By DANIEL TOBIN
For Bella Bond
Slowly as soundlessly in its unknowing,
what the driven thing must hunger for
is love’s white noise—a latent faring
writhe along the leafage’s flagrant green;
green, too, this wending, callow, creaturely,
unheedful in its patient haste of eyes
watchful beside the deck’s complacent cage
of spindles. So we lift the cat tenderly
indoors, our sweet, beloved predator
hard-wired for the hunt, and lean in closer.
Tiger, zebra-like the transverse lashings,
each a spray of onyx gold-licked at the edge,
its ten segments a kind of plump machine,
the crest, it seems, mulling its tiny lea.
Beauty, Augustine knew, was a manifold
diversity—sky and earth and sea—no less
this gradual ascendant likewise fueled
by desire, even the smallest bulk that moves,
though the earthly body pulls toward earth.
Just so, at the would-be saint’s retreat,
the whole company gathered to attend
how the chopped portions of a centipede
inched across a tablet of their own accord.
Is the beast’s soul also divisible, one worm
disproving the venerable Plato’s doctrine,
its immaterial nature hacked to living bits?
Thagaste lay behind him, and Rome, Milan,
his intended life, nameless loves, his lust,
all dust going to dust under a fig tree,
his pent longing in the garden a tumult
of the will—The mind commands the hand
to move, yet mind is mind and hand is body.
Ahead, there is Ostia, his mother’s death,
that quickened time in a further garden
where, he confessed, our minds were lifted
to inexhaustible abundance, so the flesh,
the radiant light of this physical world,
ceases to matter compared with eternity; then years
unhomely in his African home, penned in
by duties, penning his peregrine Civitas Dei—
lawsuits, letters, a slow gutting of heresies,
his world hung where moth and rust consume.
Larval, what may yet emerge imago
slides a little as we lift it leaf and all
from its camouflage along the potted herbs
to rest it somewhere deeper in our garden,
somewhere, where, in peace, it can spin itself
into a patient sack, its silken matrix
of transfiguration. Once, I saw one
hooked like a frosted ornament on its branch,
the chrysalis growing slowly transparent
before the new body loosens to take wing.
When, this spring, they found the little girl,
faceless, decomposed, she had washed ashore,
dumped in a duffle in the harbor.
So they scanned her skull to resurrect her,
enhanced the image with digital grace
until we saw her as she must have been,
looking at us, past us, through pixelated light.
“It was her time to die,” the killer offered
months later—her mother’s lover, her mother
also harrowing her, her few years living—
“possessed by demons,” they said, the pair’s
high school photos discordant on the news.
All things draw toward some image of true joy,
Augustine believed, and believed likewise
the dead have bodies, composed of spirit,
their given flesh restored and glorified
where not a single hair of the head will perish.
The damned, too, have bodies, living, he held,
the way a salamander sustains in fire,
burning forever without loss of substance—
though evil is just deficiency, a turning
toward separateness, our region of unlikeness
in which mortal life passes away like smoke
and the moment life begins it starts to die:
the nothing in things that pretends to be,
pretends in division and butchery
until grief torments like a worm in timber,
and each thing tending toward eternal life
or eternal death. And our swallowtail?
Down in the canopy among the hostas
and sweet fennel, along a fence’s rusted
diamond, it has wound its world around
itself, has been drawn to that going
inside as by a loadstone’s lure beyond
the given, miracle of miracles the world
itself, though there is no safe place,
the saint recalled, but in the uncreated.
And still the bodies go, particle by particle,
to their peace as into an olive press.
And above, the firmament still stretches
like a skin, while below we remain
a problem to ourselves, while time distends
endlessly, it seems, cruelly, to what end?
The saint, imago, and murdered girl
must know, as if her name, Bella, Beauty,
were the all-in-all that calls to everything
soundlessly as slowly in our unknowing.
Daniel Tobin is the author of seven books of poems, most recently From Nothing and the forthcoming A Stone in the Air, versions from poetry of Paul Celan. His latest book of essays, On Serious Earth, will be out in 2018. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA.