Long ago, before you were born,
I lived in a house at the edge of a forest.
It was a yellow house; you’ve heard me speak of it before.
Much of what happened in the house was interesting, even amusing,
But at times I felt weighed down by a sadness
Impossible to overcome,
As if I lived at the bottom of a dark pit,
No prospect but a slender aspen tree against the sky.
Languidly, but not idly, one morning I began to draw the tree.
Its lines insisted upon being followed,
And as one branch rose from another, finding its place
In the air, the tree became more beautiful.
By laws finer than any known to me
The tree composed itself,
And when at last it was there in front of me, looking back,
Everything I’d ever thought about trees had disappeared.
As for the pit, the furies, the snakes,
The gloomy caverns and the burning lakes,
And last, and most, if these were cast behind,
The avenging horror of a conscious mind
They neither are, nor were, nor ever can be
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book III).
All my life I prayed I’d die quickly.
But if death were but the absence of conciousness,
Like a long sleep unbroken by dreams,
I wouldn’t be able to see you; neither
Could you hear me speak.
You’re looking out the window, your feet on a chair.
Anyone who didn’t know you would presume
You’re waiting for something to happen
But in fact it’s happening now.
James Longenbach's most recent books are The Iron Key (Norton) and The Virtues of Poetry (Graywolf).