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Cullen in the Afterlife

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He found it strange at first. A new dimension.  
One he had never guessed. The fourth? The fifth?
How could he tell, who’d only known the third?
Something to do with eyesight, depth of field.
Perspective quite beyond him. Everything flat
or nearly flat. The vanishing point
they’d tried to teach at school was out of sight
and out of mind. A blank.

Now, this diaphanous dimension—one
with neither up nor down, nor east nor west,
nor orienting star to give him north.
Even his name had left him. Strayed like a dog.
Yet he was bathed in some unearthly light,
a delicate no-color that made his flesh
transparent, see-through, a Saran-Wrap self.
His body without substance and his mind
with nothing to think about—although intact—
was totally minus purpose. He must think.

Think of a Rubens, he said to himself. But where
Rubens had been there was a void, a vast
emptiness—no opulence. And then
Cézanne who broke all matter up—
made light of it, in fact. And mad Van Gogh
who, blinded by the light, cut off his ear.
Gone—that shadowy assembly—vanished, done.
Gone without substance. Like himself. A shell.
Insensate in a flash. (What was that flash—
bereft of all but essence?) Was it death?
He wondered about the word, so filled with breath
yet breathless, breathless, breathless. A full stop.

Divino Espirito Santo,” he had said
once in Brazil, “Soul of my very soul.”
He’d prayed in Portuguese, an easier tongue—
for newly agnostic Anglos—than his own,
burdened with shibboleths and past beliefs.
“Alma de minha alma”—liquid words
that made a calm within him. Where within?
Was there a word for it? Was it his heart?

Engulfed by love. Held in a healing beam
of love-light. Had he earned such love?
And how partake of such a gift when he
was handicapped by Earthshine—wore the stars,
badges and medals of privilege and success?
Desensitizers, brutalizers—all
the tricks that mammon plays to make one sleep.

He must wake up. He must expose and strip
successive layers to find his soul again.
Where had the rubble come from? He was like
a junkyard—cluttered, filled with scrap iron, tin.
As dead as any metal not in use.

So he must start once more. He had begun
how many times? Faint glimmerings and dim
memories of pasts behind the past
recently lived—the animal pasts and vague
vegetable pasts—those climbing vines and fruits;
and mineral pasts (a slower pulse) the shine
of gold and silver and the gray of iron.
The “upward anguish.”
                                   What a rush of wings
above him as he thought the phrase and knew
angels were overhead, and over them
a million suns and moons.
Source: Poetry (June 2009)

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

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Cullen in the Afterlife

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