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Poetry

The lake has a provisional name. It has had other names. It’s possible those names were also in some way provisional, unless the lake has a name for itself.

Facing it, it’s feasible to believe that the lake really does have a name, one it has given to itself and that it keeps. It keeps things. My friend, kneeling on the sand, arranged stones in a circle while she told me about the dreams she has had to commemorate her dead. The lake has eaten the stones.

I went in to the church, which is close to the lake. I like the melancholy of churches. The minister, breaking the bread, wears a small smile that suggests he knows the futility of what he does and does it anyway, from love, from habit, from the way the two become, over time, indistinguishable from one another.

I love because I have grown the habit of love. I cannot love all at once, by choice. It happens gradually, like water overtaking the shore. It happens slowly, without noticing, and the shoreline has altered. It is not willed. I suppose that is what this man might mean by grace.

I am ambivalent about churches. I would rather ambivalence than certainty. I will live and die in ambivalence, which is a pretty meager supper, perhaps an excuse for evading the problem of evil, or the other problem, of good, by not quite believing in either. By not quite believing. By longing for belief.

At eighteen I walked out of a church in another country and came out into the square and there was a group of boys playing soccer and I knew that God was real in the blunt humiliation of that statement.

But then my life went on as before and God was just another metaphor.

And maybe God was only present because I was a tourist, thinking the boys and the paving stones had been placed there so that I might find them and be transfigured, and they themselves remain luminously flat, without fault or flaw, without meaning except for mine.

As a child, my father heard a sermon in which the minister told the congregation that they must pray unceasingly. He was a serious child, with no mother, not because his mother was dead but because she had left, not because she had left but because she was sent away by his father. Boys belong to fathers.

She was returned to the country where she was born. She was not permitted to say goodbye. He came home. His mother was not there.

The few times I met her, she was like a moth at a light bulb, buffeting against him, not knowing what to do with the intervening time, that he was a man now, that she was old.

My father sneaked back into the church later on to begin his career as an unceasing prayer. He knelt, intending to praise forever, assuming that is what prayer is, to praise and to plead.

Someone came in. Embarrassed, he lay on the floor and hid.

Call: O Lord hear our prayer
Response: And may our cry come unto thee

When I think of God, I think of hiding. The way a child hides. In hope of being found.

This church is nearly empty. There is a table in the aisle and a tray of small stones. We
are asked to remember our dead by dropping the stones into a dish of water. I hold mine until the stones are warmed. They darken as they sink.

On Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, the priest marks the forehead of the believer with ash. Formerly, it was only women who had their foreheads marked, while the men had ash scattered over their hair, which must have looked like billows of smoke from a small fire. Women covered their heads in church. The priest says, Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, a modern formulation replacing Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return, spoken to Adam and Eve in the garden, before they were turned out of the gates and had to start walking.

What you are, we were. What we are, you will be.

A friend is fretting over her father’s books. Her father must move to a retirement
home. He fled the Iranian revolution along with his wife and daughters when the woman was a child; she has never returned, though she knows that the house of her earliest memory is still standing, uninhabited, an orphan in a street where every other house has been replaced by concrete slabs of apartment blocks. Her father, who was a civil servant and then a security guard, has read devotedly all his life. His books number in the thousands. Eighteenth-century love poetry, illegally distributed Marxist theory, which he collected at enormous risk to himself and his family, books of history and philosophy. I don’t even read Farsi anymore, not really, not at that level, the woman says, and who will want these books? Who will read them now?

The woman and I smile at each other bleakly. To preserve the past, you would need to let it crush you. You would need to be nothing except a receptacle for memory, as though you were a glass case. We keep smiling. Decent, conscientious. Not willing to be obliterated.

I read a story about bristlecone pines, trees that grow along arid mountain ridges. These trees can live to be five thousand years old. They are squat, twisted. Survivors, not conquerors. They are as secret as the name of the lake.

In 1967, a graduate student in Arizona wished to cut down what he believed to be the oldest specimen of this tree. He summoned a forester. The man laid his hand on the trunk and turned to the student and said, I will not touch this tree. Then he left.

The young man found another forester, who cut down the tree for him.

This is a story of useless sanctity. The first forester could not save the tree. But I hope it can stand as an epitaph. That he refused. I think there would be no better way to be remembered. To have said, I will not touch this tree. To have left.

If the world were a way out? A river? A door? If this were not a rhetorical question?

I first became aware of the work of expressionist painter Charlotte Salomon because of a series of panels painted on cardboard squares torn from grocery delivery boxes and arranged along one wall of a barn in Vermont. The series is entitled Let Us Praise the Wondrous Life of Charlotte Salomon and is painted in the style of medieval religious paintings and also in the style of the subject and also in the style of the old man who painted them, who lives near the barn.

He makes, among other things, cardboard testaments to things that might be praised, or marked, or just remembered for a while.

Not permanently. Just for a while.

The barn is very dry. One spark and it would go. This does not trouble him. Let it burn, he said. The burdens of history are already over-plentiful. Let something exist for a while, and then burn and be forgotten and make room.

Having spent time with this man, I believe he is not lying. He does not wish to inflict a permanent mark on the world. He is reconciled with being. He is in being. Not guarded against the spark. He has laid himself down.

Just before Charlotte Salomon, five months pregnant, was gassed at Auschwitz, a witness claims she saw the sky and cried out, God, my God, how beautiful it is!

The circumstances of this statement make me wary of ascribing meaning.

And yet. And yet.

A talismanic hope that it might be possible to notice that the sky is still there?

Something that means we are praise.

God, my God, how beautiful it is.

 

 

Winner of the 2021 Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry

 


Kate Cayley has published two collections of poetry and two short story collections and written a number of plays that have been performed in Canada, the US, and the UK. She has won the Trillium Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, and Image’s Mitchell Prize and been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

 

 

 

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