About the poet
John Burnside (b. 1955) is the author of fourteen collections of poetry and eleven works of...
The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World we live in
And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house;
and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord
that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath
sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled
with the Holy Ghost.
Acts of the Apostles
I’m haunted by the story of a man
who, blind since birth,
was gifted with new sight, his surgeon
pointing out the things he’d only known
by name till then: the roses in a vase,
a window filled with light,
his daughter’s eyes.
One story says
it wasn’t what he’d hoped for,
and later, in the house he’d thought so clean
and spacious - dirty now, and cramped -
the birds he used to feed seemed dull
and vulnerable to cats, the photograph
they told him was a portrait of his wife
so ugly, and unlike the voice he’d heard
for years, it seemed
the cruellest of deceits.
Sometimes, they would find him in a makeshift
blindfold, just to have the darkness back,
the world in scent and touch
and measured steps, a theatre of black
to match the black he loved
inside his head.
On moonless nights, he climbed up to the loft
and gazed into the sky above his house,
well-deep and still
and innocent of stars.
When Saul fell from his horse,
it would have seemed
a mishap, nothing more,
to those he rode with.
Some of his companions would have laughed,
till he got back on his feet
to crack a joke,
but when at last
he rose up from the earth,
he saw no man,
and, troubled now, they led him by the hand
He lay down in the darkness of himself
three days and nights, then Ananias came
to make him whole
and fill him with the spirit;
but reading of his fall
in Bible class, I liked the man he was
when he was blind,
no longer sure that mastery is all,
that God would take his side.
I had my doubts
on other matters, too,
mostly the presence of God
in all our lives,
like the five crates of free school milk
in the playground at break,
or the man who came round every week
to collect the insurance.
My mother would offer him tea
and a caramel wafer,
and he would decline, every time,
with a well-tried phrase,
like thanks all the same, or
I’ll have to be getting along.
God was like that, I thought,
though not so polite,
and it did me no good at all
when Sister Veronica
itemised all of the wonders that He had provided
everywhere, designed by His Own Hand.
No poem lovely
as a tree, she said,
(though I’d never once thought to compare)
and how, in a world without God, could a boy like me
explain the complex beauty
of the eye?
When Saul was taken out
he borrowed a shawl
from someone in the crowd
and covered his face, to have
one moment by himself
before the sword.
Did he whisper goodbye
to the earth, to its scents and winds,
or did he think forward to heaven
and wonder how much difference there is
between the play of sunlight in a stand
and the light of the hereafter?
When death came
it cut through the flesh,
but left a perfect likeness of his face
indelibly imprinted in the shawl,
so when they held it up
the light shone through,
darkly, at first, like something seen through glass,
but later, when they leaned in,
clear as day.
Eventually, that blind man learned to see
a different world, the finer shades of rain
on stone or asphalt, market traders calling
back and forth, their lamps dimmed
one by one,
the last bus idling softly in its usual
circuit of gold and oil
on Union Road,
streamers of blue
and citrus blown through the scrawl
of blackened thorn around the drying green
where, now, the lines
are empty, office shirts
and blouses taken in
for days that pass like notes played on a scale
in music practice, fields of warmth and shade
ascending, as they must,
to aery nothing.
Somewhere along his street
an owl calls from some Ancien Régime
of drift and weather, texture,
and, since it’s all he has
to keep his place
in this life, which is not the gift he sought,
he loves it, all the wonder in this world
that he can bear, not
well, but well enough.
from Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape, 2017) © John Burnside 2017, used by permission of the author and the publisher.
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