Now forty winters have besieged this brow that bears the mark of ashes once again, its shallow furrows yielding to time’s plow as, on command, I turn and turn again. With every year the mark goes deeper still and stays there longer than the year before, reminding me, despite my flesh’s will, there comes a spring when I’ll be marked no more.
Yet still I bow and part my graying hair to make way for the dust that makes us all, the mortal touch, the cross traced in the air, the voice that tells me to regard the fall that each of us must know before we rise and raise unwrinkled brows to greet God’s eyes.
Readers of P. D. James’s novel Children of Men won’t be prepared for the emotional breadth of the film version by Alfonso Cuarón. Like most dystopian stories, the book is relentlessly grim, icy and pedantic.
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate W. H. Auden
In this dark time, I want to make light bigger, to throw it in the air like a pizza chef, to stick my fists in, stretching it till I can get both arms into radiance to the elbow spinning it above us.
But oh, dark is such a genius at argument, using all the rhetorical figures. And you aren’t bad yourself, Mr. Auden, elucidating war, how it subtracts and subtracts light till each nation becomes a blind man alone in his own dark, gripping his cane, unable to cross to his lover who waits by the pizza parlor. Unable even to see her, unable to sing out to her the way a lover might sing out, Susan, it’s you!
In truth, the dark is that personal, fluttering like a red moth behind my eyelids. My Texas cousin lies dead this afternoon and his widow’s at the Funeral Home with their child, trying to explain where he went. Isn’t that the brilliant final move of dark, Poof! to separate us from each other? Between us, Mr. Auden, you and I have multiplied
the dark till some might say there’s no escape. But seeing darkness is seeing something. Maybe that’s why, as Susan crosses to the blind man, I notice the horizon begins leaking into the sky. Light reaches the treetops. It falls in chutes. And then, god help us, like everything, it breeds and breeds.
The trouble is the halo. He’s never dissected one, prying it open with a blade under cover of night to determine its component parts: seeking with his fingertips for the thin band of cartilage that holds it erect, or the branched nerves channeling light as coldly steady as foxfire on a rotting log. The same goes for wings. Without evidence from his cadavers, he dispenses with them, painting angels as fit as young quarrymen and pasta-loving cherubs to whom aerodynamic principles will never apply. Even God looks as if he climbs into bed each night stiff from a hard day’s work but not ready for sleep, his brain crammed with thumbnail sketches of airy beings aglow with inexhaustible fuel flying by faith in unborn Bernoulli’s constant.
One morning this summer I was basking in the sun With the brother closest to me in age. We had been Brought up almost as twins but then took disparate Roads, as twins do. He was sobbing and I was near Tears and the ocean was muttering. I heard a heron. We had been having the most naked open talk we’d Had in many years. I wanted to tell him how deeply I loved him but words are just so weak and shallow. So I talked about the forsythia bush we used to hide Under together. It was the safest place on the planet. The light was always amazing in there and it wasn’t Ever muddy somehow and you were draped in gold. It was a hut a huddle a tent a canopy a cave a refuge. Sometimes you have to use a thing to say something Else. We do this all the time. We talk sideways, yes? But sidelong is often the only road that gets to where You know you need to go. So much means lots more Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.
John Coleman, who died recently, presided over Haverford College during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. He sympathized with students’ antiwar protests but also tried to channel the antiwar movement in constructive ways. When students considered burning the American flag, Coleman placed a washing machine at the center of the campus and encouraged students to wash the flag instead. He persuaded dozens of college presidents to sign an antiwar statement. On sabbaticals he took blue-collar jobs to explore the gap between academics and workers (Inside Higher Ed, September 12).