The Words Are As Big As They've Always Been Poem by Patrick White
The words are as big as they’ve always been
but the mouths of the people that use them
have grown small, their voices the size of wrens
when they once could shriek like eagles in defense
of the precipitous eyries of their aquiline principles
as if they hadn’t spent their lives with their wings folded
in an aviary with a bird’s eye view of what
the earthworms are looking at. Songs in the dawn,
aubades, but from a cage with an executioner’s hood over it.
People can’t get the word love down their throats anymore
without masticating it to death like flavourless gum,
and the dragons have forgotten how to unlock their jaws
to swallow the moon whole to bring on the rain.
Pain narrows the eyes of oviparous children
like thorns that have upstaged the wounded rose that lies
on the sidewalk in a pool of blood that bloomed like bullet-holes.
Stigmata of concrete. The virgin’s eyes are a morphine drip.
Remember the old Zen mondo about a man
chased over a cliff by a hungry tiger, clutching a bush
slowly pulling out of the side of the cliff wall
like the piton of a mountain climber, while another
open-mawed carnivore waits down below for him to fall
and what does he do, in his moment of peril, but reach out
for a ripe strawberry growing beside him as if
to retrieve something good that might distract him
from the issue at hand. Umm, good, like a cigarette
in front of a firing squad, rabid meringue on the mouths
of the distempered hydrophobes who believe
they’re drowning like waterboarded lifeboats
that drink spit from other men’s mouths like Cool Whip.
Madness in diaspora focused like a gunsight
trying to shoot out the stars like a sniper firefly
with an arsonist’s tendency to return to the scene of the crime.
Ice burns like crystal fire in the heart of a sophisticated savage
electronically wired to its own ideological rage.
I have an expansive heart accelerated by dark energy.
Friends and lovers, children, and family, gods, art, the stars,
things have grown further apart over the lightyears.
Meaning showed up like a gateway drug in my life
and I’ve been interrogating my sorrows ever since,
why we must die, what we were born for, how to live
so you don’t puke at what you’re reviewing on your death bed
just before you drown in the omnipresent abyss
that lets you down like a lifeboat into your own grave.
Words had a facility for me. I was the best liar on the block.
Myths poured out my mouth. I liked to arouse the wonder
in people, watch their hearts gape at the mystery of being alive.
Maybe I was only trying to convince myself, but the power
of the magic I felt was irresistible, and there seemed something sacred
in the sharing, the mutual enhancement of awareness
I could be the catalyst of, and who knows, maybe that was good,
maybe that was love, and though the child in me felt like roadkill,
maybe I could still steal fire like Prometheus with my liver torn out,
maybe there was still some use in the world for a corpse
that could speak like a prophetic skull for what’s about to befall
all of us, by directing their minute attention like the big picture
to the mysterious beauty and ardent truth of here and now.
And if love wasn’t a gift with my name on it, I could
achieve it somehow by making a gift of a gift, by living
open-handed in the midst of so many fists. Not as a martyr,
a messiah, a guru, a walking encyclopedia, a shaman,
an emblematic poor boy who pulled himself up like the universe
by his own bootstraps, I hated all of that as pretence,
fraud, screening myths for an ego coiled like a rattlesnake
under a rose-bush. My head in the stars, my feet in the gutter,
nothing was occult to me by the time I was seven, and yes,
you might feel like a witchdoctor for a moment
like one of the gram masters of the dynastic streets,
but more often than not, your eyes were pierced by dirty needles
like a voodoo doll, or thrown on the pyres of your love affair
with yourself, like a strawdog after a religious ritual.
I was prematurely wise and grey as the concrete I’d been raised on
like bedtime nightmares about some things. I’d seen
what people can do when they’d been taught by disappointment
to hate themselves like a cult of futility dedicated
to evangelizing the viciousness of Sisyphus standing
under an avalanche of stones that rolled back down upon him
like a calendar of moonrises that didn’t have the mountain gears
to make the grade. Spiders of stone enthroned in the dream catchers
of shattered windshields and rear-view mirrors.
Words not a cure-all, no, but still mightier than the sword
to judge by the ones that have been thrust through my heart.
Poetry, the most compassionate of the arts except
to its practitioners. A noble calling with a muse
as old as prostitution. Words the sacred whores
outside the Iseum, not thirty years of Vestal virgins
keeping the home fires of Rome burning. I don’t care
what you had for breakfast. I read your book.
It’s a begging bowl of soggy cornflakes. Where
are the waterlilies? What depths did you write this out of,
or did they evaporate on you like shallow tears
and lunar atmospheres before you had a chance
to shed them? You’re a snake-charmer in leotards, ok,
but where are the snakes? Where are the heretics
immolated in the oracular fires of underground volcanoes
filling their lungs like bongs with visionary fumes?
Burn, baby, burn. Even the library of Alexandria
sang in its own flames enraptured like a star
in its own shining instead of merely talking about the light.
Show me a firefly of insight. Show me a black hole
that dug its own grave expecting everybody to lie down in it
with it like Jonestown, or your buddy there with his
three thousand saddle-stitched individually signed books
he’s flogging like the annals of history, volume L,
at a strategically placed table in a shopping mall,
ask him if he knows how to get drunk on death
as readily as he does on his carbonated stuff like
the sixth pressing of life in the vineyards of the Burgess Shale.
Come on, sunshine, put some night into it. Linger
in the doorway of a death in life experience for
the rest of your life, never, ever knowing for certain
whether it’s a grand entrance or a pathetic exit
or someone’s just poking their head through the curtains
to see if there’s anybody out there listening in the dark.
And if there is, remember this like Simonides of Ceos
or Metrodorus of Scepsis, you just have to show up
like a lifeboat, you don’t need to come on like an ark
in anticipation of the flood that will come after you like the Arctic.
Patrick White's Other Poems
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