As the Light Fades

As the Light Fades

The first time I thought about “As the light fades” as a Lenten text, it was for possible inclusion in Beautiful Mercy: a book of hours (Saint Benedict’s Table Press 2010). To read the poem intentionally in the season of Lent brings out possibilities I did not imagine in writing the poem nearly twenty years ago. My reflections here are offered as one, partial view of a text with possibilities for Lent.

The poem is a self-portrait/vision while I recovered from a life-threatening bout of malaria in Bandiagara, Mali, through Christmas 1994. The poem describes a person in extreme physical circumstances. It also represents self-examination of an unadorned self: naked and entirely vulnerable. The essential, smouldering self is laid open to scrutiny, even as it longs to be free. To be from the deep, fever-bound ache of burning ‘shackle-bones’: of being trapped—chained and locked—in the very structure of one’s own being. Near death, the inescapable self sees not hope of liberty, but is instead beset by fearful apparitions from beyond this world.

There seems to be an arc in the poem. It starts in darkness, a dark lost corner of the room, and then shifts to be illuminated by firelight, a vision of fundamental imprisonment and suffering, bound to and by fire. The face—eyes and mouth—show the self-examined person as a spirit-creature roaming between the worlds, a personification of death. The arc returns to a lost corner of the room, and the self-examination has uncovered a profound poverty, and a confessed weakness that inhibits love.

As the Light Fades

You can’t see me in the dark
this lost corner of the room.
Come closer, and I will try to describe myself
so that you might understand
who is this man you have found.

I close my eyes to imagine best
what you might see
if you could see me.

I am naked, but more than clothes
my skin and flesh seem stripped down to the bones.
I stand covering myself in modesty or shame.
From bare bones a flame flares and then glows again.
In the dark
I am in outline only, an ink-black sketch
lying on a pallet bed,
and I think I smell a ring of smoke around my head.

I close my eyes and imagine
what you might see if you could see
collar-bones, hip-bones, wrist-bones, ankle-bones.
They feel like manacles, shackles under my hand.
Ribs like a washboard in a jug-band.
I finger these shackle-bones
as if to pick the locks and be free of them,
free of my own bones glowing in the dark.

My face frightens me
because I have seen this face before.
I thought it was a banshee’s, flying, keening;
eyes and mouth holes torn in the world.
My face frightens me
because I have seen this face before.
I thought it was the mask of Death
when it takes a human form.

If you want to come to me,
to come to this lost corner of the room;
close your eyes and listen.
I am lips too thin to kiss.
I am arms too weak to hold you.
I am bones ember-red, tasting of fire.
I am the man in the corner.
My voice is small and mutters away
in the dark.

3 Responses to As the Light Fades

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very nice piece, Jon. Thanks for offering it.
    Jamie

  2. Aisha Entz says:

    Thanks! This poem is a treasure and so fitting for Lent! Beautifully written and great imagery!

  3. Aisha Entz says:

    This is beautiful! Thanks for sharing this and how fitting for Lent! As I have also experienced life-threatening malaria–this give voice to so much!

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