The Enigmas of your Brief Existence

The Enigmas of your Brief Existence


in memory of John Robert Martin






In the drowned alleys of New Orleans,

an old wooden stair from the rear courtyard,

carrying an oil lamp past cluttered book stacks

I am looking for you again.


Twenty years ago my correspondence

stopped coming back from across the continent.

You were gone on another perilous investigation.

You had found some mystery, and in your haste

forgot to leave a map. Ten years, I searched,

built a highway in the memory

of too many names lost along the way,

yours in echoes returning empty, the owl

and tree frogs reciting, ominous in rising humidity.


The full moon walking across Lake Ponchetrain

stops by the long bridge and whispers, where are you?


Ten years, until the obscure obituary

in a photocopied newspaper,

the mother of the late John Martin;

and then at last the letter came

that told me how you died,

pursued one of your questions too vigorously,

closed in and grabbed it by the breath

but the veins behind your eyes erupted

and you drowned in too much comprehension.




My beard has turned white now.

The young ones around the fire expect

melodic ecstasies to fall from my lyre.

I point out the clean-boned constellations you showed me

but the clouds blot out their transparent bodies, rain

falls on our upturned faces, though not enough

to silence memory.

I speed them between the clashing rocks

into oceans so old we still don’t know how those god-like limbs

traveled beyond the earth to shine in the night.


And so I intone the high stories,

and if I cannot pour light into them from my frown

or the sharp precision of an exquisite tongue

at least I can tell them of one who could,

who moved the minutes aside and displayed

the finely shifting angles of eternity passing.




Here I am, composing mysteries again,

dialogues of heroes, mortals

searching the mausoleum avenues,

breaking into blind tombs for answers.

Tragedies spill from my fingers,

epics scratched in fragments on the wall.

I am calling you.


I know that the grave does not hold a man,

not one, and certainly not one like you

who peered into the telescoping hours

and comprehending their lyrical metamorphosis

learned to advance according to that music

as though a man could become the orchestral master

at the center of all things!


Could you not have become another Galileo

with a few more years in your hand,

a Nostradamus among astrophysicists

excavating sidereal epochs

from ghosts of color, remnants of the vanished

foundations of galactic rotation measured

in the sub-atomic spin of rare metals?

Not just a man of thought, but one in whom

ideas were crushed, and exploded into astonished authenticity.

Thought. What is thought? Since for you, it was not

the wasting disease that dismembers so many hearts.

No. There was something else in the engines of your gaze

turned on every person that walked through your door,

turning the oracular moments over in your fingers

testing the rising wind, adjusting noetic sails

to an unknown shore…


Bones crumbled into Mississippi clay,

your singing veins have long bled out

and dried into the river sediments

which still hold the taste of your enigmatic

memory in metaphysical fragments.




Consider, as an example, what you could have been

if you had gained one glimpse of the crown

of Uncreated Fire! You had the intimation,

a faint perception of the unknown energies,

but of its living face you were wholly mistaken,

beyond all boundaries of speculation.

Unlimited visions you could have painted

had you touched those glowing pastels, or learned to interpret

alphabets of fire on the mountainside

where the Archangel loosens his sandal midstride.

See, here you are! Awake again in me.


I know that you live, because of the nature of the silence that answers

your name written in the corner by the Gospel and weeping icons.

Your name is heard in the altars, and the eyes in that powerful forehead

look up where moments pass and stay without knowing where they are

in the darkness, where words gather new and powerful meaning

a candle explodes.


When I found that treasure under the golden gate,

when I opened the glass sphere in the Hall of Flowers

cracked its stars with the knifes you taught me how to throw,

and radiance spilled out, erased all doubts in its torrent

unleashed from invisible rivers between the constellations

I came back to tell you.

I couldn’t find you anywhere:

drove across the country,

Louisiana sunsets unbearable with heat,

Boston snowstorms, one street light near the harbor,

checked the return addresses,

the laboratories that employed you,

how was it possible no one remembered your name?




Twenty years ago on a rocky beach

draped with seaweed and the wreckage of shells and trees

on the inward islands of the Salish Sea,

where paste-colored cliffs lined with the ages lean

out of the waves, arranged on concordant distances

I walked with my bride, and demonstrated for her

the ordered march of high summer clouds, the same breath

placing its piano fingers in the waves.

The angle of the sun’s descent through invisible strings

traced like a violin bow by the thin following moon,

your dissertation of the universal harmonics

sketched in the canvas of her creative gaze,

and touched her flutist’s lips to the inhalation

of another heaven announced on the eastern horizon.


Was it in that hour, on another coast

in Massachusetts Bay that your final star was rising

and did you see it, or read its fatal writing?

Tidal assonance whispered its elegy at our feet

while your breath was on its ebb, and the light

abandoned all the promise of your mind.




Gray October afternoon,

clouds in their mad rush to be swallowed in storm

crumble; rain obscures the windows.

I have grown old, heavy with sleep,

but the dreams still come back to haunt me, and you walk there

so alive with your smoldering relevance still.

At a rest stop on the freeway, halfway through the southern pine forest,

what are the chances of finding you here, and where are you going

and why don’t you have time to stay and break words with me,

words that grew in our hands and took surprising value,

floated into the night and took wing while we watched with awe?




Days when we were young

withered long ago

when I sat mute, astonished, new ideas

like bells from the tower striking

out of the mystic Louisiana heavens

that sat over the university

in symphonic dissonance unknown and sublime

scanned with the accelerating vectors of your mind.

Those days in the dust with you; but thought

continues to grow on the slow wisteria

watered long ago in the shade of your window.










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