An Essay Concerning Light

John Burnside

O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognise it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, tr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz

I Scotlandwell

All summer long, I waited for the night
to drive out in the unexpected gold
of beechwoods, and those lighted homesteads, set
like kindling in the crease-lines of the dark,

catching a glimpse, from the road, of huddled dogs
and sleepless cattle, mustered in a yard
as one flesh, heads
like lanterns, swaying, full of muddled light;

light from the houses television blue,
a constant flicker, like the run of thought
that keeps us from ourselves, although it seems
to kindle us, and make us plausible:

creatures of habit, ready to click
into motion. All summer long,
I knew it had something to do
with looking again, how something behind the light

had gone unnoticed; how the bloom on things
is always visible, a muddled patina
of age and colour, twinned with light or shade
and hiding the source of itself, in its drowned familiar.

II The Book of Living and Dying

By the time there is nothing to shed
there is something to gather,

the new life catching its breath
and kicking in,

no more substantial, at first,
than the promise of snow,

but a darkening, nevertheless,
in the fabric of light

where everything unmade
begins again.

Hard to imagine a last voice fading away
when the brightness opens

and not admire a system where the dead
go singly towards the light – and with such good grace –

adding, or taking away,
from here, or forever,

no more than a random droplet
of morning rain

adds to the river: a far cry
and scarcely a ripple.

III New Morning

On some days it feels like a gift,
flaws in the line of a sumac becoming

linnets, or finches,
strayed from the roadside verge,

the cat from the nearby farm
picked out, where its body remembers

stalking
– on days like this,
late in July, the night heat shaping itself

to a body I might have possessed,
had I learned before now

how empty it was
and how ready
to enter the light.

IV Interanimation

All afternoon
there was something alive in the hedge

– a blackbird, I thought, or a thrush;
though nothing sang –

while the cow fell, then got to her feet,
only to fall again, her hindlegs

collapsing under the weight, as we tried
to set her right: her mad eyes

staring – though not at us, who were
irrelevant
distracting her from what she almost

saw behind us, looming like the dusk
of someone else’s day, not hers, or ours,

a darkening
that still might be transformed

to music in the hedge: blackbird, or thrush,
returning from the light, to claim its own.

V Abridged

As children we thought it meant
what it seemed to say,

as if two cities stood on either bank
of one enormous river,

the first overcrowded, busy with trade
and betrayal,

the second pared down
to essentials: a clouded bazaar,

a boy on his way to church
in the midsummer heat,

and someone in a kitchen, eating
pomegranates, while the wakeful dead

wandered away, through sidestreets
and dusty squares,

with all they could carry: a fish-knife,
a string of pearls,

a story, begun in childhood,
or halfway through marriage,

the one thing they should have
completed, the light everlasting,

passing from one to the next
in a cradle of skin.

VI The Art of Dying

There are those who say we can choose,
when the moment comes:

a shape stealing home from the woods, a loping fox,
or the smallest of birds, come in through an open

window
– firecrest, or wren –
a flutter against the wall, or a ribbon of music;

and, sometimes, a friend or a lover,
twenty years on,

the old hurts dissolved;
ambivalence forgotten.

Me, I would take the back road, out by the loch:
a moorhen in the reeds, the flush of dawn,

and no one behind me, calling, again and again,
go into the light
nobly-born
go into the light.