Lost – Heidie (Raine) Senseman

Her also I with gentle dreams have calmed
Portending good, and all her spirits composed
To meek submission: thou, at season fit,
Let her with thee partake what thou hast heard
                                                            -Paradise Lost, Book 12
            These are Milton’s divine inspirations, his co-authorship with the Holy Muse, soaked in speculation and penned in androcentrism: the practice of placing a masculine point of view at the center. His lines are the subject of my wrath on October 27 when Survey of British Literature to 1800 demands I read them.
They are the first assigned words I read in three and a half weeks. I am peeling back the cataracts of summary as I drink in this epic, and it is a bitter cup of trembling (CC: Baldwin; BCC: God). Milton is making a cocktail of Scripture and rimming the glass with his tract, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, book two, chapter 15:
            Who can be ignorant that woman was created for man, and not man for woman?
            And so, as Michael prophesies redemption with men of old yet to be, he shares an ale with Adam, telling of future types renowned for floods and lions and seas. They confer on the bachelor pad of Eden’s highest mountain, as close to God as any man ever got, skyscrapers above Babel, miles above Eve.
            I, like the stones, want to cry out.
            I do so in my commonplace book, the reading response tool my professor usurps from Dickens and demands we dam with ink. I do not confess to my weeks of failed reading, but I wonder if the length of my hiatus renders these words more potent, like a swig of tequila after months of juice.
            My rage is layered:
             1)      That Milton would be so bold as to claim the Holy Spirit’s compositional aid;
             2)      That Milton would, resultingly, proclaim his epic superior to all others because the same finger that scratched mene mene tekel upharsin supposedly had ink leftover for a botched biblical sequel;
             3)      That Milton seatbelts Eve in with submissive dreams as Adam hears the redemption narrative unfold;
             4)      That Milton is dead and I can’t accost him;
             5)      That Dr. Deardorff, the only professor I want to parse through God and social issues with, is dead, and I can’t ask him to help me not hate Milton;
             6)      That I have more to read from Milton than I do from Deardorff;
             7)      That regardless of how many papers and essays and books I have access to from Milton and Deardorff and God, I still haven’t been reading.
             I pen:
            I am mad that Milton is a sexist and that he’s specifically a sexist inside a poem that’s supposed to make God look better and I want to ask Dr. Deardorff about it and I can’t.
            Literature demands a response. Sinkholes deep into the third stage of grief, I’m struggling to take words in because I feel too feeble to churn words out. I scribble cheap, rose-threaded poems on Deardorff’s untimely death. I lack the energy to construct a more intelligent critique of Milton than “pig.”
I am pressurized by past class readings, back in the era of sitting down with an anthology and thinking, chewing, regurgitating, processing, critiquing, analyzing.
            Reencounter, with me, the lunatic that Charlotte Smith considers blessedly ignorant of his woe; Chopin’s Edna, stroking into the suffocating riptides of a sea; Rose of Sharon, cradling her blackened babe, blackened and shriveled like an apple; McCarthy’s boy, abandoning the Man whose corpse will be a forager’s dinner come dusk. So much grief woven into stories, so many authors grieving through characters, so much to be grieved in these plotlines, so many griefs hidden in fiction to make them more approachable.
            I grieve as under-realized Eve, wondering if submissive dreams could rid me of my angst, if I even want Adam’s portion, if a nap at the base of the mountain may be a better yoke.
            I ask myself these questions in my commonplace book. My pen runs dry. Tears the page. One more question: Why read?
            Because the Word was with God and the grass withers and Milton’s light was soon spent and Deardorff’s extinguished, but I have mâchéd my mind with the treatises that spill out of worthy mouths, and Milton and God and Don still invite me to partake. So we restart. We forge our way back to where God and Michael first divulge: in the beginning—a new one.


            A year and a half after Deardorff’s death, I sit in a lecture hall and listen to English seminar research presentations. I learn about E.D.E.N. Southworth and Anne Tyler, two women who explore masculinity in their fat and thin books. Southworth posits her ideal man, Ishmael, after her real-life husband abandons her in 1844, and she is left to make a life for herself and her children by writing novels. Her grief slips into her book. She does not deride her deadbeat man, but she creates a better one—one who wields status for justice and acts upright in the light and the dark, who cares for his wife and the widow and the children and God. Mobile morality, the speaker titles this ideal masculinity. Morality with legs.
            Anne Tyler, the next speaker asserts, disagrees with Southworth about what makes an ideal man. Tyler writes after her beloved husband of 34 years passes away. She rejects masculinity’s traditional categories. Not a man by standing with your wife. Not a man by caring for your child. Not a man for having professional success. Not a man by having a shiny car. I add (or perhaps, deduce): Not a man by barring your wife from talks with the angel. Not a man by writing epics that infantilize women and blaspheme God. Tyler never actually gets around to suggesting what would make a man; she just plays in apophasis and leaves the question hanging. She sucks masculinity hollow. It frustrates my grief, for as much as I know Dr. Deardorff was a great and generous man, nobody agrees on what that thing is.
            Our speaker takes a shot at answering Tyler’s question. She appeals to a book on the American football novel. Dr. Deardorff wrote it in 2006. He speaks to us in his pages, beyond the grave:

            Masculinity is a search for meaning, a quest for a grand narrative that can be trusted. Beyond power, men seek empowerment. They want to be able to act in the context of a master story that can be trusted.  

            I stop listening to the lecture on Anne Tyler. Searching. Questing. Seeking. Wanting. These words help me make sense of Milton, a most troubled man whose longings ate him. I ask God to give me compassion. Help me be as charitable a reader as Dr. Deardorff, I pray.
            Perhaps I can find grace for Milton, whose strivings in manhood made him forget Eve. He who searched for meaning in fabricated mountain-top theophanies. Who quested to find the peace that Adam dropped and no man has been able to recover since. Who sought answers to why the curse, why the divide, why the decay, why the delay. Who wanted a way to live backward and forward, to have seen God’s past marvels and to witness the wonders to come. Who was so overwhelmed by his own search that he neglected and betrayed his sisters, and perhaps that should ignite my rage, but it really drives me to pity.
            And I begin to smile, albeit softly, because I think Dr. Deardorff has helped cure my rage. I see him rising from the pages—the pages he wrote and the pages he taught—giving new life to my tired, grieving questions. I understand. I can rest. The whisper of his being somehow continues to illuminate the truth, and that is not lost on me.

Heidie (Raine) Senseman is an Ohio-based writer who works primarily in the realm of creative nonfiction. She loves succulents, hates nail polish, and tolerates the color yellow. Heidie’s writing has most recently appeared on You Might Need To Hear This, and she has works forthcoming in The Cedarville Review.