Further extracts from An Exquisite Calendar for The Duke of Madness by Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published five collections of poetry, most recently Apocrypha (2009). He received the Queensland Premier’s Award for poetry in 2010 and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His latest collection Towns in the Great Desert is being published in 2013.
His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.
I saw her there, sitting on the narrow ledge outside the window of the upstairs bedroom, my other sister, so pale and thin, the bones almost puncturing her skin. I could tell she was getting ready to fly, that slight rocking of her body, her closed eyes feeling their way towards the air she wanted to float in like someone terrified of water reciting a mantra before slipping off the side of the pool into that blue wide expanse. My other unnamed sister, my lost double, in the thirteenth year of her death.
* * *
For many months one year we lived in the capital. I remember the sculptured layers of a park that by gradual degrees raised itself above a boulevard, stretching away from a harbourside marina. The pavements were like Paris or New York with many tall buildings from the 1920’s and 1900’s but it was as if someone had taken a huge mallet to every pavement and building and pounded cracks into them. It looked like a New York or Paris systematically dinted so everyone would know it had only ever been a replica, of no real value in itself. People dressed in warm rich clothes and paraded en famille along these shattered sidewalks, somehow not taking in that everything was dust and weeds and gaping holes. Everywhere was plastered in billboards of ski resorts, exotic waterfalls, extravagant furs and jewelry, and in the fountain at the centre of the park was a small flotilla of coffins. Around a monument were men dressed like soldiers from the revolutionary war of the 1780’s and on the hillside children attached to kites would take off into the skies. I remember there was a small hotel where we stayed one night – when I fell asleep it was on one side of the boulevard and, when I woke the next morning, it was on the other side. There was a yacht owned by the British royal family tied to a tumbledown wharf and if you walked across the gangplank you entered another country.
* * *
We were living in a place where the past was so strong the present could never really take hold. There was a bookshop that had no books, that had shelves and bookcases lined with names written on small cards indicating where books had once been. There was a museum of the famous leaders and writers and poets and artists of the country but it consisted only of plaques where their manuscripts or paintings or sculptures had once been. In the district of painted buildings there was an immense spiral staircase made of ornately carved ironwork that went down through all the layers of a building that was no longer there. On one street corner a woman who could read fortunes was collecting money so that one day she could buy a Tarot pack. All these things were true of this city, along with the absolute conviction among its inhabitants that nowhere else on earth could match its brilliance or in any way equal its accomplishments. When the last of his business ventures failed, my father hurried us back to our place in the remote provinces.
* * *
When I look into the face of the clear ones I look into the face of the sky. Tonight an indistinct lightning is there, like the barely perceptible quivering of a wounded eye. Slowly it circles the platform where I am sleeping driven out of the house by midsummer heat. This is the season of exposure and withdrawal. Simultaneously what is given is concealed. A wave breaks and travels far into the future, into eons when humans are no longer here. The ear picks up a faint crumbling at the edge of perception. You leave the balcony, turn left, up the stairs, waiting for someone to arrive, above the door an oval mirror, then at once you are a blaze of space.
* * *
Curled up on the floor a brown leaf that is really a moth – a moth returning to its state as wood that one day would return to its state as stone. Soon the table would rise off the balcony and the small room of light would be inscribed in the darkness a little way above the forest. Something had gone wrong, that was all I knew. Faces detached themselves from other faces. My fearful double chin was dripping blood: first small droplets, then a steady river flowing down to soak a tribe of ants on the floor. The twin shadows I knew by the names of guilt and regret were sitting in opposite corners of the room, their closed eyes seeing everything.
* * *
What the field before me held were various bells sounding at different pitches. They hung from the edges of leaves. A leaf would convulse then stop and somewhere some distance from the first leaf a second leaf would convulse. This happened for several minutes across the overgrown orchard with its tangled hedge. The leaves were infected by some kind of nervous tic, a spasming they could no longer control, but it was not general, not all the leaves. They preserved a randomness that made it clear they were just like us, feeling themselves to be individuals yet dominated by inexplicable compulsions.
* * *
On a day missing from the calendar there is an hour when breathing stops, when the breath is no longer needed but every person will continue across this hour, unaware of its passage. Ants, butterflies, moths and various insects observe people and tamed animals in this hour moving doggedly on with no breath inhaled. It is a moment ordained for every other life form to experience the free creativity of uninterpreted speech. Ants vibrate, worms and caterpillars intone subtle melodies, cockroaches lay bare their dark philosophy. On this day that slips away from human calendars the mosquito and the wasp frame their own elaborate histories. Later humans will breathe in again, unaware of the hiatus, will again insist on their uniqueness, their interminable chant of naming and possessing. In the corner where no light penetrates, the book of beginnings has gained another page.
* * *
One day my father and mother took us to a wedding in a distant city. For two days we traveled by train to reach there, having to change between different lines several times. The wedding took place in the main cathedral and later the reception was held in an old colonial house in a steep and jagged part of the city nestled high in the cordillera known as “the Cinnamon Zone”. The house was built round a central patio, an ornate garden with a pond and fountain. The library contained not only the works of the great poets and novelists of many languages but also a sound archive of recordings of every poet who had passed through our country and whose fame or agreed-on merit was considered worth preserving. Surreptitiously I slipped away from my family to rest inside this library. After a while a small woman emerged from under a writing table and identified herself as “the witch” – she could tell fortunes and read off the secret poems inscribed in the palm of the hands or on the surfaces of all old and time-creased objects. These powers, or “toxic gifts” as she called them, had come to her, she told me, in the months after her son had disappeared – her husband was related to a powerful crime lord and someone had stolen her son as revenge for the murder of their family. “This wedding is doomed”, she said. “She will beg the Pope to excommunicate her husband and annul the marriage but the President of the Republic is a master of black art and will blind the church to the truth.” I asked her if she knew my fate. “It is not good to know”, she replied, “it is never good to know. The time when it will be time is always not that far.”
* * *
A season that would last many years was preparing itself. There were people under the floorboards who were growing wolves’ teeth and learning to fly in the dark caverns that stretch beneath our country. Those with the precise eyesight for dividing the human body into gristle and sellable commodities. Adept connoisseurs in the pillaging of corpses. Their righteousness would take many years to reach its zenith. It was to be a time with no moon or sun when dismemberment would go on openly, boastingly, for more than a decade. Already under the floorboards they were assembling the racks.
Surely father could hear this and was taking steps. Surely mother could hear it and had alerted someone. Frozen I listened. Frozen I held it tight inside myself. It was the shadow of a smile in the rust-green pond I was walking down into. It was a distant ringing in the small curve of my belly, a miniature alarm clock I had no words for, the whispering of a nightmare even before sleep has enfolded you.
* * *
They were racing to fortify the borders though no one knew what to put in, what to leave out. Should this tree be in or out? This river, this tangled passionfruit vine? Just as unclear was where to place the barriers of time – only what belonged to last year or twenty years back or a hundred? Should parents be included or only older brothers and sisters? Outside the borders would be everything we would have to abandon and agree to call “enemy” – clipped fingernails, toys from Christmases that couldn’t be imitated any more, doubles of ourselves we had chatted to so many times in vivid, impossibly complicated, waking dreams, a friendly shoulder bouncing a ball in a park that had towered over the most difficult year of childhood, a presence that with every casual flick of the expert wrist said, “One day you can be me”. And now frantically we were hunting for cardboard boxes, balls of string, spiked wire, the hoarded stash of dumdum shells, swirling laser images of crucified men and women that could stand guard over the frontier, could set the barrier, for once and all, between what we would be from now on and what would be pushed aside into the never more to be mentioned non-land of loss.
* * *
At the conference in the provincial capital each speaker was invited to give their opinions on snow. Voices shifted in a room while enormous clusters of ice crashed against the pavement outside. The white city of smashed windows began to spill an almost invisible red thread. The daze in the eyes of a man going blind snowed over and the quiet world waited. It was for him in one breath the centre of a new unexpectedly luminous world.
White lines flicker like wasps buzzing all around the threaded knots of a grape vine. Petals of whiteness float down around him. Let him die outdoors. And another butterfly settles on his eyelids – from one ear faintly now he hears the purr and slash of an earthmover tearing up the soil, uprooting the trees that held life together. In the other ear a garden fountain goes on letting water trickle down a slope of rocks – water landing in droplets on water. The sudden brightness of snow falling inside him. Before him the wasp doing acrobatics, tumbling from leaf to leaf on the vine. Even with the explosions from the neighbouring yard, the thud of subterranean shelves collapsing, he felt the snow guiding him, the reversal of white and black bringing him to the entrance, this narrow, infinitely open present.
* * *
And Solomon in his whirlwind said
You were a flowering tree.
You were broken donkey and stricken wolf.
You were the one awaited and the one lost.
You were Adam and the one torn to shreds by beasts.
You were the brick and the entire gleaming wall rinsed in daybreak.
You were atoms of air and a dream held between bones.
You were the ship.
You were the child who says ‘the ship’.
You were the selfish one and the sustainer.
You were the page, the empty whiteness, the dizziness of swarming words.
You were the eyes of a frog repeating itself all through the long wet night.
You were the lover, the blind man and the grave where flowers will grow.
You were raven and owl, the white carcass of a mouse under the scrabble of branches.
You were the plum tree and the fly.
You were the stone in the road, the space where the breath leaves.
You were Angela and Adam and the voice in the trees where the rain falls all night.
You were giver and given, poison and gift.
You were signs in the sky of the ending and someone’s hope.
* * *
Who comes through the forest?
The bear whose eyes guide him,
who moves in the echoing dark.
The shadow that moves behind him,
the lightning flash that steals the soul.
* * *
In the season of invasions it is not only the mice and spiders and wasps settling into the hallway. Dark pain moves into the chest, the skid of twenty years regret slips in through the soles of the feet. Soldiers of unknown countries take up positions on the street corners and you can’t always be invisible. This is the cold season when mist comes in off the sea and damp creeps under your fingernails. You can see children pressing bread to their faces to stay warm. Worst of all are the anger plants sending up twisted creepers through the soil, through the foundations of houses and countless pinpoints on the body’s skin to produce that dizzy nausea of destructiveness, wild barbs flung at children and partners. Of this season they say “Everyone carries a torturer within them.”
* * *
The rain steadily went on falling into itself: gathering like the round husks of lemons and, when light settled on the tiles, so much fullness brimmed over my eyes hurt with the shimmer. Pink and red and violet flowers snarled or whimpered or dozed with brief twitches under the assault of rain. It happened in the two weeks before what should have been the pepper harvest, this season they call “death through abundance”.
* * *
The whiteness of trees just before sunset with late birds scattering in noisy batches, parrots, Indian mynahs, a raven, some magpies and, come far too early, imposingly out of place as it perches on a low branch in a neighbour’s yard, a powerful owl, the Duke of owls, holding the world in its gaze with no flicker of movement, no sound. And darkness grows around it, the bougainvillea gather a deeper red, night seems to emanate from the leaves and flowers and the black earth, keeping the stars at bay.
The Duke of owls with two misshapen eyes, a card player who owns all the decks gazing into the emptiness of chance.
* * *
All at once
I come into the wood of the tree,
under flaking bark
the white core of hardness
where everything soars into a flash of eyes
lifted up by light,
ripped to where leaves are hanging in blue greyness
and wind and sky
set everything trembling.
Beyond all terror
I am scattered among fieldmice,
exploded like dewdrops
on leaf mulch, stone and sawn-off tree stump.
And around me
the voices that half whisper,
half chant, “little sister,
daughter of the daughters of our murderers,
our million ghosts,
your million ghosts,
are all here, right here,
breath of the wind inside you.
No one altogether dies.”
* * *
In moonlight tainted by clouds something exquisite shimmers – a broken tin fence, a haze of whiteness?
Midnight on all the drowned clocks. From inside its cold halo an owl beckons: home.