Sunday, July 26, 2009

Part Three of "Time and Its Passing": "I Remember", with Time Rhymes

Time Rhymes

I’ve Passed Away

I’ve passed away on palanquins and mattresses of straw,
On aerolplanes and baggage trains where fate obeys its law.
I’ve died on battlefields and fields of flowers wild;
While I’ve never lived past ninety-five I’ve often died a child.

I’ve been carried off by fevers and every known disease,
bubonic plague and symptoms vague, and once a violent sneeze.
I’ve shuffled off the mortal coil of woman and of man,
unhelped by pharmacopia or the wafting of a fan.

I’ve been guillotined and garroted, shot and stabbed and hung;
at the end of planks, inside of tanks, from cliffs have I been flung.
I’ve felt the link snap suddenly in trenches stained with blood
where I died in the arms of comrades half buried in the mud.

I’ve died in the arms of lovers and once in the arms of a maid
who tried to lift me from my chair in the sun into the shade.
I remember once I slipped away in the middle of a speech,
the papers fluttering to the floor, forever out of reach.

I’ve watched with growing anguish unassuaged, unrelieved
as I died a hardened prisoner unforgiven, unreprieved.
I’ve watched beloved spouses shed tears on my behalf
and seen my rivals gather who scare suppress’d a laugh.

I’ve died in the act of fathering, and once to save a life;
I’ve died the death that cowards die to the strain of drum and fife.
But of all the deaths I’ve never died there’s one I’ve yet to try—
the death of self to self’s travail when to self I finally die.

Dying Moments

In the wake of dying moments
I say your holy name.
No sooner it falls from my lips
Then I say it once again.

I have slept the sleep of centuries,
And on a thousand deathbeds lay.
But when I enter that final sleep
Your holy Name I'll say.


Remembrance is the sigh that is sighed across our lives.
Forgetfulness of You is so natural it so easily deprives
Us each of Your presence, though each of us daily strives
To untie the knots upon which pleasure so sweetly thrives
But which could be cut, if You were so kind, by one of Your
temperate knives.

Part Three
I Remember
He'd begun thinking a lot about time.
He'd reached the midpoint in his life and he'd begun to feel,
more than ever before, the swift, inexorable passing of time.
Everything was passing, and with each passing day he became more and more
conscious of it.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be held back, even for a moment,
because that moment too was passing.
Nothing could be held in place, because the swiftly moving currents of time
would always displace it.
No embrace, human or divine, could keep even one moment from passing away
into the next, and the next, seemingly forever.
Even photographs and recordings, those monuments to stopped time,
eventually yellowed and faded, the distance between them and the illusion of now
widening with every passing day and year, forming an unbridgeable gulf
whose far side no one had ever journeyed back from,
except in the carriage of memory.
He'd begun thinking about time and the million living moments that were past
but were still alive inside him.
He remembered his father's face as it bent to kiss his, the prickle of stubble
against his soft child's flesh, the man aroma of Old Spice and talc.
He remembered the crisp sound the bed sheets made when his mother turned
his bed down and the soft clean coolness of the sheets as he slid between them,
his body still warm from his bath.
His remembered his mother's face, a large round kindness, growing larger
and larger and then the soft slippery slidey feel of night cream on his cheek
as she kissed him goodnight.
It was impossible to imagine that this face, this kind round star by which he guided
his life, would ever not be there for his heart and eyes to clasp and light upon.
And most of all he remembered the way his bedroom grew slowly dark
in the summer when his mother put him to bed even though it was still
daylight outside.
He remembered the slow way the darkness came, like a drifted sleep, the room
slowly dissolving into atoms of half light, the sharp corners of his desk
and wardrobe softening and rounding until they and all the objects in his room had dissolved into a purple atom-wheeled darkness.

And he remembered the sound of the oscillating fan and the slow going away
and coming back of the sound, over and over, and the slight push of air
as it turned slowly toward him caressing his face and afterward the room growing very dark and very peaceful and sleep like a snowfall
drifted gently over him.
He remembered and would always remember the sound of that fan in a room
going slowly dark with summer light, nor would he ever be able to hear
the sound of a fan without being instantly transported
back to his childhood bedroom.
Of the millions of sleeps he would sleep in his life he would enter none
as peacefully as those he slipped into those summer nights so long ago.

And he remembered the dancing atoms and molecules,
and the game he played with them.
He imagined he could see the molecules of air which if stared at long enough
and intensely enough would suddenly form themselves
into a huge living sphere, which he could make revolve one way
and then another just by concentrating.
This did not frighten him in the least, but comforted him very much.
One night he dreamed he awoke to see his mother sitting
in the green leather chair beside his bed, wearing the faded flower-printed housecoat she always wore.
She was reading a story to him.
He called out to her, but she did not answer.
Mom. Mom?
The next morning the chair was in its usual place against the wall.
He loved too going to sleep to the sound of a thunderstorm, distant and crashing,
scary yet safe, that and the steady sound of the fan and the room
growing slowly dark and the sphere of molecules turning
and the mantle of sleep slowly covering him, like a great and gentle hand.

And he remembered autumns crisped with piercing sunlight.
He remembered the air sharp and stinging and the coming out of sweaters
from a cedar trunk and the wool smelling of camphor and cedar both
and afterward the coming out of corduroy and flannels and the dry
brushing sound of the corduroys between his legs when he walked
and how in the fall the leaves caught fire and smoke
from a thousand chimneys rose into a sky so hard and blue it made
the sharp edges of things stand out clean and clear against the sky.
And he remembered the way the bricks of old brownstones caught fire,
turning russet in a sunset of hammered brass.
He remembered everything.
He remembered the light harder and brighter in winter and the way the light
threw all the familiar objects in his room into sharper focus:
the encyclopedia in the maple wood bookcase, the cedar trunk,
the four-poster bed with the pineapples carved at the top of each bedpost.

And he remembered protractors and pencil cases and Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and cat's eye marbles and bottle tops and the musty smell of old libraries
with card catalogues carved from honey-colored wood and on the front
of each box was a little brass frame that held index cards and on each card
a book title either typewritten or fountain pen scripted in black ink
that had faded almost to brown, and a little brass pull that drew the box out along metal tracks so smoothly the sound was like silk and inside the box
the smell of linseed oil.
And he remembered the magic that came from simply entering the library,
especially the marble coolness of the place in summer,
a coolness that lifted off the surface, arriving first at your face
and then coming to gently rest on your arms.
The heavy wood doors closed behind you, and summer was gone,
yet not entirely, for there was something about coming in
from a blazing August afternoon into the cool still permanence of the library
that made you even more aware of the heat outside, a dragon to be slayed later.
Now to the books with the past still in the pages, on the surface of the pages
themselves, the humidity of summers long passed still in the paper,
a memory of other fingers, other eyes.
The feel of hand-sewn bindings, tissue paper covering steel-engraved illustrations, the smell of fallen forests destined to bear the weight of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Defoe, Trollope, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, Proust, Melville, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Thomas Clayton Wolfe,
that giant of a man whose angel-nature always looked homeward,
and who better than any other writer knew the taste and smell and feel of time
and felt in his veins the river of time in all its variegated currents and tides.

And he remembered that little girls had pigtails then
and they could be made to blush so easily,
and sex was something you were born as, not something you did.
And boys still fought but broke it up by mutual consent at the first sign of blood
or tears and whose most daring exploit was reading a whole comic book
without paying for it or sneaking into Loew's and slipping past the matron
into the grown-up seats where a few well-formed, well-aimed spitballs interrupted the flow of female tears or giggles.

And he remembered Milton Berle nights and Howdy Doody afternoons
and cowboys and Indians who fought and died in a black and white world
and Farmer Gray cartoons that actually used Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream as background music and Andy's Gang ("I got a gang, you got a gang, everybody's gotta have a gang...") with the shot of all those kids going crazy
in their seats and Froggie making the stuffy old professor say words
he didn't want to say.
And somewhere in time Froggie is still plucking his magic twanger
and will be forever, forever.

But most of all he remembered 15 West 81st Street.
Standing on the north-west corner of 81st street and Central Park West,
looking west to Columbus Avenue, stood the great pre-wars built into the very
bedrock of the earth, solid stolid monuments to an artistry and craftsmanship
that would never see their like again: the Beresford, Hayden House, 15 West,
the Excelsior Hotel...
And directly across the street, running parallel to it,
stood the Hayden Planetarium, whose wonder-filled future was frozen
in a timeless past, and this street was lined with ancient trees
and paved with cobble stones Peter Stuyvesant himself may have strode over, clip-clopping his way in uncomfortable wooden shoes,
puffing on a Schimmelpenninck.
No matter in which direction you looked, west toward Columbus Avenue
or east toward Central Park West, you faced a glorious boulevard lined on
the south side with tall arching trees and on the north with apartment buildings
built to last a thousand years, their turrets, towers, spires and steeples lying
framed against the sky high.

And he would always remember the apartment itself, a veritable mansion
built onto the fifteenth floor of a castle and reached by an elevator paneled in
mahogany and, until the advent of automation, driven by elevator men
who wore white gloves and whistled opera or quoted Kipling
("On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play...").
He remembered winters and the cold hard blue of its face
pressed against the glass in the kitchen, all steamy with dinner.
And he remembered century-long summers and the green pre-thundery light
of days scalded by the sun and afternoon skies pregnant with rain
and he remembered the way the summer light softened everything.
He remembered room giving onto room, hallways leading into other rooms
and other hallways; and the walls were cement, not plasterboard;
his mother used to say an A-bomb could explode downstairs and you'd never
hear it.
He remembered cedar closets that went up so far that he could never remember
having seen all the way up; they probably went on forever.
He remembered leaded glass windows in the dining room and a maid's room
behind the kitchen that smelled of pomade and unfiltered Pall Malls and beer
and the damp smell of hampers and laundry and a bed so impossibly soft
it couldn't possibly be good for your back.

And he remembered that his father had a dressing room where he did
his push-ups and sit-ups in his pajamas every morning and showered lazily
and long in a shower made of green-veined marble tiles with a door
of frosted glass that opened with a curlicue silver handle and got dressed
to the John Gambling Show ("Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. What's the use of worrying, it never was worthwhile, soooo...pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile!").
And he remembered his father bending over every morning to fix his garters
and he thought how funny that must feel against your legs but his father never
seemed to mind.
And he remembered his father standing and drinking ersatz Postum coffee
while he caught a few minutes of the Today Show with Dave Garroway.
And he remembered especially the Today Show set with the clocks on the wall
set to the different time zones of the world, giving to the world the illusion
that we were all somehow connected to the rest of the world, a world
still very much disconnected from itself, a world as yet unblessed
by the double-edged miracle of the digital age which one day truly would connect everybody with everybody else, causing us all to bump into each other in space and time, connecting the poorest peasant standing in a rice paddy
with a forgetful husband in Florida whose wife needs him to bring home
a quart of milk on his way home from work.
He thought, Not only are we filling up earthly space, we're filling up space itself
with our constant chatter.
He remembered it all and his heart ached for a simpler time that was perhaps
not as simple as he remembered it but the memory was sweeter than the reality
and the sweetness lingered like an old tune from an old time such a long, long
time ago.

Back then, he was fond of saying, telephone numbers weren't numbers,
they were numeric magic carpets, the exchanges conjuring images of places
only dreamt or read about: Trafalgar, Murray Hill, Plaza, Lexington, Susquehanna, Rhinelander, Oregon...
More than just a collection of digits, telephone numbers were personalities,
and loud ones at that, for they proclaimed your address for all the world to hear:
Plaza (PL) -- the east 50s; Susquehanna (SU) -- the upper West Side;
Oregon (OR) -- Stuyvesant Town.

And were the stars brighter, or did they just seem that way?
Was the music sweeter, gentler, less savage, less crowded?
Were there fewer notes cluttering the lyric?
Were songs easier to remember?
Were vulgar words less easy to say?
Were the skies less crowded?
Were car horns less piercing?
Were there more seconds in the minutes and more minutes in the hours?
Was there simply more time?
Were there fewer choices, but more desirable options?
Was there less of everything but more of the things that mattered?
Were there fewer books, but more worthwhile reading?
Were there fewer diversions, but less need to be diverted?
When did the labor-saving machines we always wanted
begin to create more work instead of less?
When did we begin to waste time instead of saving it?
When did the boundaries disappear?
When did it become fashionable to vomit in public?
When did inappropriate behavior become acceptable?
When did the coat of conduct get turned inside out?
When did violence become fun?
When did fun become frightening?
When did the boundary between work and life totally disappear?
When did technology turn space into something that connected us
but made it almost impossible for anyone to be left entirely alone?

There was room enough and time back then, he would say.
Things had a certain space around them then.
A day could feel like a week, a week a year.
Summers stretched out and away into forever, and afternoons were an eternity.
And if you ever felt like sighing, you just held it, and listened as the wind
sighed for you through the leaves of an ancient tree.
Back then, televisions had only six or seven channels, instead of five hundred.
Radio and TV stations didn't broadcast twenty-four hours a day.
You had to wait for what you wanted, and the waiting only made it better.
The cellular noise was forty years away, imminent in time, but mercifully unborn.
Children, he remembered, used to lay their heads upon the breast of the earth,
counting stars, their young ears attuned to that silence which inhabits all spaces;
not yet did their ears perk to the electronic chatter of video games,
connecting their living flesh to its lifeless pulse and dead heart.
Back then, it was still possible to see all the world in a blade of grass,
instead of a computer chip.
And things lasted.
When a manufacturer made something, it usually stayed made.
Things had to last because there weren't that many other things to replace it.
Now we're drowning.
Drowning in a sea of our own excess.
Our greatest poverty is our wealth.

And he began to remember all the rooms of his life,
each one in its time and place.
I remember them all, he whispered, though no one was there.
I remember rooms where singers sang all night and daylight never entered
and words were chosen as carefully as wedding rings.
I remember rooms lit only by candlelight and time was spent at a penny's pace
and clocks poised at midnight never chimed the midnight hour
and old men in their grandfather sleep never woke
and old men poised to loose the fragile bonds of flesh never died.
I remember rooms in summer that grew dark so slowly
that the darkness came as a surprise.
I remember rooms heavy with history where time walked in thick-soled shoes,
shuffling its weary feet.
I remember rooms fortressed against the sunlight,
Lily Pons on the radio or Stokowski conducting the Liebestod
on two heavily shellacked discs only slightly heavier than the music itself.
I remember rooms stifling with smoke, old men at tattered green card tables,
yellow teeth clamped down on fat Cuban cigars,
eternally losing and winning and folding...
I remember rooms softened by the living gray light of dawn
and a bed of tumbled sheets left in the patchwork patterns of sudden love.
I remember the birthing rooms and the dying rooms
(for there is always enough room to die in, but often not enough room to be
born in).
I remember rooms we entered for the first time and rooms we left
for the last time.
And now the rooms are empty or not at all -- someone else's memory.
I remember schoolrooms filled with August sunlight and motes of centuries-old dust and old wooden desks with inkwells and initials and hearted declarations
of love whittled by small fingers unaccustomed to pushing down so hard.
And I remember the homeroom's sickly green wainscoting and puke-yellow walls and the heavy tick of the old clock whose ornate hands were forever
being prodded ahead by little boys dreaming of the baseball diamond.
And I remember washrooms so depressing you could weep; the smell of cheap detergent hand soap and dank porcelain, and high above an ancient toilet
you were sure emptied into Hell itself stood two great windows
with inch-thick frosted glass that opened and closed by means
of weighted pulleys forged by hands long since turned to dust.
And I can still taste in the back of my mouth the renegade kummel seed
that had somehow escaped the ham and Swiss on rye I had eaten for lunch
only to surprise my tongue two hours later in the middle of math class.
And all the rooms that have ever been are standing still or not at all,
the inhabitants drifted and gone, the swell and surge of a thousand sleeps
have carried each one away.

When I was young, he was fond of saying, no one died.
Everyone who was famous then for being famous perpetually and everlastingly
was still famously, fabulously, alive: Frank Sinatra…Jimmy Stewart…
Gene Kelly…Fred Astair…John Steinbeck…Somerset Maugham...
Leonard Bernstein…hell, even Ed Sullivan.
They were older, sure, but their hereness made them seem as though
they would always be here, just older, but not dead.
Being dead made a difference. Being dead meant you were no longer invested with that here-and-nowness that made for all those glamorous four-color
Life and Look Magazine covers.
Frank Sinatra & Co. weren’t the only ones who weren’t dead
and who would never die.
My parents would never die and I…twenty-something I…I would live forever.
Only old people died. I mean, really old people.
Like your grandfather or grandmother.
Or other people you didn’t know, like the ones in the newspapers
or on the nightly TV news who got shot by police because they were bad anyway or just died crossing the street.
They had no faces, no names. In fact they all had one thing in common:
they had nothing in common with me.
And my world would continue forever. Or so I thought…
These were the illusions I nurtured with my too-much-longing
and too-deeply-buried fears,
illusions that remained illusions until I grew older and noticed
that some of my favorite people were disappearing from the worldly scene,
and doing it rather too quickly, at that.
They were dying while I was still alive, and that meant that someday
I would die too.
Death was one club I didn’t want to belong to.
Like Groucho Marx said (hey, he was live then, too): I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.
Then more and more of the famous people died, one at a time,
like they always do.
And then my mother. And then my father.
And then other people’s mothers and fathers.
And slowly the number of funerals per annum began to outnumber
the weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs and other mindless social occasions
that each had their photo album, each one daring to show people whose pictures would fade, or even worse, stay young while they themselves grew old
and eventually died: the posturing posed who would one day be reposed,
each picture a testament to their mortality. (Not my own, you understand.
I wouldn’t be caught dead with a photo album.)
Death is something that everyone knows will happen to everyone else,
but no one thinks it will happen to them.
There was simply no pause button on God’s Time Machine.
Even He couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t, put His finger on it.
If anything, He seemed to be hitting the fast-forward button.
And the faster forward we travelled, the faster too many lifetimes
seemed to be coming to a too suddenly-arrived at END.
It just wasn’t fair, all this death and dying, but people were doing it anyway.
And I damn well didn’t like it.

This little life, rounded by so many sleeps,
is passing, passing, minute by minute,
hour by hour, day by day,
year after year, and thus will it end.
And on that last day I will not have
thrown off the weight of my wants
nor will I have effaced even the smallest
fragment of my self,
save that which His face has melted away.
And the weight I so carefully nurtured in life
will weigh me down into another body,
fit or lame, colored or white,
but heavy nonetheless with the weight
of ten thousand wants.
And on the wall will hang baby's first calendar
with ten thousand days of wanting yet to fill in.
Begin, oh begin again, little life.
Begin again.

Dark time, hungry time, devouring time that swallows whole all stories,
all beginnings and endings and in-betweens,
that dims the camera'd eye and forever shutters it closed.

And time is a lie told so slowly it somehow passes for truth.

Dark time, unlovely time that ages a child in grief and prods him
through the days, apart and alone, whose neck will never know
the encircling arms of an adoring woman and whose shadow
will hug him closest of all.

Dark time, constant time, soundless clock of infinity, man had to invent
the tick-tock to hear your centuried voice speaking, this clock with no gears
that grinds each of us clear away.

And time is the great pretender, pretending always to be standing still,
like the revolving earth.
And time is a lie told by a tongue that takes a millennium to craft
a single consonant and another to finish speaking it.

And time is God's shadow that trails creation like a robe that can be worn
but brings no comfort.

And time began its soundless ticking when God opened his eyes and will end
when the eyes of God close to sleep.

And time treads the universe in old and heavy shoes.

The ache and pass of time,
the forward press of its backward hand,
the taut muscles of memory
stretched to the tearing point
over some word or scene
so long forgotten, capsized by incident,
by the six-o-clock news.
Time bends but never breaks.
We try to outbreathe the moment,
until the moment passes us by.

How can that which has so much substance:
a house, a city, an entire day
have so little substance in time?
Just a moment ago
the weight of sunlight
the shape of laughter
the heft of sorrow.
A world can vanish in the same moment
as a sigh.
A house of cards falls and rises in concrete.
A volcano vomits but an island remains.
A life goes out upon a breath
and is reborn as an infant’s cries.

Time it was that stole my beloved from my straining sight,
ripped her cruelly from my encircling arms and flung her into that region
where I could not follow, breaking the rhythm of two lives with the theft
of one breath.

And time is a lie we tell ourselves to bear the weight of days.
For which one of us could endure even a single day fully alive
to the knowledge that on a certain day at a certain time (a certain moment)
we will die, take our last breath (does not a first imply a last?),
that time would place on the shelf of our lives that other bookend?
Which one of us has not girded on the illusion that we will somehow
get out of life alive?

Time is a lie we tell ourselves with the eagerness of children;
we are as faithful to it as lovers, as protective of it as she-lions her cubs.

Time is a lie whose falsity becomes visible in the sunken eyes and skeleton jaw
of the cancered and condemned, in the last spiraling breath of the dying
and the first exploded scream of the newly born.

God's breathing in is time beginning and God's breathing out is time
passing away.

And time is a shadow that lengthens itself to any height, immeasurable as God.

O time untempered by tears and a thousand wayward griefs beats on.
The tear dropp'd ocean of mankind's sorrows has not worn away
one whit of You.
Unlike water that drop by drop dissolves the hardest stone,
Your vast foreign surface remains strangely unmarked.
Pelted by prayers, assaulted by every variety of anguish,
Your centuries-long robe sweeps by, unruffled as dreamless sleep.

Sleep and time, time and sleep, twin shadows of a single life.
We drift toward one and walk blindly with the other.
Sleep, a death before waking; death, a sleep before waking.
We incline toward one and flee the other,
though both are nothing more than the kindest of interruptions.
When one or the other knocks we rise stiffly from our well worn chairs,
shuffle forward in our tired robe and slippers,
and greet the Old Man at the door.

The sleep of time, the timeless sleep, each forever bound to each
in our little tenured keep.

Time is deep, time is long.
What began as dream shall end as song.

Time Rhymes

Time Sweeps it All Away

The stratagems and plans of life
That succeed or go astray,
The triumphs and the failures, all --
Time sweeps it all away.

The last hurrahs of soldiers brave
Sung out amidst the fray;
Bright medals pinned to skeletal chests;
Time sweeps it all away.

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall,
Each captain has his day;
And though the trumpet loudly sounds,
Time sweeps it all away.

Though weddings, births and funerals
Hosannas and Kyrie
Divide the years with joy and grief,
Time sweeps it all away.

Girlish curls and boyish locks
One day will turn to gray;
Though tints and dyes are oft employed,
Time sweeps it all away.

The saints you pray to on your knees
Were the sinners of yesterday;
Their sins have all been long forgiven;
Time swept them all away.

Friend and foe have their rendezvous
And lovers their trysting-day;
But each a final engagement keeps
Though time sweeps it all away.


We delay our ultimate sacrifice
and postpone our final surrender.
We casually forget to take Your Name;
trusting in time to help us remember.

But time it will be that steals Your Name
and mixes it with the dust,
where we've let it lie like a fallen flower;
a heart-wheel gone to rust.

We live for some other moment
in the future or the past,
instead of living each present moment
as if each one were our last.