‘Music of the Republic’: a poem by Ruth Padel

 
 

    Music of the Republic

 

You were with him
in his final hours…
Carolyn Forché, ‘Last Bridge’

 

Plato put a spell on you from the beginning.
There were other stars buzzing about your brain
which will soon be donated to science
but he was the one
who carried you over the world on his wings.
I’m pretty sure we’re in the presence of the end.
You’ve had no liquid. Your forehead is sweaty but cold.
The kind Jamaican nurse who brought me tea
says, It will happen in God’s time.
Who are you now? You always said
there’s no straight path to the self. Small chance
of seeing anyone as they really are,
the full bag of tricks without the projections
we cast on each other unaware.
Love, hope and need get in the way
plus ways we protect our own selves
for self-ish is following your own desires
at the expense of someone else. I remember
you finishing a half-cup of cold coffee
saying, This is the first time, with you,
I have found myself being selfish.
I thought how strange, to want cold coffee.
I didn’t know then that coffee was an absolute.
You couldn’t live without it, hot or cold.

Here we are, after all the absences, together.
You breathing gently in your plastic boat
of a bed, unconscious but never, not even now,
an isolated soul. A self that has turned aside
to sleep. You are draining the last of the wine
at the autumn equinox, door hinge of the year,
and we are by ourselves again. Maybe the self
is a kind of daft Stonehenge. No one knows
how the stones of our boundaries arrive.
Maybe downriver on some neolithic raft
or raised by magic – don’t we all,
even philosophers, feel there’s a mystery
somewhere in our past? Philosophy begins in wonder
and anyway we’re stuck with them,
each of us starting out from our own
stone circle, throwing long shadows
but with plenty of space between,
room for mistakes, free will, warmth in your heart,
and being delighted by small things. Your self
as a spacey stone ring, aligned
to movements of the sun. Lit up at midsummer,
when the first dawn rays arrow in
to the heart of the circle. Transformed
at dark moments when our axis
tilts
furthest from the sun, and we see the last ray
between uprights of the Great Trilithon.
Conventions and ritual made you feel safe.
They say Stonehenge was a place of healing too
and when the right wind blows, the stones will sing.

But what’s the real song of the self?
For years, now, you have forgotten Plato’s name.
You always said if you couldn’t do philosophy
you didn’t want to live. But the gentleness
and courtesy went on. As Heraclitus said
when strangers turned up at the door
of his kitchen (or does the Greek really mean,
as you once told me, he was sitting on
whatever a toilet was, in ancient Ephesus)
Come in! For there are gods even here.
When you still could walk, you witnessed
another inmate howling, throwing herself about.
That happens even here, despite the care.
The violence of finding yourself lost,
every minute a new forest of black holes,
won’t go away. She couldn’t stop screaming
and you went over, you gently stroked her arm.
Even though mind has gone, there are still
flashes when you care for someone else.

Last time I came, I brought along
a book of nursery rhymes
and tried singing songs we’d sung.
Of course, you didn’t know who I was
but you recognised relationship
and warmth. True to your scholarly self
you were most absorbed by the index.
You liked the pictures, lords a-leaping,
cows jumping over a moon,
but it was the list of words
and their ever-mysterious connections
that called to you. In the engraved
twilight of your room, the memories unfold.
My own self, to which you are central,
is becoming a swirl of stained glass
awaiting the illumination of love.
You don’t have to shed tears
to be crying, don’t need to be lonely
to know how it feels. Everyone is exiled
from somewhere, has someone they lost.

I have sat by you eight hours in this small room
as if it was the world. A you becalmed
on God-knows-what inner sea
while the Odyssey of your life
runs backwards like a traffic camera
recording all roads you have taken.
They say when the heart stops beating
the mind keeps working a while
and memory cells are the last to go.
For you, they went years ago. Dale mist
has long settled in the valleys of your brain.
Still, there are gods even here. For a moment
it seems your eyes are open under their lids.
But no, only silence. And your sleeping self,
flowing towards the end. No pain.
Just pistons of a train, gliding
softly into the station where it began.
Your breathing slows. The gash in the world
created by your dementia is beginning to close
like the slash of a knife in cream. Soon you’ll be
what we imagine knowledge to be. A glimpse
of the unseen. Dark, clear, true, and absolutely free.

 
 

Ruth Padel

About Ruth Padel

Ruth has published twelve poetry collections, including the best-selling 'Darwin, A Life in Poems', shortlisted for the Costa Prize, and 'Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth', shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, on conflict and harmony in the Middle East. She is Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her new book 'Beethoven Variations - Poems on a Life', comes out of five years' work with the Endellion String Quartet and her childhood playing viola, the instrument Beethoven played professionally as a child. She is currently updating her poetry-and-prose book on migration, 'The Mara Crossing', to a paperback edition, 'We are All from Somewhere Else', to be published in July. www.ruthpadel.com.