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Wystan At 1:00 AM

By Jack R. Noel

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Copyright Jack R. Noel 2001

Catching the movement of shadow along the wall behind my desk, I turned from my iMac’s keyboard and saw a man standing over me. I flinched like a rabbit stung by rattler’s fangs. There’d been no sounds save for clicking of my keyboard, I could see the chain was still on the door. I live on the top floor, there are no balconies or fire escapes outside this rectangular tower I live in. Helpless in my seat, I asked nervously, pointedly, “What do you want?”

He didn’t seem to notice me at first, he was staring over me toward the broad window that overlooks the tree covered residences west of my building. I looked out, but saw only a few street lights below and above them there was nothing but night’s black wall with pin-point stars splattered thinly over the night soot. There was nothing out there that you wouldn’t expect at 1:00 AM in the middle of September. Inside; that was another matter.

I looked at him and saw he was wearing a wool men’s jacket, probably tweed, though I wasn’t sure. It was light brown, the elbows had leather patches and the lapel and tailoring made me think he must have gotten it from the Salvation Army. It’s style was very old, of the kind I’d seen in movies from the 1930s. His shirt was white starched cotton, open at the collar. His clothes were coordinated; his trousers were matching dyed wool and his shoes were brown leather, well used. I could see the layering of leather in the soles, a sight simply not seen in this age of plastic footwear.

But his face was smooth and young, with the same cast of combined intensity and intelligence that I see on many faces when I walk the campus of the University of Michigan. This was no Salvation Army beneficiary, this was not a street person wandered in from Liberty Square. A possibility began to creep up on me, making the hair on my arms and neck stiffen. Just then he said, “Thank you.”

Certainty fell on my like a cold blanket dropping from the ceiling onto my shoulders. I ventured, “Stan, what’re you doing here and why thank me so long after your death?”

“Because it’s the same,” he said, still looking over my head. There was a delay and a distance in his voice, as if he were a long way from here, in a place I didn’t want to visit quite yet.

“The same as what... Stan?” I asked, working the words through my constricted throat.

“The same now as then...” he offered enigmatically.

“The same as when?” I asked, not really wanting to know. I wanted this to be over, I wanted him to disappear like a transient cerebral event. But my instinctive conversational response had tripped me up. I’d asked the question.

“The same as midnight,” the young apparition replied, scaring me more and hooking me into another question.

Seeing no alternative, I asked, “You mean midnight in the bar?”


“Right, in the dive, at midnight. I see...”

“No..., Outside..., In the World.” he intoned into the night on the other side of my window.

There was a few seconds pause, then he said, “Thank you...,”

“No, no, please don’t say that,” I begged, “Please don’t say that!” Real tears began brimming in my eyes.

“You sent the poem,” Auden said.

“Yes, yes, I sent your poem, September first, nineteen thirty-nine. I sent it, using this. I sent it to everyone on my address list, electronically, instantly,” I told him as I put my hand on the ruby colored plastic shell of the computer.

He was still gazing at the black infinity outside, oblivious to my gesture and the computer.

I went on, insisting, “But it’s not the same, this is September of the year 2001. Everything has changed. Everything, the world is not what it was in 1939.”

“As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night,”
he announced.

Memories of the past week flashed through my mind; images of brutal destruction and mass murder, the aftermath, ash covered dead and the living like survivors staggering out of Pompeii, the shocked knowing that primitive madmen stalked us and easily killed us in our gleaming armor. The people of the city, unable to work in their offices nearby, people moving from their homes because the unmentionable odor of death offends the September night for a mile around.

I began crying then, sobbing, as helpless to stop as I had been as a teenager on that day when I sat beside my twelve year-old sister’s casket with the rest of my family. The implacable, unstoppable killer then had been cancer. But now the killer of innocents had many faces, human faces, but was just as merciless. These new dead were six hundred miles away, out there in the World, yet as close as my sister’s casket will always be to me.

I bent over, clutching myself in grief as he continued, his voice as relentless as the wheeling galaxies above,

“Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return,”
he recited.

I’m smart enough to understand the meaning of what he said, but at that moment I only wanted to stop the pain of grief clenching on me from the past and present. I laughed as I said, “Oh, yeah, accurate scholarship unearths quite a lot... let’s nuke ‘em all.”

This was a mistake, partly based on a certainty that my God would swing His terrible swift sword against our enemies. But this emissary from Beyond was about to show me the other edge of that sword.

“Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong,”
Auden said.

Who was Thucydides? I don’t know, but it seems to me he must have been like two other philosopher poets; the one who was forced to drink hemlock poison by the civil authorities and the other who was banished by his emperor -- both for insisting on broadcasting the Truth. But Wystan Hugh Auden is beyond the reach of civil authorities or even emperors. He was certainly beyond my control as I sat rocking myself with salt stains on my cheeks.

Auden’s apparition stood silently, as if waiting for me to recover and give a response. I suddenly noticed it was cold and I could see my breath. I realized that, like in the reports we’ve all read, he was ghostlike, soaking the heat from the very air around me. Out of instinctive fear I said, “Get away, get out, leave here!”

No response for a few seconds, then he repeated, “It’s the same.”

Angrily, I shot back, “If it’s the same, then there’s nothing I can do. You know I tried to... spread the word. You tried too, and look what good it did; a whole world at war. What more do you want?”

There was no escape for me, I realized as he resumed,

“The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.”

Hearing this only increased my feeling of hopelessness. And it made me feel defensive. I tilted my head up to the frozen young face above and said, “I’ve always acted on the principle of setting a good example. I have always acted on the belief that I don’t have to make others wrong in order to be right. I have always renounced the common practice of initiating deception, fraud or the use of force. I have helped raise our daughter to believe this too. Neither she nor her parents are children lost in a haunted wood, we’re not afraid of the night. And we have, in fact, been both happy and good.”

Auden’s face showed dogged resolve, only his lips moved as he said, “Still, it’s the same.”

“I know that!” I shouted, “Dammit, I know and and there’s nothing I can do to change the hearts and minds of millions of other people! I’ve tried, with just my closest friends, yet I’ve failed completely. They’re as they are and believe they have every right to be so, and have no reason to change! I can’t do it, because...”

“Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.”
he supplied.

“OK then, I’m too stupid and too poor, it’s all beyond my ability,” I insisted. Then, with some bitterness, I added, “If you’re so full of answers and the Truth, then tell me what to do.”

No one will be surprised at what he said next,

“What Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

A second after Auden stopped speaking, I heard an uncharacteristic click and turned to my computer. All was the same, the desktop display as before, the menu bar across the top had all of the same items, including the time display. But with another flash of alarm I saw the time display still read, 1:00:00 AM.

Not a single second had passed since the arrival of Auden’s ghost. But then another alarm flashed through me because the time display wasn’t progressing second by second, as it should. I thought at first the computer had had a sudden freeze up, as sometimes happens. But I reached out and moved the mouse, the arrowhead cursor moved freely and normally. I clicked on a desktop file and it darkened as it should. Only the time display remained frozen.

I glanced back up at Auden’s apparition. It, or he, was gone.

I was actually glad to have a problem to work on. I was still shaken, but I’m also heavily dependent on my computer. I rebooted her, (I named her Phyllis), without fixing the time display. I ran a diagnostic and the repair utility. No result. I know that defragging the hard drive has nothing to do with the “clock” in the system file, but I did that anyway.

I tried a couple of more fixes, feeling more tired by the minute. Finally exhausting my list of possible remedies, I went to check the digital clock on my night stand. It read, 2:19:39. I was exhausted and quickly went back to the computer to shut it down. Soon I was in bed, thinking that I’d have to start all over in the morning. Phyllis is scheduled to turn herself on at the same time every morning, and to automatically launch AppleWorks, the native word processor application. This is how I write -- from right out of bed, pouring hot coffee from a thermos as I begin. But with the clock frozen, there’d be no scheduled start up.

I woke instantly at the usual time and checked hopefully on Phyllis. When I got to my desk, I saw the computer was on and the word processor had launched. But a glance showed the clock remained frozen at 1:00:00 AM. This wasn’t possible.

But that was not all I found. The word processor displayed a fresh page and on it in large size font was the message,

Send it.
Again and again.
Undo the folded lie.

At one o’clock the next morning, the time display began ticking off the seconds. But we remain: at one hour past midnight, my friends. Help me.



Note:  Excerpts are from "September 1, 1939," by W.H. Auden

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