Saturday, June 1, 2013

CENTIPEDIA: J. Alfred Prufrock

From "The Return of Doctor Reverso"

At a reception desk in the center of the lobby sat a man. He was no longer young and not yet old, dressed in his morning coat, his collar mounting firmly to his chin. He wore a rich and modest necktie, asserted by a simple pin.

"Mister Centipede!" the man exclaimed-- not too loudly, though. His manner always seemed self-consciously subdued, as though he were afraid he might somehow disturb the universe if he accidentally became too raucous. "Good to see you, sir! You've brought guests, I see."

What with my expansion, I had to have some sort of a staff at "corporate headquarters." At this particular time, I had two employees. One-- the man at the reception desk-- was J. Alfred Prufrock, a clerkish, expatriate Briton who had arrived at the threshold of middle age without ever having accomplished anything. That's how he saw it, anyhow, and, after reviewing his curriculum vitae, I was forced to agree.

My friend Amelia Earhart, who had recently taken it upon herself to oversee certain aspects of my life, had encountered Prufrock on one of her sojourns abroad, and had recommended him for the position of office manager. I had immediately approved-- that being the wisest course when dealing with Amelia. She had caught him late one night, apparently making a halfhearted attempt to jump from a bridge into the Thames. She subdued him; some mild violence was involved, she gave me to understand.

When he came to, Amelia-- remembering something she had read about a certain party who makes his home in New York City-- had informed him that she had saved his miserable life, so from that point on, he was beholden to her. She offered him a purposeful life of mystery and adventure as an agent of the awesome Black Centipede. (This was many years before the word "awesome" started making such a nuisance of itself.) Prufrock denied that he was suicidal, claiming he had only been trying to "hear a mermaid sing." However, he continued, he had heard of the Black Centipede, and he rather liked the idea of a purposeful life, but he wondered if perhaps there were some position open that didn't involve quite so much in the way of mystery and adventure.

As an office manager, Prufrock was politic, cautious, and meticulous. On a personal level, he was deferential and glad to be of use, though I was endeavoring to beat that out of him. He was trying hard to have what we would now call a midlife crisis, but he was having some trouble getting it off the ground. I badgered and baited him, trying to find or make a crack through which the inner man could emerge. Of course, there was the horrible possibility that he already had, and this was it.


J. Alfred Prufrock was created by T.S. Eliot, and appears in the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), a work in the Public Domain. Look for him in BLACK CENTIPEDE CONFIDENTIAL, coming your way soon. Relatively. Meanwhile, buy everything else I've written, from Amazon:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T.S. Eliot

  S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
  A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
  Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
  Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
  Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
  Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all--
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?. . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in 
upon a platter,
I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the 

And this, and so much more?--
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No!I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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