Childhood and Mortality in Two Very Different Books

This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way childhood memories tease and flirt with our sense of mortality. I’ve read two books recently that speak to this. The first was John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone: Poems, and the second was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Both books work with rural landscapes and an immersion in nature and weather to explore the way proximity to the wild draws us closer, physically and psychically, to death. They do this, of course, in markedly different formats, styles, and tones, but these books are of a type nonetheless. I can picture Burnside and Bradbury walking together at the fringe of a small town where a space we’ve tamed meets a wider space we’ve not yet trampled, and staring into the cold wind, sharing the same sense of vitality and melancholy.

black catBurnside’s book begins with a long poem about a mythical hunt for an unnamed beast undertaken by every male in the narrator’s village. The young narrator is an outsider, an eccentric embarrassment to his father, and wanders away from the group of hunters one day to track the beast on his own. He finds it, kills it. He wanders home, finds himself more an outcast than ever, a specter in his own home, haunting the imaginations of those around him. The remainder of the book is wrapped around the idea of death, both in nature and in the poet’s rumination on his own mortality. In the poem Nativity the narrator’s mother dies during his birth (this is not autobiographical to Burnside), and in the next poem, Death Room Blues, he reflects on this loss and its ramifications for his life since, concluding with these staggering lines:

…where the hand that smoothes away
each local asterisk of stripped desire

can seem so much like something I once lost
I’m half convinced that childhood never happened.

I’ve reflected more on these lines than any I’ve read all year, but beyond their intricacies of meaning, I want to merely highlight they way death and childhood are held in tension, how the echo of a death resounds to the adult narrator off the walls of his childhood. Looking back from a hard life, one that has known silence and isolation, beauty and beautiful desolation, it is hard for him to remember a time when cultural connotations of childhood and innocence applied to him. Adult grief rolls backward over his early years like the shelf cloud of a prairie storm, though the effect is quieter. Childhood as a time of naive happiness is a myth to begin with, of course. We are wounded first in childhood, learn first of grief and alienation, disappointment and rejection; hopefully we learn too of beauty, love, loyalty, and wonder. If we were awake to all of these in childhood it can be difficult to cast backward and remember them in proportion; it can seem we always carried the wounds we carry now, at their current heft.

wickedIn Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes we see the dance of childhood and mortality from the dual perspectives of Will, a boy on the cusp of adolescence, and his father Charles, who was older when he became a father and feels half-alive in his aging body. An evil carnival comes to their small town, and Will and his friend Jim become obsessed with the carnival and its coterie of grotesque performers and managers. They are particularly fascinated by Mr. Dark, the carnival’s leader, who we come to understand is older than science would seem to allow. It is telling that the book’s central prop, a carousel that adds or removes years from a rider’s age depending on which way it turns, is essentially a mortality machine. It has the power to return its passenger to childhood or accelerate him to the grave. Charles is as compelled by this device and its possibilities as are the two boys. There are several points in the book when Charles is hit hardest by the betrayal of his own body while watching the boys’ revel in the vitality of theirs. Charles is most acutely aware of mortality while reflecting on childhood, and Will is most awakened to the wonder of life when he is confronted with the fear of death, both in his ailing father and when his own life is threatened by the carousel of time.

These two vastly different books are linked by this common reflection of two middle-aged men holding childhood in one hand and death in the other. October seems the perfect month for holding these concepts in balanced tension.

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