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

ended.

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

ground,

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.’

Pitiful spirit,

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,

memento mori,

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

on stasis,

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.