There’s something thrilling about the secret spaces of secret identities. Sometimes, of course, they’re fascinating in and of themselves — think of the Batcave, or of Doc Savage’s Fortress of Solitude. But they’re still thrilling when they’re a basement room in a nondescript suburban house. That’s where Capax had stashed the souvenirs of his long life, as his son shows Dream and Delirium. The place reveals nothing to the son except that he had no idea what sort of person his father was. Krugerrands, strange substances, weapons, blank passports — as the son says, “This is like a spy movie or Mission Impossible or something.” (If only he knew just whom he was telling this to!)
Dream and Delirium have little concern for the material world, and seem uninterested in the son’s discoveries. Capax is dead, so they need to move on. This moment particularly highlights that the Endless are different from you and me. I can’t be the only person who reads this scene and thinks, “Oooh, neat — Krugerrands! Guns! Passports! What fun! Don’t tell the IRS anything, you stupidhead!”
Of course, it’s just a thought, a fantasy of sudden, weird wealth. Much too petty for the Endless. We short-lived mortals are weak beings, and Krugerrands impress us. Dream and Delirium have far more compelling concerns. For instance, why is everyone who is connected to their quest dying?
We don’t find any answer to that question in this chapter. I’ll confess, though, that when the duo professed puzzlement at the deaths, I thought, “Why don’t you ask your sister?” We did, after all, see Death collect Capax in a previous chapter. I momentarily had an image of Dream whipping out an Endless cell phone, calling up Death, and saying, “Yo sis, what’s the deal?” But I know it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does. We can’t rule anything out in The Sandman, as I’ve come to learn. (If Dream has an Endless cell phone in the next issue, though, I promise to pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe. Actually, if I wanted to pull what is known in the film biz as a “Full Herzog”, I’d drag a big boat over a mountain. But I don’t have a boat.)
Something else we don’t yet know is what role the Alder Man will play in the story. At the beginning of the chapter, we see him turn into a bear through the magic of his urine, then determinedly chew his shadow separate from himself. If I were a Jungian, I’d make something of that, but I’m not a Jungian, and so what I thought about instead was one of my favorite poems, Galway Kinnell’s The Bear, a very Sandman-esque dream-poem rich with myth and magic. I first discovered it in 1998 when I attended a poetry reading by Kinnell; I’d never heard of him before, and I don’t generally like poetry readings, because so many poets don’t know how to read aloud except in a way that makes them sound like they think their every exhalation is imbued with gold dust. While some people require of their U.S. presidents that they be the sort of person one might like to sit down and have a beer with, I don’t require that of my presidents, but I do require it of my poets. Galway Kinnell is a good reader, and I’d be happy to have a beer with him. At the end of that reading in 1998, an audience member asked if he wouldn’t mind reading his most famous poem, “The Bear”, and though Kinnell has read that poem so many times he probably wonders now and then if anybody has ever loved any of his other words as well, he read it.
I remember exactly where I was sitting in that auditorium when Kinnell spoke the first words of “The Bear”. Few poetry readings have ever had such an effect on me, an effect of words becoming more than words, becoming music and emotion and experience. I can get close to it even now simply by rolling the words lung-colored around on my tongue. And then plunging back into Kinnell’s rhythms and assonance and imagery: and put down my nose / and know / the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
What really got me, though, was the last stanza, and, especially, the last few lines. The perfect balance of wandering: wondering, the repetition of the next / the next / the next, the movement from myth and dream into the poem we are reading in that final question, a question that is, yes, metatextual, but also essential, as any devoted reader knows, because it suggests not merely that the narrator knows that life gets turned into poetry, but that it needs to be. What, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived? I remember how Kinnell slowed down in those last words as he read them; those words, so familiar to him from decades of recitals, remained potent. I remember how he didn’t look out at the audience for a moment, because experience had taught him that we needed a second or two alone with the question for ourselves before we joined in the joint venture of applause.
There is more to talk about from this chapter of Brief Lives — not the least being Reason and Enlightenment — but the story is still unfolding, and I expect there will be plenty of time in coming chapters to think about all we haven’t considered here. Having introduced “The Bear”, I don’t particularly want to think about anything else right now. Poetry gives us a secret space of our own, one with no need for Krugerrands or blank passports or weapons, and now that I have entered that space, I don’t want to consider anything beyond the chilly, enduring odor of bear and the poetry by which we live.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.