This is the myth we chose to do without;
and surely the painter imagined the garden he shows
as blue-green and mandarin – the improbable fruits
and blossoms; the patient birds;
the held breath of the shade–
surely he imagined it
with no one in the foreground but himself:
a scene from childhood, say, or early love; a moment’s
homesick reinvention, not quite true, and yet
more trusted than the authorised account.
It seems so much a pretext for the real:
that dove in the upper branches, that wisp of cloud,
those children in the distance playing quoits
or calling out from one hedge to the next
the only names they know in all the world.
It seems so much a pretext for the given:
less gospel than the brilliant commonplace
of all we take for granted, vines and thorns
and morning dew receding in the grass;
that gold light in a stand of tamarisk; woman and man
arriving at this moment, not by chance,
and not quite by design, their puzzlement
the first step in a lifelong discipline
of knowing what they can and cannot touch,
what goes unspoken and what must be told:
a local sound – though everything is one –
the smell of hyacinths, a veil of bees
the closed wound and the healed: this
The woman cannot speak. She has no words.
Nothing she sees is true until a man
confirms her story; not one man, but four,
when giving evidence before a judge:
a man to echo everything she says,
a man to write it down and make it holy.
So what we hear is always second-hand:
as one man tells another of a scene
he never witnessed, spelling out in words
the mysteries of touch and nothingness
– and this is what we choose to do without
this testimony: upright men and true
speaking an authorised version: sexless; untouched.
They misunderstand what she says.
They make it new;
retell it for the version they will write
as gospel, passed from one mouth to the next
till something whole and vivid has emerged:
the empty shroud; the angel in the tomb
the resurrected man so like himself
his twin could dip three fingers in the wound
to feel the warmth – and all she memorised,
retold in altered form, is true enough;
if anything is true that can be told
when so much of the whole has been omitted.
The painting says the dead cannot be touched;
nothing is carried over, nothing is held,
even the people we love must steal away
in other guises: shadows in the dust
or something gone adrift between the trees,
lost in the wind, or the light of transmigration
– and this is how the spirit brings itself
to step aside: a gift to the unknown
since life itself is seamless and entire
tendon and bone remembering decay
as seeds remember trees, eggs conjure flight.
The real unmakes itself in every hand
that reaches out to touch and grasps thin air:
that newborn stranger hurrying away
to other facts, unhindered by desire
this wisp of smoke
this tilt of bells.
The painter cares for nothing but the light:
the patterns he knows; the shapes of this
commonplace magic; acres of grass,
or the shadows in a stand of citrus trees
between this moment and the middle ground.
This is his single chance to catch a glimpse
of how the soul continues, how it steps
from one life to another, almost touched
by what it leaves behind: a naked thing
the woman half-mistakes for wind, or song.
Irrational perhaps – and yet for years
he’s carried in his nerves that other self
who might have come in some bright parallel,
a purer logic drawing out the form
he cradled in his chest with each held breath.
Irrational – yet what seems fixed in us
is haunted by a voice we never hear
and if the self is fixed what soul there is
is always something else, a practised craft
that ventures ounce by ounce upon its world
the way a skater ventures on to ice
one heartbeat at a time
– and if the self
were noun,what soul there is
is like a voice before it starts to speak
returning as they say we must return
in one form then another: cat, then bird,
then spider in the angle of the wall,
weaving a trap for flies, and at the last
the blue spark of a fly, some autumn night,
flickering out, the relict of this fire
becoming water, moonshine, flecks of dust,
time after time and each time a smaller goodbye.
Alone for the first time in weeks
and starting again on something he’d almost abandoned
he’s thinking of the time he saw a girl
on the frost-whitened rink of the green
one hard December morning: not quite dawn
his neighbours asleep and him in a tattered coat
and slippers, in the gold cell of the attic,
brewing tea. Ghosts didn’t bother him much
but this was one he’d never seen before:
a dark-haired girl in sandals and a thin white
summer dress, her head turned to the light,
the look on her face less hope than apprehension.
It took him three short steps to reach
the window: lights and shadows on the glass
becoming shapes, then absence, then the thought
of something lost before it even happened
and when he looked again, through ferns of ice,
nothing was there.
Yet now, as he sets to work in an empty room
with hours to fill, he’s thinking of the time
he saw her: how he knew that he had seen
and guessed he’d been deceived, the way we guess
there’s something in the world we cannot name
though each of us negotiates the form
it happens to assume: not quite the ghost
he thought he’d seen that morning while the house
was still asleep, but something he would claim
if ever it returned: half-girl; half-frost;
a resurrection waiting to begin
in flesh and bone, in touch and self-forgetting.