I inherited my father’s sunny disposition, my mother frequently says. Depressing things don’t depress me. I tried sharing a recording of Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun” with Bethany, but she hated it, finding it too depressing. A lot of people find most of Faulkner depressing, but I never would.
I’ve lived long enough to know that “Eye and Tooth” is not only about depression but that it is, to many – to most, maybe – in and of itself depressing. But if you’re not subject to the black bile, you can find much beauty in depressing things. Perhaps this explains the attraction between air and earth, between the sanguine and melancholic humors. (Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin again!) Surely they see a completion in each other; surely they encounter a kind of wholeness together!
I just wish more people around me liked my poem. (I can’t claim that anyone’s depressed around here. And – I admit – you don’t have to be depressed or even given to a melancholic disposition to dislike depressing things.) Oh, well. I go around the house quoting parts of the poem, so people are bound not to hate every line equally. I love saying, for instance, “I chain-smoked through the night, / learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight.”
(The narrator learns “to flinch at the flash of the matchlight” as a kind of penance for unflinchingly staring through a keyhole as a boy, “when the women’s white bodies flashed / in the bathroom.” “Penance” is too strong a word, perhaps: his “learning” is hardly religious. Instead, it may be at the outset the inevitable guilt he associates with his chain-smoking habit. But isn’t that snatch of verse wonderful (“learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight”)? I mean, disassociate yourself from the poor wretch for a moment.)
Speaking of depression, we return to the first line:
My whole eye was sunset red,
Comparing his eye to the setting sun introduces a major contrast in the poem: interior vs. exterior. The outside world is frequently referred to, but the narrator never escapes to it; instead, he posits his own experiences on it. We are to understand through this that he never escapes himself. His world – his reality – is his depression.
Depression seems to some who don’t suffer from it as solipsistic or even self-centered. To suggest that his eye is the sun, even a setting sun! It’s megalomania; it’s the manic side of manic depression. But he’s no megalomaniac, and he’s not manic.
Let’s say a person going through depression sees a beautiful sunset, but the experience doesn’t lift his spirits as much as it lifts his friend’s. His friend needn’t judge him: don’t we all tend to imprint every scene, even nature itself, with ourselves, even as we claim to experience it?
And isn’t poetry an imposition? So much connects. You could clone “Eye and Tooth” from any line of it, I think. You can read a good poem back and forth and find symbiotic relationships among sound, rhythm, layout, and theme similar to the benefits that inure to the sea anemone from its relationships with the clownfish and single-cell green algae. Or that inure to the sanguine from the melancholic.