I realized I wasn’t ready to write a poem about decorum when I couldn’t tell how an epigraph from the Budd Dwyer suicide video would play to the average person. In particular, I wanted to quote the press secretary’s plea for onlookers to “show a little decorum, please,” since it made me realize how strange the act of demanding/measuring civility is. That use of such a line might come off as disrespectful did occur to me, though, and I was forced to do some measuring myself.
With tastefulness just out of reach, I couldn’t plan any further until I eliminated all of the other weighted words that might muddy my understanding of the one. “Aesthetic” was out, since it brought too broad of a focus, and since I‘d lost Eco’s “On Ugliness” to a basement flood. The same went for “Ethics,” which should be a part of everything, and so should be the cedar dinner table, and not woodchips in the meal. “Taboo,” as a near-synonym for “bad taste,” might provide me with the dangerous shelter of circular reasoning. Gone too were excuses; I vowed not to namedrop or allude to Bataille in some attempt to blame my own lack of taste on a literary precedent.
I then thought of others’ approaches to decorum, and of the way I tended to process them, and turn them out in the cold in various states of dress. For instance, when processing a friend’s death, I had made a list of drug overdose scenes in films of all kinds. When I returned to it later, I considered how the scenes ranged from visceral bursts of close-up special effects to a single shot of a shoeless foot in a doorway. I found myself shopping the list for certain types of impacts, and was struck most by a scene from In a Glass Cage, in which the director instructed the child actor to behave like a fish out of water after his character had been injected with gasoline. This scene, I felt, defied good taste in an interesting way, as any apologetic attempt I might make to soften its imagery by adding context (“Don’t worry; it’s another child who administers the injection,” or “he does it to impress his adult captive, a paralyzed doctor”) only deepened the tastelessness. That I feel the need to apologize after describing this scene, which I did not create, says as much about decorum as does the scene itself.
Therefore, apology seems to be what holds decorum together. If I get caught mouthing a scream into a restroom mirror, I might apologize for doing it and the observer might apologize for seeing, even though he’s not done anything socially wrong. Some people even push apology into the realm of atonement, like Sarah Winchester, designer of the labyrinthine Winchester house. She required builders to continually add on to the house to appease the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchester firearms, until the house became a hodgepodge of doors to nowhere and staircases into solid ceiling. It’s what “I’m sorry for everyone else” might look like in concrete form.
Though this didn’t put me off decorum altogether, I was (and am now) more inclined to risk tastelessness if the alternative is a thousand doors to nowhere. I plan to continue to use the line from the suicide video, though probably not as an epigraph; I’d want to control the context, so that it worked to honor truth, instead of repulsing readers with irreverence. I could think of it as mapping the terrain: Identifying the staircases that always lead to a bloody nose, only using them when I need a bloody nose, stumbling down uncharted ones. I might practice my quiet scream in the restroom mirror (my late friend, of course, not there to excuse me), and see what dialogue comes in absence of an apology.