From Lookout Mountain at Night; Fallen Fruit
From Lookout Mountain at Night
Before the slow descent to Ruby Falls,
We stop and watch the sprawl of city lights.
I think of lines on someone’s palm enlarged
Like a traffic map, each intersection lit
In different colors.
My son who’s four years old
Says, “Christmas lights,” his way to register
How a powered urban grid both tarnishes
The shine of evening stars and copies it
As artificial novas on the ground.
But tonight, the view comes slowly into focus
As mercury vapors, white hot halogens,
And headlight-taillight bulbs that overlap
With obstacles of trees and power poles,
Foreshortened and enlarged in ever-changing
Vantage points we make as we descend.
That’s how it is but, still, I can’t respond
Except by saying what I think it’s like,
Like stars, or Christmas lights in someone’s palm.
Is metaphor a memory, two things
Remembering when they were both the same?
Consider the stars, no, all things far apart;
By a common trait or someone’s turn of phrase,
They leap together in the linker’s mind,
A backwards bang that reunites the light
That shines as various and sundry suns.
Not far from here, some twenty years ago,
A teacher showed me where, in the Civil War,
Beleaguered Union troops had bivouacked.
They dug a shallow plot for every tent,
Staying no more than several days before
They moved again.
Year upon year of leaves
Dissolved, filling the beds with nothing but time.
In 1988, I knelt beside them
And let my fingers trace the places where
Each soldier slept before he lived or died.
I’d like to show it to my son and share
The same collective memory if it
Has not been turned into a parking lot.
What does it mean if we remember things
We’ve covered up, demolished, or erased?
If, once the “thing” is gone, will memory
Be cancelled out, a double negative?
And where are memories that we forget?
Are they recorded in inverted Braille?
Or in the language of the major apes,
The one they can’t invent, so can’t pronounce
The fact that This is not at all like That?
Or in the forest here where fossil ferns
Still lie entangled in the roots’ intrigue,
Fossils that look so much like living ferns,
Remembering the soil in the stone,
That even the humid air we breathe tonight
Remembers by its own analogy
That Chattanooga was once an ancient sea
That’s now the salty water in our lungs?
So once we see that lines across a palm
Are like the remaining veins in fossil leaves
And like the pattern of a city’s streets,
We find the place where Memory and Time
Are just a double-sided metaphor.
A memory is like a lack of time,
And time is like a dream I can’t recall,
And Metaphor is how the three are joined,
And all of them are where my son will be
When I am gone, when he looks in his hands
And sees imaginary maps of land,
Of everything he’s held and couldn’t hold,
Of worlds he’ll find ethereal and real
All locked in orbits by the gravity
That makes his bones remember the gist of me,
What he’ll become, a living simile
Of what I was in essence and in pith,
A soldier sleeping in the Christmas lights.
The very day that Ingmar Bergman died,
I read a book on pictures, words, and sums
That glossed the first time Helen Keller cried.
Beside me, there were piles of rotting plums,
The neighbor’s summer windfall gone to waste.
A yellow jacket landed on my chair,
And colors on its abdomen were spaced
So perfectly I couldn’t help but stare.
My daughter asked me, “How are shadows made?”
And, blinded by how clear and luminous
Her eyes were then, I suddenly felt afraid
That I would disappoint the obvious,
The sensual world in words I’d merely choose.
But then my son asked, “What if time could slip?”
His Time! Her Light!
Though Eden’s ingénues,
Their minds and garden-hearts could already lisp
In metaphors that I would not dispute,
Could see the world that isn’t there, could smell
The sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruit
That issues out of symbols like a spell.
I can’t protect them; they were bound to see.
The Fall was knowing what it meant “to stand”
Then painting the paradise that used to be
In language that could raise it from the sand.
Thinking in pictures, feeling in words, I cried
When Bergman died, like Helen when she knew
The beauty of the world, what liquefied
Across her hands that felt and wrote and drew.