The Sonnet That Wouldn’t Stop
(Starting from a photograph of the
late Patrick Olivier by his wife Nicola)
As high as you can high-rise over Auckland,
Pat stands on air––“This glass floor is as strong
as the concrete ones that you have walked along.
38 mm thick.” So, stand
on air forever if you can––stand pat,
because, within the year, you’ll fall, or rise,
(depending how it looks through death-clogged eyes).
While Body drops through what we’re gazing at,
Spirit can leap the gap, its sharp spark struck,
and burst in flames. Pain makes you swing about
8 mm. Fall. And then your luck
conducts you through the vacant star-fields, out
(not up) to where your oft-imagined Lord
(and oft-invoked) now hands you your rewards:
your Bow of burning gold, your Arrows of
Desire, your fiery Chariot, Spear and Shield,
and ships you off with coded orders sealed
to free some flounderer from the Fear of Love.
“Doth God exact day labor, Life denied?”
you fondly misquote. Hear the booming laugh,
John Milton’s, as he’s winnowing wheat from chaff:
“Exactly, lad! Your benefit, having died.”
“Death Benefit?” you wordlessly may ask,
but Milton reads your Mind, and God reads both:
“Heaven is not cessation of every task,
rather they’re doubly-doubled. If you’re loath,
try Hell. That’s where they’re all required to bask
and sunburn, nothing-doing––endless Sloth.”
“So, are they each, our so-called Deadly Sins,
only Previews of Coming Attractions?” “Right!”
“And Heaven is busy manufacturing––?” “LIGHT!”
“Good Lord, of course. Eternity begins
to make a sense it never did before:
a Proving Ground for what’s already been
proved every time we handle Death and Sin.”
“For Death read Time, throughout. Forevermore.”
“Not to be picky, but I used to teach
Grammar, and that’s redundant: evermore
here equals throughout Time.” (I thought I’d score
a goal on God?) “Ah, but a man’s reach
should not exceed his grathp,” the Lord mithquoteth.
“Check, Mate,” the blind Recording Angel noteth.
“But not checkmate, Mate,” dauntless I reply.
“Not with this alley running slantwise, thus,
down which my Queen thunders toward her hus-
band! Why hath man both grasp and reach? Know why?”
“No Why will halt the Lord in His Grand Pathage,”
the Angry Angel maketh rude retort.
I volley back into his forehead court:
“Indeed, my friend, but you have mythed the methage.
“Because your Lord is armless, hath no reach,
can grasp no lover’s hand, and hath no wife,
and cannot from a peach tree pick a peach
(I hardly call that what we call A Life),
we don’t pray your old Him to muddle ours.
Leave Him His powerlessness, we have our powers.”
(Our powers which fade and flail and fall away
like Milton’s Satan falling two-plus-seven
long days to splash in Hell’s Lake not Lake Heaven.
Nor Heaven’s Lake, Seth’s Chinese hideaway.1 )
Such moves the Angry Angel will record
as Check, and Check, and each Check one move closer
to what’s achieved in baseball by The Closer:
Mate! No more hits, runs, errors to be scored.
“Throw the bums out!” And out they throw us, bummer,
though we chant “Kill the Umpire!” like a bunch
of chimps or chumps. Blind though He be, and number
along the neuro-paths, or out to lunch
forever and a day, we’re still much dumber,
both day and night, betting hunch after hunch,
like punters2 in the Universe Casino
where the House always wins, the Owner’s seated
before a bank of TV screens so sited
that all of us are watched, although we see no
lens of His watchfulness. He guards the House,
its reputation, profits––and its guests,
whom it provides with plentiful meals and rests.
And Luck? “Yup, up to what each law allows.”
“There are so many laws…” (I misquote Frost’s
“Great Scholar: … ‘but I have so many collars.”’3
A hundred had been offered at no cost––
but we’ve no time here for a twenty-dollar
plot summary for readers who have lost
the Joy of Reading, leaving it to… Scholars?)––
“… of Averages, of Gravity, of Grammar.”
Even Casinos banish Lawlessness.
But those who love Law more must love Love less,
which is a hitch for us whose blind veins stammer
our love of Love as loud as a jackhammer.
We row row row our cheeky cockleshells
merrily down life’s dream, and snort in Hell’s
despite,4 until its cataract spills our yammer
over the lip: we’re poured into the cup,
triple-Niagara’d, where we’ll all be stirred
by Him and Her, their pinkies tilted up,
and swallowed in a gulp. The rest is blurred:
either it’s Hell’s three-throated barking pup,
or Heaven’s eternal, all-forgiving Word
selling Eternity for passing GO.
Collect $200 for the trip,
and round the board again we let it rip.
Heaven is Monopoly, of course you know.
And so is Hell? Or are they held in common,
a Commonwealth, and Commondearth, though Milton
would choke on such a notion: Hell being built on
ground plans laid out by Cromwell, Puritan Shaman,
John Milton his Recording Angel, scribe
and secretary, blinding himself to save
the Body from its Head, thus to prescribe
purges for all the ills which Knight and knave
(“Synonymous,” he snorts) and their wild tribe
had loosed on godly folk from font to grave.
[Here, please consult your Pocket History
of Modern Britain—mine, stored in a box
of college texts, left and retrieved, no locks,
after I had gone swimming in a blistery
ocean of language that I’d never heard
(“mothuhfuckuh” in 1954
made an impression); not words only, more
the wordlessness within, behind each word,
of those who spoke them, or who did not speak
except with looks––and those who spoke the speech
but could not do the deeds. Our life was bleak
and all that saved me was an occasional peach
plucked from the Peach Tree, and some small things written
in my thin Pocket Poetry of Great Britain.]
Puritans conquered, we went after Freud,
another Shaman woefully misemployed,
whose concupiscent curds by now have cloyed
and clotted, while the symbols are deployed,
leaving poor Psyche very much annoyed
that she and Cupid cannot just enjoy
doin’ what comes naturally5 to girl and boy.
But then what’s natural is half-destroyed,
if Natural still means more than a fickle
claim stamped on foodstuffs pressing you to buy,
with a supererogatory need…
Organic. Here’s a jam you ought to try
to work your way half out of? What a pickle!
You’re stuck before your genie could say, “Read
Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith.”
Oh how I need it now!––or, say not “I”
needs it, this “sonnet” does, its supine sigh
going supersized: a name to conjure with
(Smith), though scant of sound-mates: frith? grith? sith?
My Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary’s list
lisps like a listing yacht, last in a race it’s lost,
dead in the water as a monolith,
a lonely monument of stone, or brass
in Horace, which his writings will outlast,
and have outlasted:6 take the good word lass
out of a Burns song, verb it in the past,
that little t, the tongue ticking the teeth,
closes it off, tucking it underneath
the bedclothes, or the headstone, where it lies
dead to the world, or dead indeed, dead tongue
dry in its mouth, done, songs and sonnets sung––
unless a bugle’s reveille tells it Rise
and greet the Bran Nue Dae,7 or bran nue life,
rebirth day, in its birthday suit, as nude
as I, with her no Puritan or prude,
when kissing Frenchly my bran nue nude wife
back in the days, and nights, when we first chose
to rouse, and rouse each other, back when sonnets
would run eight lines, then six, then stop and close,
as poppies furl their silky orange bonnets
(sorry about that frayed and faded rhyme),
but “HURRY UP PLEASE!” says Tom, “It’s Closing Time!”8
First, though, a peek over the high-rise roof
we saw in Auckland where Pat stood on air
before Air was the only element where
you’d ever find him––with a single poof!
no sickening plop! Yet now I do recall
his way of going, nel mezzo, in the middle
del cammin, pilgrimming toward the riddle
that no-one solves, took no nine days to fall.
Before, in Rotorua, in a black
anorak, he looks out at us.9 Behind
him clouds of steam from sulphur pools pay back
sweet Heaven with a stench from Hell. Face lined
with sixty years of serving others life,
Pat stares straight at his soon-to-be-widowed wife
behind the camera. Gray clouds occupy
the sky above two sloping bands of greenery,
the hot springs bubble, devilish machinery
no-one can operate. See how the sky
is stuffed with clouds, and seabirds on the fly
from storms, while clouds of vaporizing steam
heat up their variations on the theme.
And all that’s absent is what answers, Why?
But no Why, the Recording Angel ordered,
will be allowed. The interview is done.
With vegetative life the springs are bordered,
explaining why they’re cordoned off: no-one
slip-slides to Hell-and-gone down here, or glides
into this hot mud where the earth subsides.
So, LEAP! like Superman, up to the top
of that tall building, Phillipe on the wire
between Twin Towers, a Petit human spire.10
Perhaps you’ll start it with a Fosbury Flop,
or backstroker set backward for the bleep!
the electronic signal to begin.
The beauty of this race is: none can win,
and therefore none can lose, though all can sleep,
and will, now we have reached the final page
of––which book is it? How We Die? The Whys
of How We Live? or Why in Hell We Age?
Or Paradiso, where we don’t? No: Paradise
Lost. That’s the ticket: hand in hand we go
through Eden’s Gate, with wandering steps and slow,
the world before us.
1. See Vikram Seth, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (London, 1983)
2. British slang: gamblers
3. Robert Frost, “A Hundred Collars,” in North of Boston (1914).
4. William Blake, “The Clod and the Pebble,” in Songs of Innocence (1789).
5. Song title and refrain by Irving Berlin in the 1946 musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun.
6. Exegi monumentum aere perennius … quod non imber edax, non aquilo impotens possit diruere. Horace, Odes, 3:30.
7. “Bran Nue Day” was the first Australian musical comedy written and performed entirely by Aboriginals, in 1993.
8. T. S. Eliot, “A Game of Chess” in The Waste Land (1922).
9. See photograph by Nicola Olivier.
10. Phillipe Petit in 1974 walked back and forth on a tightwire between the Twin Towers in Manhattan, infamously destroyed by Al Quaeda terrorists on 9/11/2001.