Hero by Tom Whalen

Every hero the writer must approach only approximately. The eyes, for example, must resemble Roman candles, like the eyes of the actors in Wilhelm Meister arriving at night in freight wagons before the castle of a count, as noted in Jean Paul’s School for Aesthetics. Her hair may be red, a vibrant color appropriate on the heads of heroes, no matter her country of origin or how deep down lost she may be. Red signifies all I find vital, all that burns, loves, and dies. I will choose my heroes as carefully as the next writer, though perhaps, unlike them, I will choose my colors better. Trees line the avenues of my thoughts as I compose myself again for the day, which perhaps in no sense need be considered heroic. My description must be natural, despite ignoble nature, which winds its way into the voice speaking to me from a castle window. Is it raining? Am I in the courtyard or in a small boat? Do I sing songs? Is the hero herself a singer? Does the moon shine on the water? Later, deeper into the night, court musicians will serenade the queen, while I continue concocting lyrics to my hero’s heroism. Is my act, too, then, one of heroism? That I even ask proves it’s not. But then the question arises, Who is the hero trying to fool? To which I respond, aligning greatness with the small, Only herself. True value comes only from the original, which the hero in every way is, no matter how closely her behavior adheres to the pattern. Relating the parts of the pattern to the whole is where she performs her magic. How is it, you may ask, that she colonized the eye of this spectator? Had I another four hours I might answer that question, but in forty minutes I must be back at my unheroic work behind the desk of a desk, where I retrieve and send notes the point of which I do not understand. The hero, on the other hand, at every turn of the wheel widens my perspective. With a look, she can turn monsters into innocent youths asleep on hillside meadows beneath austere, imposing mountains, like the brow of a deity angered by her charges who sleep on unaware. Like me, the hero herself must work through the lunch hour, especially on days of great stress, e.g., the day the rent is due or a lover or child has forgotten to call. But what fool would do that? Certainly I wouldn’t, given the opportunity to importune my hero, which isn’t likely, nor would I dishonor her with a request greater than bringing me a glass of water, which indeed would be welcome after an hour adrift on the sea of eternity shouting Fenster and Salvation into the wind like some idiot schoolboy. But then is not my hero also imprisoned in a castle of her own making? Yes, with the exception that her castle rests on the top of a tree (Yggdrasil) and mine on Herweghstrasse in Stuttgart, Germany, at 11:31 a.m., May 6, 2016, the day before my mother’s birthday, dead these past forty-one years. The hero, too, lost her mother, but at an even younger age than I. The first time I saw her she was bent over, her arms plunged up to her elbows in two sacks of barley. A strange green light suffused the granary. But this isn’t why I credit her heroism. The hero exerts no moral fee from those she saves. The raven she changed back from a prince can only shake its dark head in confusion, then wander off into the woods until that time it’s again of use to the narrative. A psychic otherness surrounds the hero, for whom cognition is ontology. By the way, these opinions and resolutions I express here are occasions of joy. Even if she were to call me a malicious old monkey? But what am I saying? I’m neither your typical primate nor old, nor can I imagine—except during my weaker moments—she giving a fig for me. The hero doesn’t want to arouse pleasure, but to conjure things. Surely I haven’t conjured her, but has she conjured me? Best not think too much about that. The hero’s aesthetics—which I have had the pleasure of observing, like a diner another diner dining alone in a distant, poorly lit corner of a Parisian restaurant on rue de Rivoli—match her ethics to a T. I cannot doubt them anymore than I can wish them or her away. While I devised my lyrics, was she dreaming me into or out of the world? In other words, am I asleep or dead? Hurry. I’m almost out of time. The same I will not nor can say about the hero. Have I ever loved or been loved? Was there a time before which I cannot remember, and if not, then why do I bother to speak of it? What questions I ask! A ninny could do better. So could the hero, should she be so inclined. Soon all that will be left of me is a primitive phantasm to which no reality adheres. The night is as clear as a pebble, the stars constellations of her dreams. If she were a statue snowily glowing in the dark of night, I wouldn’t find her anymore heroic, considering what she is, which defeats my powers of description and make-believe. Not that that is a prerequisite to hero worship or that my essay has anything to do with Carlyle or Byron. No, the hero I’ve essayed herein lives modestly in a condition considered by some as domestic bliss, by others as domestic horror. My own opinion of the matter is hardly relevant. I live alone in a small back room where nightly not a single idea or possibility parades past exclaiming, “How will I live without her?”

Tom Whalen’s books include Dolls (prose poems), Winter Coat (poems), and The President in Her Towers and The Straw That Broke (novels). His translations of short prose by Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, was recently published by New York Review Books.

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