No one can tell

31 March 1999 | Fiction, poetry

Poems from Ahava (WSOY, 1998)

And life went on, went on as a kind of weird fugue,
               a forked path that drops across your eyes,
                    rejecting simple questions.
Which summer was that,
               I ask in December,
in a high room, with a tiled stove, a bricked up
          nostalgic sentence about the warmth of other times,
               a crossing where all the world's words
                         discover the the comparative degree of silence,
                                        the one with meaning.
Should I peep across a couple of cloudy stanzas to get a better view,
     but again my eye conjures up a medieval constricted soul.
All that's left is a thirst of all the senses, a frigid study of sentences,
                              of bones.

Yes, even if speech
     is like trying to master a hundred-string guitar with ten fingers.
Even if stories
          masked in words are no longer enough
               for a time drowned in virtual dreams.
Even though, day and night,
          the same perpetual dusk drifts a continent of ice over the city.
          I do think of something, with clenched hands,
                    when I come to the edge of the park.
That park is just a slice of the city,
                         humming nostalgia for the forest.
Under a tree a dog, its ears wearing
          the same look as when
               perpetual motion's being invented.
A tree's armpit
     is singing three bought vowels,
and there's something else in the air,
     some thread unwinding from the eye
          of a winged being that's crashed into winter.
Christmas morning and the voice of a decomposing year:
                         this way too one can arrive at a fifth season.
And environing the park a church resting on darkness,
                              a library, a mental hospital:
yes, all life's here except for the pub.
That soundless park, that Christmasless dog,
               and a break of day suddenly so draughty.
As if the world had left the back door open,
                    and, bent like a question mark
                         I push my face out of it:
What expression could you wear today
                              for denying written history?
What's the great instrument
          that even today is passing across the heavens
               and again playing an inconceivable scale?
How is it that a star still crowns the tree of memory today
though the roots' production-chain
          was put on a sound basis trade-cycles ago?
But the door's still open and closed,
                    it's a revolving door,
glass and wood and motion like memory,
                         or the caprice of dream.
And again the park's there
                              and the edge of the park's morning.
               But I'm coming from a direction
                    that's no longer describable.
As a messenger
          of so much good and bad will
               I travel under the stars,
towards Christmas and the millennium.
               A hundred black specks
          on the sooty snow, the first Christians,
                    their feet splayed and frozen,
               trail a corridor across an iced landscape.
Asking no questions, singing no songs.
Is it I
          or some foredoomed will
     that casts a stone at that innocent congregation of ducks?
That trade union struggling to escape.
But I called the stone Luke
               and so I know
the deed was stupid
               but apostolic.
And, at last, the stone's been cleansed,
               once Luke's
          water, grit
     and all its interpretations are scrubbed off,
       the Christmas evangelist in my pocket,
I'm truly at one in spirit with the wind and the rain.
'Eyeless, wingless stone,
why did you call her sinner
who watered the feet of Jesus with her tears,
dried them with her hair
          and finally anointed them with odorous spikenard?'
'Perhaps that sinner's trade was not healthy,
but an old trade it was
                    and a merciful one.
If she did cherish only the palest slice of love,
               yet a slice it was.'
'She that was called a sinner knew
that only eyes are needed for speech.
For touch, just the smoothness of skin
     and the silvering of another's skin.'
But Luke, the all-knowing, in my pocket
again remembers
that a stone's only skill is its weightiness.
It wants to take wing and fly again
with no repetition of its five theses:
1. If you don't know which sense to knock on the labyrinth door
with today, you're already on the verge of speech.
2. If you don't remember that Easter has Christmas in view, you've
neglected your homework.
3. If you touch, touch totally.
4. If you speak, say it all, and out loud.
5. If you don't realise how frail the substance is
on which you should draw the heart line of your questions
you're richer by many stinging silences.
The dog with the sad posture has already gone its way,
the stone's stone again,
          and no door's open any more or closed.
And now like then
                    November was the month of death,
     but after November came December
                              and Christmas
               and life went on,
it went on like a weird fugue....

Translated by Herbert Lomas


– a cool dry spring wind
– (Bibl.) a place name in Babylonia, also a moving stream or canal

No one can tell from the clench of a hand
whether it’s closing into a fist or a prayer.

The stone can’t tell, hidden in a policeman’s shoe,
a child can’t tell,
nor the granite smile grown pale in the embrace of salt water.

And he can’t tell, the one who’s spent 38 years
in the first grade.
The one who doesn’t know mathematics,
and mathematics doesn’t know him.

But the family tree whispering inside him knows:
'Man wasn't made to know
          but to roam free and curious
               like a trail of smoke
                    round and through
          phenomena, love and horror.'
This is the voice today too, this voice,
                    curious and free.


As for a person who’s full of Barabbas’s bewildered silence and stands at the devastating intersection of frost, a phone booth and an unhoped-for message, who yet suddenly opens his senses to a world seen as flowing, as if a polyphonic motet were part of a triumphal procession to some winter day’s matinee,

what if I should dedicate this poem to him?

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Observations on true voluptuousness

Mornings he ends up
putting on his clothes.

In his profession
he works.

On his way to work he sees an incident
and decides to tell his nearest about it that night,
employing a few colloquial expressions.

He has a mood
but the weather’s outside.

From the lunch menu he does select
some food and a little drink.

In his free time he loves
works made by artists
and compositions composed by composers.

In the bus, he directs his gaze at a person (female).
‘Subject, predicate, object!’
he admits.

‘Expletive, giggle!’
She turns to look
at the view through the window.

But when saw-souled sun and contemplative moon
changed places
and day swooned into the weave of night
               the world's engine
          it, it just went on purring.

Translated by Anselm Hollo


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