Unwelcome Visitor

‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.’ — Richard Burton

This autumn afternoon the squirrel raids my walnut tree
as he or his relation is inclined to do each year.
The flowers in pots, held up by sticks, are flustered in a breeze
which shakes an aspirant, top-heavy laurel on the bank
but barely stirs the branches of the overhanging oak.
September quiet in the garden. None of this is new.

I’m warding off, again, an inner voice that says how few
have been the sure successes of the time allowed to me,
how little will remain of all the words I wrote and spoke.
A lucky man, with nothing to complain about or fear,
who has the random dealer of his hand of cards to thank,
surveys the roads not taken, and regrets the waste he sees.

I know this enemy within: a cerebral disease,
a cancer of the temperament which hatched in me and grew.
The voice returns: ‘Your past discounted, and your future blank.
What kind of brilliant career did you think life would be?
Embrace its present joys and comforts now that death draws near:
a few more cricket seasons till your limbs go up in smoke.

You sleepwalked through the passing years and then, too late, you woke.
Now you’re alert, resist this mawkish introspection, please.
You’re one of countless billions who briefly settled here,
did little harm, left nothing much behind them, and withdrew.
So, better late than never, face that fact unflinchingly.
Remember Arnold’s “better men”, who “hotly charged — and sank”?

Take my advice: no charging. And forgive me if I’m frank:
oblivion for all of us is nature’s masterstroke.
Your span of years is ending at the earth’s emergency,
and you can make a useful contribution here, to ease
the overcrowding on this ship of fools by your adieu:
a modest wave, a word of thanks, and — puff! — you disappear.’

The voice is silent. Why it comes to hurt me isn’t clear.
If earth’s a ship of fools, don’t pick on me to walk the plank!
I have the gravest doubts about the officers and crew
but mostly I enjoy the trip as much as other folk.
I can quote Arnold too, although in paraphrase: ‘who sees
life steadily and sees it whole’ is fortunate, and free.

Meanwhile, the robbery. I stand to get a better view.
The squirrel, startled, turns and flees behind the water tank.
He leaves me with the better cheer that writing can provoke.