New York City skyline at night


Spring 2009



Philip Miller

On Passing On

It would go better
if I only knew
I would meet old friends
and relatives, Mother
Father, though I do know
they left their skins behind.

It would go better
(I mean I would)
if I knew the afterdeath
would be just like this world,
no better or worse,
all the senses still intact.

It would go better
if passing on did not mean
passing out, not dreamless
sleep, but waking up, and you
waiting with an apple
in your hand for me to bite.



Afterwards we could never find that street.
Dusk was falling, the curtain of blue, fading
toward gray, toward dark.
We had taken this stray path, an unplanned
excursion from certain destination
through woods dense and enclosing,
among trees taller than houses
where for a dangling moment
as in the fall of a rich movement of song,
a rest comes, fine voices still.
We were in that silence,
where past and future shuffle
like two poor pawns
into the square of now.
There we were,
already too close for comfort,
and for that out-of-the-way,
stolen instant, taken off the beaten
avenue of our sure
departure, then our voices rose,
breaking the quiet,
but in strange counterpoint,
as we sang the same words
to different tunes,
two birds with lenses precise,
taking in each other
and everything else,
our nervous heads turning
this way or that,
as if disagreeing
to agree,
before we spotted
separate trees,
flew for the high branches
while below us that street
we had both taken—
how long ago
in what old country?—
narrowed into a line,
into a long, silken thread.



Listen, this thing we call music, it's in us,
in the body's burps and squeaks, creaks and wheezes,
like toots and tweedles of ancient instruments:
bagpipes, lutes, and viols the shapes of our own organs.
It is the heart that begins the beat we must repeat,
that follows us, dogs our steps, makes them
click down the pavement or plod softly, skip, or run,
but in measure, as if ready to begin a dance.
It's in the words we make, pronounced huskily
as lovers do, or sharply in anger or trippingly
on the pink-tipped tongue,
as if, when we walk, we are in a musical
about to break into song.
It's what lifts our words, then makes them
walk a line of notes the singer must turn
into something beyond words, and it's everywhere,
rides on the air, in Muzak tinkles at Wal-Mart
between turtlenecks and jeans, on the boom box
the guy sings along with, strolling through the park
as if he's in a movie, the sound track following him along,
playing his theme, the story of his life,
or at home when I turn on the tube and hear
electronic bleats and whistles selling something:
a brand new Hummer shaped like the tank
John Wayne will drive in a combat movie
later on TNT. A full orchestra will accompany
the bazookas and the shriek of bombs,
for there's always a conductor raising a baton,
a god or magician in white tie and tails
bringing down thunder and lightning,
but also a melody so sweet
our mouths fall open when it touches us
where we live, finding its melody in us—
the lullaby, love song, wedding march;
work song, blues, and dirge;
the herald angel's clarion call
announcing the beginning
and end of us all.



Back to Poetry