By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
ONE OF THE misfortunes for men getting old is that however little hair remains on top, plenty of it seems to spring from the nose and ears. To that rather mundane phenomenon can be added a tendency to tearfulness, if a couple of my friends are anything to go by.
The first of them, speaking to me on the phone last year, asked me if I ever found myself quietly crying on my own. He went on to say this had started happening to him – he would be sitting on his own (usually in the pub) and have a “quiet cry to himself”. He admitted there was not usually a specific subject prompting his tears. It was just something that welled up from inside. I could be cruel and just say that’s what comes of being a poet with an extremely irregular income and no pension plans in place, but I know it’s deeper than that.
I didn’t think much more of it until a couple of months later another friend also recounted having similar experiences. In his case he’s retired with a very good pension in place (and he’s a poet and artist) so indigence is not to blame. Now it may that being single, as both of those friends are, and without immediate family concerns, may have something to do with it. Having worries about spouses and offspring can certainly reduce a man to tears but at least a lot of the time you’re too involved with them to think about yourself.
Except, perhaps, in the dark hours of the morning, when you wake up and feel your mortality pressing in upon you. But then again, I think we all feel that at some time. It’s just that once you’ve got through the remaining hours and got up ready for the next day the darkness has receded and you occupy your mind with other matters.
No, I think there’s something else that my friends were talking about. I think it’s that inexplicable sorrow expressed in Virgil’s famous line, “sunt lachrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”, which, untranslatable in its brilliant simplicity, means something like, “these are the tears of things, and mortal things touch the mind”: the melancholy of things, the sorrowfulness of existence, the sadness expressed by and evoked by the elements of life, etc. The impossibility of making a suitable equivalent expression in English partly helps, inadvertently, to embody the emotion it expresses and yet the emotion strikes through to the core without obstruction.
The overgrowth of ear hair sounds bathetic in this context, but in truth it just makes the tears more bitter. I was struck by this when watching an interview by Mark Steyn with James E Mitchell, the man who waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other jihadi terrorists. A number of times Mitchell is clearly “tearing up” when remembering the people killed in the 9/11 attack. When Steyn mentions this Mitchell says “one thing that happens to you as you get older is all your toughness turns to ear hair and tears.” That’s an eloquent way of expressing a complex of experiences and emotions, and I think it’s part of what my friends were telling me. As you get older your body and mind shrink while your nose hair thrives. You realise more than ever the fragility of the fabric of human life, and the tears are not far behind.
To know this tearfulness is not an aberration or the weakness of age may be of some comfort. We’re not alone, as those words of the long-dead Roman poet attest. Or maybe not quite as alone as we fear. It’s some small consolation, and may take our minds off the nose hair for a while.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.