“Root is what I am, rootpoet here at home among the worms, finding here the poem’s terms.” —Miklos Radnoti, August 8, 1944
If, as it seems, art is nothing, nothing at all— some sleep only that lulls us toward trees, what to make of these poems, Miklos, where you ordered a life into lines? That brutal stumble through the mountains might have said enough. Or those curses sneered by villagers, one pausing near the water well to dust and dust his sleeves. Finally, you with the rest, worn through, too settled for another step, were forced to dig and dig your graves, then
kneel at last on the uncalmed earth there. What is that light against the fields? Why, after all that had been done? They sought to sever tongues from thoughts—those soldiers, certain in their silence, who carved from hurt this tender fruit words could have grown and given seed. Miklos, these hidden poems, found folded in your pocket. . . . Prove, history, how the world speaks deeper than decay: this murmur pulled from underground, with its challenge of a purer sound and song.
“Each time that we have some pain to go through, we can say to ourselves quite truly that it is the universe, the order and beauty of the world, and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body. After that, how can we fail to bless with tenderest gratitude the Love that sends us this gift?” —Simone Weil
The pathology report an icon; the tissue staining the slide, God’s kaleidoscope. And those cells, obeying their DNA, cosmic dust as they whirl and split. Why not praise cancer, relentless, blind, that seeks and finds the lymph and blood? Because I am unthankful, rude. Because if I linger over this gift, I will change, I will vanish from the earth. In Russia, an icon of Mary has wept for twenty years. Mary, do you see my nuclei mutating, like words in “whisper down the lane”? This same God took your son away. Help me disobey.
On the scaffold twenty meters up tracing her head in the damp plaster, Michelangelo knows it’s going to take more than a breath to make Adam drop his can’t-be-bothered pose, too bored to stand even at God’s charged arrival, held aloft by a crew of hard-working cherubs who struggle to maintain lift long enough for contact to occur: a critical maneuver of the right hand complicated by the added weight of Eve on whom His left arm rests. Drops of paint freckle his face as he wonders how many priests will take offense but concludes that only skin to skin will do. Without it, Adam’s forever grounded. God’s touch is first. Hers is next.
It wasn’t where we wanted to live but you have to put down roots to thrive. Daily we bore the shock of forbearance— our own and our neighbors’: the noise, the smell! Be fruitful! We tried. Soil of lead arsenate, cadmium. We added our detritus, peel and core: redemption. And now our mineral prison blooms in this, the year of our departure: now at last the berries fruit in blue abundance. Which goes to show our acts are not our own; what we make does not belong to us. At best we fade softly as timothy, and leave our harvest to the next people.
Through lashes, saw the weave of the crocus blowing backwards, and in this motion recognized my life, the full sadness of existence, but wanted it still: the earth and its sugars, these days like a bridge I could cross.
I’ll always remember the sweltering night in Missouri, the pulsing din of the katydids, the prairie grass stretching away on the other side of the trees. In the dark woods across the pond, a lost calf bleats its anguish— six times, then eight, then six again. I sit at the camp table listening, as so many nights before. In the tent, sleeping, the boy, now thirteen, the woman, after twenty-seven years. Moths and greenbugs attack the lantern, flapping crazily. Before I finish tonight they will land in the halo of the hot gas light, diligently search out the lantern’s air vents and incinerate themselves. In the morning I will brush away the fine white ash. This is not a fitting metaphor for any human aspiration. The light we are seeking is not the kind that destroys those who seek it. True, the bright burning gas tempts us sometimes. I know, I know. There are nights when we feel that bad. I turn the valve of the lantern to off and wait for my vision to adjust to the darkness. The almost inaudible breathing from the tent comforts me. I think of us sitting on the shore as the last sunlight seeped from the sky, watching the boy cast his fishing line again and again out into the pond, catching nothing except happiness. The light we are seeking catches all the world in the shooting arc of the outthrown line, never to be lost, not bounded by night, dangerous only to death.