Four Voices For A Century
1. Rilke in Paris (1902)
I am learning to see:
long dark streets, a certain wall,
the intestines of houses left open to the sky,
pipes hanging like disconnected throats.
Hours spent in the hospital,
a face among all the faces,
watching the play of sunlight on a wall.
When later I sought to explain my predicament to the doctors
the phrases learned off so carefully
all turned into birds
pecking and banging wildly
against the window.
Asked to wait once again
I caught the smell of electricity poured
into people’s heads,
then fled a long way down tunnels,
to wake on an embankment
facing the deep quiet of the Seine.
I have seen more:
a troop of madmen holding hands
as they enter the clinic,
old lottery selling women
whose toothless mouths
suck and slather,
a family of acrobats setting up for their performance
on a path through the Luxembourg gardens.
the blind man on the bridge,
so grey and worn and forgotten
like a chalked stone on some long disused road.
He had about him a frayed cloak marked by
what I took to be stars.
As he tapped his way through the crowd
I saw in him a powerless judge
bringing the world to a halt.
And beyond all seeing
invisible roads carrying me
to the edge of breakdown.
Some twilight from a high window
a tear that stretched
across skies, across years.
Meeting the truth of hands:
my own hand among all the hands,
going out, losing itself, becoming indistinguishable,
and then (my pen does an ellipse
of shame as I write this)
the pure moment of horror of others,
of disappearing forever among them,
of their skin and their smell
and of quiet anonymous deaths.
So I walk each day across this town
as in an evil wood without end.
For when the forests of Europe were felled
the wolves and the fears fled into the cities
like the secret leer in the handcrafted woodwork in Nuremburg
or the goblins, the dark duendes,
that conceal themselves in the corners of great Cathedrals
as in the Kölnischer Dom.
At times it is as if I could touch the coming horror
and then it is all inside me
but without words
as I stood the first time
before Rodin’s Portals of Hell.
For the moment I seek to grow and be worthy.
I live on vegetables where possible
to be close to what is simple
and alone without wine in this city of dying laughter
I seek to grow clear and invisible.
To be empty and whole.
To be the road of a single journey.
2. Hitler in Vienna (1909)
I write these notes because I do not yet know what myth I want to construct.
I am learning to hate
this above all
am learning the science and exact measure
of how others hate, how hate is transmitted.
I am seeing behind the faces
seeing so accurately
how this animal, the city, is put together.
There is in all this a form behind surfaces
a formula I can almost name.
I believe I am touching truth, not truth as others have known it
the truth of the past
but future truth.
I see men and women moving around
believing this is the past
tea on the balcony
a stage-set managed by families with names.
Yet a new earth is present in the eyes of the very poor, the outsiders,
all those seeking work
and the beautiful anonymous thugs I will one day use.
I know I must harness my strength.
I live almost entirely on vegetables
and avoid all alcohol.
I seek the sharpest concentration
to realise what I know is inside me.
In the bars and on benches
I see men crumpled by life
and at times I have stood transfixed
by horror of others, of their skin and their smell.
I have discovered –
I think you could call it terror –
of all those for whom life
is one long anonymous death
So I walk each day across this town
as in an evil wood without end
and I seek out the ones to blame.
I let the voices inside me
dictate the ones (so, so many)
Above all I despise the assertion of values –
today when required to fill in my occupation
I put ‘writer’
yet in truth I may be the supreme anti-poet
for I feel in myself no inside,
no space out of which to address words that might be
any more than steps towards
other advantages –
Shifting from room to room
to confuse the authorities, to avoid Militärdienst
in this polyglot mess of a dying Empire,
I enjoy and despise
my profound tastelessness.
(Even as I write this
I whisper through my teeth
“every word is a ploy”.)
And I say
the earth is open for
the one who will seize it.
3. Thomas Merton in Bangkok (1968)
Outside this hardened glass window
is all of Asia.
I have been out there all day
sweating and chilled
in a conference with monks.
Here just a few hundred miles from
the burning fields of Vietnam
remembering (is it dream or memory?)
the flight out of Japan
inside the jaws of a bomber
falling asleep on the hatch
dream of being sprayed out along with napalm over the rice fields.
Memories of my last night in Japan
flags tied to small barges on the river,
little peace offerings floating
down a river corrected by concrete.
Remembering my friend, the young novice from Nicaragua,
who taught me the lovely old poem of Jorge Manrique
“Nuestras vidas son los ríos...”
and yesterday exhausted,
watching the enormous sermon of mud
flowing in afternoon heat through the city of Bangkok,
the great brown river-god
laden with ferries, barges and silent old tankers,
the tall spires of oil burning by day and by night
on the city skyline.
What is this world outside the window to me?
Gestures and glances I cannot read.
In this city of millions
reduced to an ageing man
who wanders lost
as in an evil wood without end,
my eyes drink heat and petrol,
drink slowly the heavy sky,
that coffin lid.
Even as I miss
the contemplative quiet of Kentucky
I feel I have never understood prayer,
the one power I have in this darkness.
I would like to simplify my life,
to live entirely on vegetables, to keep the mind unclouded
to let the voices inside and outside me
heal and speak praise.
The heat of the day steaming over,
I head for the shower.
Time later to try out the portable fan
that sits looking battered
in its own due corner.
4. Child on Smoky Mountain, Manila
He eyes the fishbones.
An elemental hush in the collection of junk.
He strips bare the husk of tape
from a broken cassette.
The drowned automobile is striking roots.
No matter how thin the poet
wants to get
they will never be as thin
The mountain of refuse is the magic mountain
of the ending.
It is not words or dogmas
not beliefs or passions
we fight for now –
only gnarled raw things:
a doorhandle, the rusted shoulder of a car,
a shrivelled stalk of some stripped weed
as lean as
the stick legs of the grey unshaven
males behind the wire
on a hillside in Bosnia.
The hot twisting wind
is the mountain’s ear to this earth.
In the refuse pile
a shoe without heel or sole
The boy searching for food
grazes the edge of a dead pipe,
its cylindrical ache for water
now filling with mud and fishbones.
With the fragrant smoke
above the jeepney fumes, above the brown haze
of this colonial city
silting up with a life it cannot feed
this is everyone's cemetery.
On Smoky Mountain
the gulls perch.
Blown batteries leak their blue stain.
In shunting yards
slow trains grind their cargo
of foodstuffs for Japan.
Tinned and perfectly segmented pineapples
creak down towards the docks.
Lachrymose as angels
children drift across the refuse, a face mask over mouth and eyes,
the extraordinary heat of the tropics
crawling across shoulders that
never quite rise above the stench
like a swimmer whose lips
graze the crust of salt.
While just beyond them
the thin river trickles down
to Manila Bay.
Peter Boyle's Other Poems
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