Let’s speak of life, he says,
of breath and heartbeats.
But I can only think of dying—
no, not dying, but after the dying,
after the great questions
have all been posed,
after the immense darkness—
that some call light—
has been not only faced
but swum through,
and what is left is only biology,
the weight of the organic matter
that presses to the earth when dreams
and air no longer inflate it.
To dust you shall return
the holy texts warn or promise,
and so, determined, we strain
muscles and touch real soil to prove
at least this one sermon true.
To dust, and worms,
and compost and tough roots
tugging at clumps
of mud, you shall return,
we return you now. We tuck you into
that cold earth and cover you with
heavy humus blankets,
and now the day is over.
Now, the day is done.
My brother’s young body,
from too much chemo,
too little appetite,
was buried in the cold earth
of a Canadian prairie.
It was May, the ground
still barely thawed
from the long winter,
the grass still brown,
those few dark branches
I don’t remember
watching the box
that held his bones,
his translucent eyelids,
his narrow fingers,
being lowered into that dark hole,
but I imagine the scene now
as unbearably stark,
the square lines of the
white church surrounded by fields,
those small grave stones
lined up in rows,
German hymns sung
by faltering voices.
This is the anthem of brokenness:
Farmers and housewives
sending words of stubborn religion
up to a silent sky,
while they watch the land they cleared
for wheat and canola
swallow their fiercest love.
There are those who tell their thirsty children
that lightening is a bird, those whose language
makes no distinction between the fish eagle
with its neck flashing white
and the electric lines that shatter the night sky,
cracks for water to finally seep through.
There are those who throw the ground hornbill,
that unsettling feathered creature with its human eyelashes,
into a pool of water to bring the rainy season
when the wait has gone on too long.
There is a man who hides in a windowless hut
for three days before the skies open
and the deluge begins. He spends those days
finding his way back into the tao, and once there,
the separation between him and the cloud particles,
the currents of air, disappear, and rain making
is no longer a magic art but a generous thought.
I don’t know if it’s possible
to appreciate the ancient rituals
of calling the rain if you live
in a place that has never known dry.
But when the grass is brown
and the beautiful ferns have
long given up their instinct for greening,
when cows are dying and the children
are next and there is no tap
you can run to, no money you can spend
for one more litre of life,
then the stories you hear of rain dances,
sacrificial birds, tales of clever children
and wizened crones who somehow
break open the skies,
please the right gods, wring water
from the clouds, these stories
become more urgent than the morning news,
your prayers turn to the mythmakers.
You have to wonder
why this dusty piece of gravel,
falling through a corner of the cosmos,
holds so much magic, so much
life force. Others have wondered it
first of course, why all that dark space,
all those universes, and here of all places,
suddenly sunbirds and coral reefs,
waltzes and Matisse.
Surely, if it is an accident of the chaotic matter,
a coincidence of heat and electrons,
it is the most gorgeous,
the most outrageous mistake.
But even as I write these words
a streaky seed eater, feathers ruffled
from the morning rain, eyes a shining darkness,
lands on the chair beside me, dares me
to call her hollow bones, her pulsing heart,
an accident of cosmic rubble. She turns
her head in sympathy at all my ignorance,
my pitiable conviction that space is empty.
Can’t I see the darkest matter is, in fact,
the sparrow’s eye?
If I could bring myself to believe—
without fear of self-absorption—
that what the mystics and poets say is true,
that the work which finds you happiest
is your great assignment of love,
is the calling that best shifts
the cosmic balances away from suffering,
then every morning I would find my way
to the winding circle of stones
under the eucalyptus trees.
I would bring a small broom, maybe a rake,
and I would tend to that labyrinth
with a monk’s devotion, clear leaves, carry twigs.
This would be my green and growing nunnery,
the weaverbirds and firefinches my holy sisters.
I would obey my vows with fervour,
with gravity. And then—if what they say is true—
creation would fly towards hope and wholeness,
buoyed by my singing heart.
What work has ever found me happier?
What work has summoned in you this secret song?
in which a quantum state would decay if left alone, but does not decay because of its continuous observation.
I read about quantum mechanics
and am compelled to write poems—
the observer effect,
each more beautifully hinting
at the movements of my own heart
than any religious creed.
I find this blurred border
surprising, a newfound kinship
with a community of minds
I’ve never met.
When I pray to a spirit that I cannot see,
but that I imagine dancing
between me and the rest of the cosmos,
I ask her to hold my heart
in her continuous observation
to keep it from decay.
I bow down in my solitude,
begging for the gift of
Zeno’s merciful effect.
When I run out of prayers,
when the weight has become
too much–this weight of being
human, this experiment in
suffering–does God remember
all those prayers I said
when I was young, the claims
I made in youth groups,
around campfires, the reams
of holy words I wrote when
my babies were small,
or the grace whispered around
my mother’s pots of soup?
Did God gather those prayers,
like tattered squares of cloth,
in a basket by her side, ready
to pull them out now as she watches
my fragile thoughts, hears
so many nights of disappointed
silence, ready to string them
onto tender ribbon, prayer flags
to tether me still to her hands?
There is a story from Vietnam
kneeling in a still room
when the soldiers arrive,
kick in the door I think,
point guns, shout.
All that violence
slashed into all that peace.
And the monks,
they don’t flinch.
They don’t open their eyes, startle,
grab each other’s arms or
look to their leader.
They keep sitting there, silent,
noticing their in breath,
their out breath.
I think of those monks every night
when I hear a loud sound in the street
and my heart races and my eyes
flash open and I’m already
planning how quickly I can get
to my babies, where we could hide
I think of them in the morning
when I read the news,
and during the day when panic pushes
through the spaces around my lungs.
I carry them with me
through my tense and worried days,
breathing the same air as soldiers,
their stillness a foreign language
I cannot decipher.
Sometimes when I read the great poets—
the ones I think are great, that is, my own
anthology of heroes—
the lines and spaces around me become brighter, sharper.
I see the dragonfly beating its wings against
my window and I speak to it with soft affection,
cup it in my palm and admire its shimmering weightlessness,
feel weightless myself–
this because I have been reading the poets
and I feel tentatively that I am one of them,
me and my brief encounter with delicate wildness.
But other days I read the great ones
and I sink through admiration, down to envy,
to resentment, to the swamp floor of despair.
Because who can ever hope to add to all that genius?
How can my attempt at naming the truths of this planet
add anything to the world already written?
Yet each morning, I reach again for the stark stanzas,
wonder if I will float or sink,
willing to risk either for the slippery feel of
a poet’s brilliance, for a chance to swim in this wide water.
I leave my house in the damp
blurriness of morning, walk until
the city cannot reach me.
Stepping out of my shoes, I press
the warm soles of my feet
onto wet stone, damp leaves,
but still the distance between me
and the roots of things is too great.
So I kneel down, dig my fingers into
the blanket of dirt, peel open
crinkly seed pods,
the ideas of so many trees lined up
inside that brown dying skin.
I put a seed in my mouth, taste my
longing to enter the humus,
to close all the gaps between me
and the ground of all growing.
When it starts to rain, I lift my face
toward the downpour, willing
the moving sky and the wet earth
and the tall trees to swallow me
inside themselves, wash away
the boundaries of my skin,
plastic beads, synthetic clothes.
Kneeling with the devotion
of a thousand desperate
saints, I ask the earth to absorb
me with gulping love
into her ripe
Tonight I watched a star slice through the dark
Turkana sky, so bright I thought the
moon was falling, and I realized it
was the first thing I’d seen in this
wide country that made me gasp
for the beauty of it. But this place, too,
is beloved of the earth, this place, too,
holds the million miracles. I suspect it takes
a learning, a leaning into this life, to see
its small offerings, an intimacy with
the blazing heat, the endless sand,
the sharp clarity of no water, no food,
no crops, before your heart can open
wide enough to receive the gift of the golden sun
laying its heart across the lean acacia. Before you
smile to hear the black bird with the caw
like a creaking door and the dove
with its watery whooping. And then,
if you are lucky, you will find you love
the immense courage and artistry of a people
choosing thousands of beads, startling
against the endless browns of this place,
who wear as much beauty as their necks can hold
when beauty seems to have no meaning.
Who find time to attend to the stringing of necklaces,
hard silver bands bent around wrists, tiny braids
against smoothly shaven temples when water itself
is unassumed, when life this week again
is tenuous. When did I learn that beauty
was a luxury? What have I ever known