Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

from Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914)

As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So I would strip your trappings off,
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.
This was inspired partly by the use of time in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which is also the technique used in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The style resembles that of John Steinbeck because that's what I've been reading, and the title is borrowed from the very Philip Larkin poem located elsewhere in this node.

It is said that, in the moment before a man dies, his entire life passes before him; countless years of sadness and joy flicker for a fraction of a second, followed swiftly by the wash of regret and all things not yet done. This is not entirely true –- the life that flashes past is not his own, but rather the life of everything else around him, that which he has ignored or taken for granted. The life of these things is overwhelming in its intensity, a glorious burst of light before the endless dark; it is only sudden because he has not been looking for it and was too busy to notice. It has always been there.

The sunlight made its way lazily across the orange-brown terracotta tiling, warming the tops of the houses. It scaled drainpipes, crept into cracks in the pavement and bounced playfully off the silvery metal of the scrapyard; reclaiming the world from the loosening grip of sleep. It noticed an open window on the second floor of a rather nondescript building and, mistaking this for an invitation, poured into the room. As it crested the windowsill and bathed everything in a brilliant light, a sharp sound rang out; a sudden and succinct bang, followed by a flood of solid silence. The birds on the roof outside leapt into the air, startled by the noise; but the sunlight continued into the room, unafraid. No noise could frighten the sunlight: it had heard everything before.

Birds are easily frightened, and especially by loud noises. Over time, birds have learnt that a loud noise suggests danger, and danger heralds death. These birds were pigeons, the grey, ubiquitous kind that are found wherever there are people; full and fat after an early-morning breakfast. The journey had been a short one with many stops along the way. This roof had seemed a good spot for the birds to rest and preen their feathers, as the sunlight was beginning to warm the tiles. When the noise pierced the morning’s calm, suddenly and unexpectedly, they took to the sky in an enormous cloud of fluttering and cooing. A leader emerged at the front and began flying towards the East, and the others followed. They would simply have to find another roof, one that was not so rude to its visitors.

It was a normal plant, as far as it was concerned. If anyone had asked the plant to describe itself, it would have said “ordinary” –- but no one had ever asked it, and besides, it couldn’t speak. But the plant was right in its assumption, since it was indeed an ordinary plant. It had ordinary leaves, ordinary roots and a host of rich violet buds; the name given to it was Stachys byzantina, but it preferred to think of itself as simply “plant”. The sunlight flooded in, caressing the little leaves and persuading the buds to open in the golden glow. The plant stretched upwards, willing its shoots to grow higher, reaching for the ceiling of the room. Had the plant had eyes, it would have seen a tall, familiar figure standing by the door; had it had ears, it would have heard him crying. But since it had neither, it saw and heard nothing; and the sharp sound that frightened the birds remained unknown to the plant in the corner of the room.

What an upstart, thought the old table, What a silly young thing! It had been many years since the table had been growing like the plant in the corner, many years since it was savagely torn from the rest of itself and fashioned into unnatural angles. It remembered the feeling of the wind between leaves and the sunlight warming its bark. It longed to feel the water upon its roots again, and the insects and animals taking refuge in the damp hollows. But the table knew it had a purpose, and for that it was glad. The tall figure would place objects on its surface and, as efficiently and proudly as it could, the table supported them. Every object was still there when required. Like the flamboyant violet plant that it so envied, the table could see and hear nothing. It felt everything, however; every tiny vibration and tap against its surface. The table did not hear the sound that chased the birds towards the East, but it felt a jolt as something heavy and metallic fell upon it, something warm and somehow important. It waited for someone to remove the object, but no one did. And, since nothing happened afterwards, the table assumed that perhaps the new object was a decoration of sorts, and it felt very proud and very pretty.

The floor, like the table, was once a living, growing thing; not the exact same thing, but killed by the same savagery. It stretched lazily across the entire room, the dust of countless ages tickling its belly and the footsteps tapping across its back. It had known them all; the light clip-clop of women’s high heels, the heavier thud of men’s black boots and the tiny unnoticed skitter of mice. There had been less footsteps recently, less and less of the light clip-clops, less of the heavy thuds and almost no skittering. The sunlight poured onto the golden-brown back of the floor, warming it generously. If it could have sighed, the floor would have done so. It also did not hear the sound that frightened the birds, but it felt the object land on the table above, and it felt the heavy lump crumple suddenly upon its surface. The lump did not move, but began oozing a dark redness along the floor, soaking it and making it sticky and damp. The liquid ran into all of the cracks, on to the insects and the dust below, and the floor was not at all happy.

And there was him; the figure in the centre of it all. He wasn’t sure what, or how, or even why; but it seemed to make sense, in a way. The gun was lighter than he had imagined, although it became heavy against his temple. For a moment, the second before the hammer snapped back into place, he could hear and feel everything. The sunlight warmed him, rather than giving him cancer; the birds were not just chirping, they were singing to the sky; and the plant in the corner was not simply growing, but stretching itself out towards him, reassuring him that he was not alone. And then, there was silence. Silence for a single second, one moment of absolute clarity, and then sound. A sharp sound that chased the birds from the roof and echoed down the street, stopping each person and turning every head for a moment. And then, everything carried on as normal. Silence rang out in the wake of the piercing bang, and the sunlight continued pouring into the room. It had heard everything before.

My alarm rouses me and I lay unmoving on the floor in the chilling darkness. Cocooned in handmade quilts on my foam pallet, I feel the silence of the house as my awareness expands outward from this warm center. Both wife and daughter sleep quietly in their own rooms, living their secret dream lives, as I consider returning to sleep myself.  Burning eyes remind me of how recently I fell asleep the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that. This is my daily aubade, the necessary parting from this peaceful moment into the day ahead.

It is waiting for me as I reluctantly crawl from the covers. Goosebumps prickle my naked skin, as if it breathed across my neck, and as I wash my face in the mirror I sense it just out of frame. For a moment it is gone while I slide into warm clothes, but my scarf reads "This too shall pass" and I find it in the dark hallway as I flick the bedroom light out. Stepping outside, my heart trembles for a moment as I remember its terrible visage from the night before. Then the lock clicks. I drive away and leave it there with everything I love.



by Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
  Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
   In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
  Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
    -The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused-nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear-no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


Five years ago my fully pregnant wife slept beside me as I wound down for the day. Mind wandering, a uniquely peculiar thing happened. For a moment, the most fleeting of moments, I became painfully aware of the inevitability of nonexistence. Many times since that night I have tried to describe the sensation, always ending in failure, because the words do not exist to convey such a degree of remorse and hopelessness. In the intervening seasons of my life, every day has been a reminder of that feeling. The anniversary of my mother's unexpected death, my daughter losing her first tooth, resisting sleep each night only to succumb with a tear-stained face; these all renew my intimacy with it. Around every corner of my mind, it silently waits.

How does one explain? It isn't possible unless the listener has also experienced it. This in itself is stressful. How do I explain why the beauty of this golden dying leaf breaks my heart? How do I explain why the stars make me sad?

And then yesterday I found this poem by Philip Larkin. More than anything I have read, Aubade describes perfectly my haunting awareness. Every line, every word, every sentiment resonates within me. This is one man who would have understood.


I love life. After a tumultuous childhood colored by moments of poverty, hunger, hatred, and desire, I now have everything. Close to my heart I have a loving family, a small place to call my own, and time to myself. I have heard the ocean, and I have felt the warm summer night. I have tasted the passion of another. I have.

Always, though, always it is there. Behind the smiles and the laughter it waits. And finally, at the end of another day, it watches in the darkness as I remove my clothes and quietly pull the covers close. In my last thoughts, I always pray for another tomorrow.


Au`bade" (?), n. [F., fr. aube the dawn, fr. L. albus white.]

An open air concert in the morning, as distinguished from an evening serenade; also, a pianoforte composition suggestive of morning.


The crowing cock . . . Sang his aubade with lusty voice and clear. Longfellow.


© Webster 1913.

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