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A reader reminded me recently of this great poem, by Delmore Schwartz. The Heavy Bear bears some resemblance, I think, to what David Brooks, in the NYT piece I talked about earlier today, calls The Big Shaggy.

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The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

“the withness of the body”

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

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When you study the humanities, you encounter poems like this one. Here’s another one. They’re all about one’s inability to understand oneself, as well as one’s inability to communicate with other people. Although a word would bare your heart and make you clear, you find yourself unable to speak, mute in the mouthing care of the beast.

These sorts of poems are meticulous considerations of the many barriers that stand between you and non-chaos. The heavy bear and the big shaggy are you, after all — they’re the intense, often twisted, enigmatic, deepest core of your being, a core from which emanate what Brooks calls “upheavals of thought,” a core whose operations perplex and affront you with your own darkness.

Let’s shed some light on all of this by doing a closer reading of Schwartz’s poem.

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The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,

[So far pretty innocuous – indistinguishable from Poohbear. Amusing. Face smeared with lots of honey.]

Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,

[The theme of weightiness, though, already takes on unsettling force. There’s something in me uncontrollable, unavoidable, and incredibly oppressive.]

The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,

[Hunger — appetites — will be a central theme of this poem, which clearly wants to note the bifurcation in all of us between the civilized cerebral higher being and this other being, fleshly and massive and clumsy and greedy. I like the list Schwartz provides here: candy, anger, and sleep. It’s funny. You can sort of see the lumbering infant or the drunk, first at a tit, then in a tantrum, then snoring.]

Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

[A sort of insane, all-purpose servant you can’t fire, the heavy bear in you is the principle of chaos, risk, and meaningless aggression.]

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,

[The sweet shapeless world of infantility, a world devoted to the instant gratification of your animal desires…]

Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

[But the infant is gone; you’ve grown up and you know that you’ll die. Your response to this knowledge, however, remains infantile: trembling terror. In the daylight, you’re a big old bear, a big old egotist, showing off to the world; but alone in your bed you know how perilous existence is, how all your bulk – your quivering meat, your bulging flesh – will fall off the tightrope your just-barely-balanced life is and become “the darkness beneath.”]

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,

[That “black womb” is a strange and unsettling image. The womb carries a life, but a life which will end in death; it is as much a death chamber as an anteroom to existence. And of course the womb is a darkness… ]

Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,

[I cannot control myself. There is something inside me which distorts my intentions, seeks to undermine me, makes me laugh obscenely at my most sincere efforts to transcend mere physicality, mere bestial greed.]

The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,

[It’s undeniably me, this ugly, subversive energy, but I don’t understand it. It is the animal life that underlies my human life, the profane that smirks at the sacred; and its power is immense.]

Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

[The hundred million of his kind. The heavy bear squashes individuality itself; he reduces me to the identical primal creature everyone else is. There’s no differentiation here: We’re all the same howling wordless wanting animal. The poet returns in his last line to the football image in the first stanza. We’re stuck for life in a Hobbesian scrimmage for sweets.]

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One Response to “The Big Shaggy and the Heavy Bear”

  1. Richard Says:

    At once more mundanely and more beautifully, we can tie it to Schwarz’s losing, back-and-forth battle with his weight: the more beautifully because Saul Bellow caught it in the character of Humboldt. It is worth quoting in part – in part, because neat physical descriptions (especially of the old men in the baths) are scattered all through the book.

    ‘Humboldt himself was just beginning to put on weight. He was thick through the shoulders but still narrow at the hips. Later he got a prominent belly, like Babe Ruth. His legs were restless and his feet made nervous movements. Below, shuffling comedy; above, princeliness and dignity, a certain nutty charm. A surfaced whale beside your boat might look at you as he looked with his wide-set gray eyes’.

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