“The terror / of being just one person…”: Medical Leave, Day 12

I’m no monk, but I’ve had my share of nights like this:

The Monk’s Insomnia

The monastery is quiet.  Seconal

drifts down upon it from the moon.

I can see the lights

of the city I came from,

can remember how a boy sets out

like something thrown from the furnace

of a star.  In the conflagration of memory

my people sit on green benches in the park,

terrified, evil, broken by love—

to sit with them inside that invisible fire

of hours day after day while the shadow of the milk

billboard crawled across the street

seemed impossible, but how

was it different from here,

where they have one day they play over

and over as if they think

it is our favorite, and we stay

for our natural lives,

a phrase that conjures up the sun’s

dark ash adrift after ten billion years

of unconsolable burning?  Brother Thomas’

schoolgirl obsession with the cheap

doings of TV starlets breaks

everybody’s heart, and the yellow sap

of one particular race of cactus grows

tragic for the fascination in which

it imprisons Brother Toby—I can’t witness

his slavering and relating how it can be changed

into some unprecedented kind of plastic—

and the monastery refuses

to say where it is taking us.  At night

we hear the trainers from the base

down there, and see them blotting out the stars,

and I stand on the hill and listen, bone-white with desire.

It was love that sent me on the journey,

love that called me home.  But it’s the terror

of being just one person—one chance, one set of days—

that keeps me absolutely still and makes me listen

intently to those young men above us

flying in their airplanes in the dark.

–Denis Johnson

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