Tundra - The Last Migration

The long poem Tundra is an elegiac meditation on love and loss in the form of an imagined journey of the future, embarked upon by survivors of some unnamed calamity, a last migration out of Africa towards the Arctic Circle. It becomes in the process a journey of remembrance, out of brokenness ostensibly towards a healing wholeness that is not guaranteed, merging interior and exterior territories through difficult terrains threatened by erosion and climatic extremes, against the background of an impending social and ecological catastrophe.

I wrote it after a visit to Turkana, Northern Kenya, in 2008-9, during a severe drought. I had been researching prehistory, and in the background there must have been the idea of that first migration out of Africa. But the poem describes a migration of the future not the past, as the protagonist reflects on the difficulties of love during the long journey north towards a Tundra of the mind and heart, where it is hoped a new way of living can come about. The poem seemed to write itself once I had hit on the opening line, that is a refrain throughout: As if loving you could be as easy as writing this to you, but it isn’t. I didn't understand the line - is it to an ex-lover or a partner, or to the earth itself, or Gaia? - but the phrase was insistent, and the poem simply unfolded scene by scene tracing the journey north towards this tundra of the mind, and finally the 'apex of the world'. Perhaps that is why it has an oneiric quality. I did not know then that James Lovelock had imagined humans migrating to the Arctic Circle on camels at the end of his book Revenge of Gaia, which I had not read. But a friend and colleague, Michael Asher, told me afterwards, and I was surprised and acquired a copy, and hence the epigraph, and dedication. Retrospectively it seems the poem was written out of a deep sense of despair, almost grief, at the sudden shocking realization, though I had known about it theoretically for years, that we might actually have engineered our own extinction through excess of greed and lack of real love, or any deep understanding, bequeathed us by wisdom traditions, of the limits to growth or our true place in the cosmos.

Tundra – The Last Migration                                 for Michael Asher  

Meanwhile in the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the new Arctic centres of civilization. James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia.

As if loving you could be as easy

as writing this to you,

but it isn’t. The year wakes to fleeting memories,

the horizon dark with wings, the hunger of birds

above the burning plains of shadow and bone.

Our world is transitory, as we travel north now

beneath the torpor of molten skies,

this Afrika of all origins.

Slowly the long journey unwinds: seasonal river banks

where the papyrus grows on the floodplain,

by sea through the Gate of Tears,*

migrating north towards the dawn’s distant tundra,

spirit’s abandon at the edge of wonder

where sky and land no longer oppose each other,

the last ownerless realm at the rim of the world,

this barely endurable solitude in which I may write to you

of the nascent harmony of love’s remission

through long winters of night

and summers of eternal day.

As if loving you could be as easy,

but it isn’t

and if this journey signals hope

then love needs redefining, a new word

to include the intimacy of distance.

As if loving you could be as easy

but it isn’t,

as if it could be as old and as deep

as these sediments unearthed by wind and sun,

a geology running time backwards,

a palimpsest of forgotten tribes and languages

buried beneath volcanic tuffs,

yet rising above the loss of so much extinction,

as if traveling north towards this tundra of beginnings,

this emptiness at the root of the world,

we might restore to living memory

what it means to nurture and be nurtured.

As if loving you might be easier then,

I cannot say if it will be

but for now it isn’t.

If it could be as reading your mind by night

the sky shedding incendiary stars,

the forgotten names of lovers,

as once it seemed possible to decipher your eyes

in the instant of knowing you for the first time,

as though time had no meaning

and knowing you was simply another life.

But lovers render each other vulnerable,

the unspoken language of the heart failing

at the first step towards an architecture of want.

And how then can we reach amidst the maze

of competing architectures the unmapped territories

whose ground defines the root of belonging?

As if loving you could be as easy

or as difficult as calligraphy,

as strokes of light on the darkness of paper

or as strokes of darkness on the paper of morning,

as the traveling movement of a wave

and as fleeting,

never yielding to a single abstraction

or a false promise of unexamined intent,

but flowing with a quiet simplicity

in the long migration north towards a new beginning

along the river banks where sedge was gathered

where they made papyrus and  writing began the long memory

towards a distancing self knowledge.

As if loving you could be as easy

as it once seemed

but it isn’t,

as when caressing a page with ink

the sound of pen on paper

had the power of intimacy in the degree of pressure

scoring the surface with passion,

or as light as the texture of silence on virgin paper

the faintest sound of my fingers

running gently over your skin,

yet even then was it ever so effortless

as casual memory makes it seem,

as the sound between pages of the turning wind

caressing your face.

As if loving you could be so easy,

but it isn’t.

After the long ecstasy of free fall,

the abyssal ocean of air,

the drift of days as homeless as the wind,

the sudden grounding,

the sound of love sharpening its blade

in the look in your eyes as you distracted me,

the steel nib of desire poised above

a chasm of wordless expectation,

the ink running casually as a tear

waiting in the corner of your eye,

a drop of ink or of blood at the cutting edge

of passion’s haste that can wound so easily.

For isn’t love always the first casualty of words:

the unintended word or a word misplaced,

a moment’s misjudgment configured

to drive us towards the hide-and-seek

of love’s desperate game,

never to lose the faint reminder of that error

as in every sweet moment of unexpected joy

we strive at once to be impermeable to its pain,

yet carry it forever as a mark of conscience,

the ineradicable errors by which we might grow

into the deep ecology of our being

and by these only might we come,

slowly and with immeasurable patience,

into a new knowledge of living,

the intolerable silence that subsumes

everything that has already been said,

the human voices stilled by the sound

that lies beneath all the living things of the world.

But the world grows warmer now

and War is everywhere

in everything that we failed to acknowledge,

a failure of listening more than of saying.                                     

What will become of the tundra

which is our hope our emptiness our solitude?

Will the heat destroy it?

Will the cold become more extreme?

Will we fail our hearts with mind’s obstinacy,

or will our hearts fail first

allowing mind its virtual triumph towards disaster?

As if loving you could be as easy

as it once seemed

but it isn’t,

and the days grow colder now

as we travel north away from this land,

from the parched deserts of salt and of stone,

of thorn and calcite, still hoarding the dark violence

of past upheavals, and the love we remember

is nomadic, a caravan moving at dusk

the shadows of camels slipping as silent as clouds

across a range of waterless hills that pass in the night,

survival no longer to be read in a grain of sand,

the shifting dunes of the untutored heart

or in a traveling star.

As if loving you could be as easy

or as difficult as writing you these words

but it isn’t.

If only I could speak to you as truthfully as silence,

but when I try it becomes as a cry in the wind

and the wind is stronger, pushing all before it,

erasing moments as they arise

before they can be grasped

in the truth of their nakedness,

and if love fails as these words must fail

who will cry the last cry of who we once were

before centuries of discourse compelled us

into time’s headlong rush to become,

and words found their strength in the power to deceive?

As if loving you could be as easy

but the silence leaks out of the sky

even as I speak to you,

even as these words break

on the coast of silence that lies ahead,

the one that awaits us as we move north

traveling into a new solitude,

alive to the shifting weather on the long journey

towards the cold tundra of hope,

where the wish germinates to inhabit the poem

as a shelter from the storms to come,

a dwelling made of ice and of silence

lost in a wilderness of blizzards,

the heat of our presence melting it from within

even as its silence grows around us,

the walls thinning to brittle sheets of ice

as fragile as glass through which

we glimpse the future as if we had no past,

memory as insubstantial as the falling snow,

the silence bleeding its light through these words,

opening spaces in the frozen gaps between them,

a white light fierce in its intensity,

a cold fire quickened in the storm’s luminosity

burning away the words I have joined

to shield my eyes from the white nights of sleeplessness.

And what will become of truth absolved of all doubt,

a final mathematical certainty?

And who will question the silence

when it’s only another brand?

And lovers now are they not masks in their own movie:

everyone hero and heroine for a day or a night,

femme fatale or villain, their vacant eyes mirrors

shining back the heartless web’s abyss of frenzied lust,

freedom only a freedom of choice,

identity a biometric signature?

When did you last feel the pain of love’s door

slamming on your hand,

your mute astonishment caught unawares

in the mirror’s unimpeachable gaze,

reading back word by disposable word

a whole palimpsest of errors that mirrored the age?

In the killing fields of a century’s savagery

were those who felt love the strongest

not those who defied death resisting barbarity,

whose poems were bullets for justice,

and love another word for insurrection?

From the fire of tongues silenced by atrocity

we gathered the sparks from the charred pages of memory

to ignite dissent against injustice.

Did we fail those whose words we used

to protest the mass graves of gulags,

or take in vain the names of witnesses who stood ankle-deep

in ashes that fell as softly as black snow,

after the fire-storms and the winds out of nowhere

that flayed human skin to the bone,

after the searing flash that froze the trees forever white

on the burnt retinas of children?

To what then can we assent on this journey of remembrance,

with only these few embers glowing in a brazier

lighting the hours through cold starless nights,

mornings of desolate winds wrapped in cerements of sand?

From time to time I blow gently on them,

trusting in their power to endure,

asking how I may love more generously.

If only loving you could be as easy,

but the times are difficult and will become more so,

even as the world invites you in

it is running out of time, out of oil and memories,

devouring breath by breath all our words, our stories,

it is running out of water, out of mystery,

devouring even our loving and our dying,

to love you truly might be all that’s left,

to love the darkness in you, not only the light,

to find the silence in you beyond the flaws,

which would unwind the violence in me

from all the expectations of you it planted in me,

for the darkness in you is also mine,

the fearsome stranger in you who shall be my guest,

who will show me who I am even as you complete me

in a rare defenseless moment,

when a shared tenderness was the night in you,

with all the intimacy of an approaching storm,

when my name was no longer my name

and I felt I could give my life to you beyond this all,

as if love itself could be as much divine indifference

as the gesture simply of a flower dropped on your pillow,

my eyes searching your face, the starlight in you,

to find you through the emptiness of words,

the ocean’s voice in you of freedom now an absence in me

writing my way back to you from the future

and the dark sun’s eclipse, a journey fraught with danger

across a landscape eroded by desire

beyond the fires the dust storms and the ashen skies.

As if loving you here might be different,

but I cannot say it will be,

yet the words continue their torment,

a snow storm as fierce as a blizzard

of white bees in the hive of silence,

who once carried under their luminous wings

enough gold dust to sow a paradise of gardens,

but those are drying up now, the forests shrinking,

the leaves folding back into a torpor of heat,

even as the bees of the world are dying,

the river valleys abandoned by rain and by the future,

the hidden water springs voiceless in the heart’s desert      

where love germinated out of the desire for nurture.

All this is but a memory now

in the migrations north to the new territories

of solitude and hope fed by continuous snowmelt.

Behind us now the age’s architecture multiplies,

where self is sovereign in the cities

waging cyber-wars on anarchy, while etherized from pain

the rich engorge their flesh beneath blue electric skies,

and landless indigents are rounded up

in the failing concrete of urban scarcity,

their cries unheard amidst the growing queues of despair,

the pale ghosts of hunger in the dispensaries of terror.

As if this road might lead you back to me

from elsewhere to the heart of you,

where the voice within you

is the sound within the stone,

the sunlight’s silent music patterned

deep within the wood,

its awesome hiddenness that stirs unseen,

the in-between of you and all that is not you,

a place far closer than the starlight

yet more distant than the silence in you

whose river streaming into voices

out of the darkness that inhabits you

sings inwardly the light of oceans

silencing all the questions

drowning their unease in tides of sand.

Yet we are mere tributaries mindlessly

mouthing to a future which seems unstoppable,

whose branching river silted with rank industry

spills its tree of veins into an ocean deeper than we know,

even as I think of you now at this dying river’s mouth,

your face in my hands and the voice in you of rain

before the sound of it was words,

your smile in the mouth of autumn

and the air shaking down leaves,

the birds flying me their vowels on wings of light,

wading this estuary a century deep with oil-slicked sand,

its waters flushed red with the blood of tribes,

stained dark with all our spent lives’ waste,

who live on borrowed languages and rootless

go sorrowing now to an unspoken death.

As if loving you means yielding

to the incomparable loneliness of this hour,

reaching for that stillness that eludes us,

as full of rapture or as touched by danger,

as if through all the blackness of the world’s hurt

that tremor in the air of distant thunder

might surrender us to the morning rain,

the strings’ vibrating music come to rest

as a butterfly trembling on your lips

swollen with desire for summer,

for the light that wrapped itself around our bodies

a light that could end tyranny,

a light where everything seemed possible,

but where even what is possible must change

as the river leaves no trace but the shapes of stones,

and the wind you cannot see

you know only by its visible music,

and by the trees that bend in its wake.

As if loving you might be a way

of telling you of everything I no longer know,

and if you ask me what I believe

I can speak of a labyrinth built of desire

or of a journey traced in the dust on the soles of my feet,

beyond that I give time only to silence

the perfected music of birds

the colours of their luminous proximity,

and in the beating flights of their wings

I hear the sudden unburdening of trust

lightly feathering gravity’s wave

beyond the consolations of knowledge,

finding courage in uncertainty,

in the art of losing oneself

in the pathless unwritten solitudes,

to wait upon truth’s un-concealing

its measureless openings into space

which vanishes even as we step into it.

As if loving you were simply this:

to know after we are gone

the day leaves everything just as it is,

as the dried up river leaves only its dust and its silence,

the scattered blossoms of a love

that desired it unable to hold it,

the evening silk of water through your hands,

the moonless dark caressing the tender light of your skin,

a darkness that reached out for us

but could not hold us though for a while it sheltered us,

until the way opens again, this continuous journey

towards the northern shoreline at the edge of thought,

where a wave is still a wave and always and only a wave

moving as the world moves with no destination:

the days of salt and of the scent of crushed flowers,

of cities that rise and fall and rise again like hope,

the frail shell of forgiveness in the moon’s eclipse,

to write this to you now under a sky weeping blood,

as if love must grow with distance, asking nothing

but this present moment, a tomorrow we will never reach

though we live every day for it

while under us the sea is still moving

and the stones like these words turn slowly to sand.

As if with every step further from you

each day might bring you closer,

the way the night brings the stars closer,

where solitude is communion and darkness light,

where nothing we possess is ours, not even our names,

having nothing left but this rarest of gifts,

this stone of saying I still carry in my heart,

the one you once placed in the palm of my hand,

formed in the time before writing

when this was your only way of telling me

simply by your choice of stone, the feel of it,

the weight of its silence,

the joyous feel of chalcedony, the sharp anger of flint

or the hard granite of resolution,

the consoling smoothness of opal,

the lapidary beauty of a string of gems

on the flawless skin of your neck,

when your reckless smile gifted me a stone,

its shimmered cadence of a summer’s night,

when you kissed my eyes of wintergreen

with a look serene as frosted pearl,

these were the durable gifts found in the Markets of Silence*

when love was simply this language of stone,

the telling sound of one laid upon another,

stone by stone of a long patience

to be deciphered down the referable years,

a found music of stepping stones 

towards a forgotten archeology of being,

leading you wordlessly into the blind labyrinth

to the immeasurable centre of understanding,

to the sound of voices falling as beautiful as sunlight on rain,

or as silent as the unfolding wings of sudden flight.

As if loving you could be as easy or as true,

reclaimed sincerity of friendship’s love, yes that too,

folded and packed like the warm felt of a yurt, 

transplanted to the distant summer’s tundra

even for one season only,

as if this might be a new kind of love

as ancient as the sky’s northern lights

under the open plains of tomorrow,

the blue of distance beyond sorrow’s dark lament,

the aurora’s silver dipped in the silence of mare’s milk.

As if love could be as difficult or as easy,

but is both and neither,

ownerless it will disarm us, unsheltered as the tundra’s beauty

which does not dwell yet endures as the dawn wind,

as silence endures, fresh and unadorned.

Here northern skies will soon plate horizon’s rim

with the shadowless light of arctic spring,

where life hovers between night and day

needless of vigil.

Breaking camp at the season’s turn

I can write to you now of death and its healing,

one by one closing the books as the departed go quietly,

their lifeless bodies washed, hands folded,

impassive faces serene in their immutable deaths

their lips sealed each with a drop of jade,

now laid to rest on the impermeable ground of winter,

the high lamas of a wordless wisdom

whose voices woke us aching not to hear,

granting to silence speech in equanimity,

we, prisoners of flesh and bone we can’t ignore,

mourn not their departure who watch over us,

who answered us with the silent smile of a raised flower

that the flame burn undimmed as the wings gather them

limb by torn limb into the high mercy of the sky.

As if loving you could be as easy,

yet how far it is now and there is so little time left.

The as yet unwritten pages of love’s inscrutable face

await the quiet strokes of the morning sun

as the stars perish one by one.

Under this arctic sky suffice no single truth

but death, night’s frosted light shimmers                                      

to touch this void of harmony, manifest witness

to the myriad voices that return,

spring thaw of flowers bending hearts and ears

to new ceremonies of innocence:

north of the taiga’s forest tundra’s golden blooms

sound the mantra of a deeper hearing.

As if loving you now could be simply this:

a love as effortless and abundant

as the sound of the earth’s silence

in each breath between your lips,

the cold whisper of light falling on the wings of birds

in their long flight among the season’s stars.

Within this Arctic Circle an uninhabited immensity prevails,

this silence of all silences to which at last

we willingly surrender, and into which we fall

as this ground gives all to time and distance.

As if loving you now could be only this:

to know you as if for the first time

knowing that beyond this north there is no further north.

Of mind then can we say a new dwelling, 

a mindscape quickened into clarity, the diamond light,

a sudden clearing on the other side of knowing,

a topography beyond known dimensions?

Call it home to which all paths may have intended us,

now dispersing as they converge into unformulated space,

the wave-light archaic, a frozen anarchy of sea-wash,

of earth’s stupendous narrative giant sculpted floes

grind their titanic light through mists of wind-drift,

gull-haunted, rain-washed, a ghostly music of uncountable birds,

of phantom wings black-bladed edged with white

that melt swiftly into this blank descent of silence,

this unmapped stillness that touches into light

a final deliverance of most acute attention,

undoing the long years of pain locked in us

by illusory painted weathers of the orbiting mind,

surviving humanity’s last reach, hope’s final eloquence

where the polar sun flares luminous in blue veins of ice

slowly unfreezing to the far sound of drifting glaciers,

a borderless silence of white at this apex of the world

from where all our gathered history falls in disarray,

its many colours draining south to abandoned desert cities,

the ruins of drowned empires on vanished shorelines.

Of all our exploration then is this the end?

Or yet out of unseasoned light some new beginning,

a preparation then for the advent of something unforeseen,

of something immense now demanded of us,

a promise beyond expectation of a found music

harmonized beyond the heart’s flawed reckonings,

or the cunning dialectics of weaponized fear,

even as these words, the cadence of them,

break like water against the rocks of the world,

for they are all we have, even if they fail us,

even as we shall find them wanting,

knowing the nascent dream’s gift,

that glittering woven fabric of many colours,

is as necessary to truth as the unwavering gaze

of the brightest star’s cold discerning eye,

in the long night that lies ahead

we shall reach out to one another across the years,

the silence of the tundra’s unvanquished darkness

opening its eyes of water to the sun’s brief radiance.

Your long reply that found me here at last

asking if this understanding has not come too late,

this new knowledge as ancient as the silence it imparts

which we had thought till now so long outlived,

now resonates with such poignancy of abandonment,

more than our hope our solitude our emptiness,

a fire burning steadily in each and every heart

as if propelled into this vast and mapless empty white

we were moving into the very heart of being,

into this transparency of night, an awesome stillness,

this uttermost of silence from the shifting ground

that gives to morning air a recovered purity of light,

while underfoot the days now lengthen

into the melting permafrost of unalterable change,

of extinction’s myriad losses a stricken sound,

and ultimately of this waiting world a quality,

whose haunting glacial echoes now reverberate,

while of quantity’s inhuman reign a metallic glitter

shines far out on desolate empty shores numbed sheer

by the long perfected indifference of this age.



* Gate of Tears - The Red Sea straights of Bab el-Mandeb, where bands of homo sapiens are thought to have migrated out of Africa around 60-100,000 years ago, according to the Genographic Project.

* Markets of Silence - At tribal frontiers in the Horn of Africa there were once markets where goods were traded without speaking, a strange fact unearthed in a letter by one of  the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s correspondents during his long residency in Harar, Ethiopia in the late 19th century.

c. David Beatty 2008-10

As if loving you could be as easy

as this poem made of ice and of fire,

this frail shelter on the tundra of hope,

where the formation of frozen breath

made visible the silence of my muted words,

the unspoken heard only as a voiceless cry,

myriad tiny fragments of ice shattering

in the zero of absolute loss.

As if loving you could be as easy once again,

deep and effortless and somehow without fear.

Yet even though you are far

I feel your eyes on me, and you are near,

in your questioning look I read the grief in it,

desire and the blood’s anguish for it,

behind you the lion of the sun’s wounded violence,

your passion and the molten fear of it,

the chill beyond of it in the moon’s consoling touch.