The Return


A Carthage it wasn’t; but this was a city of libraries and bars,
offices, hospitals, galleries, schools and arenas.
That cypress grows where the 34 bus used to stop.
That’s what remains of the chamber of commerce. And that
was the headquarters of a software corporation.

I knew the place. But that was long ago,
and now the stories being written here
know nothing of urban planning or insider trading,
nor of collateral, nor of collateral damage,
nor of the pools where the damsel-fly sits once again on the lotus on long summer days.

They say that the souls of the dead inhabit the place.
They say there are shifts in the light, prints in the dust,
unravelling veils of vapour on the breeze,
whispers that tell of rememberings of the heart,
murmurs at night like the plainsong of the stars.

They say from the visible darkness, the nowhere of days,
a figure comes walking, into the limitless light,
gazing ahead into space as if all of his life
were dependent on what lay before him. As if
he saw now, as a thing he might touch, the past become present.

He has been to the place. The profundis. The night
where neither man nor woman has a name.
He has been to the place. To return her to life.
And now he walks as if the very air
threatened to snatch her back and keep her there.

Behind him, slender, wary, comes the other,
a faceless shape, muffled in heavy robes,
the hidden head in a cowl, the tread of the feet
soft as a footpad fox’s by a henhouse. She
(if this is a she) has known the thing we know we cannot know –

not the confinement of miners at Copiapó,
not the democracy of survival, the ad hoc after-polity
complete with leadership, medic, official biographer,
communications manager, poet and pastor,
and lifelines to a world of bright return,

but darkness meaning darkness only darkness,
and solitary only solitary,
the sentence to be served in full,
the ever-after locked, the key thrown away,
“I am not that I am not” daubed in shit above the entrance.

He turns (for now they are clear of the dark, and he may),
turns to his bride, and reaches to throw back the cowl,
and I want to cry out, I want to say no. For I have seen
the lotus unfolding in summer sun, the shimmer of light in the rose,
the making of love, the building of homes, the children in the meadows.

But the cowl falls back. And Oppenheimer returns
to the site he has code-named Trinity, the place where he must become
the destroyer of worlds. The cowl falls back, the histories rewind,
across the synapses the last of living travels,
Zyklon-B goes back into production. And she (if

this is a she), she stretches her arms to claim him as her own.

Michael Hulse is an English poet who has also translated the German of Goethe, Rilke and WG Sebald, among others. His most recent collection is The Secret History (Arc, 2009). He is a coeditor of the anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry (Ebury, 2011) and a judge of the Günter Grass Foundation’s biennial international literary award and cofounder of the Hippocrates project for poetry and medicine. His new poetry book, Half-Life, is due in September.