SLOW TRAIN COMING
It’s been the arrival of children at this time in my life that has made me sharply conscious both of my remaining span of years and my present mortality. Without dwelling on either morbidly, I find myself brought up short whenever confronted by manifestations of the frailty of our lives. On a global scale, the single events of 9/11 and the tsunami were chilling markers of our fragility. And the quotidian death toll from ceaseless violence in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, far from inuring me through repetition to the imminence of death, only serves to throw its shadow the longer.
All of which and more besides have provoked the notion of not seeing my children grow towards adulthood because of my own premature demise. From these global and local phenomena there has arisen an altogether new and – in vulnerable moments - corrosive fear.
This has engendered in me a need somehow to realign my sense of time – not so as to lament the relatively short spell of it left, or even to try to pack into it as much action as I can, but more to dispel an awareness of the markers that signify life’s passing. So instead of there being an acute consciousness of a constant sequence of activity, a linear process that moves away from one point and towards another, the light gradually but distinctly diminishing as it advances, I have to generate within myself a sort of ‘groundhog day’ mentality whereby the regular processes of life, humdrum and dramatic, are automatically rewound each morning to Hour Zero.
Paradoxically, the very elements that would seem to promote a sense of the telescoping and foreshortening of time can be used to help in this strategy of reiteration. Yes, the same events play out again and again; routines dominate and patterns control. But, provided that I can avoid being tyrannised by memories – difficult in age and difficult too if they are a core source of creative material – the very repetition of events can apply to their passage a sort of sidereal quality whereby life self-refreshes each day, consciousness of those minute alterations and shifts in emphasis expanding and enhancing.
Difficult for one whose consciousness of the finity of things is as pronounced as mine, but, as they say, the game is worth the candle. And that candle must burn long: my eldest children have long journeys ahead of them and my youngest are barely at the perimeter of their own lives and I must be with them there and beyond for as long as physiology, mentality and spirit permit.
I wrote this poem a few years before my father died, at a time when I was trying to anticipate what effect the passing of my parents might have on me. Enough of the child’s assumption of immortality remains for its content to have continuing relevance.
Technical note. Its steady ABBA rhyme scheme is not served well by a corresponding attention to meter. Just in case anyone in the back row was going to stick their hand up and point it out...
I am not afraid of death, my death.
I am, of course, immortal. A child sits
at my gate; implacable, he admits
nobody. I borrow his breath
and through it speak
with dumb authority to those
bereft. Such green wisdom flows
from innocence: that bleak
and curtained room beyond is locked
to me. My world is light:
big windows, open doors; by night,
imperfect darkness, stocked
with childhood stars. My death
is inconceivable. Unlike yours;
you die and I diminish too because
my child goes with you, his implacability, his breath.