Words like “introvert” and “depression” litter media popularly discussing mental health.
They’re not just words. They attract those of us who already think ourselves a certain way to specific media. Typically, the aim is to make money from our attention; in return, we get to indulge labeling ourselves however we wish.
For myself, to witness behaviors, thoughts, and feelings prior to such words holds a special significance. Not simply “no labels,” itself a kind of corporate slogan nowadays, but the relating of what is questionable about experience. What makes sense or doesn’t make sense, and how we operate in that space no matter what.
If this sounds too abstract, consider the poem below, where the narrator bears witness to a world more spring than fall and cannot bring herself to join it. I think about the times I’ve isolated myself in the house, shunned all contact, and wonder why my musings were not as meticulous or thoughtful:
19 Lake Street Chase Twichell At last the maples throw off their soft red buds, and the neighbors emerge to scrape the lawns. New mothers wheel their offspring up and down over the curbs, absorbed by the awkwardness. And which of all the elements is the strangest? The little spirits struggling in their yellow blankets, the huge trees falling to pieces? The dismantled, oily parts of a machine laid out on rags like a metal picnic? A curtain shivers. Someone is watching the tulips enlarge in the gardens. They force their closed, still colorless flowers up out of the bare dirt.
At last the maples / throw off their soft red buds, / and the neighbors emerge / to scrape the lawns—this sounds like fall (“scrape the lawns”), but by the end of the poem there are tulips beginning to push through the dirt. What sort of mood confuses fall and spring? It’s the sort of mood which sees how alive everything is—”soft red buds,” “neighbors emerge”—and then sees it all as part of a machine. Because the maples let go of their buds, the neighbors responded and cleaned the lawns.
In a number of lyric poems, autumn signifies a time of reflection. It stands prior to winter and its connotations of death. Here, that reflection points to a greater confusion. How does this world work, how does life function? It’s a pretty little structure, but does any of it make sense? New mothers wheel their offspring / up and down over the curbs, / absorbed by the awkwardness—now our narrator places infant humans in simple machines, watches them roll around and take in the “awkwardness.” Our ways are utterly mysterious to infants, who are us. That says something about our ways.
But then, a shift. We don’t dwell on a baby’s vision, their eagerness to take it all in. Our narrator is not ready to smile or cry like they are, out of needed love. And which of all the elements / is the strangest? / The little spirits struggling / in their yellow blankets, / the huge trees falling to pieces? She puts distance between herself and the infants. They’re “little spirits” actively trying to get comfortable. She contrasts their small soulfulness with “huge trees falling to pieces.” There are large growths, powers which might have persisted for hundreds of years, routinely falling apart.
Where does she see herself? I’m almost tempted to say between the babies and the trees, but that’s not quite right. She’s watching this unfold. Other poems in Northern Spy, the collection in which I found this poem, indirectly talk about how strange it is to bring new life into a world so hard to understand. For example, if you try to think about concepts like “love” and “trust” as if the words alone held the meanings you needed, you’d go crazy. I submit that we are not just looking at an introverted narrator, a bit scared to wander out of the house, looking at the world as a machine in order to maybe discern its principle—e.g. the dismantled, oily parts / of a machine laid out on rags / like a metal picnic?
I submit, rather, that the introverted behavior has two purposes. First, it does make manifest a fear which grips us at various times in our lives, where we do not want to go anywhere or do anything. Maybe we’re ashamed, maybe we think we understand nothing, maybe we’re avoiding failure or rejection or criticism. No matter what, we’re peeking out, hoping not to be seen, hoping we can judge and not be judged: A curtain shivers. Someone is watching / the tulips enlarge in the gardens. This behavior justifies itself in a way that can either be hopeful or self-defeating. It lets us think we’re not quite ready yet, and that when we are ready, we will bloom like tulips. They force their closed, / still colorless flowers / up out of the bare dirt.
But there’s another purpose beyond hiding oneself. What if you’re wondering about new mothers because you’re wondering about parenthood? What if you don’t see your child as all-conquering but prone to your anxieties? The view of the world through infant eyes was cut off by our narrator, but that is not final. I’m going this direction: the same behaviors which cause us to protect ourselves a bit too much could eventually lead to seeing the world with childlike wonder, through the eyes of one’s own child. It isn’t explicit at all in this poem, but no one says that the image of tulips struggling to bloom has to exclusively signify the speaker’s mood. Children routinely use their fears and worries to grow.