Gerard Van der Leun
--for my father, Albert John Van der Leun
The empty rituals and dusty opulence
of the nightmare's obvious ending dwindle,
and the sounds of departing automobiles
fade into the hum beyond the cul-de-sac.
Inside the house my mother sits quietly,
surrounded by the plates of finger food
that everybody brought and no one ate,
and wonders if she should begin to take
clothes from the closet, call the Goodwill.
Some blocks away, the Methodist minister hangs
his vestments on a peg, and goes to lunch.
Later, I drive the Skyway to the town named Paradise,
park the car at the canyon's rim, and sit awhile
in the hot silence of the afternoon looking out
at the far mountains where, in June, the winter lingers.
On the seat beside me, a well-taped cardboard cube
contains what remains of my father. I climb out
and, taking the cube under my arm, begin to climb
down the canyon's lava wall to the stream below.
The going is slow, but we get to the bottom by and by
and sitting on some moss, we rest awhile, the cube and I,
beside the snow-chilled stream.
The place we have come to is where the pines lean out
from the boulders at the edge of the stream,
where what the stream carries builds up in the backwater,
making in the mounds of matter an inventory of the year:
rusted tins slumped under the fallen sighs of weeds,
diminishing echoes of the blackbird's gliding wings,
laughs buoyed in the hollow belly of stunted trees,
gears, tires, the bones of birds, brilliant pebbles,
the rasping windwish of leaf fall crushed to dust,
the thunk of bone on bark, of earth on wood, the silence
of ash on water.
And in such silence, he fades forever.
The stream, its waters revolving round
through river, ocean, clouds, and rain,
bears away the hands and eyes,
but still the memory remains,
answering in pantomime the questions never asked:
Are these reflections but the world without,
carried on but never borne, onward, westward,
towards sunlight glazed on sea's thigh?
Or are such frail forms shaped upon this water all
the things that are, and we, immersed above in air,
the forms that fade, mere mirrors of the stream?
Is this life all that is and, once lost,
the end of all that was, with nothing
left to be, with no pine wind to taste,
nor sun to dapple mind with dream?
Is all that is but ash dissolving,
our lives but rain in circles falling?
Or are we yet the center of such circles,
our fall the final fall of night because we are
contained within that single soul,
held within that heart of stars,
that place where sun and water meet,
that golden hand whose wounded palm,
once we have shimmered into sunlight,
remains forever open in the coldest light of day?
At Lindbergh's Grave
Palapalo Ho'omau Church Cemetery, Kipahulu, Southeast Maui
That long green swell that sears my eyes
As I lie in this bed of black stone,
Is it the Irish coast rising in the dawn
Beyond the brushed silver of my blind cowling
Where, throughout the night, I trusted
Not in some desert God's directions,
But in the calibrated compasses of man?
That rushing sound, is it the hordes at Orly,
Swarming past the barriers and lights
To scavenge my Spirit, and lift me up
Into the air that only heroes breathe?
Or is it the age-old sigh of sea on stones,
Known to those who pace the shingle
And the swirled black sands that seep
Up from the sea's loom to wrap
Impossible islands in a shawl of waves?
That painting daubed on the chapel's window --
Not the roselined mandala at Chartres
Where flame in glass misprisoned sings --
But a cruder Savior, bearded, browned and popular,
An icon obtainable to plain sight, a trim God
Flat upon the glass in dull gesso limned,
And, when light moves behind it, looking down...
Is this the sign in which, at last, we conquer?
Conquer? I'd laugh the laugh of stones
Had I but eyes to see and lips to breathe.
No, I am content here where man and apes
Together waltzing lie, having done at last
With all horizons, having done at last with sky.
If you would see me now pass by
The small green church where ancient
Banyans looming shade and guard
The tower and the bell which you
May toll for me, or you, or all those
Not yet delivered to the stars and sea.
And then, retreating, heed the trees
Whose tendrilled branches hold but air,
And shadow both the church and stones
Beneath which wait both apes and men,
Who, foolish with their hunger for the air,
Swung branch to branch up all the years
Until, letting go at last, they learned
Through me, at last, to rise.
Sea, stone, tree, ape and Savior.
These now my boon companions are.
Better here, I think, in this dank green
Cartoon of Paradise, this slight-of-hand Eden;
Better here beneath the pumiced stones
Where strangers drop a wreathe from time to time;
Better here than there, hovering over waves,
Alone between the new world and the old,
Trusting in a man-mad compass
To take me home along
The sharp cold blade of air.
Better, much better, here
Where the sound of the waves enfolds
That fire they could never snare.
Last Light Above the Seine
How, when my emerald voices pray
In the crystal heart, and the bright chimes
Sound along the shoals of day,
Shall I not search among the stones
For your mist-shadowed silent lips,
And listen in my vaults of bone
For those wave-shattered psalms of seas
That promise soon , O my bright shade!,
The flame that bends my soul to thee?
For is not thought the trace of flame,
That sign seen once in silhouette
Between the edge of stars and earth,
That place where winds on water step?
And if I read in heaven pale
These ancient signs, these lines on slate
That in translation, told our tale
As if our tale was marked on bone
Banked in halls of bronze and stone,
Would you believe these faded marks
No man can read or waking see?
Would you emerge from stone to say
Our history begins today?
I speak, I know, I know, at slant,
And seldom cleave the circle straight,
But your geometries enchant,
And I stand frozen at your gate.
Yet still I sense our centers touch,
As deep as senses hope to know,
In that rose room that hovers high
Above all memory of snow.
And so above the ocean I,
Released from arms and earth entire,
Relive within this room of steel
The ashen memory of your fire,
That in such mansions once I slept,
Most fortunate of all blessed men,
And breathed your breath,
Embraced your heart,
That my stilled heart might beat again.
In the Town Hall Graveyard
In the hayed field thick in dusted mist,
as the noon whistle of the village hissed,
we noted how the dead were neatly placed
within their plots, how all were given space.
We remarked the craft of marble wreath,
and supposed that those who lay beneath
were clad, like us, in the fashion of their day,
garments fit to meet eternities of clay.
We admired the fruits of Arbor Day and said,
"How lovely are these trees; how well kept and fed."
The trees ignored our admiration, as was their right,
and spawned a host of shadows, imitating night.
The town's hill, round and mirrored as a globe
climbed once in spring, above us hovered
high in wind smoothed walls of slate
on which trees' naked branches scraped
an etching of themselves reflected in the sky.
It grew late until the blind hawk's cry
made us see the gray and shaken sheets of storm
that sheathed us soon and drove us down
Into the brambles where the ancient Indians lay
separated by the soil from the weather of our day,
and resolved at last to, sightless, calmly wait
upon the last night's opening of the gateless gate.
The slashing brambles took our eyes away.
The rain in sheaves removed our clay.
Our dried skin, in husks, remains asleep.
To awaken us, you must dig deep --
Beneath the earth of whittled leaves,
beneath the grief that no longer grieves.
To awaken us you need a careful touch,
for you must dig, but never dig too much.
We turned from the field and its flickering birds,
where sunlight played on summer words,
playing now to carven, standing stones,
to the sullen silence of abandoned bones.
Stillness slashed the grass with blades of wind
and made us wish we could a thousand acts rescind,
but we knew our wishes were for naught
for what is easily sold is dearly bought.
Instead, we startled life in a flash of wings,
and in that moment came to present things.
We walked home, made tea and sat together,
held hands at evening, and talked about the weather.
Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know
Within the smoke their ash revolves as snow,
To settle on our skin as fading stars
Dissolve into pure dust at break of day.
At dawn a distant shudder in the earth
Disclosed the fold of fire into steel,
The rumbles not of crossings underground
But screams from out of flowers built from flame.
We stood upon the Heights like men of straw
Transfixed by flames that started in the sky,
And watched them plunging down in death's ballet
To land among those dying deep below.
By noon the band of smoke leaned low
Upon the harbor's skin like some dark shawl,
A pall of smoke that in its curdled crawl
Kept reaching to extend its fatal fall.
The harp strung bridge held up ten thousand souls
Who'd screaming run beneath the paws of death,
As dusted ghosts that lived but were not sure
They lived in light or only in reprieve.
They'd writhed and spun within a storm of smoke
And stumbled out to light and clearer air,
To find upon the river's further shore
That sanctuary is not savored but secured.
The sirens scraped the sky and jets carved arcs
Within a heaven empty of all hope,
And marked its epicenter with one streak
Of black on polished bone where silver stood.
By evening all their ash had settled so
That on the leaves outside my window glowed
Their souls in small bright stars until the rain
Cleaned all that could not be clean again.
We breathed the smoke that bent and crept and crawled.
We learned to hate the smoke that lingered so.
We knew that blood could only answer blood,
And so we yearned to go and not to go.
That last, lost summer faded into ash
Their faces faded as endless autumn flowed
Through chill and heat into the winter sea
Where warships prowled in search of stones.
Within the city, shrines were our resolve.
We placed them where we stood or where they lay.
Upon our bricks and stones their faces loomed
To gaze at us from times beyond repeal.
In time, their ash and smoke became the shapes
Of stories told at dinner, found in books,
Or in the comments made by magazines
For whom the larger issues were of worth.
At first their faces faded with the rains,
The little altars thick with wax were scraped,
But now beneath clear plastic they endure
To remind those passing that we've not escaped.
Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know.
With woven steel hands
Cupped around clear cadenced tones,
Our servants of the infinite
Herald the skein of the sky,
Repeating one announcement,
Sans ornament and instantaneous,
To be etched on eternity's orbit
In a tattoo of silences.
Like torches tossed down
Into unexplored caverns
They dwindle and fade
Till the darkness dissolves them.
"We have arrived at the limits of Earth.
We stand on the edge of Forever.
We are here. We are here.
Are we alone?" In numbers and bits
These messages rise up,
Clambering the ladder out of the pit
Of ignorance and gravity
To float like amber dreams
Along the spine of light.
The disconcerting occurrence
Encountered at the terminus
Of all the mind's parabolas
Is that nothing occurs at all.
Pinwheels of luminous plasma,
Glowing reefs of matter,
Spatter the crests of the darkness
And descend like lamenting specters
Caught in the eddies of shoreless seas.
Their lights, creeping up along
The curve of the continuum, gleam
No more than the two-franc candles
Cupped in crippled, translucent palms
In the grotto of Our Lady at Lourdes.
And thus they too only serve
To dapple, quite briefly, the dark edge
Of that shoreless ocean that consumes
What little light they lend,
And, like some pitch-drenched Pharaoh,
Are damned down to oblivion
By their own command to wait
Sealed in stone for a distant dawn.
All these thoughts and messages
Noted for a nanosecond, memorized
In some splinter of a second,
In tombs of luminous instruments,
Relayed, incorporated, and sent on:
A telegram with no fixed address
Woven out of frozen starlight,
And then to the darkness delivered.
Fantasied fears spun in the circles of flickering campfires.
Mythologies winnowed out of unusual stones, or bone, or bits of bark.
Cosmologies concocted from rats' skulls, corn, and Titanium atoms.
Theologies tortured from the blind, wrung from hints in high cumulus.
All the perceived and imagined stockades raised against Zero:
The face of hoarfrost that blooms in the mirror, the last god,
He who is, the Pure Noun for which there is no adjective,
An orb of vacuum which sees itself as Cosmos, a tendril of unseen
A word which can never be spoken, the footprints of extinguished
The visage mathematics cannot freeze.
Our handsome proportions and crafted ornaments evaporate.
All our most comforting music and meters dissolve.
The clapping of frostbitten hands in Antarctic tents continues.
Above us the rictus of universal harmonies lingers.
The new landscape appears: desolate, arid, airless, uninhabitable.
The tendrils of the desert of the senses invade its frontiers,
Guided by hands of ice that caress the belly of the stratosphere,
As far above the chill ionic winds erase the footprints pressed
Into the dust of the moon's untenanted tranquillity.
The waterless waves on that sea without ships
Go outward, roll onward in search of horizons.
The faces in stone keep their futile appointments
With wind and with water, which also have schedules,
That return them to silence in a melding of stars
Here where the tree's roots grope into the air,
Here on the banks of tomorrow as the mind's searching message,
Laden with numbers, with dates, and with data,
Rises up and flies out past the sun to the birth of the stars.