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“The mere has always been a useful category,” Donald Barthelme said in his 1981 Art of Fiction interview. And he’s right. I love the mere. To be merely this, merely that, merely the other—this is the mark of someone who eschews the limelight, who moves in the margins, who rejects the all-consuming ethos of fullness. To be mere is very close to being entirely irrelevant, and that’s the grand prize.
And yet there are days, and this may well be one of them, when we find ourselves afflicted by all that’s mere in the world: when constellations of objects conspire to trip you up. When current events draw you into the mire. When something is as good as anything. Between skimming the headlines and making phlegmatic trips to the refrigerator for more seltzer, I’ve been admiring Sidney Wade’s poem “Another Passionless Day,” from our Summer 1998 issue, which nails the sensation of “mereness”; in lines that are somehow full of momentum, Wade describes exactly how it feels not to have any. And as her nouns begin to accrue (in that stochastic way that is the hallmark of the mere; find another poem that has hockey pucks, clarinets, and giant pastries within spitting distance of one another), Wade puts her finger on what’s always been to me the scariest part of apathy, and the hardest to shake: the sense that it will settle over everything you see like a fine layer of dust, that it is contagious and terminal. I won’t spoil the second half—which I haven’t included here; the idea is to get you to pay for it, see—except to say that it won’t turn on you. That is, it won’t swerve to offer some undeserved, bullshit, inspirational pick-me-up in the end. This is, after all, a mere poem. And I say that as the highest praise.
Nel mezzo del cammin what one finds is beans
and wrinkled cabbage and an awful case
of ambling vacuity, an affliction resembling
walking pneumonia, but worse in its long-winded
and peevish consequences, so one shuffles and pokes
through jars of ointment and old hockey pucks
tucked away in the armoire to find just exactly
the right sort of eyewash or what is left
of one’s former and nobly galloping convictions,
but what one discovers, among the stoppered monuments
to ancient prostrations, is a b-flat clarinet
and a parched umbrella, so one decides
with waffling confidence to put on some weight
and to belly up to some giant pastries
in a health-food bar where one is likely
to meditate, darkly, on the gnarled knobble
of the rich tapestry of life …
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.