NUMBNESS

I have not felt a thing for weeks.
But getting up and going to work on time
I did what needed to be done, then rushed home.
And even the main streets, those ancient charmers,
Failed to amuse me, and the fight between
The upstairs couple was nothing but loud noise.
None of it touched me, except as an irritation,
And though I knew I could stop
And enjoy if I wanted to
The karate excitement and the crowd
That often gathers in front of funeral homes,
I denied myself these dependable pleasures,
The tricks of anti-depression
That had taken me so long to learn,
By now worn smooth with use, like bowling alleys in my soul.
And certain records that one can’t hear without
Breaking into a smile, I refused to listen to
In order to find out what it would be like
To be cleansed of enthusiasm,
And to learn to honor my emptiness,
My indifference, myself at zero degrees.

More than any desire to indulge the numbness
I wanted to be free of the bullying urge to feel,
Or to care, or to sympathize.
I have always dreaded admitting I was unfeeling
From the time my father called me ‘a cold fish,’
And I thought he might be right, at nine years old
And ever since I have run around convincing everyone
What a passionate, sympathetic person I am.

I would have said no poetry can come
From a lack of enthusiasm; yet how much of my life,
Of anyone’s life, is spent in neutral gear?
The economics of emotions demand it.
Those rare intensities of love and anguish
Are cheapened when you swamp them with souped-up ebulliences,
A professional liveliness that wears so thin.
There must be a poetry for that other state
When I am feeling precisely nothing, there must
Be an interesting way to write about it.
There are continents of numbness to discover
If I could have the patience or the courage.

But supposing numbness were only a disguised disappointment?
A veil for anger? Then it would have no right to attention
In and of itself, and one would always have to push on,
Push on, to the real source of the trouble—
Which means, back to melodrama.
Is the neutral state a cover for unhappiness,
Or do I make myself impatient and unhappy
To avoid my basic nature, which is passive and low-key?
And if I knew the answer,
Would it make any difference in my life?
At bottom I feel something stubborn as ice fields,
Like sorrow or endurance, propelling me.

  — Phillip Lopate (b. 1943)