The end of the pandemic represents an opportunity to find provisional answers to an eternal question: Do we have a core self that persists through decades of change? Or are we, like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, but onions that have only peels—our outward personas—but no central essence that exists from birth to death? Once we are able to mingle freely without fear of disease, we will be able to contrast the before-and-after of many people whom we haven’t seen or only seen through the homogenizing lens of Zoom for more than a year. In that time, people may have changed radically, or not at all. But will their immutable cores have changed?—a question that only makes sense only once you believe that each of us has an immutable core? Certainly, in the 12 months and counting of isolation, much of our physical bodies have changed: cells have died to be replaced with new cells, mutations have developed, as have antibodies.
I’ve been thinking about what defines the essence of a human being, literally since my preteens. The beginning of the poem I am presenting today, “Impermanence,” is the first line of poetry I ever wrote, in sixth grade: “The I of me is a personal I that no one sees” is how it went back then. The rest of this 1961 effort was as immature as an 11-year old’s poetry always is, but through the years the line has haunted me. I always wanted to revive the poem and make it worthy of its first line, but I couldn’t figure out how. Finally, in a period during which I was exploring rhymes, I started writing down images that represent self to the world, three of which were based on incidents from the life of Buddha. The poem keeps searching for the ineffable core of being in these selves, the part of our existence that persists through the changes that time brings. I use a trick ending to demonstrate that this essential “I” in fact does not persevere but is as evanescent as the other “I’s” which people assume during their lives. Connecticut River Review published “Impermanence” two years ago.
The I of me, enduring I that no one sees
behind the Facebook pose, advanced degrees,
the screaming I assaulting silent ear,
the silent I behind the thirsty tear,
the part of I that words can’t mold,
that residue of I that won’t be sold,
this I would never leave his sleeping mate,
her naked breasts in fall to tender flow,
areolas rising, sprawling, this I would wait
till after one more touch, and finally could not go.
This I will always dodge the falling boulder,
charging elephant, this I insists on growing older,
growing dim, taking on the I of every sign,
transforming them to other I, this anodyne
to I’m not there, this I that doesn’t veer,
but moves through inner space to outer fear.
This I will persevere.
This I will perse
This I will pe
This I wi
Published in Connecticut River Review 2019