Friday, August 10, 2018

"A Man Falls" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Height" Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
A Man Falls
Lowell Jaeger 

A man falls from a tall building,
arms flailing to catch ahold
of thin air, his baggy pants cuffs
flagging, ribbons of hair raised
in the breakneck speed of his descent,

now halted in the split-second
shutter’s click, the image suspended
for the mass of us to gaze upon
and wonder. Fire?  Financial ruin?
Any one of many possible nightmares

plaguing us all. So much is just a guess,
day to day, as each of us climbs
from his slumbers. As each of us faces
gravity’s ascendancy prevailing.
In this instance, someone with a camera

happens by. Reminds us how uncertain
— each sunrise — our separate destinations.
And yet, when we fall,
we all fall down.

Poet's Notes:  In my travels as Montana Poet Laureate, I’m often asked this basic and honorable question: “What is poetry?”  Here’s the answer I’ve learned to give: Poetry is an art, and so is dance, music, photography, film, painting, sculpting. All arts are anti-anesthetics. Before surgery, we are administered anesthetics to numb our senses and dull our brains.  Poetry and other arts want to do the opposite; the arts want to awaken our senses and quicken our brains. At times when our circumstances are difficult, we consciously or unconsciously deaden ourselves to shield ourselves from pain. What does it mean to be truly alive? Poetry wants us to be truly alive; even when life gets complicated and painful, poetry wants us to experience life head-on.  “Poetry should not prettify life;” said Robert Frost, “poetry should take life by the throat.”

The Pulitzer Prize photo which inspired my poem awakened my senses and quickened my brain.  A picture can indeed say a thousand words.  I tried to find the words to express how the photo made me feel, made me think.  It’s a painful photo to view and oddly surreal.  I felt the man’s horror to be flailing in thin air.  His contorted face is much akin to Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.”  The ambiguity of the man’s circumstances is the ambiguity with which we all live, falling day by day to our inevitable deaths.  This sounds dark and unbearable.  But isn’t death a fact we can’t deny?  And if we face the fact of death, how does this change the way we live our lives?  Can it change us for the better?

The Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is credited with saying, “It is a good day to die.”  A Lakota friend explained to me that the emphasis in that statement isn’t on the dying part, but rather the “good day” part.  A good day is when I am truly alive, when I walk in beauty, when I’m engaged in the world around me, when I’m appreciative of life’s difficult mysteries . . . and if I die, I go knowing I’ve experienced a full measure of what I’ve been put here for in the first place.  My poem is a thank you to the photographer who enlivened me with this visual anti-anesthetic.

Editor's Note:  "A Man Falls" first appeared in Clover--A Literary Magazine.  It is unfortunate that despite racking Lowell his memory and several long searches of the internet, neither one of us could find the photograph that inspired this poem, leaving our Art Editor free to do what he saw fit.  I find the arm-and-hand-shaped shadow particularly moving.

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