Liars and lovers often find themselves to be bedfellows. It seems to follow that government officials will forever have to publicly disentangle the lies they tell about their lovers. But a scandal, after all, means evidence or admission, the end of the lie. Only the person who kept it secret so long knows the real terror of the birth and life of the lie, and perhaps it is poetry, rather than the news cycle, that is sensitive enough to trace a portrait of such a slippery subject.
After hearing about the resignation of David Petraeus on Friday, I immediately turned to the Dylan Thomas poem “I Have Longed to Move Away.” I first read it, by chance, when I was harboring a huge lie myself, one that had seemed to follow me into the pages of an innocuous-looking poetry book on a friend’s shelf, opened at random. From the first line, the poem not only captures the feeling one gets from living the worst lies; it seduces liars themselves. Like the speaker, I longed in that moment to move away to some foreign place, at least on the page, but once I’d begun the journey, I was led back where I’d come from: there was my lie, staring me down again in the next line. The steady meter interrupts on the unexpected and sinister “hissing,” then come the strong two beats of that unavoidable “spent lie” which is equated to a “continual cry.” It is not just a lie; it has been assigned a heavy weight and value by meter, rhyme, and meaning.
The lie becomes more all-encompassing: the liar tries to move away (as the reader is promised again) only to return again to the stalled exit, itself a repetition, though he longs to be rid of those very repetitions. The liar wants to avoid confrontation but is stuck, and has been in this same limbo, these many “halfs,” for a long time. And the more time that passes, the more formidable the lie becomes, and the passing days and continuation of normalcy become unbearable signs of how wrong things truly are.
By the end of the poem, the lie has become so vast, so powerful, and so unpredictable in its explosive power that the poet fears most not the lie, but the quotidian routines—a phone call, taking off a hat—which the lie threatens to destroy at any moment. Convention itself becomes suspect and uneasy ground. The unspoken heart of the poem, to my mind, is shame. By its ending, the liar still cannot address whatever was said or done, and there is something incantatory about the poem’s rhythm, as if it is being used to keep this fragile world from falling apart.
I’m not a particular admirer of Dylan Thomas, but the poem resists being forgotten, both because of its conceit—that our lies can’t really be ignored—and because of its sound, a deliberate, almost military march. Sometimes, living in New York, I think, “I need to get away,” and there the poem is, beating onward. Trying to dispel the noise of city life, or the repetition of salutes, I find myself inside the poem again, reciting it silently as I walk down Sixth Avenue. It’s at once inescapable and an escape, just like a lie; in that way, it holds a special truth.
I Have Longed to Move Away
I have longed to move away
From the hissing of the spent lie
And the old terror’s continual cry
Growing more terrible as the day
Goes over the hill and into the deep sea;
I have longed to move away
From the repetition of salutes,
For there are ghosts in the air
And ghostly echoes on paper,
And the thunder of calls and notes.
I have longed to move away but am afraid;
Some life, yet unspent, might explode
Out of the old lie burning on the ground,
And, crackling into the air, leave me half-blind.
Neither by night’s ancient fear,
The parting of hat from hair,
Lips pursed at the receiver,
Shall I fall to death’s feather.
By these I would not care to die,
Half convention and half lie.
Ali Pechman is on the editorial staff of ARTnews. She lives in Manhattan