The White Lie

I have never opened a book in my life,
made love to a woman, picked up a knife,
taken a drink, caught the first train
or walked beyond the last house in the lane.

Nor could I put a name to my own face.
Everything we know to be the case
draws its signal colour off the sight
till what falls into that intellectual night

we tunnel into this view or another
falls as we have fallen. Blessed Mother,
when I stand between the sunlit and the sun
make me glass: and one night I looked down

to find the girl look up at me and through
me with such a radiant wonder, you
could not read it as a compliment
and so seek to return it. In the event

I let us both down, failing to display
more than a halfhearted opacity.
She turned her face from me, and the light stalled
between us like a sheet, a door, a wall.

But consider this: that when we leave the room,
the chair, the bookend or the picture-frame
we had frozen by desire or spent desire
is reconsumed in its estranging fire

such that, if we slipped back by a road
too long asleep to feel our human tread
we would not recognise a thing by name,
but think ourselves in Akhenaten’s tomb;

then, as things ourselves, we would have learnt
we are the source, not the conducting element.
Imagine your shadow burning off the page
as the dear world and the dead word disengage –

in our detachment, we would surely offer
such offence to that Love that will suffer
no wholly isolated soul within
its sphere, it would blast straight through our skin

just as the day would flush out the rogue spark
it found still holding to its private dark.
But like our ever-present, all-wise god
incapable of movement or of thought,

no one at one with all the universe
can touch one thing; in such supreme divorce,
what earthly use are we to our lost brother
when we must stay partly lost to find each other?

Only by this – this shrewd obliquity
of speech, the broken word and the white lie,
do we check ourselves, as we might halt the sun
one degree from the meridian

then wedge it by the thickness of the book
that everything might keep the blackedged look
of things, and that there might be time enough
to die in, dark to read by, distance to love.

from Landing Light (Faber & Faber, 2003), © Don Paterson 2003, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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