A Rabbit Hole of Denial


Recently I tried to curb reading Facebook and the news. I felt like I was getting 'outrage fatigue.' It's not that I wanted to stop caring; it's just that I didn't know what to do with how I felt. How do we put the past behind us so we can continue to move through the world? Rabbit Hole is enormously lucky to have its second guest contributor, Matt Roberts, who goes down the rabbit hole to find out...

I like the name of this blog. ‘Going down the rabbit hole’ is an expression that sums up how I think.

People who know me well have heard me, at least once, start a sentence and pause halfway through—then go off on a tangent. That, or I’ve started a sentence, apropos of nothing, with the words, ‘I know that...’

I've started an argument with myself and let them in half way through.

I wanted to write this post about a poem and how it made me think of denial. I envisaged beginning with ‘Denial is not just a river in Egypt’. It got better from there. The stupidity of the opening was going to balance out against the rest of the piece. But I ended up with pages of writing that ranged from our current political landscape to a personal history of illness and recovery and I was never getting closer to resolving the ideas. Even now I want to start into the idea of resolution and how fraught that concept is and how unnecessary it is in writing small posts and that in reality, it isn't anyone's job to resolve large and difficult ideas—rather we should investigate them and use that to open our ways of thinking to move towards being ‘better’ people.

So, instead of all that, I'm going to show you a poem by an American called Stanley Kunitz. It was from a collection of poems published in 1985. I’m going to tell you why I like it.

The Abduction

Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.
“Do you believe?” you asked.
Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:
how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
stretched on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.

That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.
Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.
You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,
indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.
Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

There’s a lot going on here, and I'm not going to unpack technical aspects of the poem. Rather, I’ll let you know what grabs me and sent me down a rabbit hole of denial.

On this poem, in The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz, is this note:

THE ABDUCTION. Elements of memory, dream, and fantasy entered into the making of this poem, which was triggered by my reading of Missing Time, a work on UFO abductions, by Budd Hopkins (Richard Marek, 1981)

I didn’t read the poem as an alien abduction. When I first read this note I was, I confess, a bit disappointed. It detracted from the whole scenario that I had conceived of. Then, perhaps wanting to deny the poem its meaning, I realised there was a resolution that didn't require me to abandon the poem or my reading. A person who might go through any traumatic event could easily escape into the fantasy of an alien abduction and it would only serve to add another layer to the denial in this poem.

The implicit violence in this work makes me feel cold, but the love between these two people sits over this with a beautiful piece of denial. We never learn the truth of what happened, but we get a sense of its weight through the myth that they've created so that they can keep living together and not be overcome by the reality of what happened. But the poem still shows the effects of that incident—these people did not escape unscathed—the impact was physical for the abductee, but emotional for both of them.

Sometimes I wake to hear the engines of the night thrumming

For me, it was a beautiful realisation as I sit inside a country where the denial around such fundamental issues as human rights and climate change threatens to take me under. The rage turns to despair which brings on hopelessness. So it goes, and I go nowhere. I even get angry with people who oppose our governing body but deny the amount of damage being done and rationalise it through their perceived inability to counter it. I am in denial in this, at my anger and at my same inaction.

In this poem I find some respite that goes beyond the day-to-day mechanics that allow us to toil against the futility of existence. It says, ‘This event happened and it threatened to tear us apart in every way, but we made it despite never really coming to terms with it’.

It reminds me that we can get past wrongs without moralising or division, but that rather there is a way to be human with each other and live with the consequences of horror.

It leads me to see that place where I know love is not what overcomes, as much as it is the only way forward. Not to healing or a moral paradigm, or a hetero-normative relationship, but to compassion and understanding and wanting more for each other and giving what we can give when we have no other recourse.

We can persevere despite whatever has happened. I like to think that the protagonists might eventually face what happened and they can genuinely purge it from their existence, but that is more for me and what happened/happens in my life. As it is, I feel they’re okay, and that that’s enough.

Matt Roberts

This week’s Rabbit Hole is another double issue! Here’s part two, “Pareidolia: Two Memories of Death”.

Matt Roberts is a poet who also teaches at The University of Western Australia.

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