Beside the Dying Fire

I Think of Kevin Prufer's National Anthem While Watching The Walking Dead

Around that time, the city grew quiet.

You said Don't hurt me and I said If I was going to hurt you I'd have done it already.

We passed a dying store with gem-like windows. A door that banged in the wind. You said Let me go.

As in a film of the apocalypse, a breath of newspapers blew past us.

I won't hurt you, I said.

—KEVIN PRUFER, from “Apocalypse”


My mother recently discovered the glory of Netflix and has been making her way through The Walking Dead. As a longtime fan, I love hearing her experience the characters and their struggles anew. The other day she called me as I was strolling through the well-stocked aisles of Target (that red-and-white symbol of capitalist, first-world, everything-is-ok safety) to talk about Hershel Greene (played by Scott Wilson), the stubborn, patriarchal farmer the group first encounters in season two.

"It's so ridiculous," she said on the other end of the line. "He doesn't want to kill the zombies because he thinks he can save them. He's hauling their snapping corpses out of the swamp and keeping them in a barn. I mean, come on!"

"But don't you think people are like that?" I countered, "In the way that they hold onto what they know? In their desperation to believe?"

"He's out of his mind. How could you look at one of those things and think you could save it?"

She had a point.

My mind drifted to her incredulity again when I was rereading one of my favorite poems, "Apocalypse," by Kevin Prufer, from his 2008 collection National Anthem. The world we enter in this poem is a blasted one. There are no undead creatures here, but the real danger of violence between human beings is very much alive. The dominant speaker (the "I") and the submissive "you" character traverse an empty landscape where  we learn that "the TVs stopped bothering us," where "it rained and all the bodies in the graveyard washed away." In a world where little makes sense, these characters cling desperately to their humanity, to at least a semblance of normal, if menacing, human relations.

Even in what appears to be an apocalypse, the speakers relate to their circumstances through the metaphor of narrative, of cinema, particularly when the speaker says "As in a film of the apocalypse..." 

This lens is, of course, a familiar one. So far, we only write, think, have nightmares, and make movies about the end of the world. It's fitting, then, that the speaker conceives of his wasted world in this way. But more importantly, the menacing moment of "If I was going to hurt you I'd have done it already" speaks to the gritty, grueling practicality of a world much like the one the characters of The Walking Dead inhabit. Minimizing damage, staying alive, and weighing the benefits of privileging the self over the group comprise most of the characters' cognition day to day. And yet, some lines later, the speaker makes a go at reassurance, at the comfort of a time before the apocalypse, telling the submissive partner, "I won't hurt you." We both do and do not believe them: it's a good story.

As the poem goes on, the two people face increasingly dire circumstances as they forage for food in the "dying city." And again, the speaker returns to the familiar, to the interpretive lenses of the world "before," to keep the "you" going for however long that may be:

I'll tell you a story, I said, to make you stop crying for a minute. We walked down the darkening street.

I told you how the dead floated in their coffins like sailors, their boats unmoored and happy with the storm, all the way to sea.

Once more, the speaker and his charge turn to narrative, to traditional modes of storytelling to clutch the last shreds of sanity, to exert whatever control they have left to order experience. The pair in the poem also play at traditional modes of human interaction in physical ways, as when the speaker slides a gold ring from the finger of a dead girl whose corpse is caught in the low branch of a tree, wedding themselves to the promise of a future where such bonds are made possible, and wedding themselves to death at the same time. The act of putting on the stolen ring works to both preserve traditions of continuity and to acknowledge the reality (and brutality) of the ravaged world.

Narrative, in terms of "storytelling," is one way to make sense of the world. The belief system that Hershel upholds—namely, that the walkers are merely suffering from the outbreak of a malady that might one day reasonably be cured—is another kind of "story," the kind that we tell ourselves in order to get by. Though the haunting, exceptional last line of Prufer's poem, "Beside a broken lamppost, you smiled. Such sharp teeth. We were always hungry then," implies that the pair still faces real dangers (particularly at each other's hands) in this world, for a few moments, we are allowed a glimpse into the mechanisms of humanity's intellectual and interpersonal survival.

One of the things I most admire about The Walking Dead is its willingness to indulge a vast multiplicity of viewpoints, coping mechanisms, rationalizations, and beliefs because I truly believe that this is what would happen in an apocalyptic scenario: people would still be people. Men and women, whether they were veterinarians like Hershel or cops like Rick, would persist in their belief that vestiges of the world they knew must be kicking around somewhere in the diseased vistas they are forced to confront. 

It takes Shane's graphic display of power and violence in season two's seventh episode, "Pretty Much Dead Already," to ultimately rip away the last of Hershel's illusions about the validity and persistence of the world before the outbreak. When Shane fires shot after shot into a still-moving walker, asking Hershel if its writhing, immortal form resembled a living human in any way, to begin to break down Hershel's resolve. And finally, it takes Rick's compassionate, if blunt, slaying of Sophia, who had been confined as a walker in the barn for some time, to convince Hershel to join the group's efforts to kill walkers in the fight to stay alive at all costs.

In an apocalyptic scenario, we would like to think, perhaps, that we would be tougher, that we would rise to the demands of whatever hostile world we were asked to face. I know my mother's disbelief of Hershel's dangerous, if altruistic, behavior is rooted in this idea, and in her fiery tenacity and toughness (traits that would make her an excellent companion in such an environment). But as is the case with Prufer's poem, whether we are sitting beside a dying fire in an apocalypse or a roaring, marshmallow-fueled campfire in our relatively safe age, human beings will behave as they always have: telling stories, using what intellectual resources and protections they have to survive emotionally. Narrative, in the end, becomes a kind of armor in our most vulnerable moments.

This post originally appeared on the author’s personal website.