Constrained in that narrow crib
for the turning of many seasons
sleepless he lies: Covered with unkind dust
which palls the hollow sockets and heedless grin,
haunted by an anxious wakefulness.
What went so badly wrong? Here’s coin in mouth
ready for the boatman, a yellowed warning
“Don’t drink the water”, Clothes sober for the judgement….
He learns too late, and cruelly
that the memory of clods falling will re-echo
through the succession of rustling days
unmarked by the timepiece nestling in his ribs.
Still more unbearable the thought, how,
after such painful patience, to give up hopes
of hearing the promised notes blast through his cell
to end this irremediable fever
filled with the memories of persistent senses –
belated taste for life,
sight, smell, sound and touch….
His cry’s silent reverberation,
Here is my attempt at a Spanish translation. Readers are invited to point out mistakes and make corrections.
La vida futura
Restringido en esa estrecha cuna
durante el paso de tantas estaciones
inerte yace: cubierto de un polvo cruel
que rellena las órbitas vacias, la sonrisa inadvertida,
poseido por un exasperante desvelo.
¿Cuál fue el gran error cometido?
Aquí llevo la moneda en la boca,
listo para el que me conduciría a través del río,
una nota añeja y amarillenta
“no bebas el agua,”
Sobria vestimenta para el juicio –
Aprende demasiado tarde, y cruelmente
que el recuerdo de los terrones cayendo
resonará a través de la sucesión
de los días susurrantes,
que el reloj anidado en su costillas
no puede medir…
Aún más insostenible el pensamiento,
cómo luego de tanta paciencia que hiere
abandonar la esperanza de escuchar
el estruendo de aquellos sonidos prometidos
que resquebraja su celda para dar término
a esta fiebre irremediable,
llena de recuerdos que despiertan los sentidos –
tardía el gusto por la vida
vision, audicion, olfato, tacto….
escapa la reverberación silenciosa de su grito
One night, when I was in my mid-thirties, I dreamed that I was in a graveyard. The sky was dull, the light fading, the time dusk. The graves were overgrown, rank with shrubs and scrub, green as holly, tangled and dark and resembling a labyrinth.
Owls nested high in the cottonwood and oak trees, and swooped down to carry away any creature which moved below. I examined the charred remains of a fire upon the surface of a grave, and pondered its effect on the thing buried within it. Immediately I ‘saw’ through the surface of the ground, and through the wooden box. I gazed at its contents. The remains inside resembled a wax effigy. Its original definition and clear delineation seemed to have been slightly blurred from the heat of the now extinguished fire, which had recently burned above-ground. The folds of the grave-clothes, which were the muted, earthy saffron of a renunciant’s robe, fell in the slightly unreal arrangement of a medieval illumination.
The wearer of these clothes did not seem like anything which had ever been alive, or fashioned of human flesh. It was a person unknown to, and unrecognised by me. I looked at the dark hair and skin the colour of an unbleached almond. I thought it was perhaps a woman. Perhaps it was myself.
I wonder that this dream habit of mine, (which seems to have been shared by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi) of ‘seeing’ into graves, is not that unusual. Only in my case, I seemed to be in some sense the occupant as well as the observer. I wrote several poems predicated upon the persona of someone who is not completely dead (and even perhaps excruciatingly alive) and who has been inappropriately, prematurely, unwillingly or unwittingly interred, and then in some mysterious way, resurrected.
I have always loved graveyards, They retain a marvellous echo of life to my inward ear. “Graves, after all,” as Rita Mae Brown observed, “are our only permanent residences.” Nevertheless, the thought of burial has always been repugnant to me. Even the naturely metaphor of returning to the ‘earth womb’ has done little to diminish my revulsion. I still quail at the thought of inhumation. I remember, as a young child of perhaps six or so, imagining and envisioning what it might feel like to be dead.
Since I grew up with my grandparents, I was aware from a very early age, of living with the nagging anxious and very realistic fear, they would die long before I did, and that I would be left destitute of all love and care. My solution to the terror induced by these secret, never-communicated and very real thoughts, was to create in my mind a scenario in which I would not outlive my grandfather. I would close my eyes at night, and watch the two of us lying side by side in the silence of the grave, hands clasped, turned to two human-shaped piles of fine dark dust. From where we lay, I remember watching the midnight sky above me through the transparent earth, wrapped in a vast and palpable silence, both internal and external. I sensed I inhabited a realm of timelessness, a place of absolute stillness, of soundless thoughts. Years later, after I learned to meditate, and to describe the experience to myself as “entering the silence”, I began to sense the similarities between that past and the present.
With age, my concept of death became less idealised, and more real. When I was a child, my young ayah repeated to me fragments of Buddhist sermons with graphic descriptions of decomposition she referred to as “the opening of the nine doors.” Ever year during Wesak (the annual commemoration of the Buddha’s birth, life, enlightenment and death) I gazed avidly at the graphic dioramas mounted on ‘floats’ which passed our home, which vividly illustrated these phenomena, and there began to form in me a mistrust for the illusion of the wholeness and wholesomeness of life. The Buddhist description of the human body as “a cage of corruption” during life, which only worsened after death, offered a much more repellent image than the peaceful one of my earlier devising and gave me a permanent horror of the prospect of burial.
I remember the eerie sense of familiarity which came over me when I saw the movie Dr. Zhivago, which began, I think, with the burial of his mother, when Zhivago was a child. As I remember it, the camera provided a grave’s-eye-view of the burial, and I immediately identified with the corpse, which I felt to be sentient, lying there helplessly in her coffin, watching and hearing the clods rain down and shutting out her last earthly glimpse of light from the small glass ‘window’ above her face.
I also have a vivid memory, as a young child, of listening to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher on the radio. All these things separately and accumulatively began to blur the line drawn by others to stand between what it meant to be alive and what it was to be dead. My mind had made the vague, but still very convincing, formulation that even after I was dead, I would continue to know what was going on around me as I did while alive.
One winter, when I was in my early thirties and living in an apartment building, I awoke one night, perhaps from a dream, with the unshakable conviction that the apartments were really burial vaults, and we the inhabitants were entombed, row upon row, layer upon layer, entrapped forever in our adjacent silences, in a post-mortem hallucination of life. It terrified me, since the conviction persisted long into my subsequent ‘awakened’ lucidity. I remember that in order to quiet my sense of terror I reasoned myself into the conclusion that in order to be ‘alive’ one had to live with a moment to moment conviction that one was not separate from life – that oneself and one’s life were one and the same.
It was around this time too that I wrote several poems inspired by the Muse as Persephone. Persephone, above all others offered me an understanding of the kind of love which satisfied the conditions of my experience, and though it has proved to be a tangled thread, I still cherish the conviction that certain myths are potent tools, and have the virtue of being able to lead to a deepened understanding of my intuitive self.
Ever since I was a young child, I was drawn to the myth, related to me by my aunt, of Orpheus and Eurydice. I gazed with rapt attention to the reproduced engravings in the illustrated encyclopedia of Eurydice’s wraith-like form retreating back into the darkness of the underworld, while a startled Orpheus stood frozen in his backward glance. I thought I could sense the reverberations, coming through the thin gloss of the pages and seeping into my fingers, of his feelings of mingled love and loss and remorse and horror.
But we are never quite dead – are we? We seem to persist as a halved onion does, when it is carelessly left on the kitchen table, on a summer night and is seen the next afternoon to have forced the section of its decapitated shoot through the heart of its body, greening already with the defiant hope, the unquenchable expectation of a continuing life.