Frei (2006)

The sub-urban crawl
Of a metal tube
Through the under-city dusk
Trips to a halt.
The voice on the intercom tells us it is so,
But will not answer why.
So we whisper “suicide”, to ourselves,
For eye contact is responsibility
Underground.
We massed begin to stamp and huff;
Cattle spooked and timbers creaking:
A hot lightning in a waiting air.

“Get these people moving!”
Comes someone’s voice
To someone else.
“The eyes on the ads will follow them
Until they, breaking, see
And tear them from the tunnel sides,
Find beneath a dirty wall
And a promise broken.”

The voice is right.
Panic would rise in our throats,
With memory of open spaces.
A hope and a rage,
To escape the news, and the world for sale.
Out from between the headphones,
Out into conversation,
And the brighter air.
Room to believe
That life was not always thus,
An underground pursuit.

And in that beating moment,
In the chop and spray of breakdown
Comes clarity, for a moment
And a remembrance of things past.
That they dragged us from the womb
And put a pickaxe in our hands.
That they gave us coveralls for swaddling clothes,
Steel toes for a cradle bed,
And that “don’t you know we’re at war?”
Was the only lullaby we heard.

The war was for bread, they told us,
But we ate and we ate and we ate,
And still our spines poked through our shirts,
And we would count our ribs
And dream we would wake one morning
With one less,
And a help-mate in its stead.
To share this double yoke,
And maybe fill these silent, empty houses
As they stand
Soundless and sparkling,
scrubbed and salient
And sterile as the damned.

Barren as the godly were clean.
For so they said, and told us
That toil was righteousness;
That virtue meant to be always running;
That weariness was a crown to be worn;
That fear was the healthiest state,
And that work would make us free.

They took us by the arm
And led us to the men who slept in doorways,
And the women who sold their flesh,
The shaking and the insolvent,
And called it judgment for stillness.

They rewrote our history while we were at work.
As we grew old in the mills,
And walked home bent under sacks of gold,
To cemetery houses,
To dream of the mountains and the woods
They promised they would take us to
On the vacations that never came.
But our only respite ever was
When we forgot ourselves.

So to steal sleep from terror,
We ran until our feet bled.
And bent over tiny labours
Till, with calluses for fingerprints
We could steal with impunity.

Then came again the subway voice:
“A woman here to man the furnace,
A man to grind the plowshare!
Leave your children to our keeping
Their ways no longer concern.
Your substitute is on her way;
We need every body on the line
In case, in case, in case.
The factories must not be ceased
The sky must yet be covered,
For we fear the dark of night,
And we are better educated than you.

So get your heads down, Because
The middle airs are full of steel,
And the sun has turned against you.
Take your music intravenously
And be sure your clothing won’t impede
Take your meals in bags and quickly,
And hold not your families dear.
Because when that whistle goes
Those who weren’t quick
Will be those who are dead.”

Thus we were each made blind and fools of,
And learned to spend our days
In a shark-life, free of silence.
That we might not be caught unready
When the end was named.

And how could we disbelieve?
When everywhere the mad and dying were thick as flies.
But we never could keep ourselves alive.

And finally it was
That though we could not see it,
Underground,
The blank orange night was rolled away
And the unnamed stars fell like apples.
The maker returned to the made
With fire and with word.

He sent bare hands from heaven,
To we the unbeknownst,
And with shaking fingers,
He tore us from the jaws of the earth.

He shucked us like peas from our efficiency,
And from our broken shackle-selves
We watched him set about his work again,
With terror in our breast
That was sweeter than happiness.

We saw the horizon stretch back, unknowable,
Under a crystalline night.
We saw the woods deepened
And the mountains surge.
We saw the rivers bled clean,
And the cities made to shine.
The life in every thing returned,
And the first things remembered.

He came to us under heaven,
To ease our fingers from the trigger.
To wipe the sweat from our brows,
To make us sit on the grass again,
While he took our feet in his lap
To wash away the blood and cancer,
And to bind away the years.

When for the last time they raised
The sword in the wilderness
It was not against the frail and wailing we
But against the red right hand
The swiftest parry shattered it
And from the shards,
Ringing on his anvil-knee
Our thrice-forged lord
Wrought a ploughshare for me
And set me loose among the furrows.

He took our wrappings, tight and garish,
All the heavy, cutting things.
The clothes we wore to steal at night,
The chains from off our necks
And all the ways we sold ourselves
“I would have bought you naked.”
He spoke, and burnt away our shame
Until it was forgotten.

When we had each escaped the tunnel,
When we were fresh beneath the sky,
Our wrists and ankles unencumbered
His voice came again.
“You were not born to labour
But you were born to craft.
I have work to fit your hands to
According to your purpose,
And the desires of your heart.
For they were never two things.
So tie your hair back,
Bare your arms.
Bend your mind to where it rests
And with the tools I made your hands to grip
Work as I have made you free.
For when I forged the world
And when I wrote your being
It was that you might enjoy it.”


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