Intimate Letters comprises the seventh book of an ongoing long poem in prose called The Invisible World Is in Decline. Its title borrows from a string quartet by Leoš Jánacek, a profoundly emotional piece written late in the composer’s life when he had fallen in love with a younger woman. It also points towards the intimacy of letters themselves, the visible pieces that make up language. This collection begins with love poems, then moves to a section (“Wretched in This Alone”) dominated by loss. The “Invisible Ghazals” which follow take language and emotions more deeply into a sense of dispossession, a landscape of the heart characterized by feeling unmoored. “Desire,” the final poem, and the only piece in conventional poetic lines, attempts to rescue the heart from bleakness by proposing that passion does survive even the most difficult and demanding experiences, and “runs through our days like / music.”
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About the Author
Bruce Whiteman was born in 1952 and has published many books of poetry and cultural criticism and is well known as a book reviewer. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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The Invisible World is in Decline, Book VII
By Bruce Whiteman
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2014 Bruce Whiteman
All rights reserved.
IN THE MAGIC CIRCLE OF NIGHT
"... im Zauberkreis der Nacht" — Hermann Hesse
Mountains ring paradise. The sun is still on its tether. Sloughed roof tile in a red clay pile.
Late afternoon light and wind ripple the pool water. Leaves high in the air blow left and right. A pigeon plummets like an arrow onto a stone.
Immigrant palms flex their green muscles in the bright air. Black shadows come and go. The cat darts self-consciously at a lark.
All directions of the compass congregate in a small circle at the tip of a peaked roof. The air bites its own tail up there. The weathercock is still.
The incontrovertible logic of night is still far off. It lies in a dusty unlit corner where the wind and the sunlight are moot. It is a hummingbird's tongue, barely noticeable.
Something unseen chitters high in a tree. The wind picks up and muffles its odd vibrato. Traffic noises counterpoint that voice.
Your dress lies in a red circle on the grass. Bees hover over it, glad for colour. A single mourning dove sits like a whole note on the telephone wire above.
Stones ring a bottlebrush tree. Two cactuses rise like pillars in the grass. Almost everything is green in the yellow light.
The desert outside these greeny walls is stark. Dark stones and pallid sand stand endlessly repeated into out of sight. Slight chance of any redemptive moment.
Human objects intervene. A brown chair with three slats at back sits slack at a table. Lime pieces float in a plastic glass.
A spindly tree rises out of the back patio. Your splayed body sleeps quietly on the bed. Out of doors, a slate table sits empty.
Night descends finally as the elliptical sunlight fades. The vibrissae on the trees go still. The room fills with soft grey air.
The desert night is old, cold, silent now that all the planes are grounded. Now is not the proper time of month for moonlight. The cat skulks by, hunting now for fellow tetrapods.
The desert night surrounds this place with an intimate clasp. Lights like eyelids open up and barely penetrate the dark. The arc of "nothing there" creeps out from under trees.
The desert night inspires faith in stones for comfort. They are hard things, immovable, not prone to deception. They go dark before the dying light obtunds.
The desert night envelops every passing car. Their dust and ruddy lights are fast wiped clean. They fade from sight in no time flat.
Shadows grow like grey chalk on the orange wall. They are a second reflection, evolving and elusive like a poem. They pulse and sway and finally are erased.
Shadows mass and quiver behind seven tall trees. No less real than green fronds, they shiver and fade at dusk. A single streetlight casts its listless pall.
The wind picks up at five o'clock. Everything not near to the ground despairs and cranes its neck to live. Darkness lies around that special corner.
It is the wind brings the magic circle of night. Lovers bide their time and wait amidst piled blankets and feathered berms. Love is enough whether they sleep for a while or not.
OF YOUR SCENTS AND BIRDSONG
"... von deinem Duft und Vogelsang"
— Hermann Hesse
Away from soap your hair smells deep with the promise of skin, the place where our bodies abandon their silent grief and containment and spill out onto each other.
Love wants to live at the cutting-edge where light and hair declare their inefficiency at self-definition. Something lasting like the sound of birds agreeing to flee from high waves and salt spray, inland to sun and sweeter smells.
DREAM-RAPT AT DUSK
"... nachträumend in den Duft."
— Joseph von Eichendorff
All girlie domestic things deserve my love and rapt attention.
Damp underwear hung in the shower stall and the smaller V-shaped half of a bathing suit crushed into a corner of the sink. Disencumbered hair let loose to float in darkened underwater rooms. Fortunate islands of books with their intimate signatures and menstrual histories.
A Chinese box holds sox that lie like piled cordwood.
THE GARDEN, MOURNING
"Der Garten trauert ..."
— Hermann Hesse
A crow works hard to flap aloft, perching on the soft, enormous bloom of a high tree. The garden is full of dirt, colourless as the sea and dank after days of rain. The lemon tree is hung with haphazard fruit, hard as stones, and red holly berries stain the grey air. Dissolving in the intermittent sun, rusty furniture reminds us that the garden is only for this morning and not forever, whatever that is. Grapes and roses will flourish and die, nourished by the dirt and the rain slanting in from the sea.
We stay inside and watch the garden indulge in its slow grief. Our slow embrace has nothing of heartbreak in it, for all that it elicits the smell of unknown flowers, suddenly in the room. Of course bereft of much that went before and cannot be recalled, we still get deeply by, counting on the present. All birds and flowers after all are starry messengers arrived just in the nick of time to save us from regret. Our slow embrace has nothing of regret about it.
"Wie himmlisch schläft von meinen Blicken
Die schöne Welt"
— Johann Mayrhofer
Even in the face of trees that will outlive me, the world seems beautiful. The quiet sun beats down on me as well, and on raucous wretched cars bound for the scrap heap, on nimble cats nine times game for risk, on impassive books of useless infinite poems. It lights up ageless rocks that line the street and bugs that come to life and die in one day's compass.
Every small-town psychic knows that the greatest urgency is to live inside the moment. Death is there too but barely visible. The rectilinear shaggy bark of a mesquite tree dries and falls off one bit at a time, inside a slot of present time not all watched over by ugly fate. Fate itself is beside the point to the hot green towel flung carelessly over a bit of outdoor furniture, or to a nameless bird pecking fecklessly at an ancient chryselephantine cactus near to collapse. His urgent mechanical beak finds sleek slivers of something resembling food there, while what's around the corner stands still.
What paradise the world seems, laid out before my gaze. Time, which only lately feels like a predictable emergency, drifts off into a post-orgasmic sleep. As Cicero said, life is all mind and appetite. They both bear doubly down and make their fierce demands, patient and happy in their own sweet way. Eunt et iuncti sunt. All the senses vie for equal time: liquid sunlight, forestry of an arm's hair, a motet by Rameau as natural as sheep, sweat under a lover's arm, eyelids closed in bliss.
BEAUTIFUL HUMAN TRACES
"en nuestra cama de la luna"
— Federico García Lorca
The prospective inviolate heart wants love and a simple life: work that is desire too, cadmium yellow sunshine, cats leaping at invisible motes in the morning air.
Love simply pervades the house. It spills from the shower as you wash your hair, alphabetic, and commanding, and full of truth. It wafts from your clothing as you move from room to room, penetrating to the corners and rising as light as air. Love alights in your wake as irrefutably as a chair. Every sacred and domestic object has its scent.
Poetry and music seem to speak of little else. A chant by Szymanowski slants unpredictably into love's ear, and a piano trio by Haydn, wordless, too. Love is obsessive or love is nothing at all. Poets winkle it out from any unlikely thing, russet fruit, earnest wimple, rumpled emotions of all kinds in a hopeless heap. Cavafy's sweet voices echo in the distance like music, voices of the dead that live still in love and poetry. Stevens's missed revelations, laid bare and beautiful as daylight, are perfectly accessible to love. Crane's consanguinity is remembered and revived and kept infinite in a kitchen cabinet where cats sneak in to play with plastic bags.
Naked bodies rest quietly on the bed that love surrounds, determined that the future should fête their blind devotion. Nothing tests their love like the complicated indurations the past invokes: family tithes, remembered erotic sighs, whatever envelops the gestes of long ago, other personages, and crass events. Naked bodies forget the fetid past. Naked bodies live to promise vested inexorable pleasure.
More than other body parts toes leave historical traces. Everything else happens in the erotic air. Fair kisses fly like birds across the room. History stares senseless from the corners while caresses test truth: wide-eyed, full of commotion, utterly open-hearted. Caresses become part of a permanent story recorded by the human heart.
For my mother, Marguerite June Whiteman (1917–2006)
"Pain wears out like anything else."
— Marge Piercy
You died after dark, within near memory of spring's equinoctial turning, past sundown, snow still on the ground. You simply ceased to breathe, as though pleasure or fear invisible to the rest of us had suddenly caught your heart unawares. Your body lay still but seemed as deeply attentive as ever. The hard breathing, wrenched from somewhere buried deeply beneath the bedclothes, a reverse sigh that meant you would not willingly let go, could not last one further pulse. Death and winter conspired — and your soul was gone, just like that.
Everything around you stayed the same. The floodlit hospital room did not go dark. Rocks strewn at the side of the parking lot did not rive or shudder. Undramatic death stole a march on your heart while your children blinked. The feverish plink of blood at your wrist shut off, and your clenched fists gently went limp. If there was a moon that night it shone unmoved.
The girl you were died too and something in us all, living because you lived: juniper and tamarack in winter on Mount Royal, nerdy thirties movies, two oppressive nine-foot Steinway grands, between which you sang your heart out in Sieglinde's guise. "Du bist der Lenz," I wrote on your winding-sheet, shy to evoke the occult past when nothing that did not speak the present seemed right. Death is not an end, but it plants the crucial moment hard into our lives, those of us who go on after.
You told me once that music equalled sex. Only later did I realize that you blushed at saying so for another reason, that in fact you had traded music for love in a grim bargain and were sorry for it at times. They always intersect no matter what we say or do, however sadly Tristan dies and leaves Isolde passionately game for death when love has gone away. Those famous lovers called into your life once, and beautifully you passed their passion on. "Ich liebe dich" of Grieg and Schubert's "Crow" were like a bridge, from fifty years ago to now, when you and I said yes irrevocably to everything they stood for: love, of course, remembrance too, the certainty of future doubt laid bare. Music accompanies every distant act and makes it sweet, or tries.
Sad preparations for you, a daughter of the sun like every woman. That sun shines now into my western-facing window, declining on the sea but beautiful, a living terror to the ragged cat that jumps at it with blind abandon.
AT PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY
At Père Lachaise the invisible dead swirl in silent clouds beneath the earth. An unseen raven squawks its peevish note, five times, before it stops or flies away.
It's spring, and the grass and trees have put out shoots with no embarrassment or sense of shame. Death among the famous, now and then, continues to mean nothing to the green world.
Yet the dead command the ground outside of time. Their monuments decline and crumble in the wet air, rust and fall in shards, mixing sexually with the dark earth and the relentless greeny weeds. Their painted names cannot resist the sun and rain that sweep them, in slow motion, into oblivion, bereft of anyone who cares, even finally bereft of human thought. Names constructed over centuries rot and disappear inexorably, multipliers of bodies but no less consigned to intimate yellow dust.
It's spring, and handsome birds are everywhere, honking and whistling and singing, casting minute shadows on the crummy alphabet of human perseverance. The cemetery fights to keep its self-definition, to resist the canonization of raucous birdsong: strut and bourdon and amiable flit. The irresistible birds seem to say that love is now, and nothing matters more; not testament of any human manufacture, contrived song or traces of a paintbrush, rooms encumbered with torpid books. The rook sits still and formulates a feverish prayer, wordless as desire, as commanding as the afterlife of the happy dead. It caws at heaven like an idiot, caustic and ignorant of earth, cognizant of air and nothing else.
The famous dead remain interred, for all that reverential fools still clamber on their bones. They know better than to ask for more than passing tutelary affirmation, a momentary glance from an unconscious creature. Love perdures and they do too, in wondrous silence, like the rhythmic sun through intermittent branches of a tree, stationed over tombs: Chopin and all the silent, demonstrative dead.
Outside Père Lachaise the motos fart and briskly switch from lane to lane, self-confident as stars and ignorant of death. Somewhere on the radius of earth, Chopin speaks, drowned out by the grossly fecund engines of despair, whisked aside by capillary noise, silenced by an orchestra of birds; yet still he speaks from underground, and lives.
SANE INTREPID FORGERIES
The heat bugs cry at noon, unseen in the tracery of green leaves shimmering against the sky, but there, like poetry is there. The wind renews its intermittent shiver. An airplane passes invisible overhead. The thick impasto of the air is always there, like poetry is there.
The sound of the cicadas flickers like a sprinkler, a little sine wave of what there was and what's to come. Flies forage on the wooden fence, buzzing and shutting down at random. The gravid moon is somewhere, sheltered in the blue corona of the sun, awaiting revolution.
Shadow and light adore a pygmy jade plant, green and cream astride a terracotta pot. Root and branch hoist it up and into the afternoon air, trembling at its farthest edges over white paper swamped with light. Poetry interrogates the day and all its luscious store: glimmering ice cubes in a plastic glass, swimsuit hung athwart a tree, semen drying on a rock.
And poetry goes from there, game for anything, crazy for distraction. It fills up like a metal tub, forgotten out of doors, with leaf and branch; a dumb arithmetic of loam. A hurricane lamp protects a silver flame. Imagining it is easy. Just write it down. Poetry drips like a white stain down the side of a galvanized tub.
The rain will not stop. It flows noisily overhead and it hums like a low cello note. "What a relief it would be," Spicer said, "to give all this up/and find surcease in somebodyelse's soul and body." All this is rain on the roof and poetry, flowing like honey heated. Down here the slick world fades into grey and the rain pools in the street as clouds gather underfoot.
Your body is farther than the rain away, naked or not but always naked really. An unholy landscape is what lies hard between us, water rushing over mud, decaying snow at 10,000 feet, lost time. How foolish is it that I fly like a dumb bird south and not east into your body's sacred geography. How foolish is it that the rain capers down the beaded glass, and the whole world tapers into a small windowless room. Loneliness is a windowless room in a blackened building. All over Berkeley the lights have gone out.
"This does not change.
This does not change."
— Ralph Gustafson, "Winter Solstice"
It does change, Ralph, it dies.
The ordinary vision of love in the backyard — watering flowers or raking leaves, clearing a path from house to snowy road — disappears through no one's fault. It doesn't take evil, heavy-handed men to kill love, just time's slow melt from then to now. Love had nothing to do with loveliness in the garden. They perfectly coincided for a moment and you thought to write it down.
Excerpted from Intimate Letters by Bruce Whiteman. Copyright © 2014 Bruce Whiteman. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Intimate Letters
Four Last Poems 3
In the Magic circle of Night
Of Your Scents and Birdsong
Dream-Rapt at Dusk
The Garden, Mourning
Beautiful Human Traces 10
At Père Lachaise Cemetery 14
Sane Intrepid Forgeries 16
Love Poem 17
Breathing Together 18
That Recollected Music 19
II Wretched in this Alone
Bare Ruined Choirs 23
Her Absence Filled the World 24
If the Day writhes, it is not with Revelations 25
You Make Me Alone 26
Old Desire Again Runs through the Blood 27
My Love Was My Decay 28
Unending Misery of an Unalterable World 29
Death by Music 30
III Music to Sleep in
After Spicer 35
Invisible Ghazals 39