Tikkun Magazine

Songs for the End of the World

On the other side of praise
it’s time to chop down the tall tree in the ear—

enough enough with the starlit promontories—

a nervous condition traces itself
in lightning in the clouds,
a little requiem rattles among Coke cans
and old vegetable tins

and shifts into a minor key
blowing through the dying ailanthus,

grieving to the beat beginning to pour down

percussive as a run
on a nomad’s flute of bone
while a car engine dangling from a hoist and chain
sways in a translucent gown of rain.

Where does it go when it’s all gone?
Coleridge’s son, Hartley,
wants to know what would be left if all the men and women,
and trees, and grass, and birds and beasts,
and sky and ground were all gone:
everything just darkness and coldness
but nothing to be dark and cold.

Which was what my father
imagined all the time,
calculating with his slide rule the missile’s
drag and lift, as he smeared
across the paper the equation’s
figures propelling his pencil lead
into the void.

And after splashdown, what?
An emptiness like an empty subway car
stumbled into by mistake

on a drunken night
turning into

with the world
stretching out
like wind walking on a lake?—

the body wavering, almost
into the inside-outness of being

in that emptiness, its peaks and valleys
and absolute stillness?

His shadow anchored to a semi’s tires,
down there with the mussels, oysters, a starfish even
that twice a day shine up through oily film
where river meets sea meets river.

And I can track him in the sonar
of dolphin, seal
as if his pencil
hit the sea floor

echoing everywhere
filling the sea’s room,
unstringing the current’s loom

in which warp
and weft unravel
into oscilloscoping wave.

“He began to think of making
a moving image
of what never stops moving
that would bring order

to eternal being,
and so make movement move
according to number—which, of course, Timaeus,
is what we call time…

And so he brought into being the Sun, the Moon,
and five other stars, for Time must begin.
These he called wanderers, and they stand guard

over the numbers of time—and human beings are so forgetful,
they don’t realize that time
is really the wandering of these bodies.”

An all morning downpour shadowy
as the stained insides of his coffee cup.
He didn’t look up, didn’t talk,
didn’t rush me to the car, but gave his head

the slightest inclination.
We sat while the news talked on and on,
each of us glad to sink down into ourselves,
to not have to speak: it was enough, more than enough

to know the other knew we could settle
in that silence, and no vow or spoken understanding
would be as strong.

And all we did as we sat there driving along
was move from that point where everything originates
until point to point the line we made together got drawn.

The abandoned pit-house sliding down the cliff
sliding into the sea
is lost in fog
wrapped around

the headland’s scree—
and in the mine’s undersea tunnel
where miners walk out (along with my father’s father’s ghosts)
a mile or more under the waves

you can sense the old imperatives like played out veins of tin
shining up for the men
walking briskly to their unsuspected

deaths, while just above their heads, a moment before the cave-in,
they can hear, as always, boulders rolling on the seafloor,
a job of work to do before the next shift.

“A dreaming, and therefore
an indolent man.
A starling self-encaged
and always in the moult,

and my whole note is Tomorrow,
& tomorrow, & tomorrow…”
Which because it was how he felt
it’s what he wrote.

But now there’s no tomorrow,
only languor and despondency.
And under that shelter in the storm, among rocks

falling, he finally felt free
to say what his Daemon made him say, and looked up into the rain
and was for that instant washed clean.

English letters are Greek ones dried up.
The aurora on the screen
pulses more real than real.
The post-nuclear, post-holocaust rain he tried to understand
is only another afternoon when the world ends.

And now what passes through him
is a windchime ringing, casting parabolic shadows on the ground
as he hunches at work in his little cubicle,
a cell 8 by 10
which is just another world coming to an end

when twenty years on since the chiming ceased,
I try again to understand the points he plots
where thrust equals gravity and drag
so the rocket can keep soaring on forever.

Glowing on the screen, the initial
capital in the shape of Omega holds inside its void
two flying dragons biting their own tails.

And on another page
Alpha traces out the lines
of the Tower of Babel collapsing.

And just beneath that, a king lies dreaming of a golden statue
crushed by a stone that becomes a great mountain
so that the four kingdoms, gold, silver, brass, iron,

shine in gilt from the vellum—
and across Daniel’s face the shadow of a wing
which is the Lord’s wing whispering to Daniel the dream of the king

turns black as the screen when the screen goes to sleep
and a hand writes an unknown equation across the dark.

Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry, including Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. His new book, Station Zed, will appear from Graywolf Press early in 2015, to be followed in 2017 by New and Collected Poems. He has also published a book of essays, Interview With a Ghost, and a translation of Euripides' Herakles. Widely anthologized, his poems and prose appear in The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, Threepenny, and other literary magazines, as well as The Best American Poetry, Best American Travel Writing, and The Pushcart Anthology. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.
tags: Culture, Poetry, Poetry & Fiction