I’m walking along a great tract of empty beach, and I discover, etched along the tide line, a series of sandy squiggles that form the words of a poem. Did some supernatural hand etch them there, I wonder, some maritime phantom? Or is it all a freak accident, a chance alignment of random markings?
This is the scenario that Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels propose in their 1983 essay “Against Theory.” The authors invoke this image to demonstrate a universal truth: that all language that can be called language (and not just a concordance of squiggles) must originate in someone’s intentional act.
If this point really is universal, then it should hold true when one finds, on the top floor of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, a poem etched in the dust on a filthy door, tucked into the corner of a vacant room. But of course Knapp and Michael’s hypothetical ‘discovery scenario’ differs enormously from its real-life counterpart on the Yale campus. Their theoretical scrawls spell out the first stanza of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” one of the most gorgeous and graceful works in the Romantic canon. The very real Payne Whitney poem is a bit more problematic:
Squid by my
armpit. Is there
a way to eternal
bumpiness? I can’t
squat much longer.
please follow the
It is neither graceful nor gorgeous — nor, for that matter, particularly coherent. But it is unquestionably a poem. What else could it possibly be? And as a poem, it must be the product of some kind of authorial intention.
Reader, I am not making this up. You too can seek out this poem, squint at it through the sunbeams, and try to make some sense of it. I’ll warn you that it is a bit of a trek.
The elevators in Payne Whitney stop at the seventh floor, so I had to get off there and take the stairs. The gym’s top floor is 9B, but that figure is deceptive: to circumvent local building codes during the gym’s construction in 1932, the architects slipped in oddly-named balcony levels on top of each proper floor. So the remaining climb, from 7 to 9B, actually took me up five full floors.
As I ascended farther, the bright overhead lamps disappeared, and the shadows lengthened. The walls grew splotchier, a scabrous network of peeling paint. Water collected on the floor in Rorshach-blot pools, and graffiti spread bacterially. Near the top, I found a little black arrow inked into the wall pointing toward the “SOLARIUM”— the latter word crossed out in pen and superscripted by another, in sloppier letters: “SCRODUM” [sic].
Two floors later I reached what I thought was the Solarium, and realized that the second description might have been more accurate. It was a greenhouse-style glass roof, cordoned off by an enormous series of metal grates — arrayed two by eight — that had grown so caked with dust that the whole thing looked like nothing so much as an enormous lint screen. Big enough, perhaps, to fit into the dryer of God Himself.
When I talked to him in his office on the gym’s fifth floor, Ed Mockus, the PWG building manager, a man with a healthy gray moustache and a firm handshake, corrected me: that giant lint screen was, in fact, just a skylight. The real Solarium is no more. Back in the height of the thirties and forties, Mockus explained, Yale men thirsty for sunlight used to climb to the roof of the tower, where an enormous structure of quartz glass enabled them to tan even in the dead cold of New Haven winters. They had it all set up like the deck of cruise ship, said Mockus, with deck chairs and everything.
In the first half of the 20th century, Yale expected from all its men not just sharp minds and steady moral compasses, but also attractive, bronzed physiques. This culture of athleticism spawned a whole slew of now-defunct practices: mandated lap-swimming, nude posture photos for incoming freshmen and, apparently, tanning well into the most frigid weeks of December.
Since then, the stewards of PWG have done away with swimming tests, burned the surviving posture photos and closed off access to the Solarium — if it’s even still there — from 9B. When I arrived at this top floor, I found only an empty room, a solitary mop head, a few locked doors, and a plaque on the wall indicating the number of the floor. Bizarrely, the words on this plaque were also spelled out in Braille.
As I ran my fingers along their bumps, I wondered how and why a blind person would find herself on the top floor of Payne Whitney. I then also wondered how much more surreal the journey to that point would have been for someone who could receive only auditory cues: the hollow thwack of footfalls on slate steps, the cry of police sirens from far off, the shouts and calls of crew teams at their drills, funneled upward and distorted like the underwater echolocations of whales.
But above all, on floor 9B this hypothetical blind person would hear an eerie series of mechanical clanks and drones, like pylons shifting in the dark. The sound came from behind one of the locked doors, this one papered with “CONSTRUCTION: DO NOT ENTER” signs and covered in dust. In that very dust was inscribed an odd little poem.
At this point, reader, I want to explain to you why that poem, with its random line breaks, its squids and its paratroopers, sent a chill down my spine. But I don’t think I can do it. I could search, as I’ve learned to do in my English seminars, for justification in the text itself. I could claim that something about the arrangement of the words and syllables set off a Jungian chain reaction in my analytical brain. (Squatting = the human condition; squid = remorse, or just skin disease; bucktooth paratrooper = the militarization of the disabused).
But then you’d think I was full of shit, and I wouldn’t be able to disagree.
I could say that in those dusty words I saw the ghosts of countless Yale men on their way to a tiny paradise of deck chairs and quartz glass, a place where they could gaze out over snowy New Haven as the sun turned their skin a gentle golden-brown.
But then I’d sound like a sentimental slob.
And I could tell you that the poem frightened me because it was, with its squids and paratroopers and empty nonsense, just as sad and desolate as the room around it.
But then I wouldn’t even really know what I was talking about.
What if I got all anthropological on your ass? What if I mentioned the Easter Island sculptures, or Stonehenge? What if I cast this poem as a tiny, dusty Magdalene cave painting?
Or maybe my fear of the poem is essentially theological in nature. Maybe it’s the same fear that plagued the first atheists, the same fear that launched whole schools of theology, an enormous philosophical dilemma playing itself out in dusty miniature. Metaphysically speaking, there’s nothing more frightening than an author whose presence is as evident as his intention is unclear.