Today's book of poetry:
RedShift. Patrick White. Ekstasis Editions. Victoria, B.C. 2013.
I expect there are boxes and boxes of undiscovered Patrick White poems. He used up every word in the English language and then some. Patrick White wrote poems like an essential bodily function. Towards the end of his life he wrote with a ferocity of purpose and the candor of a pure burning flame.
Patrick White really wasn't writing poems like any other Canadian poet.
I rue my own ignorance
I rue my own ignorance trying to get somebody
to lighten up, live, blow it off, forgive, move on,
get out the snakepit or at least teach the snakes to dance.
Stop thinking about it. Start living it. What
do the stars taste like shining in your blood?
Have you forgotten we're all innocently culpable?
Alone together with everyone on the same lifeboat,
or dogpaddling in the abyss until we're buoyant enough
to float for ourselves again, not dying of thirst
like fish in a freshwater lake? Wish I had the herbs,
wish I had the words, the keys, the open sesame
to say to the time locks on the vaults of brighter stars
that might illuminate the hidden agendas of your dark matter,
I truly do. Pain's not to be disregarded because, because,
and I can see you're hurting. I can feel the agony
of being you, I can see the rage and the beauty
and the ugliness of the human ego labouring to compensate
for its devastation, whether it be ethically sanctioned or not,
you caught a mirage that's evolved into a fever,
persecuted, betrayed, wounded, ignored, Narcissus
taking it out on all the mirrors he can't drown in,
you plead for rescue then you pray for death.
And maybe it's a dress rehearsal for something serious
you'll make us all live to regret, if you don't
enslave us first to the nose rings of our compassion,
makes us the dupes of our own ideals like
the conceptual nets it's easy enough to get caught in
like dolphins who've lost their sense of direction,
and most people cling to their best second guesses
like flypaper and fridge magnets, they're not likely
to understand it on the inside the way you do.
What do you know, for example, about what
makes my cry when I'm on the nightwatch alone
singing three bells all's well on the upper decks
of the shipwrecks deep in my own sea of awareness?
Even when I write them down, do you see
the same pictures I do, or is more left out of the translation
than even the most vehement expressionist
could possibly include base-jumping
from his precipitous solitude without a parachute,
a wing, a prayer? Maybe one day we'll all meet
at the speed of light but it occurs to me
we have to take the training wheels off first,
ditch the crutches, stop mytho-poeticizing our alibis
into the paranoid metadata of our reversible screening myths.
There's no starmap on the other side of the umbrellas
or the eclipses we use to keep the rain off our heads,
and even if there were, look what happened to the moon
when her subconscious watershed froze up inside
and her ideals were no longer fed like tributaries
by her tears, in joy or disappointment, the former
younger than yesterday, and the latter, old and finished
way before its time, out of synch with its prime.
The pill punching drugstore cowboys of the mind
have ferret souls and holes in their noses and tongues.
Star-nosed moles accusing everyone else
of being blind to the light at the end of the tunnel
as if a firefly of insight were coming at them like a freight train.
Maybe so. Maybe so. Everything makes a private impact
on the familiar witness we made up to testify
to the secret lives even our eyes only aren't cleared
to breathe a word of like picture-music
in the corneas of the rain, every drop an eye-transplant.
I've never met Jesus, but I've met ten thousand messiahs just like him
over a lifetime of trying to save myself in a wilderness
as most of the living do, living on bees and locusts,
among thorns and scorpions, and the pharmaceutical vipers
dispensing opioids like the honey of killer bees in Lotusland.
How does the Hill of Skulls in Jerusalem stack up against
the knoll of heads the Mongols piled up before the city walls
to encourage it to surrender? The distinction's lost upon the dead.
And I hear voices like the swarming of blackflies sometimes,
and others, Salomes, mermaids and lamias singing
so intriguingly with their bodies and their minds
in the desert of mirages unveiling the stars,
it's as if the night were using my skull as a vessel
for the black grail magic they held it out to me and said, here, drink.
You'll never be the same after this, if you're shameless enough.
Like so many poets, huddled in their immensities
declaiming some local muse who blew in their ears
like the ashen firepits of their embering intensities,
you've immunized our life and works with sacred syllables
against the very thing you're afraid of killing you
deeper into the unknown darkness of your own shadowless eyes.
Your Mummy doesn't love you and your Daddy's
a stretch of the imagination, and you're strung out
like pilot lights of vetch entwined like barbed wire
around the towers of common mullein tangled
in the strangle hold of your fishing lines snagged on the moon
hooked to the lures and the flies of the lies we tell ourselves
to explain why we shriek like a three alarm fire
in the house of life whenever someone turns on the lights,
and it's only another false dawn flaming out
in the usual phoney sunsets of the lamp-posts and daylilies.
You task me with drawing up a starmap of the firing squad
of deranged constellations you're standing blindfolded in front of
trying to carve a chandelier out of the one good third glass eye
you've got left to focus your own inner light on
until all these fallen leaves withering at your feet
like pages of your life you keep tearing out as if autumn were a threat,
break into fire again, as if a choir of arsonists had asked for an encore,
as you have said yourself, you spent the first half of your life
being loved, brilliant, and beautiful, and this is what you get for it.
So I summon the fireflies, illusory cures for illusory diseases,
though by that only the fools would think I meant something unreal,
to a seance in a hall of black mirrors in a palatial labyrinth
of cul de sacs and dead ends, black holes in the hearts of the galaxies,
and I speak to each of them like an intimate insight
into my own human nature, shadowed by what I think
like a mindscape it's harder than a tarpit to shake:
You see this man here, he's a friend, and he was once
loving, brilliant, and beautiful, a lantern, a lighthouse, a star
shining like a beacon on a coast of shipwrecks,
and just look at what he gets, a porchlight with insects
buzzing in the ripped spiderwebs dripping from his panicked windows.
And knowing the thieves of fire they are I'll never be,
I ask them if them might condition a bit of chaos
into a myth of origin for him that's a little more of a moonrise
and a little less of that gazelle of light he's enthroned in a wheelchair.
Cool the fever his eyes have caught, uproot the nettles, and treat him
to a sweeter dream of chaos than the one's he's most likely to get lost in.
This is poetry from a life fully lived and a journey expressed through verse. White brings back the troubadour, the town crier, the oracle.
It's hard for me to be completely rational about Patrick White's poetry. I met him over thirty years ago, the first time we met we sat and talked most of the night.
Patrick White was relentless in his pursuit of the perfect line and he had a lot of information to impart.
Think a more rational Allen Ginsberg, a more verbose and lengthy Irving Layton. Patrick White wrote big ideas into very big poems.
These roller-coaster amusement park ride anthems are his holy music to the world he loved.
The stars keep happening faster than I can remember them
The stars keep happening faster than I can remember them.
So is everything else, exponentially. Memory makes me
a continuum I'm always creating and calling myself.
Memory cross-references its matrix like the web of a spider
and soon I mistake the habit of the web for me, continuously.
I'm attached like a badge or a bird to the strings of my own guitar.
The seeing isn't in my eyes. Neither is the music in the instrument.
I keep giving the stars new names every night
just to keep up with the possibilities of what they're becoming.
Nor have they ever shone down upon the same man
looking up at them two nights in a row. I rearrange them
into different constellations and give them symbolic meanings
they never knew they had before. I step through the door
and every house in the zodiac changes. The sun
is less lucid at dawn than when it started the nightshift.
There isn't a point on the ecliptic that isn't the equinox
of a prayer bead that gets its way by not asking for anything.
Watching the world, I witness my own creation
as it's happening. The star becomes aware of the eye
that's observing it and it begins to see things
as if it had its own imagination. We celebrate
each other's possibilities and awareness is born
of the binary of your and me, so we can dance,
not two, like a happy secret that can't be known
by anyone else. No one has ever lifted the veils of Isis,
not even unity, which is to say, if you see her face covered
it means you haven't opened your eyes far enough
to realize the Queen of Heaven is the shining
you've been looking for her with. Astronomy for fireflies.
This world is so interdependently originated
I'm the lifework of a star. I'm the masterpiece
of a bacterium. Starmud, I garden among the galaxies
that blow like the dishevelled heads of flowers in the wind.
My work done. I'm the only weed that's been uprooted.
The pulse of my bloodstream is the waterclock of the stars.
The moon is in the corals having sex. I'm listening
to discrete variations on a theme of discontinuity
my ears are turning into music like the rain on the plectra
of the thorns and leaves that ping like the G-spots
of the roses in heat that want to go on blooming forever.
Patrick White gave his last poetry reading on Sunday, February 16, 2014, at Books of Beechwood Bookstore. He was both resplendent and desperately holding back death. We were old friends, but not close friends, sincere and affectionate. When I shook his hand that day I knew it would be for the last time.
Patrick White died on March 1, 2014, fifteen days later. He was 66.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick White is the former Poet Laureate of Ottawa. He published eight books of poetry. His work was translated into several languages and has appeared in hundreds of journals, magazines and anthologies, both Canadian and International. White was the winner of the Archibald Lampman Award, the Canadian Literature Award and the Benny Nicholas Award for Creative Writing.
"He promises to be one of our best respected poets."
"He might well win the Nobel Prize one day in his own inimitable way."
"Whether wandering in mythic fields or flying too close to the abyss, the creatures of Patrick White's world are unbearably tender and lucid shapeshifters, carriers of light. Patrick White returns fire to the gods and takes you with him on the journey. He deftly reinvents the metaphor restoring poetry to its rightful place in a world gone dry."
"His images are strong, lyrical, moving. He dares and achieves."
Conversations with Patrick White, December 9, 2013
Patrick White - On Anthos, Portrait of a Poet