I’ve been questioning whether to post this. But this poem, these words, helped me get through some of the most difficult days last year. They helped me stand and claim my place, they gave me hope, and helped me honour one of the most important people in my life. I’m thankful for everything I’ve learnt during all the writing I’ve done over the last few years. It gave me the ability to compose something meaningful, expressive and true to myself.
My father died in August last year. I wrote this the day after, writing into the depth of night until it was finished.
I wanted to say something at his funeral, but had so little time to prepare. So I drew from a couple of earlier pieces just to get started, then continued to create something new and special just for him.
When it came time to read it at the funeral the next day, I shifted from feeling nervous, to feeling strangely calm and almost confident. I could feel the silence in the room, the quiet attention. It was afterwards when the hearse drove away that I felt that falling feeling, the sense that you could collapse onto your knees and wail. Perhaps if I was somewhere else on my own, I would have done just that, pressed my hands down flat and keened into the earth. But the concrete entrance to the funeral home wasn’t the right place.
I keep having this sense that there is some symbolic ritual that needs to take place. I don’t know what it is, and it hasn’t happened yet. I thought there might be a sign, something that would suggest what I need to do. Perhaps a dream, but in fact, I lost the ability to dream for months. They’re back now, but he hasn’t appeared.
I’m thinking that I need to stop waiting for a sign. He came to me once, many years ago, and I treasure the fact that he re-entered my life. Perhaps this time, I need to come to him, find him somewhere in the bush, in a river, in a garden. I’ll speak to him and thank him for his love. Perhaps then he will visit in a dream, perhaps he needs to feel invited.
During the week of 16 – 20 March 2020, we were just getting used to the announcement the previous weekend that anyone entering the country would be required to self-isolate for 14 days. It seemed to have the immediate effect of reducing the amount of traffic on the roads, as if everyone had started to keep their heads down, hoping this virus would pass them by.
On Wednesday 18 March, I was talking with a dear friend, and confessed I’d been feeling very strange.
“It’s so silent… it’s as if I can hear it… it’s not just that there’s so little traffic… it’s something more than that. It’s as if I can hear silence…”
And I discovered, she felt the same.
We both felt there wasn’t just less background noise from the lack of traffic, but that even the birds were quiet. As if they’d moved further away. And there was more than this.
“I can hear the silence… as if it’s a presence, a being in its own right. It’s like a psychic, spiritual silence, something we’re not usually aware of.”
It was as if the silence was something we could feel, a weight we could sense. As we attempted to explain what we were feeling, we decided it felt eerie, almost foreboding, as if something else was coming. We talked of it as a psychic silence. That it felt like something beyond this material world, something spiritual. We struggled to find the right word to describe what we were feeling. Perhaps there isn’t one.
Then while talking about this with two other close friends shared that they had noticed strange things involving animals – frogs falling silent, cows clustering together.
It was all starting to feel very unsettling.
Perhaps we had just started to pay attention.
We were noticing the absence of sound.
We were hearing silence.
And perhaps what we were sensing was the sheer enormity and power of the natural world, which our society has managed to separate us from for so long. As if we had suddenly stepped off a structured path and into a forest, and were struck by the changes in sound and smell, of temperature.
I’d felt that I was sensing silence as if it was a weight, something heavy and ominous.
Perhaps the screen of the modern world had lifted, and revealed the ripe, rich, wild world just beyond the doorstep. Not preparing to take over, and not waiting for me to me to cross over, but purely alive and present.
Perhaps what I sensed was the deep, slow heartbeat of the land.
The following Monday, it was announced that Aotearoa/New Zealand would go into lockdown at 11.59pm 25 March for four weeks. I discovered that although nervous, I felt relieved.
And now that we’re a few days in, I’m finding this period of isolation is giving me the opportunity to slow my own rhythms, to synchronize my blood and breathing with the earth.
It was the lack of traffic I was noticing. Fewer cars, hardly any planes.
And the birds?
I hear them. They were always there, in the trees around my house.
It was my listening, my attention that was struggling to adjust to absence.
I have the chance now to fill my ears with every other sound around me.
bird-call, rain, wind the soft tread of the cat as he crosses the room the tremor of a leaf the expectance between heartbeats the promise of a held breath the weight of silence anticipation, abundance, potential
The sky is pale and grey, not heavy, but flat and low.
The world is shallow, horizontal, with little space to breathe,
except in spaces cleared by flurries of warm wind.
Sparrows visit, fearless, curious thieves,
crumbs disappearing at the speed of flight.
A magpie swoops in, a botanic priest to correct the masses.
The roses are every colour from cream to peach, cerise to ruby,
some freshly opened, some over-blown.
Stopping at the climbing roses,
and drawing a branch close to breathe in the scent,
voices approach, a conversation full of soft “-sh-sh-“ the sounds of the breeze and these dark, blood-red blooms.
The gates are open, the path reaches on ahead
and down the hill to the city.
Purposeful runners make short work of the distance.
Tourists walk past, looking straight ahead, keeping to the trail, “you’ll see a lot of them here – this is tattoo country” but looking down, this forearm is bare, unadorned,
the design resting in imagination,
as does the house of possible ancestors.
The outline sketched in brick, visible across the grass,
sliced in half by the path these people walk on,
oblivious to the souls that made a life here,
the commitments made,
the children born,
the woman who refused to leave
after the death of the man she loved.
Children cluster on the edge of the hillside,
where the ground falls away through the trees.
They look out over the city,
people they will never meet, lives they will never live.
Names and dates and ages
carved into their homes of stone.
Angels hold the space, but offer little comfort,
wings broken, eyes blind.
Isabella draws her hand from the water, and stands to leave the pond. The memory of goldfish kisses tingle across the ends of her fingers. She walks past the rose garden, and up and across the brow of the hill, until she reaches the stone door her parents had placed above her small narrow home, the home that was gone now. All she has is the door. From here she steps in and out of the world, watching until sleep calls and she slips through stone into memory, held in the sacred space of love and loss.
She watches the woman. She watches her trace the outline of the cottage with her steps, sees her break a kawakawa branch and place it on the plaque, sees her step back in silence. Sees that the woman feels the disturbance in the soil, feels the loss. And she feels the years collapse around her until they are two women standing on a hillside, two women lost in time.
As the woman turns to leave, Isabella sends a butterfly to brush past her head, and a fat bee to land on the white rose that grows wild nearby. Roses whose work is done, their centres turning brown, dropping their petals to rot untouched into the earth. All is beauty and desolation for the girl who watches, silence for the woman who listens.
Well, this has taken a long time to resolve!
From first notes made on the day (19 December 2017) until now, this very evening.
I’d tried prose, and being much more literal, then more poetic forms,
until I just stopped looking at it at all a couple of months ago.
Finally (and rather suddenly) tonight, I settled on this.
I’m interested in your impressions – what meanings you take from reading this. I like the sense of mystery but I wonder if its too obscure. To aide understanding – this is based on notes made during an afternoon at the Wellington Botanic Gardens and the neighbouring Bolton Street Cemetery (see: https://boltoncemetery.org.nz/history/).
Any ideas for a title would be welcomed too 🙂
This is a companion piece to “screen“.
I wish I didn’t need to keep writing these sad, dark poems
(don’t worry – I won’t be putting them all here).
But for now – they are still helping me to process and understand
a significant relationship, myself, my past.