Patrick White (September l5, l948 / Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada)
Brutal, Cold, Normal Life
Brutal, cold, normal life with a few
familial affections to warm your heart at
as if you held your hands toward a fire.
The heart goes blue, the heart goes red,
two-thirds of a triune traffic light.
I’m not shedding, the way the autumn trees
are, there’s still hair on my head
though its the urn of somebody’s ashes
I never met. I try to treat it with respect
and there’s a smile on my face the colour
if my eyes I use for default when there’s a glitch
of good luck that makes a grey day blue.
I’ve forgiven my lovers and friends
their careless infidelities. The match
thrown from the car that started
a forest fire of sensitivities that didn’t
like to be criticized. I only know one
who keeps his word like an exotic bird
in his rib cage he’s teaching how to escape.
If I ask it’s precious, little enough
compared to what I’ve given, though
most of my gifts remain unopened,
I’ve dropped my pine-cones like time capsules
on a seabed of compass needles to soften the blow
when I root in the conflagration to come,
take hold, and show you what it is
to be Slavic and stand up to the wind.
I don’t ask for much so I’m never disappointed.
There are verities. And then there are
perennial truths. Sooner or later you get
sick of them, their relentlessness, almost tyranny
and after that there’s nothing but oblivion
to look forward to exploring, as if it
never mattered which boot you put on first,
or if your toothpaste tasted like a blessing or a curse.
And you don’t know if you’re eloquent Aaron
or recalcitrant Moses when he faced his snakey rod off
against pharaoh’s magicians. Big snake
eat the little snake and the little snakes go down
easy, like wet noodles, the wrong way.
It’s hard to know whether to resign yourself
to life, or celebrate like the clown who
believed there was something sacred
about his calling, making the mourners laugh
at their own funerals. Haven’t been that way
since Grade six when an award taught me
the Book of Changes begins with a logjam
of yarrow sticks, a sloppy job of clear-cutting
everything that goes on in an old growth forest.
I got as far as the Book of Total Knowledge,
volume L, and gave up cramming my drawers
with the old wind socks of flights I’ve never taken
because of the rain and poor visibility.
Pick a loose thread from the shoulder
of an oil spill and you’ve got a total eclipse
of everything you’ve ever tried to understand
blacked out like London in the blitz.
Lightning wars that freed the slaves like rain
when one or the other got its feelings hurt
by witching for water in hell. By now
the grail is a skull full of stardust that won’t
slake anybody’s thirst in this mirage of a desert.
I don’t blame anyone anymore for the things
they did or didn’t do. History’s an old menu
for blood and the peasants are always
caught off guard like the Newfoundland cod banks
when the Catholic church passed an infallible
papal edict that said everyone had to eat fish on Fridays.
Ichthus. Good Greek word. The sun is in
the vernal equinox. A hunter’s moon in Virgo.
Why not? Is quantum physics any less superstitious?
Everybody’s good guess must be tolerated
though the wilderness is more of a natural antidote
than a pharmaceutical fish farm. But wouldn’t it be
a bummer if they learned how to make
everything live forever thirty years from now?
Bad timing, as if we had anything to do with it.
I’ve grown nostalgic for the waterclocks
my youth knew before I started wandering by myself
by the Tay River late at night when I might be
somebody dangerous, when, in fact, I’m just alone
with my own thoughts and memories as if
it weren’t anybody’s business but my own,
though it’s not wise to freeze up in the highbeams
of an inquisitive squad car that thought it saw
a raccoon with a balaclava instead of a mask
on its head. The terrorists have infiltrated
our genetically modified, corn-fed gardens.
Darkness and anonymity are my close friends
though I’m sure they know who I am.
Solitude is my longest standing, undemanding mistress.
I can’t understand most of the follies of people
anymore than I can any longer distinguish
the gaudier feathers of the strutting peacocks
compared to the dowdiness of the hens
when it all comes down to whether you want
to enjoy sex with me tonight or not. I’m not
shocked by anything except a virgin at forty-one.
Or a nun who knows the Pierian spring is between her legs.
I walk like the old bull who’s been led
to the altar many times before strong enough
for the slaughter and the sacrifice, but bored
with the details of why it must be so.
Didn’t I look far enough into your eyes
to make course corrections on my starmaps
before you started shining like a moonrise?
Don’t tell me it wasn’t love at first sight
when you looked at me like a slumlord
and you saw the rent like a matador in a tauromachia
of the sun and the moon on the hoofs and horns
you draped in garlands of gored roses?
The scorpion jumped on the back of the frog
and the lesson was on him. Too bad a dragon
stopped to give you a ride you couldn’t poison.
Misplaced compassion isn’t always a mandate
for extermination. Or a good deed the onset
of a rebuke by the devil that feels like punishment,
or the truce of love, surrender to a creature
that can’t help being what it was meant to be,
but it’s circumspect to note the stinger at the end
of the question, when the sphinx looks forward
to the interrogation as if the future of the answer
lay ahead like the one voice for the three ages of man.
Comments about this poem (Brutal, Cold, Normal Life by Patrick White )
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