Long Ago - Poem by Patrick White
Long ago I learned to forgive
like the daggers of a dead assassin
I melted down into bells
without occasion to sing.
I was tenderly adamant
about the need for compassion
and hung them from the loftiest towers
like iron fruit or rain frozen in its descent.
Only the conceptualists
indulge in perfect virtues
and mine, at best,
are improvised approximations
of the dark whispers
of the blind fish
that swim in the watersheds of my heart.
And there was no other way
of pouring the infection out of the wound
except by inviting the maggots to the feast.
I reproached them all
with the wisdom of a mirror
for relishing the worst of me.
It’s hard to remember sometimes
that even flies have a dignity of their own,
if no honey,
and even the city rose
turns into an old, well-thumbed book eventually,
an index of celebrity desecrations.
I kept my eclipses and dragons
up my bounteous sleeves
and took the trembling stagefright of the stars
cowering behind their cardboard hills seriously.
Whatever the mind realm,
whatever facet of the jewel turning in the growlight,
whatever feather of the spirit
soaring overhead with a twig of fire
or groping below like a star-nosed mole,
my heart turned into a lifeboat, a well, a telescope,
and I hauled everyone up and in and out of themselves
until the moon began to look like a pulley
and there was an echo in the siloes
of my exhortative sufficiency.
Sometimes the galaxies were easier to save than the candles,
but I applied my whips and swans lovingly
I was a good oar on a seaworthy vessel
and eventually my heart turned into a rudder.
I launched every pulse in the name of the unknown
and soon found myself a stranger
in the eyes of the people who had climbed to safety
up the nets and rope-ladders
I learned to fashion from my spinal cord.
I wasn’t a rudder on a lifeboat anymore;
I was a dead shark, dorsal down,
lethal, a meat-plough.
Nobody knew me as I was.
I struggled deeply within myself
to assume the throne of my isolation,
my heart freaked by the hazard of random lightning strikes,
challenged by demons
I could not win against,
crescent moons that broke off in my throat and voice like teeth.
I became the nightwatchman
of pleading shadows laid out
like corpses in a morgue,
a lamp in the arms of its own journey,
while their bodies walked around delinquently.
And the shining was black, the light,
an eerie pollen of the night,
an indelible soot lasered like destiny
on the sheets and sails of a soul I could never wash out,
a luminosity that just didn’t open
the moths and flowers like letters
but rewrote them, a transformative mirror,
an eclipse of the sun
that rises within at midnight,
an illumination that didn’t just reflect
but imagined the things of the world into being
and went on changing them,
seer and seen alike
on the same side of the mirror
that suggested them into existence inconceivably,
though there was no existence
to exit or enter by.
My seeing grew cold and impersonal,
space, a straitjacket of glass,
my heart, an ancient ice-berg on the moon,
and with a shriek of mouthless perception
my blood was blanched into flowing diamond.
I dared to look upon suffering,
my own and the pantomime of others,
as the flaring of a brutal creative fire
that wracked the world in an unwitnessed dream
lonelier than the wind without a star or a candle.
And I knew it was saying me
behind the mask
of every hopeless word I uttered.
And I saw at the dark gate
that reason was only another peer of the realm,
and there was an infinitude of skys and windows beyond
that my eyes hadn’t grown into yet,
flying like a bird into the vision
until only the vision remained,
and there were intimate metals in every rock
that had been confided into being like a secret.
Reason was merely a prim shadow
in the cosmic fire-womb
of the original madness
to make the hidden known,
whispering the world
into its own ear like a blasting cap.
Everything exists to know the hidden
as a robe of its own blood,
the taste of stars in the sap of the sugar maples in spring,
whether the cool mushrooms of her lips
that she offers up in the night
under the evergreens
are dangerously hallucinogenic,
or tenderly toxic, white angel or fly agaric.
I found it important to learn
what doesn’t make me happy,
and then to learn
that there isn’t anything that would
as I long as I persisted
in looking for the meaning of my joy,
the replicable reason
that would let me breed it
like a butterfly or a silkworm in captivity.
Now bliss comes when it does
naked and adorned,
impoverished and squandering,
and my heart is more of an empty, open hand
than a fist clenched around
something it feared to lose.
Haven’t you noticed the sad drinkers
in the all night taverns
who age faster than the wine in their glasses
as soon as they start
to con the god into staying,
make a cage of the tree
to snare the elusive nightbird
that enhances their darkness
with a voice hinged to a doorway of light?
And the theorists trying to sweep
the ashes of stars
immolated in their own light like moths
off their thresholds with tweezers?
And those who live like pharaohs
under pyramids of quicksand
they’ve made of their hearts
that look a lot like this one
when the bandages will come off
like the brittle eyelids
of a shedding rose
and the bull harps will seed the moon again
and the echo at the end of the dream
won’t be just the voice of another used beginning.
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