Perspective

Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Sea of Time and Space

- Daniel Tobin

But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
When with our vegetable eyes we view these wondrous visions.

— Blake, “Milton”


I.

Midsummer, and a lone bee murmurs among the lavender
along the path we’ve laid into our garden,
round aggregate slabs that darken in rain
under the feathery leaves of the honey locust
whose lowest branches make us bow.
We have given the body the ritual of its need,
cooked al dente, putanesca, in the savory kitchen,
the tulip bowls of our glasses splashed with wine.
Now, in after-dinner twilight still bright above the fenceline,
the compass angle of the house glows against the sky.
In such light, on Peckham Rye, Blake saw his first vision,
the tree above him filled with angels, their wings bespangled
with stars. Thereafter, prophets appeared in the fields
beyond Dulwich and Camberwell, Lambeth Vale;
Gabriel walked with him among the shambles at Carnaby,
his spirit guide through infinite London. And, one day,
God himself gazed from the casement window on Broad Street,
plain as a mother seeking her children in the crowd....
Our ancient days before this earth appeared to my mortal eyes:
inside each particle of dust the elemental strings,
behind the vegetable world the bleak Satanic mills—
gods of his own making, embodied states,
the titan walking behind the carapace of a flea.


II.

Single vision. The earth perceived merely as earth,
devoid of spirit’s translucency, its light dispersed in waves through the sea of time and space,
deranged by the gin of the unaltering eye....
One March morning, after making love, we saw
from our upstairs window a hint of green
among the brown scatter of leaves and wasted fronds
of fiddleheads, the first frail strips of crocusses,
like decorative ribbons, unblooming still,
until earth’s economy compounded the scales
in hyacinth and candy-tuft, in phlox overbrimming
the steps, starbursts in the slow motion of its falls.
For weeks we found sprigging among the beds
pliant trunks of infant maples, their outsized
leaves spreading like river deltas, gathering light.
And we’d go uprooting, feeling in our hands the tug
of generation, its mechanism and miracle,
incessant fall of the eternal driven from sweet delight,
unless the mind revive and the body wash itself
of experience. All spring we listened to squirrels
in heat along the powerlines, to the sparrows’
untraceable clamor through the trees.
You soaped aphids from the flutes of honeysuckle,
scattered shards of eggshells under the hostas
to guard them from the slugs you swore you heard
chewing each night through the darkened canopy,
their soft bellies bleeding on quicksilver trails of slime.


III.

In the suburbs of Ulro the mills whirr into motion—
Case, Modine, Twin Disc, plush furnaces of Metal World.
Invisible occupants swag in the burdened clouds.
Their poisons silver the leafage after rain,
sift into soil and skin, ineradicable, then resurrect
in the brute lump seething in the mother’s breast.

Strange smells along the lakeshore, North Beach closed
again beyond the Treatment Plant. Under dead stacks
at Cliffside the church league softballers shout
for their buddy rounding third and heading home.

He has become the idea he longed himself to be
before the grind, and slides safely into reclaimed dirt.

Now, along Franklin Street—call it New Poverty Lane—
under the shadow of the genius’s office tower
(his leaking monument to Nature and to Work),
the settled migrant walks beside his ramshackle home,
labors to fulfill the alderman’s injunction
to beautify the town or face a fine.

This evening, in the garden, we released the last
of the ladybugs, our small effort at harmony,
their killing a necessary hunger in the balance.
And now, at the feeder, a congregation of birds
pecks at the seed. They bolt, and a jackdaw assumes
the roof, fixed eye unblinking. He caws and caws.


IV.

Today, as though all life existed to amaze us,
a dragonfly alighted on the bench where you were sitting,
gold as though daubed in golden ink, and stayed
a full five minutes, motionless as a brooch.
When Blake descended to his garden, A Human Wonder of God,
he’d sit naked with his wife in full view of the street,
as though their bodies had passed into translucency,
light shining through the portal of every pore.
Upstairs, the graver’s tools, copper plate and burin,
took ease of their labors in the mind’s illuminations:
as though, as though, until what the soul longs for
scores itself within the body’s finite bounds—
creation hieratic in its web of incarnation....
Playing on their trampoline, the neighbor children shout.
Another neighbor’s falcon squawks inside its cage.
Blue globes of thistle shake mildly in a breeze.
The roses, past their bloom, bleed like wax into their stems.
On his deathbed, Blake sang a favorite childhood hymn,
then disappeared, as he said he would, into “The Next Room.”
Just now, as if in unison, the fireflies ascended, emanations of the Mundane Shell, or drifting stars?
No, they are our small lanterns waking with the night.
Just now, just now, and now it is just then.
We might be under water with the bergamot and hyssop.
And the bee remains a pilgrim, aloof and prodigal,
still humming to the engines of his own bright world.


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