The Golden Wall

Don’t ask Uncle Pat why the night sky is dark –
in hot weather
taking his mattress out on the grass
inside his dog-proof fence to sleep.
When Pat lifts his face up to the night –
propped on a pillow
of kapok stuffed in mattress ticking –
he’d fix you with sheep drench if you told him
that his line of sight
should intersect at every point
with a near or distant star
glimmering in the transparency of space
so the whole sky
should be ablaze from end to end
like “a golden wall”.
Pat’s golden wall was his orange tree.
Like Uncle Pat it had never borne fruit
until I dumped five tons of chicken manure
on its roots.
His line of sight
from the cane lounge where he sprawled
intersected at every point with oranges
twenty feet up in the sky,
a Utopia of fruit
which the district came to visit and eat,
oranges with no ending
like the return veranda
around the four sides of his house
where nephews and nieces ran forever
and their children after them.

Pat forgot his promise to pay for the manure
and the oranges didn’t come back.
But he didn’t miss them,
so don’t ask Pat why the night sky is dark.

Olbers’ riddle has hung around
for centuries.
You can’t explain it by absorption.
Gas and dust heat up and glow.
Nor by absences or voids.
Every square inch has its galaxies.

Ask the cells inside your head
the same riddle, why don’t they all blaze at once
a golden wall of noise,
each neuron singing its own note
deafening your mind with light.
Political and religious visionaries
promise us this,
every cell singing in unison,
a mass of indistinguishable stars.

But something in the universe denies
the golden wall,
some structure which became Uncle Pat
calling to his nephews from his cane lounge,
“Now don’t trample them tomahawk plants!”
(meaning hollyhock plants).

Pat prefers his own company on hot nights
leaving Auntie Bridge inside
with pictures of saints on the bedroom wall.
He takes his bedding
and lies in a darkness
where each star can broadcast as a soloist.

The universe
is a composition of unique bodies
on display,
and the night sky of the mind
allows a single file of thoughts
to light up as a sentence.

from Spring Forest, Faber and Faber 1994, by permission of the Geoffrey Lehmann.

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