And later:
     She said it was like a fog coming over her face
     And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
     You can stop crying now.

There is a feeling of peace and safety here, unlike the edgy, unsettling alienation elsewhere in the poem.  This feeling has psychic reality and texture, I imagine you could float in it.  And this feeling is attainable, through good fortune or hard work, in everyday life.  It is visible in the contented mooring that "holds" some mothers and babies, some husbands and wives, some companions of every description. (See this blog: Seaweeds, for a discussion of supportive containment.)

Finally there is that last line, seemingly aimed at us: You can stop crying now.  I believe it is the poet finding us, recognizing in us the potential for that same social emptiness depicted in the poem.  As such, it is on the side of thoughtful, direct communication, of talk that links up with others and nullifies isolation.  As if Patchen were saying: Hey, you out there, wake up, snap out of it ... come alive!

"Do The Dead Know What Time It Is" is over seventy years old, written well before the humanistic leanings of the last fifty years; nevertheless, it still works today.  Everyone is in a fog in the poem, but the being-with-God fog is a return to something primary and containing, hushing and quickening.  The fog down below is merely inertial.


Anonymous said...

I love this poem as well. Great analysis, it really helped me understand the poem better :)

I hope you share more of your favorite poems!

Kit said...

Thank you to Anonymous. I appreciate the feedback.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and informative interpretation. Nicely crafted from a reader's point of view. Well done Kit. (Pat)

Hans van Niekerk, The Netherlands said...

Thank you very much for your thoughtful interpretation. I learned a thing or two. Every time I read this poem I am reminded of a very touching Youtube-film concerning a Near-Death experience by a certain Richard Cole. The film is embedded in a strong true-believers context, but can be appreciated by open-minded agnostics and believers of a more lighthearted persuasion.
It's called: RICHARD MET GOD.
What do you think ? I think it's a persuavive interpre
tation of the poem 'Do the Dead Know what Time it is?'
Surely Richard - graced by the Near-DEATH experience - knows
the time of day/eternity.
Call me a fool, but I've STOPPED CRYING now - after a few appropriate ones during his story.

Greetings from the Netherlands,
Hans van Niekerk

Kit said...

Thank you, Hans, for your kind comments and for the youtube link to the Richard Cole film. I watched the film, and I agree with you that the sense of a containing contact with God in Richard Cole's experience, and the mother's sense of being palpably "held" and safe in Patchen's poem, these two "senses" are very similar.

My frame of reference in imagining such a profound encounter is purely secular. I'm not a Believer in any traditional way, neither am I an agnostic. Nor does atheism feel right either: I'm just not drawn to that belief/non-belief dialectic. My own frame of reference is more psychological than theological. For me, the mother's experience in the Patchen poem –– the boundary-erasing sense of safety, the removal of confusion, isolation and disconnection, the "being held" feeling and the overwhelming conviction that "it's going to be alright, I can stop crying now" –– this experience is consistent with life down here on earth (unmediated by higher powers). Such as what we find in a "good enough" (Winnicott) parent-infant coupling, and also (some would argue) in non-intrusive in utero development –– and for that matter such as we find over time in any successful coupling, whether that coupling be a traditional love relationship or a longterm therapeutic partnership. Whatever the nature of the coupling, if it's a successful one a third thing develops, larger than the two interactants –– a containing medium, a sort of invisible safety net –– a medium which "holds" the two partners up over time and through impediments.

Your association to the Richard Cole film is thoughtful, interesting, and useful in that it widens the discussion. Thank you for sharing it.


Comments are appreciated: