Sunday, February 6, 2011

Identity Crisis Poems (Not Fox in Socks)

    Dr. Seuss is perhaps the most memorable of all the authors of Children's books--at least among the First Readers series.  Anybody who has checked out my Facebook profile will realize that alongside such literary giants as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Erasmus' Praise of Folly, is an image of Fox in Socks.  But that's not an identity crisis story, it is a series of tongue twisters that have fascinated readers for many years!

    I was in a bookstore today with my children, and my youngest daughter asked me to help her find some books in the Children's section, so we ambled among the shelves to see what we could find.  We found Goodnight Moon, a perennial favorite bedtime story which is almost a lullaby without music (I cannot count the number of times I myself fell asleep while reading her to sleep with it), Minnie's Valentine, which seems a trite little romp on the continuing theme of Mickey Mouse's sheepish and ongoing little romance with Minnie Mouse, and I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, a forgotten favorite from my own childhood.

Goodnight Moon    I sat down with her and read Goodnight Moon in the same slow, methodical voice that had lulled both me and her to sleep on many nights during her infancy and toddler years.  She asked a few questions about the images referenced by the words, a reaction that I had taught her with my habit of pointing out the objects in the pictures as I read their description in the text.

Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Minnie's Valentine    She read Minnie's Valentine to me, struggling with one or two words which were not in her Sight-words Lists yet, but sounded them out with little effort, thanks to the mixture of phonics in her school's reading program.  I encouraged her interaction with the story, identifying Minnie through her disguise which she wore while helping Mickey decide which gift the apparently absent Minnie might enjoy.  I resisted the urge to mock the simplicity of the relationship between the two mice as she resisted the urge to point out how pink the book is--to provoke my expressive mock-distaste for the color pink.

     We took turns reading pages from I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, and I commented several times that I found it odd that this character Bill Brown kept appearing on each page, despite the differing settings and crowds of classmates.  I suspected that Dr. Seuss may have felt that identity crisis problems would naturally lead to soul-searching--allegorically presented by the animal-parts wishes that the narrating boy daydreams about--and that this soul-searching results from a bullied person's desire not to be like the bully who deems other people inferior, but to be something uniquely superior to the traits claimed by the bully as being evident of his sense of superiority.  The narrator in Dr. Seuss's story repeatedly refers to his desired traits as characteristics that would make Bill Brown unhappy, and consequently indicate that the narrator hopes to treat Bill Brown as he himself had been mistreated by Bill Brown, and presumably others as well.  It is an unfortunate presentation of the helpful ethical advice to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

    Clearly, Dr. Seuss's narrator imagines that Bill Brown will not like to be treated as he had been treating others, and yet paradoxically he wishes to treat Bill Brown with the same belittling attitude that we are given to suspect that Bill Brown has treated the narrator.  It is quite difficult to ask oneself if Dr. Seuss's narrator was wishing to have been treated as he had been treated by Bill Brown, but it is deemed acceptable to believe that Bill Brown is rightfully suffering from a karmic case of "What goes around, comes around."

    I kept silent about all these musings as my daughter read the alternating pages, but I had a frightful surprise towards the end of the book when Dr. Seuss's narrator wishes that he possessed all the traits that he had described individually on previous pages, all at once, and suspected that people would fear him and lock him up in the zoo, referring to him as a "Which-what-who."

Mangled Doves    In Mangled Doves, in the Verses for the Vixen section, there is a poem called "Eyeless Me-ness" which I had occasionally referred to as "Which-What-Who."  I did not use the phrase accidentally in the latter half of the poem--I chose the phrase to express the lack of humanity which results from losing one's sense of identity.  However, I was not aware that I was reflecting a memory of the Dr. Seuss book I had enjoyed in my childhood.  I felt at the time that I wrote it that the phrase succinctly describes the confusion of three particular elements of identity crisis, or perhaps three stages in the soul-searching process which results from an identity crisis.  These elements are as follows:

           1.  Which person am I?  Among a crowd of people, individuals tend to define their personalities by comparing themselves to people around them, describing certain traits of their personality as different or similar to those same traits in other persons--dependent upon their assessment of that other person as pleasant or unpleasant, popular or unpopular, successful or unsuccessful, beautiful or ugly.
          2.  Who am I?  Interpreting one's own personality traits can be difficult for people for different reasons depending on what types of personality traits one possesses, especially while avoiding comparisons to other persons.  One of the most challenging aspects of soul-searching is this effort--for comparing oneself to others results in a sense of identity based on one's assessment of the personality traits of other people, not of oneself.
          3.  What am I?  Soul-searching can often be the most fearful thing one can do during an identity crisis because one of the problems of such a crisis is the suspicion that one does not possess an identity, or perhaps the nature of ownership in identity assessment could be ill-defined, and that perhaps the person who is suffering from an identity crisis could appropriately doubt that he or she is even human.

    One of the most significant memories that I retained from that time was an anonymous moment when I was walking to the University "Satellite" (a semi-underground lounge on the opposite side of the campus from the main cafeteria with a convenience store, mini-cafeteria, a few TV lounges, and a patio lounge with several tables).  I describe the time just before making the acquaintance of the "Vixen" as a troubling year in which I spoke to nobody and no one spoke to me for at least a year.  It now strikes me as strange that I could hold a job, live in a multi-person household, and attend classes while not verbally communicating anything at all.  However, I maintain and defend that such behavior was my reality at that time.  The only verbal communication which I experienced in person was the lectures in my classes, and as any college student will report, "That can be as impersonal as watching television."  And on this particular morning, as I silently strolled past a crowded esplanade filled with students conversing with one another, I walked past a pair of students sitting on a curb reviewing a sociology textbook in preparation for a mid-term exam, and one of them read the following sentence aloud:  "The primary reason that we develop and maintain relationships with other people is to remind ourselves that we are of the same species as those with whom we interact."

     I continued walking absent-mindedly towards the cafe, seeking only to fill my gut with Coffee and a Bear-Claw.  But halfway there, I stopped in my tracks and stared at the sidewalk in a dead stare.  I silently asked myself, "Am I?"  The over-analytical thought processes to which I am prone kicked in and provided the non-answer which presented the most comfort for those painful times.  If the need to remind ourselves that we are human is the root cause of our need to form and maintain relationships with people, then it is therefore possible (and likely) for us as individuals to forget that we are human.  I immediately suspected and became convinced that I had caused myself to suffer exactly such a lapse in self-awareness.  However, each time that I looked at myself in the mirror for the next few days, I repeatedly counter-interrogated my suspicions:  "How can we forget that we are human?  We are the only species on the planet that looks like this!"

    Shortly after that day, I spoke a contradictory question to the Vixen, a classmate in my Ancient/Classical Literature course, and the self-destruction of my relationship with her resulted from my efforts to express the confusion which was caused by my efforts to seek the loss of my own self-identity.  

    Later in the Summer of 1992, as I held myself in isolation in order to enforce my withdrawal from the Vixen's intoxicating presence, I wrote some of the most complex and expressive poetry I could muster in order to remind myself of the necessity of the separation from the woman I adored at that time.  On July 25th, while I was grappling with the scope of the massive poem (A Picture of Her Face) which I was writing over the two-week period which surrounded that day, I sat down and wrote "Eyeless Me-ness" in slightly over half an hour.  While I revised the ending of the non-palindromic verse of the second half of the poem several times, I scribbled out the first half of the poem exactly as it appears in Mangled Doves.  "Eyeless Me-ness" is a simple and basic poem which iconically expresses the silliness of the paradoxes of an identity crisis as it mocks the usage of pronouns commonly used to interact with oneself and others.  However, I think that the communication problems in my relationship with the Vixen can be expressed quite clearly in these verses from the long poem, A Picture of Her Face:

       No lack of wordless communication,
That we could not see.  Our eyes conveyance,
But neither of us could see the message:
Our words carried our meanings, abeyance
Stood between us.  Yet there was no language
There for me to translate my devotion.