THE LATTER DAYS
I sit on the porch in darkness
and imagine I have been assigned to watch here on my own.
At 3 0’clock everyone is sleeping,
no distant drone
of a car now, nor bird chirping.
Downhill, there was wiped from the town
the last house-lights, as if they were moisture.
The main street goes on
beyond its lamps, which seem pinches of salt, and becomes out in the landscape
a javelin thrown.
There is an engorged moon
and all the shattered stars, and there’s one sullen light across the valley —
a farmhouse, on its mountain,
beneath the folded plumage of the sky.
The range there
is crumpled, as the blanket is
I have drawn about me. I am reminded by that blood-shot glare
I was tonight in Hades,
or believed so. I went down through a gate in the marshland,
in a reek of sulphur,
and passed below what must have been a lintel,
into thin flavourless metal air.
Then I realized that the souls in Hades
cannot change, since they’ve been judged,
and I understood, too late, there was no point in seeking
my father’s bitter face among the Shades.
Yet I must go on.
It was not for revenge — there is only grief.
Although I have grown old
this is an ageless wound.
The regret is for his chances, all lost in dissipation. That is as difficult
as always, and growing older, it would seem,
has served no purpose at all.
I thought I came there through a forest, where the trees were howling like dogs.
Thick as the leaves of an endless autumn
that I had trod
in the wilderness, on the river bank
were the dead,
swept together, wearied,
who waited for a ferry, which would mean their journey was almost
Somehow I stepped across the Stygian water,
and Pluto sat in the plain, as though a crag upreared.
Proserpine lay along his side,
under a pall of steamy darkness.
They were draped in cerements, from their lustreless crowns to the
and I could not see her beauty,
for which she was snatched away
while gathering flowers in the meadows of Enna.
The tremulous souls on the bare plains behind her
were as numerous as grass might have been.
Then my father appeared
on a single warp in the atmosphere
(while the hands of the dead fell upon me
in a feeble rain). And of course he was as he must always be —
he had no guilt, not even feigned,
no greeting for me. As in the nursing home,
I felt him demand, of earth and of the zenith, ‘Get me out of here.’
born of an ill-featured star,
hollowed by thirst, he seemed to say, with all of his old extremity,
‘There is no crime
I would not commit
to be born again, and take my chances on earth.’
Young men blame others, and old men themselves, except for him.
And then his clamour was sealed away
in the human quicksand of the crowd.
For a while, they have their little dreams there
that show them they are sleeping.
But no one can live forever, not even the dead. They will fade.
It is suggested
in Virgil that only a few heroes ever reach
those shimmering light-filled uplands of the blest, Elysium.
Then I found I had got up and was leant against the railing,
to feel on my face the tender
incandescence of the dew.
There was a snarl
of lightning, where it threw itself along the horizon.
I brought a drink out
and saw, in passing, the piled-up cold woodash trickle
in the grate, as when a breeze,
stirs among the feathers of a guinea fowl.
The advantage of having sought an education
was Virgil as companion,
although, of course, he did not condescend
to walk with me. I had for a guide-book
what was made of him by Dryden,
in sufficient accuracy.
I knew what one must do: that in Hades you break off
the candelabra of a bough
from out of a misty tree; each flame
on this becomes gold-leaf, and you carry it before you
onto the wide steps
that lead steeply into darkness, welling from below.
The branch is for Proserpine, an offering,
its small light
to be planted in her shadow, although it will not flourish.
One time, we greeted our father as ‘Mr Shellfish’,
playing with a remark our mother had made.
He ignored us
except to point out that Horace found abhorrent
any violation of the ordinance of nature
such as was involved in calling him a crab.
He contended that his pension was meant for him,
who’d been infested with TB, while mired on a side-line
of the War. If our mother reminded him that it was self-inflicted,
and was exacerbated
continuously, he would retaliate by wounding us
with the porcelain claw
of his disdain.
I associate him always with the Latin authors. He seemed to believe
their language was his, to keep alive.
It was in him an exoneration. For such remarks as the one above,
when I came to understand it,
I would have carried him on my back,
out of his ruins.
I have a neighbour, along the hillside,
an old woman who loves to read.
She goes to bed early, and I imagine that when she is tired
she folds her glasses on the bedside stand
and then her arms, in the same way, on her punctured chest,
and is at rest. Now at dawn, this woman shouts
into the paddocks, and her dog shouts back. It tells her
to exult. She has her fulfilment.
What appears to be an armful of wattle is brought to us here
at daybreak and at nightfall,
lightly, without piety or desert — I see it being carried for me
from the rim of the world,
among the bushland’s broken foliage.
And I had wondered, while wandering in the mazed ways of last night,
how I was to reach
the light again. Then I realized
that where I found myself, amid all the emphasis
can be seen through, as a delusion. It vanished from me, like eluding a theme
in the glissando of a violin.
Our imagination is something more dreadful than the truth,
although it is an essential affliction.
Take Deiphobus, who was called ‘bashful’
in Dryden’s rendering,
since he was beautiful, but his nose and ears had been sliced off,
and he knew it was Helen,
his wife, who had betrayed him, beside her first husband Menelaus.
(I suppose she felt
that she had beauty enough for them both.)
Such knowledge, it was conjectured,
meant he must live
for the extent of a horde of lifetimes, to be rid of animus.
In life, everything is insecure and arbitrary,
we’ve innumerable opportunities
for taking offence.
The only solution is not to be.
The dead exist for none but the living. If we pursue them
their souls smell in Hades. We turn away.
They are ashes to ashes and dust on the wind.