Hemingway, Music and Poetry

by Brad Cotton

 Hemingway wrote of the night in many of his novels , short stories. Hemingway  I believe suffered from PTSD from his service as an ambulance officer in World War l, and from nearly being killed, blown to anonymous bits as were so many others , by a trench mortar July 1918. The writer was not a man at peace. He had difficulty sleeping. His best work reflects his listening for the voice of God in the night.

“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the day-time, but at night it is another thing. … … I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time…”
Hem’s finest writing is the five pages long “ A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” I have read it at least a hundred times.  It is such a compassionate story about our need for dignity, cleanness and order that Hemingway, more often found struggling with bullfights, big-game hunts, alcoholism and braggadocio, all to drown out the sound of that approaching trench mortar, may not have admitted to you that he wrote it. Every precisely placed word is poetry.
“It was very late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.
‘Last week he tried to commit suicide.’ One waiter said. …..”
 I have on a sweatshirt Hemingway’s note about the writer as listener: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Listen to the two waiters, one young, full of confidence and wanting to throw the old man out, and Hemingway, speaking through the older waiter.
“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink? The unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two.”
“I want to go home to bed.”
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”
“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No it is not,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
“And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?”
“Are you trying to insult me?”
“No, hombre, only to make a joke.”
“No,” the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. “I have confidence.  I am all confidence.”
“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said. “You have everything.”
“And what do you lack?”
“Everything but work.”
“You have everything I have.”
“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”
“Come on. Stop talking nonsense and lock up.”
“I am of those who like to stay late at the café, “ the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“ I want to go home and into bed.”
“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.”
“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and a light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y pues naday pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name….  …He would lie in the bed and finally with daylight, he would go to sleep.  After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia, many must have it.”
Quakers have been listening to God in light, cleanness and order since 1652. The Circleville Quakers invite you to “Music and Poetry for Peace and Justice” Saturday, 21 March 6-9 PM at Scioto Valley Coffee, 216 West Main. Bring a listening ear, perhaps a poem to read.