Thursday, October 30, 2014

it is difficult to speak of the night













It is difficult to speak of the night.
It is the other time. Not
an absence of day.
But where there are no flowers
to turn away into.
There is only this dark
and the familiar place of my body.
And the voices calling out
of me for love.
This is not the night of the young:
their simple midnight of fear.
Nor the later place to employ.
This dark is a major nation.
I turn to it at forty
and find the night in flood.
Find the dark deployed in process.
Clotted in parts, in parts
flowing with lights.
The voices still keen of the divorce
we are born into.
But they are farther off,
and do not interest me.
I am forty, and it is different.
Suddenly in mid passage
I come into myself. I leaf
gigantically. An empire yields
unexpectedly: cities, summer forests,
satrapies, horses.
A solitude: an enormity.
Thank god.


Jack Gilbert








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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Becoming







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Nowhere is it the same place as yesterday.
None of us is the same person as yesterday.
We finally die from the exhaustion of becoming.
This downward cellular jubilance is shared
by the wind, bugs, birds, bears and rivers,
and perhaps the black holes in galactic space
where our souls will all be gathered in an invisible
thimble of antimatter. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Yes, trees wear out as the wattles under my chin
grow, the wrinkled hands that tried to strangle
a wife beater in New York City in 1957.
We whirl with the earth, catching our breath
as someone else, our soft brains ill-trained
except to watch ourselves disappear into the distance.
Still, we love to make music of this puzzle.


–Jim Harrison
Saving Daylight
 





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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Samhain







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In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.

Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil

that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.

I move my hand and feel a touch
move with me, and when I brush
my own mind across another,
I am with my mother’s mother.
Sure as footsteps in my waiting
self, I find her, and she brings

arms that carry answers for me,
intimate, a waiting bounty.
“Carry me.” She leaves this trail
through a shudder of the veil,
and leaves, like amber where she stays,
a gift for her perpetual gaze.


–Annie Finch








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saturnrising

Michiel Mulder's Autumn
thingsthatsing

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower









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Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.



–Rainer Maria Rilke
from Sonnets to Orpheus, II - 29








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clipped from an interview with Krista Tippet
via
ayearofbeinghere














Sunday, October 26, 2014

Passage







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He who
took the steps
by two
now pauses
on each tread
and I
who love him so
am filled
with dread.


–Marilyn Donnelly





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Saturday, October 25, 2014

nothing but death








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There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain. 

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
throat.

Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.


–Pablo Neruda
Robert Bly translation








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Friday, October 24, 2014

last moment


 

 

 

Don't move.

Just die over and over.

Don't anticipate.  

Nothing can save you now,
because this is your last moment. 

Not even enlightenment will help you now,
because you have no other moments. 
With no future, be true to yourself
—and don't move.


–Shunryu Suzuki Roshi






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Thursday, October 23, 2014

how to watch your brother die








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When the call comes, be calm.
Say to your wife, "My brother is dying. I have to fly
to California."
Try not to be too shocked that he already looks like
a cadaver.
Say to the young man sitting by your brother's side,
"I'm his brother."
Try not to be shocked when the young man says,
"I'm his lover. Thanks for coming."
Listen to the doctor with a steel face on.
Sign the necessary forms.
Tell the doctor you will take care of everything.
Wonder why doctors are so remote.
Watch the lover's eyes as they stare into
your brother's eyes as they stare into
space.
Wonder what they see there.
Remember the time he was jealous and
opened your eyebrow with a sharp stick.
Forgive him out loud
even if he can't
understand you.
Realize the scar will be
all that's left of him.
Over coffee in the hospital cafeteria
say to the lover, "You're an extremely good-looking
young man."
Hear him say,
"I never thought I was good enough looking to
deserve your brother."
Watch the tears well up in his eyes. Say,
"I'm sorry. I don't know what it means to be
the lover of another man."
Hear him say,
"It's just like a wife, only the commitment is
deeper because the odds against you are so much
greater."
Say nothing, but
take his hand like a brother's.
Drive to Mexico for unproven drugs that might
help him live longer.
Explain what they are to the border guard.
Fill with rage when he informs you,
"You can't bring those across."
Begin to grow loud.
Feel the lover's hand on your arm
restraining you. See in the guard's eye
how much a man can hate another man.
Say to the lover, "How can you stand it?"
Hear him say, "You get used to it."
Think of one of your children getting used to
another man's hatred.
Call your wife on the telephone. Tell her,
"He hasn't much time.
I'll be home soon." Before you hang up say,
"How could anyone's committment be deeper than
a husband and wife?" Hear her say,
"Please. I don't want to know the details."
When he slips into an irrevocable coma,
hold his lover in your arms while he sobs,
no longer strong. Wonder how much longer
you will be able to be strong.
Feel how it feels to hold a man in your arms
whose arms are used to holding men.
Offer God anything to bring your brother back.
Know you have nothing God could possibly want.
Curse God, but do not
abandon Him.
Stare at the face of the funeral director
when he tells you he will not
embalm the body for fear of
contamination. Let him see in your eyes
how much a man can hate another man.
Stand beside a casket covered in flowers,
white flowers. Say,
"Thank you for coming," to each of the several hundred men
who file past in tears, some of them
holding hands. Know that your brother's life
was not what you imagined. Overhear two
mourners say, "I wonder who'll be next?" and
"I don't care anymore,
as long as it isn't you."
Arrange to take an early flight home.
His lover will drive you to the airport.
When your flight is announced say,
awkwardly, "If I can do anything, please
let me know." Do not flinch when he says,
"Forgive yourself for not wanting to know him
after he told you. He did."
Stop and let it soak in. Say,
"He forgave me, or he knew himself?"
"Both," the lover will say, not knowing what else
to do. Hold him like a brother while he
kisses you on the cheek. Think that
you haven't been kissed by a man since
your father died. Think,
"This is no moment not to be strong."
Fly first class and drink Scotch. Stroke
your split eyebrow with a finger and
think of your brother alive. Smile
at the memory and think
how your children will feel in your arms,
warm and friendly and without challenge.


–Michael Lassell
For Carl Morse©









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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Canticle







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What death means is not this—
the spirit, triumphant in the body’s fall,
praising its absence, feeding on music.
If life can’t justify and explain itself,
death can’t justify and explain it.

 

–Wendell Berry






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Monday, October 20, 2014

look








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You Don't Have to Act Crazy Anymore -
We all know you were good at that.
 
Now retire, my dear,
From all that hard work you do
Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart.
 
Look in a clear mountain mirror -
See the Beautiful Ancient Warrior
And the Divine elements
You always carry inside
That infused this Universe with sacred Life
So long ago
And join you Eternally
With all Existence - with God!



–Hafiz
Daniel Ladinsky translation







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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Not Nothing






The death of a fly is utterly insignificant – or it’s a catastrophe.
How much should we worry about what we squash?










This morning a tiny fly was, true to its name and nature, flying about in the vicinity of my desk. It really was very tiny – a fruit fly, I’d guess. At one point it landed in front of me. I brushed it aside and it resumed flitting about in its patternless path. Then it landed again, and again I aimed to brush it aside. But this time, my aim was off. It was probably a matter of only a millimetre or so, but my finger landed, not next to the fly, but on it, and so what was meant to be a brushing motion became instead a squidging motion.

The fly was so small that it didn’t offer the least resistance to the pressure of my finger. Compliantly, it transformed itself into a dark smudge. Not a gory or bloody smudge; not one with the least detail or variation – not to my naked eye, anyway. Just a small, uniform, rather faint mark.

Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it.

At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time – some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death.

The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, I must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write – sometimes about complex subjects – it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create.

Thus it seems to me quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe. To entertain such contradictions is always uncomfortable, but in this case the dissonance echoes far and wide, bouncing off countless other decisions about what to buy, what to eat – what to kill; highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.

Which is a problem, because nature is a streamers-and-all, non-stop, cork-popping party of death. For example, I regularly take my children to a large park with a series of ponds, where in spring we look for frogspawn. This gelatinous broth is a mass of life in the making. Each batch contains many hundreds, even thousands of eggs. The next time we visit, the pond will be full of tadpoles, like a page covered in punctuation marks. But the time after that, there will be many fewer; and the next time we will have to look hard for those metamorphosing mini-frogs, as tiny as keychain toys, some still with their tadpole tails. Those we find are the few survivors, whose numbers will be thinned still more before any get as far as restarting the cycle with their own spawn. The Way of the Frog is to get Death so full at the feast that a few can slip past while he slumbers.

This party of death is, of course, at the same time a cork-popping party of life. For all the tadpoles that perish, some still make it to become frogs, and have been doing so for at least 200 million years. Those that don’t are the stuff of life for countless other creatures, from the littlest insect larvae to grand old storks. Indeed, frogs are regarded as a keystone species, which means that the death of their multitudinous offspring, along with the death that they themselves deal out, is crucial to the flourishing of the community of life. In the language of ecology, life and death are obligate symbionts, each wholly dependent on the other.

We too are built on a bedrock of old men’s bones. Our evolution to Homo sapiens is a product of the endless winnowing out of the unfit and the unfortunate. If some australopithecine apeman or woman had stumbled across the elixir of life, it is very unlikely that you or I would exist. It is worth bowing our heads for a moment to all our ancestors whose passing away made our lives possible.

I was drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes.

But here we are – and many people would like it to stay that way. That tadpoles are fodder for pond-life is as natural as the leaves falling on the water in autumn; that flies get squidged is as ordinary as apples rotting in the orchard. One’s own death, on the other hand, seems most unnatural. It seems rather an error and an outrage; a cosmic crime; a reason to raise one’s fist and rebel against the regime that ordered this slaughter of innocents.

But here we are – guests at the party of life and death. We know we must exit along with the flies and the tadpoles. But we would rather not think about it. And that, perhaps, is the problem with my dead fly. When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye. If I had turned away fast enough, the fly’s death would have remained as insignificant as those of its invisible brothers and sisters caught by the swifts. But I was drawn instead inside its tiny head, drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes. Through a lapse in my indifference, I was drawn into the catastrophe, drawn to make its death my death.

Veganism, like the Indian religion Jainism and other movements that preach a very purist strain of non-violence to other beings, seems to me a response to this one side of our contradictory perception of mortality – its catastrophic nature. Such movements take seriously the catastrophe that is every single death of every single sentient creature, whether fly, rat, frog or human. And so they say: not by my hands, not on my watch, not if I can help it. They are anti-death movements, whose followers go to great lengths not to squash flies or mosquitoes, let alone have big fat pigs killed on their behalf.

This horror at the death of other creatures is intimately bound up with horror at the prospect of one’s own demise. Flies come and go in countless masses, mostly beyond my sight and care. But when something happens that causes me to empathise, to become the fly, then its death becomes terrible. As the poet William Blake realised when he, too, carelessly squashed an insect:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

Some clever research from the field of social psychology has demonstrated a close association in our minds between animals, animal products, bodilyness generally and our own mortality. The upshot is that these things give off a whiff of the Reaper that colours our response to them. The studies are part of a body of work known as ‘terror management theory’, which holds that our world views largely function to help us manage the terror of death. That means all world views: in the case of religions such as Christianity with their promise of eternal life, the link is very obvious, but secular belief systems have their death-defence-mechanisms too, often closely paralleling the religious ones. For example, just as Christians believe they will be resurrected by God, those who subscribe to cryonics – being frozen upon death – believe they will be resurrected by scientists.

Veganism and, to a slightly lesser extent, vegetarianism both follow this pattern, as modern secular parallels of Jainism. Their response to the terror of mortality is to attempt to create a zone of non-death, a zone from which the Reaper has been entirely banished, visiting neither flies, nor rats, nor us. In Jainism, the death-denial element is explicit: your ultimate reward for keeping your hands unbloodied is to become godlike. In veganism, it is only implicit, but nonetheless the religious or ritualistic elements are present: such as in the actions of a friend of mine who, when deciding to become vegan, threw out the half-finished pack of butter in her fridge. What animals were helped by this act, what suffering allayed? None, of course. But it at least banished death from her toast.

I said that seeing each death as a catastrophe seems a perfectly reasonable response, and veganism and Jainism are its logical extensions. They attempt to resolve the paradox by denying the other side, which says that the death of a creature is at the same time insignificant, natural and inevitable.

However, as reasonable as it is to take the catastrophe of death seriously, to ignore the other side of the paradox altogether leads us only into fantasy.

It is the fantasy of a day when (in the words of the Old Testament) ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat’. It imagines a world in which the catastrophe of mortality has triumphed over its insignificance. ‘Then,’ as St Paul wrote, ‘shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory”’, and we all might live happily ever after, flies and all.

Just because nature is a cork-popping party of death does not mean that death is right or good.

But it is a fantasy. We cannot do away with death without doing away with life. In the Natural History Museum in my adopted home of Berlin, there is a glass cabinet in which a lion looks into the eyes of a zebra. They are just a few feet away from each other, with no barrier between them, but this lion will nonetheless never claw at this zebra’s flanks, nor break its neck nor tear out its bowels. They seem instead quite comfortable in each others’ presence, like old acquaintances, reminiscing perhaps about the warm savannah sun. The threat of imminent, violent death has been banished. And that, of course, is because they are filled with cold metal and wood shavings, instead of the hot blood that made them once alive and mortal enemies.

No, we cannot do away with death without doing away with life. And this applies equally to the animals in our charge. The vegan friend who threw away the butter also once said to me that she did not want animals to die because of her. But of course, before they die for her (or you or me), they live. Whether they live well is a very important, but nonetheless separate, question. Caring and campaigning about animal welfare is noble and worthwhile. But abolishing such animals altogether is saying: because I am horrified that they must die, I will not let them live.

It is a well-known fallacy to extrapolate from what is to what ought to be. Just because nature is a cork-popping party of death does not mean that death is right or good. Just because all flies die, this does not mean that my fly deserved what it got when I squidged it. But on the other hand, nature does set limits to what is possible, and perhaps even thinkable. Nature will not tolerate an end to these cycles; it will not tolerate life without death.

There is an equal and opposite alternative to veganism’s insistence on the momentousness of each death, and its ensuing death-denial. We can instead assert death’s insignificance. Whereas in the first approach, each life acquires infinite value such that we dare not let it end, in the second approach, we strip each life of its value so that its end is a matter only of indifference. This approach, of course, is nihilism.

Perhaps death’s relentless reaping should make us question the existence of higher meaning. But who thought there was such a thing anyway?

There is a long tradition of seeing in the omnipresence of death the negation of all meaning, hope and value. It was what the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson meant when in 1849 he described Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. He laments that she is ‘so careless of the single life’, then, on considering fossils, how she is so careless of whole species. She cries: ‘I care for nothing, all shall go’, and Tennyson concludes: ‘O life as futile, then, as frail!’

But just as the first attempt to escape the paradox becomes an attempt to deny the undeniable, so does this one. The fact of death does not destroy meaning: indeed, as we pass through the heat of life we cannot help but produce meaning, like a popcorn machine produces popcorn. This is what living things do: they imbue the world with significance and value; for an organism there is always better or worse, relevant or irrelevant; there is always something to do. This is what differentiates us from the rock that is indifferent to being pummelled to sand by the sea.

Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning – one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. And not me – yet I’m not therefore tempted to despair, at least not while a good dinner is waiting.

Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway: as we saw, the alternative is the most desperate and convoluted of denials.

Once when on holiday as a child, I remember my father wielding some insecticide spray against a column of ants invading our rented chalet. Thinking this looked like a fun thing to do, I took the spray-can outside to the ant’s nest and went on the offensive. To my surprise, my father came out and told me to stop. I had no business killing them all like that, he said. I was confused: my dad was a sausage-eating, fly-swotting man, who had grown up on a farm, and had himself just moments before brandished the same spray-can. But I was also relieved. I was glad that he thought it wrong; I was glad that he thought the death of an ant not only insignificant, but at the very same time a catastrophe.

From the viewpoint of the gods, the deaths of us and the flies are equal in their insignificance.

He did not explain exactly why he thought my ant-hunting was wrong. He did not try to rationalise the apparent contradiction in his own actions with a grand theory. Though if he had been pushed, he might have said: we cannot stop Death from going about his business; and we oughtn’t pretend that sparing the ants (or the flies or the butter) will keep him from our door; but we need not rush to be his foot soldiers either.

Those hoping that I would resolve this paradox might now be getting a little anxious, as we are reaching the penultimate paragraph with no solution in sight. But it should be clear by now that I do not believe there is a solution. I believe that the death of the fly was both insignificant and a kind of catastrophe. And I believe that about the deaths of frogs and pigs too, and about my own death, and yours.

This, as Shakespeare knew, is the source of tragedy: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,’ said the much-suffering Gloucester in King Lear. The boys are wanton because the death of any creature, even a fly, is a catastrophe; but at the very same time, from the viewpoint of the gods, the deaths of us and the flies are equal in their insignificance.

Philosophers academic and amateur – which is to say, pretty much all of us – prefer to think that paradoxes must have solutions, that they are somehow just the wrong way of looking at things, or a muddle of grammar and syntax. But not this one. It is, as far as I can see, part of the nature of things. To take both sides seriously and to seek some way to live with them is part of what it is to be human; part of what it means to be a guest at the party of life and death.


–Stephen Cave
25 July 2014





Stephen Cave is an English philosopher and journalist. His latest book is Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (2012).
He lives in Berlin.










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buffleheadcabin

Photo by Jon Higgs/Gallery Stock
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Friday, October 17, 2014

Not as a Foreign Tourist Does, excerpt







.






As for me, I will enter the mulberry trees
where the silk worm makes me into a silk thread,
then I’ll enter a woman’s needle in
one of the myths,
then I’ll fly like a shawl with the wind …


–Mahmoud Darwish
Fady Joudah translation,
Michigan Quarterly Review Summer 2005







 










Thursday, October 16, 2014

East Coker V, excerpt







 
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Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.



–T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
 





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