Background and thought behind the poem:
The key to the meaning of this poem is in the title. It is essentially a meditative hypothetical poem that questions what it is to be alive – in particular, from the viewpoint of a poet in the midst of an existential crisis. The romantic imaginings of the poet reference slices of motifs from his favourite literature, e.g. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Billy Budd, Pilgrim’s Progress, Leaves of Grass, The Inferno etc. The poet’s life in death reflects the art to which he has devoted his life and by which he has been guided. The existential poet’s concluding stanza reveals the hopelessness of art and the futility of mortal existence, as he realizes that ‘life’ is nothing more than an experience to be lived. Nothing more, nothing less. The poem is written self-consciously and with the reader in mind – the verse intends to leave the astute reader with as many questions as impressions. Make of it what you will.
The poem was originally titled 'To Traverse This Time'
Am I awake or in a dream?
Wandering in hopeless night
a huge hole in the black peat
of some lonely mist-bitten moor
I fall into its depths to land
on a hard slab of worm-ridden Norwegian wood.
Through a crack in the lid I see
a million gleaming skulls – between
there and now I recognize . . .
a cracked cranium, a gold filling
a glass eye, a captain’s cap
all in various stages of decay.
Now, standing on the lip of the mouth
I ask myself, Am I a memory
an ancient form, a word, a clown
a fool, a reptile, or an embryo . . ?
I begin to walk away, to wander more
to search for signs, a light in dark
blood on the stones, evidence
of my life in all life . . . something.
Am I an infant, a bird, an energy
an aardvark, a cracking bone, a stretch of skin . . ?
I reach the point, the line, where worlds
become one – where one ceases to exist
as they have before, but yet as they always have . . .
Am I a moment in time and place, a feeling
of pain or joy, a breath, a reflection,
a youth, an aged dying being, someone
aware of their limits and capacities . . ?
I go beyond that place to the land of ghosts
and Prophets; to nature’s time, to the unknown
but the imagined, to the stars and the core
of the earth, to my heart and to a line that is
not to be traversed, but traced . . .
Am I a dream, an old being, a state of mind
a veil of blood floating on a mirrored lake . . ?
When I get there I have many questions
that will remain forever unanswered,
yet glimpses will avail themselves, only
to be discovered on another plane;
another sphere of experience, far from finite . . .
Am I a sick thing, a dead one, a chain-link
a tree, a grain of sand, a construction of chaos
a dissolution of matter . . ?
I am here now. I have gone and returned.
I have ceased to breathe, in order to live . . .
Here I truly am alive, in death and dreams
unburdened of the physical realm,
now just another fading memory.