O Wicked Walls!

“And Thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!”
— Bottom/Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .”
— Robert Frost




“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
— Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987

In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost’s narrator (who sometimes seems to be his spokesman) scoffs at his neighbor’s unquestioned belief that ‘“good fences make good neighbors.”’  His skepticism is due in part to the fact that he doesn’t see the utility in hard borders – one man has apple trees, one pines, no livestock, no traffic to be impeded.  The narrator doesn’t acknowledge the value of shared work, ritual, a covenant handed down from fathers to sons, and he likes seeing himself as both reflective and practical, verbal and philosophical, while the neighbor gets short shrift for he is, evidently, living the unexamined life Socrates berated, toting and raising rocks “like an old-stone savage armed.”

It’s in part a poem about feelings of superiority, the broad picture, social discourse, as opposed to habit and Yankee acerbity.  But the narrator is not altogether fool.  Questioning why such obstructions make good neighbors might lead in various directions and conversations, as some reasons are pretty obvious, others as mysterious as, well, elves.

In what might be the narrator’s best moment, he wants to declare (though he seems to lack the grit to voice it),

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walking in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.”

What would follow such inquiry is not simple business, though walling out bison, felons, foxes, zombies, might be wise practice, especially if they might be dangerous takers who don’t repay.  However, walling out trading partners, needed workers, fugitives from violence, allies . . . , maybe not so smart.

What to do, what to do?  I suppose Frost’s speaker and others involved in barrier transactions have to observe, absorb, analyze, consult, prioritize, evaluate, keep a clear eye and an open mind and humane heart, scrutinize every facet and their own (perhaps somewhat unacknowledged) motivations, operate with imagination and a willingness to evolve.  They must not create distractions and deceits for themselves and others, and shouldn’t dismiss the complications of maintenance and karma.  Maintain a balanced perspective and humane ambitions.  Crazy, right?  But maybe much madness is divinest sense.  It’s worth a try.

A week ago, shortly after watching a TV report on the notorious Wall-to-be (not Pink Floyd’s) and viewing sections of some kind of border blockades already in place, I turned to the Weather Channel (exciting evening in the entertainment department) and watched a featurette on the current flooding threats to New Orleans.  What to my wondering eyes should appear but a section of levee flood barrier that looked identical to the segment of “Le Mur” I’d just seen touted as part of the Wall our putative president has already been building (though it was standing before what we now tentatively refer to as “the election”).  It’s meant to slow down high, fast water and trap debris.  And drug mules, immigration coyotes and other malefactors who celebrate Cinco de Mayo (which the Chief-in-Chief, bless his heart, did mention last week), according to the slap-dash commentary.  It all left me a trifle bewildered.

Even now I ask myself what this panel of small-barbed words might be walling in or out.  Perhaps that’s one positive result of the wall mania running rampant.  We stop and count to ten (as Twain advised) before we swear.

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About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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