poetry of departures

There’s a Philip Larkin poem I think of often that is not the one I wrote so much about way back when I did that academic shindig. It gets stuck in my head like a song, with snippets fading in and out of memory. Because I want to spare everyone else the horrible spammy experience of the first several Google results for its title, I’m going to quote it here in full, with due apologies to the ghost of the good librarian:

Poetry of Departures:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

The fantasy of the audacious, purifying, elemental departure catches at my footsteps sometimes. I walk the same streets every day and make a constant calculation of what path affords me the most possible turns to my destination, to remind myself that I could always choose a different way. It’s not hard, though, to remember why it’s a fantasy, a reprehensible shadow-thought to drive the sober and industrious stuff of daily life: why I get on the southbound train to work each morning instead of the northbound one that departs the same platform for the airport, to take the next flight to nowhere in particular. Routines are comforting and valuable, and the ones I have are ones for which I’m incredibly fortunate: a good job in a good city with good friends and a good family. But I reckon it’s human to long for stories, and I wonder what the ones will be that I will tell if I never choose the departing path.

There is also a line in a Destroyer song that I’m going to try to tie in here; it seems at least tenuously linked to the poem:

Don’t worry about her, she’s been known to appreciate the elegance of an empty room

If we all hate home and having to be there, I suppose we all appreciate the blank-slate glory of a new home before it becomes the site of personal detritus and the seat of memory. I stood with Nick in every room of our empty new apartment last night and we measured each one in turn, imagining separate and overlapping rearrangements of our furniture. The elegant, paint-scented empty canvas, the dark backyard not yet in bloom, filled me with eagerness for something altogether new. Of course I bring with me everything old; falling-apart furniture and sloppy habits that will mar that pristine surface from the moment I set down the first box there. But moving has some traces of the same potential as the wild choice to hop the wrong train and fly away: to change something, to emerge altered from some chrysalis with something new to tell.

It’s crazymaking to come up with too many mental paths for different selves who left off where you didn’t, but it’s also one of the uses of fiction and poetry, I reckon, to map those other worlds and illuminate their seedy interstices. Anyway, it’s all reassuring in a certain fashion, and I think I am ready to pack all my worldly possessions in boxes again very soon.


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