Petra White lives in London. Her most recent book is Reading for a Quiet Morning (Gloria SMH 2017).
Because I was permitted to
I waded through water.
Eyelashes still as the tiniest fronds.
The pond pure sleep,
a demon thrust down into the dark,
the nestling of elm roots.
Then the slow drip of colour
in the mind, a friend
for the seconds the light held.
I walked out into new darkness,
where I was permitted to go,
the moon waiting for me
like a piece of enchantment
I was taught to resist.
The moon, with its grey blotches,
white as as my father’s face.
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Unseasonable as a warm winter, pale on an utterly rainbow afternoon.
Not begging to be heard, not begging at all.
Here, everywhere, outside the window, on the streets and in the parks
danced men with twig like women in their ravenous arms, a dance
like that of creation, half terror, half the terror of love.
I fumbled into my small
red revolting car that smelt of rain and clattered with dirty coffee cups.
In traffic waited like a stumped parrot on a rod.
Then windows wide, the brashest air gushing in.
I drove and drove and never ran out of fuel.
And the road did not run out, the world turning in the sun’s glimpse.
Unbearably fresh the yellow flower fields
blazing in the heat
like crowded slabs of hell
the yellow flowers
blazing like tomorrow,
when I land and weep
the yellow flowers blazing like my skin
behind a hot windscreen,
pounding me into the here, the trickle of sweat.
When body becomes body,
only the flowers seem to sing.
See the muscular roos they leap above the nose-tickling weeds,
their flanks curved like machinery, paws bristling about the thin line
that is neither heaven nor hell but the tickly brush of the instant, barely tolerable.
Oh humans. Grainily composed of future and past,
who are, Rilke said, forever saying goodbye.
Suppose I got my teeth down into the instant, and lived there,
who would I know? The ‘open’, he called it.
How a spaniel enters a room and is instantly part of it,
how he knows just enough to get by,
fixing on a human like an apple grafted to a pear.
How a woman puts her head in her hands after a difficult conversation, how another says,
I am a tree planted halfway up a hill, I cannot spread my canopy to the top.
How the human hope sparkles everywhere.
Where is the chorus that wails around the car,
who sings the notes that make suffering true?
Melancholy silvers the tongue with ice,
freezes the self.
More light, more light.
Soul sits on a high shelf and eats breakfast,
the moon is a broken cabbage below her.
The god that created hell
and the hell that created god.
The strange joy of desiring nothing.
Wide sweep of road
and the waving spinifex know no minutes.
Only blank sunshine, desert.
The car carries nothingness,
empty seatbelts glinting in the light.
I stopped at a roadside diner and ordered chips, the only food, with ten different sauce bottles,
prepared in the bubbling silence and grubby neon light of the lonely diner
where nine people lived in the midst of vast planetary scrub and wind-bent trees,
feeding giant road-trains that arrived and left with a million lights dancing
each driven by one poor-postured man all day and night in solitude.
Colossal swathes of road like time, stretching before and after.
I sing the whole human package with its clutch of knowings,
the heart with its grappling of love, statistically half open a quarter of the time.
The body that travels like Ophelia into the estuary with hands outstretched
and nothing in them but reeds and echoes
of when the dust of the present washes off the fingertips entirely.
A journey unfolds of itself as the road unfolds beneath the tyres.
And then I turned toward death, my durian-scented hitch-hiker.
Life, he said, that reddish glow, it yet haunts your cheeks.
He spoke and as he spoke I could not choose but hear.
I stand like an animal with life and death intermingled in me, not unlike you
who have never felt more alive.
What if I offered to take you off your own hands now?
What would you say?
He said, like one who could not politely be refused.
The smell of chips ghosted the car.
The black road had gripped my soul.
I prayed for a stay of dawn.
And I clutched his thready arm.
Can we be friends instead? Will you visit me again?
Before long, he said, before long.
And vanished, leaving me with the long haul of life.
Always asking, what next, what now?
The formal voice that sings the formal notes.