Weekly Poem: ‘Green Door’

BY Annie Strother  March 7, 2011 at 12:30 PM EST

By Charles Baxter

“Midnight, one more night
without sleeping” — and it’s 1956
again when Jim Lowe has a hit
called “Green Door,” whose lyrics
are puzzling to fourth graders such
as myself who listen to top-40
and who earnestly & urgently
desire to know
what the song’s about: “all I want
to do is join that happy crowd”
he sings and then goes on
to sing that he doesn’t know
what they’re doing there but they
laugh a lot behind the green
door, and it may be
that something naked’s going on, or
puberty, a word that always made me
think of clotheslines hung
with sheets and pillowcases:
it would be like that, the era
of hair and swellings soon to come
when doors would be painted green
and maybe start to open the moment when
you said “Joe sent me,” or you
said nothing because it
wouldn’t matter what you said,
because they’d open or slam regardless —
you were either lucky, or you weren’t.

Fifty-three years later and the tavern
down Minnesota highway 61 is called
The Green Door, and I drive by
with the car radio roaring the Lenore
overture, which one of them I can’t tell,
and thinking of the composer of Fidelio
and the late quartets, especially
the cavatina in the opus 130 when
the unlikely melody begins and flutters
briefly before it soars its way upward
to heaven and to God, who is pure distilled
unhappiness — anyone can hear it — a tune
so lovely and disjointed, dire, ultimate,
forced & willed into this joy that Beethoven
has determined must be airborne,
it could be the only truth for him, and as he
said caused him more pain than anything
else he had ever written, and therefore he
wrote that passage out as if his life
were suspended from it. In his written testa-
ment the words are laid bare for
posterity whose eyes and ears he
knows he’ll have: this, this is the bargain —
he will be, all his long and earthly
life, he says, exiled from happiness,
and sorrow will be his portion,
must that be? you ask, and he answers
yes, yes, it must be.

 

Charles Baxter 
 
Charles Baxter is the author of four novels, four collections of short stories, three collections of poems, a collection of essays on fiction and is the editor of other works. He teaches at the University of Minnesota. Art Beat talked to Baxter last week about his latest collection, “Gryphon.”