Close Calls, and Even Closer Callings

Paul Strand: Mr Bennett, Vermont, 1944

Four decades ago — tentatively — he summoned me with his nineteen years.
Who was he to know? How vague the calibre of his yearning!
Yet “vague” here is just the right verve
in the beginning
for the future fortune-telling of a whole other life to come . . .
There are times, at fifty-nine
when I would gladly swap back to his shapeless vagabond longing,
vitaller than worldly wisdom’s common commonsense
and without misadventure’s ramshackled failings.
At the next death,
as I wend my way out of this breathtaking Earth,
perhaps his will be the image that comes bashfully towards me
in greeting — some level of touching distance in his face —
and, at the moment me meet,
in turn — together — we will conjure between us an unequivocal third,
the one that language can only gnash its syntactic teeth at grimly
and that makes rude, raucous angels and devils alike
hoot aloud out of heart- and head-felt GLEE.

Serpentine

You couldn’t stand it ―
crawling hour after hour
down the famished tunnel of your hunger
mostly for a mouthful of dust.
At first sight,
do I rightly get under that skin
you are absolutely certain
never to wriggle out of? Legless,
lipless, no browed,
ruthless ― my denudity
creepily never fails to unnerve.
Of course, I am poison’s
Greatest Living Treasure
and venomously adverbs
every single move I make
to the point where
I, alone, am the sinuous hairline crack
that fractures and flaws
even the most generous “Love
of Nature”. Slithering
or coiled, I bring you lightning
Sudden Death, and am always
prepared to pull ― despite
decades of cautious caretaking ―
just that light from under your feet.

Gordon T. Bellchambers’s Fear of Dying

Yes, there’s the pain — sick, illegible — no body ever imagines in advance and the erosion by stealth of all my existence tangled in minute detail. These two, however, are wholly innocent. Not so the agony of what mortifies me now — endless distressful memories of all the life I did wrong: flimsy gestures and each half-hearted “yes”; the self-punishing good that was only drabness; dead reckoning of a day’s long imponderables; harshness when I could have been kind; faces I looked into blankly as I fiddled with my cuff links; words I could never bring myself to believe in fully; mindscapes, landscapes that escaped me forever, marred by chronic inattention . . . It is these I relive with what’s left of my nerve, replays that cut to the quick worse than physical suffering or any blanket dread of death —

self-managed joyless misgiving.

The Whole Joy (Tender Living)

Photo by Elianne Dipp on Pexels.com

● More than ten years ago now, a young woman went swimming at an Australian beach and was attacked and killed by sharks. This would be regarded as a tragedy anywhere in the world, but to the Australian psyche, obsessed with the sun and the sea as symbols of ultimate freedom, it was an unpardonable outrage committed by nature against the human order.

Like many others, beyond pointless outrage, I needed to make sense of this. How on earth do we come to terms with something so completely awful? To me, poetry means trying to find the words to deal with the unspeakable. At least, this is where it truly come in to its own, giving us a way through something that looms as a monolithic block, a lockdown of all our usual patterns of thought and feeling. Poems must take us where we cannot go purely on the basis of our common sense or experience . . .

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The Whole Joy

Every swimmer
knows that terror
she died of

yet still this Summer
we bait the water
with her fears.

Sun, sand, sea:
how these three
symbol the mind’s joy.

What shadows them —
decease, devastation —
revolts it.

Like earth, like air,
no ocean bears
the slightest enduring stain.

We mind her pain,
scarified, so that we may learn
the whole joy.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Three words in the last stanza are vital. The verb “to mind” has at least three relevant meanings here. First of all, it suggests offence: we are disgusted by what happened, and we don’t want it to happen again. Secondly, the event stays with us, becomes something that stays on our minds, making us incapable of getting it out of our heads. But finally, we are asked, perhaps, to look after this pain, to mind it on behalf of the victim, and to keep it intact in our lives so that it can play a meaningful role in how we move on past grief and horror.

The rather heavy-handed “scarify” obviously blends the two meanings of “scare” and “scar”. “Scar” echoes the previous “minding”, in the sense of allowing something to endure and of keeping it close to us, skin-close. I also had in mind something of what Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying about meditation in a recent powerful post on Vanessa Able’s The Dewdrop site: “it’s a danger to those who wish to lead a superficial life and a life of fancy and myth”. In the same way, the terrible fate of the young swimmer is a meditative reminder to us to live more authentically, to jolt us out of our fantasy wonderland version of reality.

The final phrase “the whole joy” indicates both complete joy and the joy of knowing wholeness, a wholeness capable of accepting everything that happens to us on this Earth as human beings ⸺ and not just the pleasant flounces and trimmings we so often wish to reduce existence to.

Memory is crucial here. Perhaps one should even hazard a new word and say membory, with a silent b. Unbearably, excruciatingly, in this context, however, what a desolate verb “to remember” turns out to be.

Twin Fragilities

Now the smashed bouquet:
Victorian poppies, daisies, crocuses
and roses
gardened to perfection
on a nineteenth-century tea-saucer
park for good their shell-thin porcelain scatter on today’s black concrete floor.
The crisp,
telling blow of this out-of-the-blue musical destruction
still tinkles aftertones
through a pair of shocked ears listening hard for the mind
to catch up — once again — to the everyday-
unforeseen.
In the same way, a small green bird stunned against invisible outdoor glass
stares hard at the rich spilt yolk
pooled at its feet
from a delicate, delicately broken
miscarried egg.


Photograph: Evette Kwok (2020)

Note: Obelisk’s Demise

IN MEMORY OF A GOLDFISH . . .

When you died a second time
and came back to life, I was worried you’d begun to make
a habit of it. You never did,
growing instead
easily to become the biggest fish in the pond
with a healthy curiosity for what lay beyond, overwater.
As a fully-grown giant,
you started fattening out sideways
and would orbit your sphere round and round the perimeter —
a trundling red planet
truly at home in your girth. I guessed
you were sick
when you took to planting yourself upside-down
in a clump of waterlilies,
poor, demented mermaid headstanding in ocean and waving her gauze
at some air-drowned mortal
like me: Farewell! Each day you waved
and each day, unfinned,
I’d wave you my dry human wave in return — Farewell!
till existence inside you shrank to a speck
and you sank
through the wreck
of your own dead weight

completely out of my depth.

Afterliving (Simon. And Merlin. And Me)

Vertical Shaft RESIZED

Now I can only know you at all from the depth of the grief
of your dog. Loss is not something
we can ever run simply away from
with the speed ⸺ full pelt ⸺ of our legs,
yet what is a dog ⸺ newly orphaned ⸺ to do
but try. And try. And try. Otherwise,
stranded where standstill is the only possible option,
pain is forever,
never stopping to catch its breath.
From my long remote view, I think you could say
any of us would be proud of a mourning
that ran ⸺
and starved ⸺ for days,
single-mindedly careless of trivial well-being.
In this we sense the magic of both the dead and the living,
calling back and forth in synonymous,
mimicking hello’s
which evoke in the process an enigmatic Third Realm,
a world inhabited by life, and by death,
and by a finely indistinctive common-nonsensical Something Else ⸺
Other-Brother-Sister ⸺
that comes to the fore in peak-moments like this
just to teach us the gist
of page one of its elementary Beginner’s First Grammar
or the opening lines of some life-and-deathless short poem.

 

Photograph: 香港東涌黃龍坑豎井 Vertical shaft in Wong Lung Hang, Tung Chung, Hong Kong (2016)