How We Know We Have Lived

Image: So Far by Mark A. Harrison

A way-back poem for the first of May, to mark the end of National Poetry Month, and the beginning of the next stage in this strange journey we’re on.

How can one seduce happiness
then make it love you enough
to stick around?

——

knots in the wood
flaws in the pattern
of the oriental carpet
a brown withered leaf
on an otherwise healthy plant
this is how we know
that things are real
a speck of dust on the TV screen
a missing scale
on an ornamental Koi
a scratch on a smooth surface
scuff marks and worn patches
on an old guitar
this is how we know
that things have lived
sometimes I understand
the revolutionary’s disdain
for perfect fingernails,
overly coiffed hair,
and hands without callouses
This is how we know that we have lived:
bruises, cuts, and scars
on all our parts
hearts included

T.H. (2008)

Interlude

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Winter Light, Summer Tree by Mark A. Harrison

Doing boring grownup stuff is made infinitely better with a big fluffy coffee and a muffin on one side, and your sweetheart on the other. The city’s feet are slushy brown and the sky’s a muted grey, a few lazy white flakes drifting down as if they forgot where or why they were. One loose branch caught in the fingers of the others on the tree outside the window, hanging on despite the shivering breeze.

Fragility

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Photo by Mark A. Harrison

Fragility

Muscles clenched
into a fist
wrapped around my spine
as if intending
to pull it out
through the flesh of my back

If only thoughts mattered
I could live a thousand lifetimes
I would be a mountain
pocked, scarred, eroded
wearing my damage like a testimony
to having lived
watching oceans grow and shrink;
I would be a phoenix
endlessly burning
all my sins turned to ashes
pulling myself, choking, back into the world
again and again;
I would be a river
carving out the earth
wearing down centuries
roaring torrent or sluggish as a snail;
still I would move, and move.

Without this fragile shell,
bound by bones & blood & sinew
I could converse with dark nebulae
wander the tracks of galaxies
discover what really happens
when you fall into a black hole;

But without these volatile chemicals
flowing through temperamental veins
tickling twitching, fragile nerves,
would I still feel delight at the birth of a star?
anticipation approaching the speed of light?
sorrow at the heat death of the universe?

Without these mundane aches and pains,
the constant nod and wink of death’s eventual shadow
would happiness taste as sweet?
Would we trade these perpetual growing pains
for an eternity without joy?

– T.H.

Passing Effect

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Everything in a Box by Mark A. Harrison

Passing effect: The effect of passing through things
– Leaves, hair, branches, hearts –
Equal and opposite reactions;
We pretend that contact is only temporary,
that everything always
only passes by, and through
– and yet –
We all affect each other, even Jupiter’s tiny moons
affect the giant’s gravitational field.

Gravity: A force so weak, you can defeat it
with a fridge magnet, or a piece of tape;
by a hop, skip, jump, the push of single finger;
– and yet –
Even the weakest forces can surprise you
how they keep coming back
the persistence of the everyday;
You can jump up, but you’ll always land.

All these fleeting melodramas,
our brief starring moments on the bright-dark stage,
all the private riots, the secret rebellions,
a universe of stories unfolding, moment by moment,
inside the sacred prison, the infinite travelling picture show
invisible to everyone else;
one might call it
a kind of madness.

Flashing lights and sirens, a circling fruit fly, living speck of dust;
Do we weather the small annoyances in the name of compassion,
or wage instant meaningless destruction in the name of indifference?

Every time inspiration hits, the world is transformed
– and yet –
the persistence of the mundane is like gravity, like inertia,
the approaching fall, the curling of dead yellow leaves,
the sinking in of desiccated fruit, a hint in the air
of the coming cold, and the long, long sleep.

Orbits inevitably decay,
all returns to the earth, through fire, or drowning,
the final burnt traces sinking into the ocean, ashes falling like snow
winking gold & silver in the light of the setting sun.

Not all the mass times constant squared
in all the known universe
can give you more Time
…and yet…
Sometimes, in the suspension of the moment, we imagine
that this now is eternal,
the world moving past us, as we stand
on the brink of what is possible;
That little voice in the back of your mind,
whispering a subtle dare,
to take that one small step
out into the air;

And always, that one desperate, aching pit
in the darkest centre of your soul
that screams an affirmation
always straining against the barrier,
waiting for the day, when everything becomes clear
and we know at last
that flight is, finally,
possible.

– T.H.
(Selected excerpts, edited, from a freefall poem written in 2014)

Ten days later

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Study in Frost by Mark A. Harrison

Fall is a tricky season to navigate. Capricious and sly, at once whimsical and treacherous, full of sharp things hidden under blankets of leaves, radiant days of crackling sunshine followed by dark night winds whispering portents of ice and snow – a reminder of unsettling impermanence.

Ten days later, she was still on her own;
I was fast asleep, a thousand miles away
dust floated, thick as rocks
in the belt of Orion.
He wondered,
do we really breathe this?
Two weeks later, she met the road,
covered in dust from
her latest encounter
with the laws of physics;
Mud clung to her thick soled boots
in her eyes, a light, hard
as scorn from a loved one;
She stomped on the pavement
once, twice
dust settled around her in a cloud.
I was eating breakfast,
looking out the eastern window,
the burnt toast flaking charcoal
onto tongue and lips and fingers,
And he said, in characteristic delay,
are you really going to eat that?
Three months later, she clawed her way
the final few feet to the
snow shrouded peak,
Looked down at the world in wonder
and forgot all she knew.
Everyone she had ever loved
vanished in an instant;
she let out her breath in a sigh
of great peace, contentment
and relief.
I was washing dishes
in the light of early evening;
cats bumped my legs,
crying for dinner
while he, sat watching television.
Hey, take a look at this, he said
but as I walked into the room
the walls began to fade,
the furniture grew clear as glass,
the cats became twin puffs of air
and flew out through the
crack in the kitchen window,
and he, and I, passed out
of her mind,
forgotten forever
in the sudden glimpse
of sunset kissed mountain peaks,
an eagle far below;
frost bitten toes
and a sense, finally, of a future
without a past.

– T.H. (2002)

Stolen Voices

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“Time”, Detail – Photo by Mark A. Harrison

An old one for today. I still like the imagery in this one, even if it is a twenty-something’s perspective on age and time. Things definitely look a little different on this side of forty.

Stolen Voices

I’ve only seen him old;
He walks in the park with a black umbrella,
feeds stale popcorn to the squirrels;
He must be old as mountains,
his youth a hot river of lava,
rushing through new born seas,
throwing up geysers of steam to come down rain;
His feet hit the puddles in rubber galoshes,
he walks in the park with his son’s dead friends,
dreams the same dream every night:
He’s walking up a hill
double-shadowed in the streetlights
under a fingernail sliver of moon;
the silhouette of a church,
a jagged hole in the deep blue twilit sky –
the closer he gets,
the less the shadow changes;
he is waiting for the features to emerge
like the face of an old friend,
but it only grows darker
save for a glimmering faintness, like distant stars;
Each night he’s just a bit closer
to stepping through.

I’ve only seen him old;
He claims to have made his peace with the world;
He says that paranoia is a form of vanity
and that too much luck will only kill you in the end;
He walks by the river with his son’s dead friends,
leaves fall on his hat like dust on cobwebs;
He whistles a tune from some old black and white movie,
ghosts gather hawthorn in his wake;
His feet are light as dandelion pollen
and barely touch the ground.

– T.H.

Restless

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Orbital by Mark A. Harrison

When the restlessness takes over, climbs out of the heat or the dark or the sound of traffic and crawls under the skin, it’s hard to explain to someone who’s never felt it. Part itching claustrophobia, that makes you want to find the nearest pool and dive to the bottom and stay there ’til nightfall, part wanderlust, part mid-life crisis, and yet paradoxically under it all a voice that pulls at your eyelids and weighs you down and whispers “sleep…”

Empty
hollowed out
all the music
fills the banks to overflowing
comes out dirty, muddy
clogged with weeds and branches
old coke cans and bike tires
rusted and twisted
while above, the birds and butterflies
fighting scraps of sunset light
bat shadows and clouds of twilit starlings
rush and swoop and fling themselves
in fits of Brownian motion
all against the squeak and chitter
of the coming night
trying to fight against the tide
sure strokes
cutting through the undertow
but I’m getting nowhere
faster every day
always the constant, sweet ache
surges of heat and hunger
through the deep blue grey
sometimes I’m drowning in beauty
the happiness hurts worst of all
cascading broken chords
like standing under a waterfall
pummelled by emotion
unable to give it voice
like I’m flailing in the dark
for some switch, cord, or curtain
always just out of reach
and every once in a while
my fingertips brush its edge
and I can feel the faintest
electrical breath against my skin
and I’m reaching, farther up, deeper in, higher
but it’s always falling, in the end
always falling away, fading, slipping, diving
sinking down, out, away into the dark
and the door closes, nothing behind the curtain,
only air, imagined memory, illusion
fractured silence.

– T.H.

Flying with crows

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Oil & Light by Mark A. Harrison

flying with crows

I sometimes imagine
I’m flying with crows
over autumn fields
and deep river valleys
telephone wires catching
the last of the evening sun
shining white mercurial fire
against the slate dark sky
hills lying like a giant’s body
elbows crooked, cradling a head of stone
how long does it take
for forests to grow up and cover
this still sleeping form?

I don’t believe in miracles
or divine intervention
the universe is what it is
but if I could find the market
where they sell time
I’d find the merchant with the cold, dead eyes
the one who never smiles
and while his back was turned, I’d steal
as much as I could carry;

I hold onto each year like it’s a ledge that’s crumbling
I want to reach out and strangle time
want to steal more than I’m allowed
I have so much more I want to do
but someone cut the brake lines
and here I am, reaching out for anything
to grab onto, to stop this insane headlong rush
I’d write myself a thousand lifetimes, if I could.

– T.H.

(a shortened, edited version of a poem I wrote when I was eight years younger than I am now)

Writing the World Away

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Kiss 3 by Mark A. Harrison

Nothing like 1800 words of freshly written prose to put a spring in your step on the way home.

This is what I live for: when writing a scene is like bringing life from the void, only it’s easy, and the only thing stopping you is the low battery warning, and looking up to see that the baristas are sweeping up because the cafe is about to close for the night, and thinking that maybe you might want to let your spouse know you’re still alive before it gets pitch black outside, then walking home in the gloaming under the street lights with all the spring blossoms shining like small stars and thinking, yes, I can still do this.

Now if I can just make a habit of this, the next two years (minus a month) might seem like an ever-so-slightly smaller version of eternity.

one of those things

Sometimes I wonder
if the filter
in my bottle
really does anything
Or if it’s like
that red button
at the traffic light
or on the elevator panel
that does
absolutely
nothing
the embodiment
of the placebo effect
in action.
Sometimes I wonder
if that’s what life is
one big trick
one long con
all of us deceiving ourselves
Falling
and forgetting
to hit the ground.