Again for Deborah with thanks
A life is spent in unconscious subservience
To the demands of living,
To the demands of striving: conquest, release, acceptance, final love.
A life is spent in unconscious subservience
To the demands imposed by the beautiful flowering
Of our passage through existing.
Life bears down on us
As we move into the landscape of loss.
Pulled down by the gravity
Of times that will not return and not continue,
We slowly crumble and move slowly
Into a white desert without horizon.
It begins and continues.
Opening an expanse of white light:
Time without chronology.
Birds we cannot see are singing in an unending dawn.
We do not understand.
Passage without beginning or end.
First and finally he recognizes it.
The life of an old man is ending.
Exiled from Greece, exiled from Paris, exiled from those, now dead who so admired his complex poems, his brilliant essays, he is trapped outside the world that once found him so splendid, a world that now was almost gone.
“How are you?” I ask. Though it is late afternoon, he is seated on his unmade bed, unshaven, not yet fully dressed.
“And how is that?”
“I have reached another stage.”
“I’ve lost interest.”
We sit together and drink tea out of not very clean cups. His wife stirs angrily in the bedroom, cursing in Russian. He makes no effort at conversation. Then
“I am dying.” We look at each other for a while until he turns away.
“Are you apprehensive?” I ask.
“Somewhat.” Another long pause. “You see, I’ve made a mistake.”
“What I told you before.”
“The losing interest?”
Often as I sit with him in his final decline, I sense that we are sitting on a bleak shore by an oily gray exhausted sea as fleeting images, bits of memory, half-remembered phrases bob in the feeble waves. I try to interest him in using these fragments to write poems once again. He won’t.
I write the poem myself. He does not respond. He looks out the window at a yellowing tree as I read this to him.
No peace with that.
The habit of thought
Arises in response
To an unmade bed;
Tea with a small amount of milk,
Husky Russian vowels amid the kitchen crockery.
The lure of tonalities rise
Like the memory of a white sky above a purple sea:
A breeze from the shore of the exile’s homeland
Where culture vanished long ago but remained
Enough to mirror, in a delicate and incisive way,
The great doings
Of brasher nations on the go.
Still a vague yearning for the atmosphere
Of a pale horizon poised on promise.
But seated in shadow on remembered subway steps
A charcoal-black man
Suggests the sultry wealth of Africa
And dark barbarian threat.
Again the familiar tickle of a riddle
Teasing to continue –
In the familiar and seductive texture
Of what can be said and still resists being known:
The tip of a tongue.
Desiring, at the wet tip of a tongue
To taste continuing desire,
So subtly to be loved.
In form that increasingly eludes
Like the pink opalescence
Shifting in a bank of clouds above the sea.
The skin of experience adheres
To the habits of mind
Knowing and being known:
Waves thus watch waves
Dancing light in light.
As a sparkling play
In a luminous sea that never was,
That was never known by anyone,
That never began,
Nor never ceased
Resting an exhausted mind
Love to you.
Now the trap is closing.
Circumstances can’t be changed.
A twinge, a shadow
Waits to transform everything from inside out.
Soon enough, the pain that will not stop,
The illness that can’t be cured.
Will take control of him from inside out.
A shadow will engulf the world
And cast its own light.
Everything now glows in the raking light of a failing sun.
A towering gold cloud,
A meadowlark deep in shadowed purple woods,
His wife’s quick smile,
Leaves turning into orange flames,
A crow in flight,
Cars whispering homeward,
The smell of wood smoke,
Her smooth back.
The thought of travel.
All shine on the edge of disappearing.
Intensities now framed by impending loss.
Mind cannot stop.
Transformations now cannot be foreseen.
We sit unmoving. We make no effort but we are watching. Like waiting for a snow lion to emerge from the pine forest, we sit still and we watch. Poised, we wait.
A subtle stream is flowing all around us. Thoughts rise in our minds. Hopes and fears are coloring our feeling. Slight aches flicker in our body. We do not move, and one by one, each transient movement of our mind is carried off. Every apprehension, every bright plan, every hidden yearning moves on the flow of an invisible stream. Appearing and disappearing. Every occurrence, every feeling, cherished or despised, appears and is carried away. We are sitting in the vast river of time.
Time itself is flowing through us. Moments move and coalesce. They make, in passing by, the shape we call ourselves. They flow past and separate. Each moment moves away, is carried off, dissolves.
Something is lost; something unexpected is taking shape.
On the flow of disappearing, a mist, a shadow hovers. Gone beyond remembering, new beyond knowing, it plays on the liquid surface. It whispers new secrets within each moment of total loss.
Somewhere inside our skin, it is waiting for us.
A stranger will appear within our body like a shadow beside a staircase. Suddenly a chill, a cellular awakening: a kind of knowing. We turn away. We look at something else. But we know.
The faint snow mountains and fragrant pines
The black night sky
Thus we know
And speak with the living and the dead,
Held in their hidden love.
The faint scent of skin
Fades in the dark amid golden leaves
Outside about to fall.
A moon not full,
Yet bright as if full,
Floods the sky
And reveals a long luminous cloud bank,
Like a new snow-mountain range
Rising on horizon’s edge.
Now opens here.
The life of a middle-aged man is ending. He looks out at the highway from his hospital bed.
“I’m a little behind the curve,” he shrugs.
“There is something so .. big… in this dissolving. Not so frightening, but so… big, and so…” He hovers there, circling his pale hand slowly, and looks at me to see if I understand. It all feels surprisingly normal.
He nods. And together in the dim hospital room, we are floating in a space so neutral and blank, but where, at the same time, it seems everything could in an instant dissolve or, in the very same instant, change or be born completely anew. I don’t know how long we drift in this way, but it is companionable, easy, slightly humorous. Then interrupted by the rolling rattling and clatter of the food cart.
A skinny Afro-American in green scrubs and a white hair-net looks at him and then at a metal clipboard.
“Solid food. No restrictions?” He says this as if it was somehow all that mattered. My dying friend gives a slow gracious nod. The aide slaps the white plastic tray with its plastic wrapped utensil and glass, bottled water, cellophane encased roll, and meal and dessert each under a metal lid which the aide lifts and takes away. My friend is spellbound and does not reply.
His attention to the items on the tray before him is rapt. From time to time, his eyebrows raise as some particularly strange item catches his eye. Sometimes, slowly he purses his lips. It’s like watching an alien arrive from outer space and try to figure out what these objects, so routine in terrestrial existence, do and mean. He is patient and circumspect. He does not touch the items before him until he has examined them carefully. He shakes his head and looks up at me with a shrug and a smile as if we were sharing a joke.
Wherever my friend is at this moment is highly communicative. We share the centerless strangeness of it all: the hospital smell, bed, food, noise and whispers in Spanish from the corridor, all unaccountable and profoundly disorienting. Everything is suspended in a state of gentle bemusement as he explores the circumstance of cautiously tasting gravy, potatoes, corn, milk. This state expands when a young doctor enters with a nurse and a young woman in business-like suit and ring binder, the social worker.
They begin to explain that tomorrow my friend, his family and the doctors will meet to determine if treatment should continue. The young doctor asks if there is anything he would like to discuss now. My friend nods gravely, and after a minute or so begins speaking. He talks slowly with long pauses.
“It is, you know, … not much better to discover within one’s … carcass new resources for …application than to discover … the absence of them. … Their being new doesn’t …somehow… add … at all … to their interest but makes them… stale and flat, … … …. as if one had long ago exhausted them. …”
He stops and takes a long breath. The doctor is mesmerized and the nurse and social worker who had both begun by taking notes find themselves immobilized.
We are all carried on his words, words that verge on meaning nothing but continue to unfold as if they rise from somewhere. on the far edge of the horizon before slowly disappearing and keep us suspended as they pass. The sounds of the other patients, the hospital have faded. He looks at each of us earnestly.
“Such is my sketchy state of… mind, … but I feel sure I shall discover plenty of fresh… oh … worlds to conquer, even if I am to be cheated… yes, that’s the word… of the amusement of them.”
He goes on in this way for almost ten minutes holding us powerless the whole time. It is strange and wonderful. But suddenly the doctor shakes his head and looks at his watch. The two women stare at each other as if waking from a dream. My friend smiles brightly as abruptly they leave.
We sit and watch.
Time flows through us. The conjunction of moments- physical, emotional, historical- that we have each come to call ourselves is dissolving and reforming.
The one who is watching is not one whom we know. The one who is watching is also slipping off, like a shimmering bubble, rushing by, dodging the solid rocks, changing shape with flow and plunging into tumbling rapids. The watcher is evolving and changing to something unfamiliar, someone new.
Suddenly overcome by fear and regret and the urgent need to slow such headlong continuing, we get up. Something needs to be done. The lights need to be turned on. A glass of water. Something is needed. We seek escape in solidity. We get up. For a moment, it is not quite so noticeable that time is moving, moving, moving and taking us away, taking us somewhere, somewhere we cannot know.
Mind cannot stop.
Overcome by time and chance, body and faculties are being transformed in ways utterly unforeseen.
Is there a change of allegiance from the desire for permanence to the shifting away?
Our bodies are collapsing slowly in that shift. Our heart/minds are losing their transient forms and boundaries. We are falling in the centerless awareness mind-sky.
Mind is the stream of time. It cannot stop.
Senses, memories, feelings are liberated from specifics. Incomplete histories are liberated and reformed. Re-shaping time is expanding and contracting. Time is freeing itself from itself.
Occurrences past ebb like the ripples in a pond. Slight waves diminishing as they move steadily away. Thoughts disappear like the imprint of birds in the sky. Slowly, slowly, slowly the sky expands pale and silvery-blue.
Names, hallways, chairs, routines, faces fade. Food is good. Gone. The sky is pink and gold. Words do not hold the world together.
The trees are not trees. Green, lush and undulant moments expanding in the river of time that gets slower and slower, wider, deeper and all-encompassing. Something is opening to accept us. A shining ocean from which we have never been separated. A vast sea in which we are coalescing as alone, yet not alone. Our conversation with the world continuing.
As if coming towards us from another world, we see, appearing simultaneously half here and half there, future selves, a self that is and is not one we know. The shadow approaches. A new love strangely altered. We feel the exhilaration of vast possibility. We cannot see the shadow’s face. For a moment, we are swallowed by a blue expanse of freezing fear.
“Time’s Unending” was commissioned by Diane Betkowski and the Denver Eclectic Concerts and first performed 1/12/12 preceding Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour La Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time).
Photo by: Christian Steinmetz