The consolation of cosmology

 

Selected poems

 

 

The consolation of cosmology

 

From time to time, the fluctuation doesn’t produce

a Big Bang, it just re-creates last Tuesday…

                                                —Katie Mack

 

We’re not talking here of

those domestic incidents in the home

that can really spoil your day

 

(the toaster no longer toasting

for instance) though home won’t be so

particularly inviting anyway

 

when the whole universe ends.

Katie Mack knows about these things

and we should take notice:

 

‘These terms like Heat Death, Big Rip

and Vacuum Decay don’t sound

all that inviting.’

 

She’s understating it. Heat Death

will be absolute cold comfort for anyone

who makes it that far

 

whereas the Big Rip would be

like splitting the backside of your jeans

albeit on a cosmic scale.

 

Death-bubbles in Vacuum Decay

could be quite a thing, gobbling up all

substance into the void

 

into that nothing which really is

a thing to be avoided. It could happen

anytime now. ‘The end is nigh’

 

a sandwich-board man declares.

Katie Mack says: ‘There’s something

about acknowledging

 

the impermanence of existence

that is a little bit freeing.’

This is perhaps a bit of poetic license.

 

It could be poetic justice.

Though not really poetic, Arthur Dent

would say, looking nervously

 

at the calendar. Not really

anything to write home about, in fact…

Katie Mack might give notice

 

but the universe is indifferent.

So just get a cup of tea and sandwich,

settle in for the main event.

 

the send-off

no longer the man he was

he is now more or less changed forever

 

already so much younger

in the minds of friends outside the church

 

as we narrate him to each other

all those stories that form the last hurrah

 

as time and its operations turn his body

into detritus and words

 

as we speak of someone we once knew

have lost and maybe found

 

the words drift over the graveyard

like butterflies

 

something lies dead in the hedge

and informs us so

 

the usual blackbirds

chip at the edges of dusk

 

Southern China 2014

  1. Yangshuo

from my third-floor hotel balcony I could reach out

almost to touch the mountain

 

it seems such a good neighbour

 

when I walk out by the Li River

the mountain follows me / shadowing my footsteps

 

I watch the river-boats working

their ways across the current towards night-moorings

 

the fisherman homeward-bound with his cormorants

 

in the street the rows of stalls flutter with

silks / with kites and flags / with shawls and dresses

 

dusk is burdened by the gathering monsoon

redolent of fruit and fish and flesh and tobacco smoke

 

back at the hotel with Mike the porter

drinking baijiu sweetened with osmanthus flowers

 

our laughter and the full moon echo down the corridor

 

later that night the mountain silently enters my room

and kneels at my bedside

 

I lean my drunken head into its flank

 

 

  1. street artist in Yangshuo

by the river-wall beneath an acacia tree

he leans into a landscape propped on his easel

with his mind across the river

 

he is at least one thousand years old

 

the layered ink beneath his brush

makes a molehill into the mountain before him

before our time and now

 

like icing a cake in photo-negative

 

he scrubs the grubby cap from his head

to wipe his brow and then he settles once again

into the brush’s rhythms

 

drawing out the image already there

 

the hill’s crest emerges from the clouds

from the fading light from the white parchment

chiaroscuro of the world’s rim

 

perfect as the final icing on the cake

 

 

  1. Qingming

the mountains come down to the river

humped like herds of mammoths

 

bending to drink the pooled dusk

 

sunset is a painted veil

 

the old man’s eyes lift from the shrine

towards a passing river-boat

 

sorrow glances back

then goes off into the shadows

 

night-wind

 

no stars

 

sounds of water falling

 

 

  1. on the Yulong River

on bamboo rafts

adrift beneath the arched

 

Ming dynasty bridge

in Baisha town

 

a wedding couple

teeters in western dress

 

the bride’s train

muddied yet her smile

 

so radiant for

the photographer

 

her husband however

is frowning

 

             ~

 

we slip across a weir

into twilight

 

no outboard motors

no tractors

 

just the lowing

of unharnessed oxen

 

shouts and songs

of men and women

 

trudging homeward

from the fields

 

then a silence

more quiet than itself

 

 

  1. wu wei

it is not just because this is

another country

 

and our foreignness

has brought us to a standstill

 

                  ~

 

not just because officials

are telling us a troubling story

 

and assert it in this language

we do not understand

 

                 ~

 

nor just because the words

inscribed on this rock

 

are not by Li Bai or Du Fu

but Chairman Mao

 

                 ~

 

it is just because this moment

is this moment and

 

the mountain does not move

yet we are moved

 

 

  1. Hidden Hill, Guilin

we step from verdant

             foliage into the dark

our footsteps tentative

             inside the hollow hill

 

in a shrouded silence

             away from the city

figures loom towards us

             from the cavern wall

 

demons and deities

             on either side

of men aching their ways

             through the bardo

 

the weight of rock

             pressing in upon us

makes us shrink a little

             into our mortality

 

‘pain is inevitable

             suffering is a choice’

this road less travelled

             goes along with us

 

 

  1. homeward

the river-boat lurches into the sweeping current

makes its way towards the other shore

 

karst mountains loom like paintings through the mist

 

rock and forest / waterfalls and bamboo groves

 

I want to glimpse the poets

but they are working in the fields or on the roads

 

or else are bureaucrats hunched in grey offices

 

nostalgia tells me of another time

but really it never was an easy life for them

 

the rough wine teasing them onward

the full moon in the water

 

calling

 

 

 

 

 

John Allison is a New Zealand poet with 6 collections published. One of these, Balance (Five Islands Press 2006) was published during his 15 year sojourn in Melbourne. His poems have appeared regularly in New Zealand's literary journals and elsewhere throughout the world. His poem 'Father's Axe, Grandfather's Machete' was included in Best New Zealand Poems 2020, and the poem-sequence 'The Poetics of Water' has been set to music by Pieta Hextall for a chamber music ensemble (voice with flute / clarinet / harp / string quartet), to be premiered in October. John is currently preparing his Collected Poems, to be published in 2022.

Main image: Li River (John Allison)

Topic tags: John Allison, poetry

 

 

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