by John Hayes
So ist das Leben—hart aber dafür gemein
seagulls’ hard steel whine thru steel-
gray March air, raindrops splatter &
rasp against window screens, a plastic
clown a plastic rabbit, paint chipped on
each adorning a plot of geraniums, petals
flaccid, last autumn’s leaf-fall mulched
brown as an old bloodstain along the
sidewalks’ edge—the nurse’s 3-year-old
son is getting a drum for his birthday—
her hands in lavender surgical gloves she
wears a purple bandana—two men a-
cross the room discuss bone marrow transplants—
“better in the long run” one says—
outside Multnomah pavilion hybrid roses
bloom crimson against the wall in thick
drizzle—on the bus a woman knits doll
bathing suits discusses the expression
so ist das Leben—oh yes strident cries of
gulls thru the apartment complex hard
& mean no doubt—across the lot on the roof
the brown gull stretches its wings nearly angelic
The poem immediately strikes an untraditional (and thus jarring) stance: the first word is not capitalized but “March” is, one line later; “&” is used instead of “and;” dashes rather than periods separate sentences; and hard enjambment follows hard enjambment in the first four stanzas (“steel- / gray”, “& / rasp”, “on / each”, “the / sidewalk’s”, “a- / cross”). (Tellingly, the last three stanzas contain only one such heavy enjambment, and this shift mirrors the arch of the poem, but more on that later).
The syllabic count also contributes to a sense of contained disorder. Lines vary in length from 7 to 12 syllables; however, 11 of 21 lines contain either 9 or 10 syllables, and those containing 8 or 11 syllables make up another 6 lines. Thus, 17 out of 21 lines fall within four-syllables of each other. This relatively narrow range of line lengths keeps the poem from seeming too scattered: to the eye and ear, the lines are of roughly similar length. Most importantly, the three-line stanzas offer order to the varied syllabic count and prevent the poem from careening into chaos: there is imbalance here, yes, but it is contained by the tercets’ familiar presence.
Likewise, the transitions between scenes (for lack of a better word) initially create a sense of disorder by simply not being there: the narrator moves without transitional cues from outdoors to inside a hospital in the third stanza, outdoors again in the fifth stanza, then inside a bus in the sixth stanza, and immediately outside once more. However, the poem begins and ends outdoors with the image of a seagull — again, just enough order to keep the narrative from careening out of control.
The poem works because this sense of controlled turmoil created by its form (the whipsaw series of inside/outside shifts, the varied line lengths, and the heavy enjambment transitioning to end-stopped lines) is what the poem is about — essentially, the narrator is shown internalizing and coming to terms with his emotional response to someone else’s pronouncement to the effect that “life sucks.”
The narrator’s journey begins with the epigraph, which is German for “Such is life – hard but unfair” (many thanks to Markus Rill for the translation and commentary). Essentially, the saying is pessimistic: life is hard and there’s no fairness to it — you may not deserve the bad things that happen to you, but that’s just the way it goes. Life sucks.
And indeed the poem begins hard: hard enjambments, hard images — the seagulls’ “hard steel whine thru steel- / gray March air”; the word “whine” itself, with all its negative connotations; raindrops that “splatter & / rasp”; a “plastic” clown and rabbit, their “paint chipped” as they adorn a “plot of geraniums” (the “P” sounds hard as punches); and the hinted-at harsh sound of the drum the nurse’s son is getting as a gift.
The poem, then, begins with observations that mirror the narrator’s experience with the illness he has a doctor’s appointment for: life is hard, a struggle, dull-colored as the “steel- / gray March air” and the mulch “brown as an old bloodstain” (with its evocation of on-going blood tests and spent life-force). The title (“Raintown #9”) and the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone and casual description of familiar signposts indicate repetition, a route often taken, drudgery, a burden he has lived with for some time now.
But then, in the fourth stanza, the poem shifts as the narrator reaches the doctor’s office (not coincidentally, the next three stanzas contain only one hard embjambement — none, with a slight revision): color creeps into the poem with the nurse’s “lavender surgical gloves” and her “purple bandana”; hope (that brightest of all colors) makes an appearance as fellow-patients discuss bone marrow transplants (“better in the long run”); and hybrid roses bloom “blood crimson” in contrast with the earlier brown bloodstains of mulch .
Life is hard, yes, the poem states, but not without hope — which must be found wherever possible: in surgical gloves and on-going treatment, in promising procedures, and in hybrid (not natural) roses. Even the harshness of the nurse’s son’s drum in the previous stanza is suddenly remade into a life-affirming force: a child making noise, generations continuing on, life persisting in all its chaos.
(I will leave the reader to unpack the layers of meaning this poem packs into the artificial/organic, wishful thinking/hope, death/rebirth, pessimism/optimism, truism/truth dichotomies it deploys. Frankly, I can’t do them justice.)
And so, by this point in the poem the narrator has not only acknowledged the harshness of life but also the oases of hope to be found therein. We do not know until the next to last stanza that the simplistic words of the epigraph are not the narrator’s words but someone else’s, overheard by the narrator on a bus as he (who by now we know lives with the hard reality of illness and the hope of a better tomorrow) returns from his doctor’s appointment. After doing what he must do, after carrying on for another day, he hears someone say “Life sucks.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” is his response to the cliche. “I live that every day.” He never says that, of course. The chosen images, the use of non-traditional punctuation, the shift in embjambement, and the sudden changes in setting do the work for him.
What makes this poem stand out is that it illustrates there is more to life than its hardness and unfairness. “You don’t get it,” the poem says to the bus-lady (who knits “doll bathing suits,” playthings, trifles). “You are parroting words you don’t understand.”
In contrast, the narrator understands all too well: life is hard and unfair, yes, but we can transcend it. The whole poem has shown us the narrator doing just that and carrying on. He endures.
For the last image of the poem, the narrator returns to the gull of the first line: its wings are not just steel-hard but “nearly angelic.” Not fully angelic (that would stoop to cliche, like the bus-lady), but more than merely biological, or at least potentially more so if we go on living through whatever life throws at us — illnesses and people in buses spouting banalities included.
The image of the seagull carries the poem to its conclusion: it is a scavenger, a survivor, a commonplace bird that rises to the challenge of carrying on under adverse circumstances. Like the narrator’s, its life is not easy, but it struggles on and will not be easily defeated. Life is hard, yes , but that’s only half the picture: we can survive it , we can carry on, we can come to terms with it and transcend it.