FROM THE BOOK
copyright © 2021 by Al Basile
A Case for Meaning
Light was alive before the eye to see it,
granting some worm an edge that urged the organ
into being, the better for the bearer
to survive. Selection over time
bred sight into successful organisms.
Or was the visible also (or only)
finding a way to realize itself
more completely through a vehicle,
emerging into new versions of power?
The eye, in seeing, licenses the light.
By being conscious, we are sensitive
to time, susceptible to consequence:
meaning is made perceptible to us.
The organ of discernment is refined,
the better to prepare us for a world
where someone’s reasons lurk behind the curtain.
Meaning is real in us; we are its agents,
the first through whom it can confirm itself.
Both in and of the world, we license it
the better to equip us for the real.
Declare all meaningless at your own peril!
Deny the light, condemn yourself to darkness.
Building the Artificial Woman
The first attempts were beautiful but perfect.
So flaws were added, which was an improvement.
A voice came next, to make sounds of approval,
and customers began to ask for movement.
That was enough to satisfy the many,
but some began to clamor for expression,
at least to mimic registering pleasure.
A discerning few made a confession:
They hankered after giving it free will.
Being chosen wasn’t any fun
when all the votes were counted in advance
and all the choices narrowed down to one.
They wanted something personal – to feel
loved, when love might well have been withheld
by one who offered company each day
and chose to stay without being compelled.
This proved a challenge, but the next design
was a best seller. Then there came a man
who took exception to the operation.
“I want,” he said, “what isn’t in your plan.
I want someone to disagree, but stay;
who tells me when I’m wrong, and makes me see
how to do better, but still leaves the chance
to me to make the same mistake again.
Who likes to pay attention to attention,
but understands it when I sometimes don’t.
When she’s invited to take sides against me,
she’listens diplomatically, but won’t.
Who asks me if I like it first, but wears
a hat because she likes to wear a hat,
and when I compliment her on her choice,
she doesn’t worry what I mean by that.
Who thinks my chicken cutlets are sublime.
and moves the car when I’m too beat to drive.
Who laughs because she gets I’m being funny,
and smiles because it’s hard to be alive.
Who’ll never be a servant or a master
but wants to work together as a team,
and build over a lifetime love familiar,
instead of holding out for love supreme.
Can you put all that into a machine?”
The builders smiled. “If that’s the way you feel,
what you want is a woman. What we make
are fakes. But most prefer them to the real.”
At night when lying on my back in bed
I fold my hands, first one way, then another:
knit up my fingers, left hand first, then right;
or lay one palm down flat against the other’s
back, then switch, and think about the change
in how the different figurations feel.
While all are mostly similar, the subtle
settling of the crossing bones, and shifting
surfaces of skin, though unimportant,
occupy my mind with differences,
and slowly open up the way to sleep.
They have until tonight, that is – tonight
the differences point me back awake,
and put me on a wonder of the night
when one will feel exactly like another.
How I Learned About Blindness
Inexplicably, his face untroubled,
my best friend’s little brother stood atop
a pile of blown out tires left of the entrance
to the truck barn where my father’s men
housed their plows and tree-cutting equipment.
He held his head dead even with a row
of windows which extended on both sides
behind him, patient as we older boys
picked up the rocks. The game we’d just invented
An almost wholly unsupported trust
buoyed up his grin as we took careful aim,
and we were likewise blindly confident.
We chucked the rocks. The shatter of the glass
was such a hollow, satisfying sound.
When more than sixty years had passed, I asked
if he remembered how he’d felt, and why
he’d done it. He admitted sheepishly
that to this day he couldn’t understand;
it must have been “stone cold stupidity.”
And yet blind trust and confidence had both
been vindicated: one undamaged boy,
one bank of windows broken. How did Fate
not crush us all for tempting it so rashly?
For one time only, blindness was a charm.
Other Waters of March
An easy breeze has broken winter’s back,
and sunlight stands up straighter on the snow.
whose softening awakes the almanac.
Melt water lisps its trickling undertow.
With each day in the forties through the week,
the last storm’s cover can’t help giving way;
What would it say, the snow, if it could speak?
“I’ve hidden everything, but I can’t stay.
The day is coming when the secrets kept –
all of them, both rare and ordinary,
so long forgotten by you as they slept,
will lie exposed again, open to query.
New bloom and festering: you must expect them.
Each to its fate, now that I can’t protect them.”
The Magi Lose Their Way
Christmas Day, 2016
On our journey from the Eastern lands
the new star in the night sky kept us on
the path through many difficulties.
Out of compass from our constellations,
it made an easy guide, glowing and low
hovering above that distant place
where lay the infant king we’d heard about.
But on the way we passed a city ruined,
desolated utterly by war.
Not one stone there stood upon another;
no one could be found to tell us how
or why they’d met their fate, but smoke hung thick
above the rubble, troubling the sky,
as though the earth had somehow wrapped itself
in its own winding cloth. The crackling embers
in the wreckage made the only sound,
their faint, dull glow the only dying light.
The waste of that place made us pause, until
we saw the grounded sky bereft of stars
and realized we’d lost sight of our guide.
What heaven had provided, men on earth
had labored to obscure. Which was our way?
At first we were despondent, overwhelmed
to think that such fair promise could be lost.
Contagious in that place, the darkness dimmed
our faith itself, and it was tempting to
sit down, curse humankind, and brood on chaos.
But that would end our journey. Then the dark
itself, tasting of iron, gave us the answer:
the ash that clots our lungs and coats our tongues,
the grit that irritates our eyes, and sticks
between our teeth, this shroud that pins us down
to earth, is just another kind of cloud;
the stars we reckon by still burn beyond.
We are without original direction,
but any heading is away from death.
So we set out again despite confusion,
blinded by what men do in this world
but trusting if we stayed on any path,
however crooked man has made the maze,
we would regain our sight, reorient
ourselves, begin anew – and yet attain
what may be reached from any starting point:
the sacred ground of the nativity.
The Uses of Ignorance
If you can look into the seeds of time,
and say which grain will grow and which will not . . .
MacBeth I, iii
Today is spring; tomorrow will be winter.
The radar shows a snake-like front along
the coast from Hatteras on up to Maine,
and temperatures will plunge, with snow to follow.
Growing up almost a hundred years
ago, my father learned how not to trust
blue skies and sixty on a February
day here in New England, but he had
no way to tell what would be coming next.
Every lesson took him by surprise,
so he became resilient to fate.
I can see the future, serpentine,
arriving overnight, blind to intent.
Beyond the stocking up on milk and bread,
my inner weather would survive as well
without a forecast. Better not to know,
submitting to the hammer blows that shape us
until we are prepared for anything.
Don’t anticipate, I say: be ready.
Youth in Age
Once it’s driven from the body, youth
retreats to the recesses of the mind,
where it continues to proclaim its truth.
It needn’t be completely left behind.
It can live on, in a hiding place
eyes of the unbelievers never see
when noticing the wrinkles in a face,
or measuring the stiffness of a knee.
Discovering a fearlessness, it chooses
which emerging challenges to try;
granting itself permission, it refuses
to give up wonder or stop asking why.
Youth takes more practice after twenty-one.
Find someone old to show you how it’s done.