In Distance

Poem by R. Nemo Hill

And if we must carry further the offence of being born,
let us find, through the crowd, an opening toward the port
and the paths of unruled sea.
(St.-John Perse)

I sailed for hours, no sign of life
on either shore: one lost in haze,
the nearer one a wide, bright white
expanse of sun scorched sand—ablaze.
They drifted slowly into focus
as I in turn went drifting by.
Eyes numb, at first I scarcely noticed,
but soon became preoccupied
and stared to ascertain the motives
of figures filling shallow pans
and hoisting them up on their heads—
pans laden with the very sands
through which they trudged, dispirited,
to empty them in shallow boats
they’d beached along the burning strand.
Sand everywhere, on land, afloat,
a desert and a sea of sand—
on fire in the sun. It seemed
proverbial absurdity
to shift it from point a to b.
And drifting closer I could see
other figures, drunkenly
chasing one another round
in circles—like mad circus clowns:
pigs and naked children playing
foolish games, and yet obeying
laws of motion as austere
as those by labor engineered—.
All blurring as they disappeared
behind me—. All reduced to bits,
to voiceless specks, confetti drifting,
running, laughing, hauling, lifting—
with pitiful deliberateness.
With one hand raised against the glare
that all but veiled the distant shore,
I watched four upright figures there—
four silhouettes that seemed no more
than fenceposts hammered, senseless, in
the mud along this river’s bank.
Four lifeless things.
Yet noticing
how gaps between them grew, then shrank,
(sans locomotive evidence)
the only thing that moved, I sensed,
was air itself—the breach between—
space seemed the only living being.
While men or women (who could say
the difference from far away?)
were incidental measurements,
a system of brute calibration,
mere marks revealing the extent
of one invisibly immense
and omniversal respiration.
And as with figures, so with voices—
cries from far afield, ashore—.
Stripped of sense, reduced to noises,
prattler soon turns troubadour.
Drifting far from care-worn sources,
bleached of intent and design,
distance lends all man’s discourses
a music, born of bare resources,
enigmatically benign.
Till human “hey” and “howdy-do,”
the tête-à-tête of me and you
(the whole terrestrial interview)
dissolves like birdsong in the trees
or water lapping tirelessly
at river’s edge, beyond the reach
of the mundane excuse for speech.
Is it time then for one man,
one weary traveler—to land,
to disembark?
Though the plateau
be post-apocalyptically
unpeopled; though it throb and glow
with terminal toxicity
and chemical abandon; though
fires scour the distance, raging…
its emptiness will yet engage him.
He will not dwell upon the fallen.
He would not come were they to call him.
Red dusts invade. Dead cows and flies.
Charred slopes where heaps of metal rise
like altars craving sacrifice.
And cruel winds that sweep away
the plastic cup, the rusted ring,
the bulb that lit the cabaret,
the oar whose constant paddling
and horse whose painful saddling
had marred the solitary way
that blue-green moonlight has of weaving
the dreams of one who’s always leaving:
the exile.
Hush—. He’s home at last—.
His vision fading, growing faint,
his figure scars the rising distance
like a moving daub of paint.
(Ayeyarwady River, Burma—2007)

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2010, Volume 27, Number 3