Now the bells are tolling—
a year is dead.
And my heart is slowly beating
the Nunc Dimittis
to all my hopes and mute
Yearnings of a new year.
And ghosts hover round
dream beyond dream
—“New Year’s Eve Midnight”
By Gabriel Okara
Gabriel Okara is a Nigerian poet who in 1979 won the common wealth prize for poetry. His most popular poems are “Pianos and Drums,” and “Call of the River Nun,” poems that center on the question of loss, ambivalence, and unease. But my personal favorite is “New Year’s Eve Midnight.”
I take an absurd delight in sad poems. They make me think of sad things but in a pleasing sort of way. They almost always leave me with this crappy but fuzzy feeling that I find deeply gratifying. But Okara’s poem is different. The poem touches on something unsettling about a time that we tend to think of as overwhelmingly full of cheer. And for that reason, rather than been merely melancholy, it conveys that kind of sadness that is sharpened by anxiety. The anxiety that comes with inhabiting the narrow threshold across which one year must pass on to the next.
This anxiety arises from the realization that we have before us the corpse of a dead year. Yes, we’ve survived to see the birth of a new year. But this very survival—as deserving of acknowledgment as it is—has occasioned a loss or has caused a death that we ought to mourn the same way we mourn things and people that die. Think of it. Is the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve a bar ditty or a requiem?
When things and people die, they never return. Not so with time. There is no such thing as dead time. There are always ghosts of years past that haunt the new year, making it less new. And the more years that pass, the older we get, the larger the number of ghosts that return to crowd out the forced division we try to make between the death of one year and the birth of another.
And so we wake up on January 1st to nurse a hangover that won’t let us forget how close we came to crossing the line between celebration and debauchery. We find that the birth of a new year does not mean the beginning of a new life. It’s business as usual, and the boundless possibilities that seemed so close to our reach the night before now appears so narrow. The sky-high expectations symbolized in the new calendar year comes crashing down. And the cheap resolutions we made reveal themselves for what they really are—cheap.
New Year’s Eve Midnight is the only time when sadness is a metaphysical necessity.
Image in post and on slider: Mural Painting in Tensta Church.