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,  

then waited  

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 

into Damascus. 

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, 

still unconvinced 

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  

for execution, 

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 

of fig-trees 

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,  

masonry; 

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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