“It Isn’t Me” is an amazing poem from an ever-more astounding oeuvre. As quietly shattering as Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” as unaccountably and irresistibly doomed as Weldon Kees’s “Robinson,” its human subject is a creature part scapegoat, part Rilke’s unicorn (Sonnets to Orpheus, II iv): an impossible thing in an impossible world, a sort of lubricant, or charm, or assurance to the Pharisees who are now in the majority as well as the ascendancy (“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are”). Beautifully calibrated, sequential, paid or belayed out (“a life among his neighbors’ lives,” “his diligent forays outward,” “alone in offices or living rooms”), its paired rhymes stalking ahead of disobliging solitaries (“figure” and “him,” “stray” and “me”), it dances Whistlerishly to its wholly unexpected triumph of unsettlement by contagion.
It isn’t me, he’d say,
stepping out of a landscape
that offered, he’d thought, the backdrop
to a plausible existence
until he entered it; It’s just not me,
he’d murmur, walking away.
It’s not quite me, he’d explain,
apologetic but firm,
leaving some job they’d found him.
They found him others: he’d go,
smiling his smile, putting
his best foot forward, till again
he’d find himself reluctantly concluding
that this, too, wasn’t him.
He wanted to get married, make a home,
unfold a life among his neighbors’ lives,
branching and blossoming like a tree,
but when it came to it, It isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
And why it should be so hard
for someone not so different from themselves,
to find what they’d found, barely even seeking;
what gift he’d not been given, what forlorn
charm of his they’d had the luck to lack,
puzzled them—though not unduly:
they lived inside their lives so fully
they couldn’t, in the end, believe in him,
except as some half-legendary figure
destined, or doomed, to carry on his back
the weight of their own all-but-weightless stray
doubts and discomforts. Only sometimes,
alone in offices or living rooms,
they’d hear that phrase again: It isn’t me,
and wonder, briefly, what they were, and where,
and feel the strangeness of being there.
James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in upstate New York. He has published two novels, including The Horned Man, as well as several collections of short stories and poetry. He is the author of Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. He has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Los Angeles Times, T. S. Eliot, and Forward prizes in poetry; and he was the winner of the inaugural U.K./BBC Short Story Prize. His nonfiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books.
Michael Hofmann is an acclaimed poet, translator, and critic. He has published six books of poetry and has translated more than sixty books from the German, including Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, as well as works by Ernst Jünger, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth. His criticism appears regularly in the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and Poetry. He currently teaches poetry and translation at the University of Florida.