Here, at the water’s edge, in a cabin on stilts,
I am listening to what the reeds are telling me
in a kind of breathless whispering, As if…as if…as if…
so indefinite that the words are like swallows flittering low
but too fast to be caught by anyone or anything
except as streaks on the edge of one’s retina
like smears of ink on a faded Chinese manuscript…
And then, in your most matter-of-fact voice, you say
It’s just the noise of the wind in the reeds and the water moving
when the reeds are shuffled backwards and forwards.
So you scoff at me like a post-modernist philosopher:
Do you really think you can hear what the reeds say?
You may as well try to catch the swallows as they curve
down to the meniscus of the water and then upwards.
The water-margins are where trouble-makers were sent
by the emperor and his mandarins when they’d had enough
of their insidious garrulity, inconstancy, duplicity.
Even here at home, even in what was once my own country,
the soul gets sent away, out of all imagining.
What the reeds are saying as the wind passes between them,
are aspirant conditionals, as if, if only, and provided.
As if everything, that’s what the reed-bed is saying,
which isn’t much different from as if nothing,
when nothing and victory may be synonymous.
It’s no good your telling me it should be otherwise;
if you can’t hear what I hear when the reeds gossip to me,
it’s because you seem to know precisely that this is personal;
you suppose the noise is sans significance, the words without meaning.
Even when you think there is nothing that matters,
something does. And that turns out to be the biggest puzzle,
that there should be something at all, and not just nothing.
This is what I am having such trouble with, when I hear
that persistent chorus. I feared those voices would be baleful;
instead they are kind of peaceful, kind of accepting,
maybe even kind of kindly, here in the water-margins.
Featured on 13 May 2021