Finally finished “A Failure of Concern,” Ben Marcus’s story in the January issue of Harper’s. I need to reread it. It’s funny, disturbing, baffling. There is a strange paragraph–amid the rest of the strange paragraphs–near the end:
The detective remains folded over himself, coughing weakly, and I might be inclined to wonder if my syntax itself is acting as a diminisher. I think of the giant, in the Whitman poem, who spoke so forcefully that everyone around him was crushed down into miniature size. The people in his life could recover and grow back to full size only if he remained absolutely silent, and if the poem ultimately failed to dramatize that struggle, we can all well imagine for ourselves the difficulty faced by this giant. It is too great to master such an urge. Perhaps I shall render a landscape of people recumbent if ever I can access them and speak in their direction.
Is this a real Whitman poem? My guess is that Marcus does have an actual Whitman poem in mind, but the description of it above works the same as the surreal physical descriptions in the story — that is, willfully, artfully deranged, but still poetically referring to the real thing. So I imagine no one would ever describe the poem in that way, that the “giant” is really something else, something more (or less) specific, but it still manages to be a syntatical or structural or at least associative and I guess ultimately accurate description of the poem. Or Hell, maybe there really is a Whitman poem about a giant. A google search later: Could it be “A Voice from Death”? Where Death’s voice, coming in a “sudden, indescribable blow,” renders the U.S. recumbent: “America itself bends low, / Silent, resign’d, submissive”? Hm.
I need to sleep and read everything Ben Marcus has ever written and Whitman too while I’m at it. But I do recommend this story. So many lines make excellent epigrams:
smart people have little to do, in the end, but make love to their children and assault those in power