The Parable of Perfect Silence

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

Tired of the mind reaching back in the past for rescue
I praise the day.
I don’t mean merely some mythical, isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
to “taste” the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)
Nor do I mean a day devoid of past and future
as craved that great craze of minds and times Fernando Pessoa,
who wanted not “the present” but reality itself,
things in their thingness rather than the time that measures them.
Time is in the table at which I sit and in the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

Two murderers keep their minds alive
while they wait to die.
They talk through slots in their doors
of whatever mercy or misery
the magazine has ordained for the day — 
the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, say,
ten signs that a relationship is on the rocks.
When their communion flags, as communions will,
they rekindle it with personal revelations, philosophical digressions,
humor. This is a true story,
one of them says sometimes by way of preface,
as if that gave the moment more gravity,
asked of the listener a different attention,
at once resisted and reinforced an order
wherein every hour has its sound, every day its grace,
and every death is by design.

“Love is possible for anyone,” I hear the TV talk-show host say,
which is true in the way most things in this life are true,
which is to say, false,
unless and until the nullifying, catalyzing death is felt.
Love is possible for anyone
because it is equally impossible for everyone.
To be is to be confronted with a void,
a blankness, a blackness that both appeals and appalls.
Once known — known by the void, I mean — one has three choices.
Walk away, and unlearn the instinct of awe.
Walk along, and learn to believe that awe asks nothing of you.
Are you with me, love?

(For love read faith.)

Naked once and after a rat, my father cried, “Die, vermin, die!”
banging the broomstick over and over on the floor
so incorrigibly dirty it might as well have been the earth itself.
This is my mother’s story, though I was there, I’m told,
and no small part of the pandemonium.
We were five souls crammed into one life,
and so incorrigibly poor — or was that fear? — we all slept in one room
and shared one great big chester drawers, as we called it,
and not with irony but in earnest ignorance,
just as like meant lack, as in
“How much do you like bein’ done with your chemo?”
and just as I and every other child I knew,
before we tucked into our lemon meringue pie,
solemnly wiped the calf slobbers off.
Ah, local color, peasant levity, the language fuming and steaming
rich as the mist of rot that rises off the compost heap
(“kitchen midden,” you might hear an old Scot still say).
When do we first know? That there’s a world
to which we’ve been, not oblivious, exactly,
but so inside we couldn’t see it, who now see nothing else?
Heaven is over. Or hell.
Did you forget the rat?
It thumps and thrashes like a poltergeist inside
the chest of drawers but somehow, though my father is fast,
and though his rage is becoming real, every drawer he opens
is empty. What happens when we die,
every child of every father eventually asks.
What happens when we don’t
is the better question.

To kill a wasp on water is the peak of speed.
My brother who is other has a mind of lead.
I with my stinging griefs watch from away.
How can it be there are no adults left?
What matters here is timing, not time.
His hand is high and white above the blue.
A wasp is also atom and urge, hover and touch.
Even wings are not a clean distinction.
Down comes the slap like a rifle shot.
What vengeance can there be on blank necessity?
My brother who is other has a way.
His hand is high and white. And then it’s not.

Once when my father’s mother’s health was failing
and she found it more and more difficult to tend
to the tiny family plot at Champion, Texas,
which is less town than time at this point,
a blink of old buildings and older longings the rare driver
flashes past, I took it upon myself to salt the graves
as I must have read somewhere would work for unwanted growths.
As indeed it did.
In the months after, every Sunday when we spoke,
she thanked me for the blankness, the blackness,
(my words, of course)
this new ease I had allowed her mind.
Until one day leaning over with flowers the leached earth
opened and my eighty-year-old grandmother
tumbled right down among the bones
of the woman from whom she’d first emerged.
To see that image you have to be that sky.
It has to happen in you, that crushing calling viewless blue
that is so deeply in you that it is not you.
“O, Law’, honey, I like to died.”

You don’t climb out of poverty so much as carry it with you.
Some shell themselves with wealth.
Some get and spend, get and spend, skimming existence like a Jesus lizard.
But for those whose souls have known true want
— whose souls perhaps are true want — 
money remains, in some sense, permanently inert,
like an erotic thought that flashes through a eunuch’s brain.
In 1980 my father bought his first airplane,
a scream-proof four-seater we crammed five inside,
which he considerately slammed into a sorghum field alone.
Unkillable, he killed the next ten years with work and wives,
then bought another, and brought it down in the solitary fire
that was his aspect and atmosphere. Homes, schemes,
thirty years of savings plowed into a sign company (!)
that did not, it turned out, exist.
A hole is hard to carry.

People ask if I believe in God and the verb is tedious to me.
Not wrong, not offensive, not intrusive, not embarrassing.
Today I saw a hawk land on Elizabeth’s chimney.
It sat with its bone frown and banker’s breast
above the proud houses of Hamden.
Are you with me? Then see,
too, a lump of animate ash rising from the flue
(or so it seems) to be a pigeon
fluttering dumbly down
next to that implacable raptor,
suddening a world of strange relations
wherein there is no need for fear, or far,
or meat.

There was a man made of airplane parts,
one of which was always missing.
He wandered the hospital grounds in search of a rudder,
an aileron, or some other fragment
that would let him fly from this place
where he was not meant to be.
There was a woman who emitted invective
ceaselessly, dispassionately, an obscenity machine.
One timid gentleman saved Saran wrap for five full years
and every night wrought an ever-more-solid ball
with which, it turned out, he planned to bash the skull
of the first soul he saw the dawn God blessed his weapon.
(A success story, alas.)
Another man with anvil hands sat six months of nights in faith
that there would come occasion of darkness, unguardedness, and vision
sufficient to rip from its socket one of my father’s bright blue eyes.
My father moved among them like a father.
He attended and pacified, he instructed and consoled.
Late to the trade, he worked too much,
and trusted his heart, no doubt, more than he should,
but was, by all accounts, at this one thing, and despite the end, good.

For love read faith
into these lines that so obviously lack it.
For love let words turn to life
in the way life turns to world
under the observer’s eye, the swirl
of particles with their waves and entanglements,
their chance and havoc, resolving
into some one thing:
a raptor on a rooftop, say.
No power on earth can make it stay.
But is it lost or released into formlessness
when we look away?

To be is to believe
that the man or woman
who inscribed with an idiosyncratic but demanding calligraphy
Fuck da money — Trust no one
on the rough blanket of the residential motel
where my father spent the last two years of his rough residential life
intended the note of defiant, self-conscious (da!) humor
that left my father, whom I had not seen in years,
and I, whom years had seen grow sere, far even from myself,
erupting in laughter until we cried.

Before my good friend’s good dog died
ten times a day she pressed her forehead to his
“to confirm the world and her place in it.”
Now she won’t even say his name.
Strange how the things that burn worst in one heart
one must keep silent to keep.

Ten to one you thought of men.
The murderers, I mean.
But no. This is a true story.
There is another cell, you see,
in which a woman I have known since childhood,
and since childhood have known to be
suspended on a wire of time but nimble-witted nonetheless,
lies on the cold stone floor.
She is even more naked than they have made her.
She has killed no one not even herself.
Punishment, perhaps, or some contagion of fate, finds her here,
her hair shorn, both wrists wrapped, her eyes open,
pondering the parable of perfect silence.

Remember, he said, memory is a poor man’s prison.
Make to have and to love one live infinitive,
then blessed my brow with the sign of the cross.
I woke without a chance to ask the obvious:
But what if all our songs are songs of loss?

I felt nothing when you died, Father.
(As if I ever called you that.)
It is a long cold seep, this grief.
The day itself was hot enough to make the devil sweat,
as more than one person, with less than one mind, muttered to me.
What I remember: two children, too tan
and “clad in famine” (Dahlberg), look up
from their parched front yard,
their sad little sprinkler like a flower of hell.
I don’t mean I saw them, though I did.
I mean they are what I remember, fleshed.
That town. A hint of new prison business,
and the Square’s been rewhitened,
but mostly it’s beastly, a blast site,
our old house less house than nest,
and even the undertaker, a friend
from high school, has graduated to heroin.
You would have been right at home,
and I guess in a ghoulish way you were,
overdressed, overdosed, over.
Hard wind at the graveside. Hard lives hardly there.
The canopy whipped and flapped.
A bouquet skipped over the graves like a strange elation.
Something stuck, and an ageless Indian
(he might have been Mom’s long-dead granddad)
nimbled over the casket’s contraptions to make it go. You go
into the ground again, and the silence assaults
like heat, and the clumps of would-be grievers unclump
and head for cars, and Mom cracks
a tallboy and two jokes before we’re on the highway.
The first I forget, and of the second I recall only a nakedness, and wild crying,
and a rat.

When the doctor said I’d likely die I thought of my father
telling me he’d learned to read a cancer look,
that some people had it before they had it, so to speak.
When the young guard demanded to unwrap the Snickers
I’d bought for my sister my father scoffed:
“All this energy expended on candy when you could take this can”
— he held her Coke up in front of our eyes — “and cut a throat.”
When my sister, chewing her chocolate with ravenous indifference,
paused and stared balefully off at the even more baleful brown
beyond the barbed wire, it did not occur to me
that it was inspiration. When I began writing these lines
it was not, to be sure, inspiration but desperation,
to be alive, to believe again in the love of God.
The love of God is not a thing one comprehends
but that by which — and only by which — one is comprehended.
It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being,
and like that time, we learn it by its lack.
Flashes and fragments, flashes and fragments,
these images are not facets of some unknowable whole
but entire existences in themselves, like worlds
that under God’s gaze shear and shear and, impossibly, are:
untouching, entangled, sustained, free.
If all love demands imagination, all love demands withdrawal.
We must create the life creating us, and must allow that life to be — 
and to be beyond, perhaps, whatever we might imagine.
I, too, am more (and less)
than anything I imagine myself to be.
“To know this,” says Simone Weil, “is forgiveness.”

It is an air you enter, not an act you make.
It is the will’s frustration, and is the will’s fruition.
It is to wade a blaze one night that I once crossed
— a young man, and lost — 
to find a woman made of weather
sweeping the street in front of her shack.
It is another country.
It is a language I don’t know.
La por allá, la por allá, I repeat in my sleep.
The over there.

Tired of the mind reaching back in the past for rescue
I praise the day
my father woke in the motel room where all five of us were sleeping,
which is not even past but a flame as I say it,
and see it, the little lighter now he is using to find his clothes.
I who have not slept in forty-five years am awake for the first time
rising carefully out of my pallet on the floor
and feeling my way beyond the bodies of my brother and sister
toward the shade that is my father
to stand in this implausible light where to whisper would be too much,
and anyway what’s next is known, Dad, and near,
the nowhere diner, hot chocolate and the funny pages,
and the consolation that comes when there is nothing to console.

More Poems by Christian Wiman