Exiting the Student Union from the Basement
I bear the door before me like a shield
And pressing, push my eyes the vanguard for
My mind into the field – what force awaits
My flank to tear inside the rumbling dark?
The spies report “all clear!” and I march on.
Some hawkish general steers me right
A chain link wall to face, and peer beyond
The formless there to shape what lies within.
A thing, a pipe, or enemy a shriek
For Battle-cry performs and thusly I –
Tired now of war – flee onward towards the door.
After several years of visiting Dickinson and at least a year of residing here, many of the places on campus carry a more personal flavor that mediates the way I conceptualize and describe them. While I wrote with my perceptions in mind, I chose to represent them in a different way; my interpretation, too, excludes them.
War is a familiar but destructive force in the world. While the lives of civilians may normally remain relatively unimpacted by it, for soldiers and veterans it is a defining experience. Its powerful impression stems from its ability to generate a rush from both terror and excitement. Such a quality allows warfare to form an effective metaphor for simultaneously experienced but generally opposed emotions. Use of military vocabulary to create a war motif in “Exiting the Student Union from the Basement” recreates textually the internal emotional duality as the speaker self-dramatizes his experience.
And just what is that experience? The poem at first appears to describe a military encounter. Terms and phrases like “bear…like a shield,” “flank,” “hawkish general,” and “battle-cry,” while usable for standard descriptions, carry military annotations. Yet nowhere does the speaker refer to his being a soldier. An enemy is never seen, only heard – dubiously, at that (see below). Thus while the speaker says he is “tired now of war,” war is something in which he is evidently not participating. In reality the speaker, as the title suggests, is moving through a non-hostile space. This revelation allows for a multi-tiered reading of the text. For if the speaker is not, in fact, fighting, then the military descriptions are not literal but rather metaphorical.
Meter is used to add further dramatizations to the poem. Iambic pentameter predominates in the poem but breaks down at the beginning of Line 11 with “Tired now of war.” The speaker’s internal metaphor at this point collapses with the meter, before picking up again at the end of the line as the warfare imagery “flee” resumes. Meter also emphasizes certain thought processes in the text, such as Line 9 “a thing, a pipe, or enemy. [emphasis added]” This non-logical progression reinforces the idea that the reality from which the speaker speaks is not a military, but rather an imaginative one. The agent in most clauses is the speaker, excepting those used as dramatic metaphors such as the “general” in Line 6 or the “spies” in Line 5.