Who turned the page? When I went out
Last night, his Life was left wide-open,
Half-way through, in lamplight on my desk:
The Middle years.
Now look at him. Who turned the page?
Biography by Ian Hamilton.
As the penultimate line suggests, Hamilton seems to have written this cryptic lament for a certain stage of life — his “middle years”. But I read it now and reflect with great melancholy on the passage of a different period: the first year of post-college life. I graduated from the University of Virginia 365 days ago, and although I just recognized today as that anniversary, “Biography” careened into my consciousness early this morning and has been rattling around the back of my mind all day.
My friend D. sometimes recalls aloud — just as I repeat back to him — the epigraph of Gore Vidal’s great novel about youth and loss, The City and the Pillar. It is the 26th verse of Genesis 19: “But his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt.” This is a reference to the flight made by Abraham, Sarah, Lot, and Lot’s wife from the city of Sodom, which God is said to have smote as he commanded the four to flee without glancing back. Lot’s wife turned to look, and she was frozen mid-flight. She became the pillar.
In his novel, Vidal used this image as an allegory for the idleness and destructiveness of longing for things that cannot be regained. My friend D. usually caps this reference by saying, with quiet assurance, “You can never look back. You can never look back.” (He embodies this mantra so completely that he refuses to revisit our old college town and old college friends, despite living only two hours away.)
And maybe he’s right. I like to defiantly repeat Emile Zola’s stoic incitement, “Allons travailler!” (“Get on with it!”), but in quieter moments, I’m more often staring out the window and whispering (with equal parts disbelief, amusement, and melancholy), Who turned the page?
The picture was taken in County Kerry, Ireland.