Outside there’s total cover like a sheet of lead –
though it’s, in fact, as turbulent as the tide
driven over sea walls by the gale,
or pouring off rain-curtained hills
to reclaim fields and towns from the control
of proud, colonising men.

Sitting naked in front of strangers,
I deconstruct the tight masonic codes
of this hapless Ulsterman,
with his description of bowler-hatted saints –
not the manifestant parachutists of Magritte,
but the elders of those apprentices of butchery
from King Billy’s deterministic band.

I look up from this distracting labour
and regard the table at my feet.
Despite its squareness and its plain design,
there’s not a straight line anywhere –
it’s obvious, without the need of rules or instruments –
all is rough and round approximation to the plan.

There are vanished histories in every mark and scar
upon the varnished faces of this otherwise
simple, solid and objective fact
which belie its unremarkable appearance
and the casual uses to which it’s put.
Little of its past can be deduced –
imagination is all that we have left.

Yet the deal of which it’s made can be identified;
the contours of the grain – phloem, xylem, all the structures
and the functions of the original may also be
named, explained, anatomised from the woody skeletons
now laid out in polished sections, as evidence
of former living cells within a tree.

We might say what kind of weather it experienced,
what accidents occurred to damage its integrity
or put limits on its growth.
But does this tell us how the forest looked,
what birds and other animals lodged there,
of its long love affair with sun and rain and soil
and the beauty they all shared?

We may even analyse the molecules of which it’s made –
the organism’s basic chemistry –
carbon, oxygen, hydrogen,
plus a few trace elements combined in ways
that are slowly being understood
in their complex cyclical cascades.

Then, when we take those particles of matter right apart,
there’s nothing left of substance but dancing energies,
a twisting of the shape of time and space –
something made of nothing that we are conscious of,
still less that we can know and comprehend
without wondering ‘What is grasping what and where,
when all is no more concrete than the air?’

Each thing we think we see is an infinity
of surfaces, connections, information, mystery,
emptinesses and dimensions – chaos
embraces every point of regularity.
How can anyone assume they’ve got it figured out
if reality is riddled with suspicion?

We can only guess how all this came about,
without inventing some creator whose totality
would be the more amazing, coming, as is said,
before existence in itself existed
and the universe was void and waiting to be formed.
It’s not so bad – we can get by, so long as we accept
our certainties are merely comfortable positions.

The class is done, I can relax,
shift my focus, cover up.
I’ve ceased to be the object of their scrutiny.
Decline to check their efforts to record,
with order, balance, harmony and faithfulness,
the phenomenon that they perceive.

These studies are not portraiture,
my character is surplus to requirements –
that suits me fine, I’m easily embarrassed anyway
but, though I tried not to project, I could not empty myself
wholly to become a model human being.
Apparently I was quite still – unnaturally for me –
it’s just as well the storm did not beat louder on the walls.

rs 12-13.6.93

[* From ‘Symbolum’ by Tom Paulin, which, in turn, was his response to a poem by Goethe with the same title about Freemasons.]