cryptic from the cave


Another Visit to the Oracle
Margaret Atwood
1) Another visit to the oracle
There’s so much I could tell you
if I felt like it. Which I do less and less.
I used to verbalize a mile a minute,
but I’ve had to give it up. It’s
too hard to turn the calories into words,
as you’ll find out too if you live
long enough. If you live as long as me.
So I’ve had to edit. I’ve taken up
aphorism. Cryptic, they say.
Soon I’ll get everything down to one word.
All crammed up in there, very
condensed you understand, like an
extremely small black star. Like a black
hole. Like a dense potential. Like the letter A.
You see what I mean about cryptic.
I could go on like this for hours. Weeks months
years centuries millennia. Could and did.
It was my vocation, after all. My
fate. That, and the lack of accurate
translation. Want to know your future?
But you’d rather have a happy story any
day. Or so you say.
2) Prophecy
The future will be both better than the past
and worse.
What future?
Your future,
which is implied in many futures.
What past?
Your past,
which is touched by many pasts.
Both your future and your past are in your head,
because where else could they be?
And your head is in the present, since
by the time you hear this, “your head” –
the one I just mentioned –
is already in the past,
which doesn’t exist, except
in your head as I’m telling you this.
Prophecy is therefore easy.
All I have to do
is be present in my head,
which contains your head.
I can walk around in there
as if in a cave,
a well-lit cave.
I can look at any feature.
This is one method.
It only seems like magic.
3) They used to ask me…
They used to ask me all kinds of questions:
Will I get a good husband
Will I be rich
Will the baby recover
and so on.
Now it’s only the one thing:
Is there no hope?
They ask that over and over.
Though the sky is as blue as ever
the flowers as flowery,
they stand there slack-mouthed
arms hanging useless
as if the earth is about to crumble,
as if there is no safe refuge.
Of course, I say.
I hate to disappoint.
Of course there’s hope.
It’s over there in that well.
There’s an endless supply.
Bend over the rim, you’ll see.
Down there.
It looks like silver.
It looks like you
with the sun behind your head
as if your brain is burning.
The face dark and without features.
But that’s a trick of the light.
That’s hope.
It’s in the future tense.
Don’t be deceived.
4) Don’t be deceived…
Don’t be deceived.
What a thing to say.
As if there’s no conspiracy.
Relax, the lightbulbs are singing.
It will soon be all right,
hum the wires.
You’d think it was spring,
so many tunes on the loose
bursting with love, and all of it
Deception is the air we breathe,
we couldn’t live without it.
Don’t you want things nice?
Don’t you want to have fun?
Don’t you want your dinner?
Clap your hands and wish very hard.
That’s what we’re eating:
Wish food.
5) Wish food
Wish food lies on the plate.
It twitches. It’s still alive.
You wouldn’t want a dead wish.
Those go bad very fast.
But if wishes were fishes
we’d soon be out of luck.
Eat, eat, the body says:
Here comes starvation
blowing towards you like a dry wind.
Nobody has a plan.
You’ll need that fat,
all those fat wishes,
those fat dreams you ate.
Start working on your burrow,
the one you’ll crawl into
so you can hibernate.
Call upon your inner bear,
it’s in there.
6) Why should I tell you anything true?
Why should I tell you anything true?
Why should I tell you anything?
You’re not paying me.
I don’t do this for money.
Hold out your hand,
Your empty hand.
I see.
If I told you what you hold
in the lines in your hand
which as I said is empty,
is full of emptiness,
you’d be annoyed. Oh surely
not, you’d say. You’re far too
dismal. Too severe.
I’m doing this to help you.
What would you prefer?
You’d like me to amuse you?
Do some jigs, or pranks?
I lack the airiness,
I lack the feathers.
That’s not what I do.
What I do: I see
in darkness. I see
darkness. I see you.
I see you,
in darkness, walking.
I see your hurrying feet.
This is where you’ll be
at the end of all the sunsets,
all the banquets.
Behind you there’s a tunnel
with a life in it.
Your former life,
your life of silks and gardens.
Colours flickering.
The city is in flames,
it’s as I said:
time to get out
with what you’re carrying.
Forget the jewellery,
forget the lovers you once had.
Don’t hesitate.
You can find other bangles.
Ahead of you there’s what?
Is it a river?
The water slides like oil,
soundless and without fish.
A mute beach.
This is where I’m handy:
I’ve been here
in some form or another.
I’ll help you to the edge,
I’ll see you over.
I know who to bribe.
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
A boat will be provided.
After the boat has foundered,
after you’ve reached the shore
despite the foundering boat,
after you’ve met whoever’s waiting,
who loves you (possibly),
after you’ve entered
the part that I can’t see,
I’ll tell your story –
Your story that was once so graceful
but now is dark.
That’s what I do:
I tell dark stories
before and after they come true.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash



Margaret Atwood
Secrecy flows through you,
a different kind of blood.
It’s as if you’ve eaten it
like a bad candy,
taken it into your mouth,
let it melt sweetly on your tongue,
then allowed it to slide down your throat
like the reverse of uttering,
a word dissolved
into its glottals and sibilants,
a slow intake of breath—

And now it’s in you, secrecy.
Ancient and vicious, luscious
as dark velvet.
It blooms in you,
a poppy made of ink.

You can think of nothing else.
Once you have it, you want more.
What power it gives you!
Power of knowing without being known,
power of the stone door,
power of the iron veil,
power of the crushed fingers,
power of the drowned bones
crying out from the bottom of the well.

Photo by DJ Paine on Unsplash

“but love is separation”


from Modersohn-Becker
Anne Michaels
Obsession is the sacrifice of light
to the richness of submergence.
But love is separation,
the membrane of the orange dividing itself,
the surface of silver
that turns glass into a mirror.

There’s failure in every choice.

“Naked, we had voices!”


It seems I’ve fallen madly in love with the work of Anne Michaels, having put her work everywhere, the imagery folding itself into my own ways of seeing and expressing feeling and light.

fromThe Weight of Oranges
Anne Michaels
I’m up early now, walking. Remember our walks, horizons like lips barely red at dawn, how kind the distance seemed?

Sometimes I’m certain those who are happy
know one thing more than us … or one thing less.
The only book I’d write again
is our bodies closing together.
That’s the language that stuns,
scars, breathes into you.
Naked, we had voices!

I want you to promise
we’ll see each other again,
you’ll send a letter.
Promise we’ll be lost together
in our forest, pale birches of our legs.

I hear your voice now—I know,
everyone knows promises come from fear.
People don’t live past each other,
you’re always here with me. Sometimes
I pretend you’re in the other room
until it rains … and then
this is the letter I always write:
The letter I write
when they’re keeping me from home.
I smell your supper steaming in the kitchen.
There are paper bags on the table
with their bottoms melted out
by rain and the weight of oranges.

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

city life & love


Immediately thoughts of other poems and writing come to mind, including “The City” by Eddy van Vliet and the incomparable and oft-quoted Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:

“the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there”

cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements.“

““Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” “Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.””

““I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person,” the emperor says to Marco, snapping the volume shut. And Polo answers, “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.””

Phantom Limbs
Anne Michaels

“The face of the city changes more quickly, alas! than the mortal heart.”
—Charles Baudelaire

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad!
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

“corrosive with nostalgia”


from Lake of Two Rivers
Anne Michaels
Pull water, unhook its seam.

Lie down in the lake room,
in the smell of leaves still sticky from their birth.

Fall to sleep the way the moon falls from earth: perfect lethargy of orbit.”

Sensate weather, we are your body,
your memory. Like a template,
branch defines sky, leaves
bleed their gritty boundaries,
corrosive with nostalgia.

Each year we go outside to pin it down, light limited, light specific, light like a name.

The longer you look at a thing the more it transforms.

We do not descend, but rise from our histories.
If cut open, memory would resemble
a cross-section of the earth’s core,
a table of geographical time.
Faces press the transparent membrane
between conscious and genetic knowledge.
A name, a word, triggers the dilatation.
Motive is uncovered, sharp overburden in a shifting field.

achingly true


It’s rare to find exactly the perfect poem for exactly the right moment. The entirety of “Stone” doesn’t do it for me, but the selected excerpts so do.

from Stone
Anne Michaels
Beatrice called him a pig and a pearl.
But she also liked to say,
lovers are equal only when so steeped
in corruption, knowledge of the other
is no longer a weapon.

At first it wasn’t passion, felt more
like memory – as if, in remaining true to myself,
to everything in my life that had come before,
there could be no direction but towards him.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash