Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
This love for the everyday things,
part natural from the wide eye of infancy,
part a literary calculation,
this attention to the morning flower
and later to a fly strolling
along the rim of a wineglass —
are we just avoiding our one true destiny
when we do that, averting our glance
from Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker’s coat?
The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the void ahead,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.
So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside
when we should all be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves against the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,
the door locked behind us
as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
and the enigma of our origins?
What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap sliding around the bathtub
when we are really meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?
banging away on nothingness itself,
some with their foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.
One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.
Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.
Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude’s older than Cheerios
the way they used to say
Why that’s as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,
I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.
In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,
but there was nothing to write
about except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.
I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously—
things you see once and will never see again.
But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile—
for no reason I can think of—
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.
I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face
the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make
before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,
the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,
as we rush down the long tunnel of time—
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,
speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,
speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.
Much has been said about being in the present.
It’s the place to be, according to the gurus,
like the latest club on the downtown scene,
but no one, it seems, is able to give you directions.
It doesn’t seem desirable or even possible
to wake up every morning and begin
leaping from one second into the next
until you fall exhausted back into bed.
Plus, there’d be no past
with so many scenes to savor and regret,
and no future, the place you will die
but not before flying around with a jet-pack.
The trouble with the present is
that it’s always in a state of vanishing.
Take the second it takes to end
this sentence with a period – already gone.
What about the moment that exists
between banging your thumb
with a hammer and realizing
you are in a whole lot of pain?
What about the one that occurs
after you hear the punch line
but before you get the joke?
Is that where the wise men want us to live
in that intervening tick, the tiny slot
that occurs after you have spent hours
searching downtown for that new club
and just before you give up and head back home?