One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
- Mary Oliver
Monday night in June,
….and the sky is slowly darkening. The feathery trees ahead dip down low, skimming the glittering lake. The evening mist surrounds us, coating us in silver, in deep green. All we can make out is the forests edge and small island in the middle of the water, a pale, dream-like lagoon. You pull the hood on your rain mac, angling your face towards the summer rain. This, you say, is your kind of weather.
Last week, the temperatures soared. The park was littered with barbeque residue, food carton and packets, beer cans, empty wine bottles. Out of the bushes came blue-headed ducks and shiny, well-fed crows. Squirrels stole loaves of bread from rubbish bins. South London was vibrant and stifling. Now, in the matter of a few days, the rain has cooled the city down. The perfume hangs off the wildflowers and surrounding sweet bush. The puddles on the ground catch the ever-changing light. It is good to walk at sunrise and again at sunset. Something about it sets the day. Something about it sets the night. There’s no mistaking the truth; these deliberate walks draw us closer to ourselves. They ward off the deep darks and the slow bads. Something about putting one foot in front of the other at pace, allowing new things to enter the field of vision, concentrating on nothing but breathing breaks the anxiety, eases the mind. Something about being slightly too cold for comfort, feeling the wind in our hair, breaking a slight sweat as our strides take the hills. Submitting to the will of nature brings us out of our heads and inside our hearts, limbs, breath.
One of the truest things about being human is that we see the world through particular filters, according to what we have experienced in the past and have now come to believe. This is no exact science, of course, and can hardly be relied upon. However you slice it, the past is always a different colour. Here in the present, we are often so desperately underwhelmed, distracted, scared. Scared! I often wonder why it is easy to prime ourselves for the worst when there are nothing but miracles happening around us. But reality is a many-pronged thing. Wildlife and ambulance sirens. Rainbows and horrible violence. Summertime and alcoholism. We live inside a circular wonder, yet the wonder completely escapes us most of the time. Everything is many things, and life happens in the places where we rest our attention.
You just asked me what I was thinking. How best to answer? How do we begin to try and explain any or all of the growing wilderness happening inside us? How do you say everything and nothing? How do you say colour and lights, fear of the end of us, arousal, excitement and grief,
and also, I love you? How do you say all of those things and mean all of these strange, twisting things at once? How do you put words to the doubt, the growing unease, the potential for boredom, destruction, rage?
I say, not much. Not much, because there are no adequate words for any of this, and I think you already know that. Every time we think we figure it out, there are always new equations to grasp, to worry over. Every time we solve the code, we realise the answer was stored inside us. There are no new words for the ahas and the oh yeses. They are always being born, and they are always as old as time.
“People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.”
― Barbara Kingsolver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.
- Pat Schneider
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That's the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.
An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
A sudden swirl of gabble, flutter,
chatter, preen, and cluck
makes my yard into someone
No stone goes unturned, no
Even the dead rabbit I never
mentioned to the kids
gets flipped and flopped about
like last week’s gossip.
The children are alarmed,
Better not to tell them this is me
twenty years from now,
descending with cronies enroute
to Florida or Arizona,
pinching the grandkids,
noting with magpie eye
the looks that pass or don’t pass
between husband and wife.
Instead, I say, “It’s the flocking instinct.”
“They feel it in their bones and gather
before flying south.”
Instinctively, I flex knees and elbows,
crick my neck to peer
at the sky, continue the old seesaw
bargain with Time.
Originally published in the Poets' Calendar, 2006
Tell me if this is all true, my lover?
tell me if it is true.
When the eyes of me flash their lightning on you,
dark clouds in your breast make stormy answer;
Is it then true
that the dew drops fall from the night when I am seen,
and the morning light is glad when it wraps my body?
Is it true, is it true, that your love
travelled alone through ages and worlds in search of me?
that when you found me at last, your age-long desire
found utter peace in my gentle speech, and my eyes and lips and flowing hair?
Is it then true
that the mystery of the Infinite is written on this little brow of mine?
Tell me, my lover, if all this is true!
- Rabindranath Tagore
All those times I was bored
out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it. Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded. Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled. It
wasn't even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the graying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It's what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows. He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail. Why do I remember it as sunnier
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else. Perhaps though
boredom is happier. It is for dogs or
groundhogs. Now I wouldn't be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.
Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
Upon our intimate assembly.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of
You deserve a lover who wants you disheveled, with everything and all the reasons that wake you up in a haste and the demons that won’t let you sleep.
You deserve a lover who makes you feel safe, who can consume this world whole if he walks hand in hand with you; someone who believes that his embraces are a perfect match with your skin.
You deserve a lover who wants to dance with you, who goes to paradise every time he looks into your eyes and never gets tired of studying your expressions.
You deserve a lover who listens when you sing, who supports you when you feel shame and respects your freedom; who flies with you and isn’t afraid to fall.
You deserve a lover who takes away the lies and brings you hope, coffee, and poetry.
― Frida Kahlo
I often dreamed of watching without being seen. Of spying. Of being the perfect observer. Like that camera obscura I once made out of a shoebox. It photographed for me a part of the world through a black closed space with a microscopic pupil through which light sneaks inside. I was training.
The best place for this kind of training is Holland where people, convinced of their utter innocence, do not use curtains. After dusk the windows turn into little stages on which actors act out their evenings. Sequences of images bathed in yellow, warm light are the individual acts of the same production entitled ‘Life’. Dutch painting. Moving lives.
Here at the door appears a man, in his hand he has a tray, he puts it on the table; two children and a woman sit down around it. They take their time eating, in silence, because the audio in this theatre doesn’t work. Then they move to the couch, watch a glowing screen attentively, but for me, standing on the street, it isn’t clear what has absorbed them so – I only see flickers, flutterings of light, tiny pictures, too brief and distant to be intelligible.
Someone’s face, a mouth moving intensely, a landscape, another face... Some say that this is a boring play and that nothing happens in it. But I like it – for example the movement of a foot playing unconsciously with a slipper, or the whole astonishing act of yawning. Or a hand that seeks upon a plush surface a remote control and – having found it – is calmed, withers.
Standing off to one side. Seeing only the world in fragments, there won’t be any other one. Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces. Life? There’s no such thing; I see lines, planes and bodies, and their transformations in time. Time, meanwhile, seems a simple instrument for the measurement of tiny changes, a school ruler with a simplified scale – it’s just three points: was, is and will be.
From Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking.
Why else would the springtime falter?
Why would all our ardent longing bind itself in frozen, bitter pallor?
After all, the bud was covered all the winter.
What new thing is it that bursts and wears?
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking, hurts for that which grows
and that which bars.
Yes, it is hard when drops are falling.
Trembling with fear, and heavy hanging,
cleaving to the twig, and swelling, sliding -
weight draws them down, though they go on clinging.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the depths attract and call,
yet sit fast and merely tremble -
hard to want to stay
and want to fall.
Then, when things are worst and nothing helps
the tree's buds break as in rejoicing,
then, when no fear holds back any longer,
down in glitter go the twig's drops plunging,
forget that they were frightened by the new,
forget their fear before the flight unfurled -
feel for a second their greatest safety,
rest in that trust
that creates the world.
- Karin Boye
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
"That space. It begins in the middle of my forehead and ends in the middle of my groin. It is, variously, as wide as my body, as narrow as a slit in a fortress wall. On days when thought flows freely or better yet clarifies with effort, it expands gloriously. On days when anxiety and self-pity crowd in, it shrinks, how fast it shrinks! When the space is wide and I occupy it fully, I taste air, feel the light. I breathe evenly and slowly. I am peaceful and excited, beyond influence or threat. Nothing can touch me. I'm safe. I'm free. I'm thinking. When I lose the battle to think, the boundaries narrow, the air is polluted, the light clouds over. All is vapor and fog, and I have trouble breathing.
Today is promising, tremendously promising. Wherever I go, whatever I see, whatever my eye or ear touches, the space radiates expansion. I want to think. No, I mean today I really want to think. The desire announced itself with the word 'concentration."
- Vivian Gornick
Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea's side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.
Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water's speeches.
Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour's word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow's signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven's sins.
Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled birds.
- Dylan Thomas
I almost forgot, foolish me, I almost forgot, forgot
That where I am from we see the rain
Before the rain even starts to rain
No wonder, why you’ve been buggering me
Cause this walk, it’s a previous journey
And no wonder why the road seems so long
Cause I had done it all before
And I won
- Benjamin Clementine
I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.
I hunger for your sleek laugh,
your hands the color of a savage harvest,
hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.
I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,
and I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
hunting for you, for your hot heart,
Like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.
― Pablo Neruda
Just now it has come
to me again: the sudden
knowledge of everything
that remains to be done
though I worked my ass off
this week, doing things, doing
things. What is my style?
is a question I have never
asked until now, in the waiting
room at my dentist’s,
when this article in O Magazine
encouraged me so cunningly
to do so. Maybe it is not
my job to surprise you, not
anymore, says the spirit.
O.K., I say. O.K. But still,
I want one more crisp
image, just one, though I know
I don’t deserve it, I want it
to appear the way money once
or twice in my life has appeared
in my line of vision on
the street: some bill, nearly
alive, green god, its skin
giving off evergreen light,
unaccounted for and then
immediately mine, no
- Carrie Fountain
I like the lines you use on me
they crackle a little, like magic.
I cannot pull my mind off you
I do not trust your hands.
‘I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves’
- Yrsa Daley-Ward