Vol. 27 No. 10 · 19 May 2005

Responses to Augustine of Hippo. Part 3: De libero arbitrio

John Burnside

361 words

– something that comes
from the dark
self or non-self)

but something between the two
like the shimmering line
where one form defines another
yet fails to end;

look for the proof in snow
or the bleed of light
between the shorefront
and the harbour wall

this late December evening:
nothing there;
but listen, and it sounds
like wings arriving
quietly over the firth

and further out
the snow
is also falling

as surely as it falls upon the lawns
and hedges
in this narrow seaside town.

I wonder how we know the things we know
most surely
with no hope of evidence
and lacking a faith
that might extend to heaven

stopping from time to time,
on nights like this,
to see it all again
– the sky, the firth,
the empty street
where someone walks ahead
and leaves a trail of footprints through the darkness –


Not that we ever return
but the people we were
remain in that snowlit room
with the distance between them.

The light on a cotton blouse
the scent of the garden
– perhaps it has rained in the night
or a moment since –

the absolute white of a sleeve
and a blackbird singing
somewhere among the shrubs
still wet with rain

or only the smell of coffee
whatever there was
so it seems they are waiting

– the people we were
who said
or omitted to say
the appropriate words

waiting for something to end
though it hasn’t begun
waiting for us to go back
with what we know now

to rescue them
one detail at a time:
a coffee cup, a bird
the smell of rain

the word unspoken
silently deleted.


The shapes we mistake
for love
– a garden in summer;
that sound the wind makes
pausing in the leaves;

the shapes we mistake
for ourselves
at the edge of water
– turning a moment
then slipping away to a depth
that never existed;

that hint
of jadis et naguère
while the moment lasted

and always the sound
of a future we could have refused:
a household of card-games and desk-lamps,
a bed of carnations,

the promise we made
even then
to continue alone.

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