Online Exclusive

The Almost Audible Passing of Time
I’ve been sitting so still I might be part of the garden. Time might shut down if I weren’t still cultivating an edge of desire. Its thirst, its burst toward the region of expectation. The way a hungry baby stretches its arms toward the mother’s breast. Or the cat eyes the grackles black as if already night. A pale moon hangs ready for her cue, though shallow sunlight is still sinking through the air. The future. Surprising we can think of it, its uncertain contours, body, mass. When the ads all announce end-of-season sales.


The garden in fact lies behind me, is nothing but an act of memory. Along with the dry smell of a stone wall crumbling at the point where sky and earth would come together. All our temporal concepts can be traced, it is said, to feelings of effort and fatigue. Just as it takes learning and failure to become aware of our capacities. Encouraged, with luck, by a mother’s smile. But can I look at a word as if I hadn’t learned to read? Were still running through high grass, smelling the sluggish Main river mingled with distance, and the lilac purple? The day all dew and dawn, dusting sleep from birdwings? Even though your nose is in your book I can just see you roll your eyes at such silly questions.


Ritual, repetition, rhyme. For centuries we tried to thwart the arrow. But even when, at the prayer of Joshua, the Sun stood still, time nevertheless continued. Likewise when Rousseau tossed his watch. Staring at the mottled bark of the sycamore, do I think this ritual will protect me from the constant changes of my body? The run toward dust to dust? Is it to freeze this moment before the mosquitos come with their cargo of itches that I watch beetles and weeds and pods, as if I were interested in them? But I don’t even know their names—when words and their entanglements are my feelers. Without them I’m in darkness.


I search the cracks between my English and German for more words than either has. To gather gradations in softness of the late afternoon air. As if they could help my nerve impulses not to fire on the all-or-none principle like our elections, but to transmit even the slightest discrepancies of light, the weakest hum of an insect. But even though the leaves soften the edges of the tree the alphabet takes many American minutes to take the place of one look. And it’s the pale moon between the leaves, not a symbol, that triggers the image of a German farm lost. In strata of time solar, sidereal, nuclear. Where the pale light stretched out the distance. And the cows chewed their cud so slowly—immeasurable by any clock. A different time, not suited to the ephemeral.


No matter what comes into the house, a letter, today’s paper, you are convinced you have already seen it. As if your present were being devoured by an imposter past. Whereas I look at my hands and think I’ve never seen those veins. True, they are more prominent now. As if asking to be recognized. And the moon up in the afternoon. Perhaps the present is only the past gnawing its way into the future. So that our day does not exist at all. No, no, you say, it’s simply over.


One day rolls into the next no matter how I wind myself up. Most of my time gets mislaid. Or returns as a bruise, counterclockwise, admitting its nature of calamity. Pain remains in the body even if the wasp is already far away. As shrapnel can lie dormant for years and yet give an old soldier gyp in damp weather. So it might be well to write down warnings. Even mislaid, time burns at both ends, and my body no longer moves with the energy of electrons through longitudes, latitudes. And in altitudes I get sick. My face tells the time without wheels or springs moving inside the brain.


Both the words tempus and templum, the carpenter’s two crossing beams, signify intersection. Into geometry. Has time been drawn and quartered. This need not bring tears to your eyes. you say. Still, I’d rather, like the ancients, stick with the movement of the heavenly bodies. Cycles of sleep and waking. Birds migrating from cold region to warm. The rate of polar ice melting. Or the beat of iambs or the subtler pulse of prose.


The instant of late sun on my hands feels worth two birds out of reach. On which the cat’s attention is riveted. My attention wanders. Not by hops and jumps, but alternate diffusion and concentration, like the foot of a snail. As if thinking were a method of scratching on these clumps of earth, and I could grab a fistful in order to hold on. The way I press words deep into the paper. Do I hope the breaks between them will interrupt, if not beat time? The way thinking of “the cows” enlarges this small plot into a plain? Because cows move slowly and in the distance?


Wittgenstein claims words are not essential. To what we call language.  And it’s true, in the tweets of birds much is meant and understood. But did he not recognize connective tissue? Even though he had skin covering his whole body? Of course, he also thought he could have a toothache without teeth. This opinion does not depend on the direction of time and so won’t upset the flight of birds, you say. Nor keep the cat from contracting her pupils. To remove their picture?


I chase my little thoughts around a circle the way the cat chases her tail. Though more often she leaps into the nick of the kill. Once upon a time I spoke my mother’s tongue, lake, pond, deep river, sea. And the wake of a ship showed not only the churn of water behind it, but the yet unrealized advance about to happen. Then, suddenly, I was an old woman, enveloped by evening cool. The waning light, damp on the skin, makes the yard less spacious, less direct than the remembered garden. I’m not a virtuoso of stillness like the cat, but feel the lightness born of fatigue. Of words that say nothing, but hang in the air like echoes. Or positive joy.

Rosmarie Waldrop's new book of poems, The Nick of Time, is forthcoming from New Directions in fall 2021. Recent books are Gap Gardening: Selected Poems (LA Times Book Prize in Poetry 2017), Driven to Abstraction, and Curves to the Apple (all New Directions).