Haunted by the Future

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” —Ray Bradbury.
“The future influences the present just as much as the past.” —Nietzsche

The election was a great relief (though I was always sure Obama would win),and I’m hopeful about Obama’s next term, but not too hopeful. I can’t stop thinking about climate change, and am beginning to feel like I shouldn’t have plowed so fast into the data; rather kept a little, scratchy shawl of ignorance.

I didn’t think, at first, that the idea of a science-fiction horrible future would upset me so much. I’ve gotten used to thinking of myself as cold, since I’ve spent my life building barriers against pain, my own and others’. When I let down those barriers, I begin to come apart, which is one causative strand in many of my relationships. But now it’s the facts that are tunneling through the barriers, and I have to admit: wrong again. Wrong that I could simply “learn” this and not feel it, not ache for the future, not think about all those who won’t experience the beautiful, abundant world I know, the grass and trees and snow and apples. Paris and New York, epic dinners, croissants and chocolate, enough food for three lazy cats. And novels in their slick jackets, the new crop, the magic. I was making some choices last night for Christmas presents—fall books—and I felt a breeze of that old pleasure: important writers, culture shapers, the thick, clotted cream of the pages where the words burrowed. Other worlds. Doors and bridges. The belief that I would join them in that zone of demi-divinity. That I would exist in the future, not myself but better.

I have books to finish writing and I want to finish them. They rebuke me, languishing in my computer without feet. But they feel more like letters than books, evanescent—productions some people will enjoy reading, but not of the slightest interest to the future. Not letters, then. Emails. Shopping lists.

I’d like to speak to the future, but don’t know what to say. Humanity will survive and love and have families—there’s plenty of common ground—but this shyness is like the shyness I felt as a child when I first got friendly with very poor people. My friend Denise slept in a bed with her three sisters. I spent the night with them once, after Denise had spent more than a few nights with me. Her mother asked me to join them, after dinner, sewing nametags on Denise’s clothes for violin camp (she’d won a scholarship, my brilliant talented friend).

Denise’s mother said it challengingly—she didn’t expect the “rich” white girl to know how to sew, or perhaps be willing to sew nametags in a black girl’s underpants. But my mother loved sewing and was Southern enough to teach the female skills: sewing, cooking, the etiquette of being a hostess and a guest. And I loved Denise (who was terribly embarrassed by the interplay). But Denise didn’t ask me to come back and I didn’t press it, although I liked her fierce mother and her giggly little sisters. The shyness of privilege won out.

Perhaps there isn’t anything to say. I cringe under their backward wrath.

I have no idea why this poem works, but it does, beautifully.


Huge crystalline cylinders emerge from the water

The future

Where do they come from the King gushes these talking fish
Show me at once

We see the writer buried under a collapsing mountain of scribbled-over
While ink blurts from an overturned bottle

Speech is silver the King mutters
Silence is

They discover a fabulous ancient city

Black lake
Flag of smoke

Where we turned to look

Skulls, bats, stars, spirals, lightning bolts
Words spoken in anger
Flowers for sarcasm

The sequence continued to work in references to the brevity of life

Garlands of flowers
Stars signaling physical impact

They discover a fabulous ancient city
Under the water
None of the inhabitants

‘Be reasonable . . .’

Increasingly faint trace of inked
Flowers delicate

After that

Cat catch
The decree

Laura Mullen


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