The Mouse Sets Out on His Journey
Up the tunnel the round faint glimmer
of home grew smaller and dimmer—
like a moon backing out of the sky,
no one watching on earth knew why,
receding from night so sadly—
as if someone had treated her badly.
My family was there on the shore,
but visible now no more
as the dark closed in all around,
the dark into which I was bound.
And even that glimmer would go
when the current's relentless flow
had carried me down to the bend.
Was there light at the other end?
But O, how it now seemed so far,
where sunlight and moonlight are
—or are they? (I suddenly thought)
and here I am, helplessly caught
in a stream going nowhere at all. . . .
Did I hear my mother call?
They were there—still were—in the gloom
—or were they? You had to assume—
assume that the things about you
went right on existing without you
in a world that would still continue,
though vanished without and within you
as you wandered far and wide
in an envelope lost on the tide,
attempting to picture your past. . . .
And then it eludes you at last,
and you feel so hopeless without it
you begin in despair to doubt it
and speculate long and darkly
on theories deriving from Berkeley.
(Worse yet: when you don't know that name,
you can have those thoughts just the same.)
But you have to believe that it sleeps
in its own and your dark deeps,
in the depths of your gurgling brain
like a family of mice in a drain,
and accept this sleeping reality
in its non-existent finality—
a conception no mind can avoid
according to someone named Freud.
You had to accept the dregs
of coffee, the rotten eggs,
the spinach, the peas, and the beans,
and the other assorted greens,
and the morsels of tainted meat
swept down from an unknown street . . .
O those jovial family meals,
those delicious orange peels
that we sometimes had for dessert. . . .
When I lay somewhere bleeding and hurt,
who would come to staunch my bleeding?
And what would I do about feeding,
now I was drifting into
a world that I'd never been to?
O those wonderful orange peelings!
And I cursed my delicate feelings
that had driven me into that gloom
that would doubtless turn into my tomb—
or my crypt—I was wondering which,
when my haunch had a furious itch:
a flea—and I wiggled to scratch it
and darted a paw to catch it
before it could hide in my coat—
but I nearly upset the boat.
While musing so sadly and direly,
I'd forgotten my vessel entirely;
and that magical Heaven-sent gift
in which I'd determined to drift
courageously and alone
down into that dark unknown
had almost ceased to buoy me
because a flea could annoy me.
The thought made me shiver and sweat:
how easy it was to forget.
If it hadn't been for my tail,
that flea would have ended my sail;
but thanks to that organ's agility
and the envelope's flexibility,
I'd kept on an even keel:
its delicate sense of feel
extending deep in the stern
detected the slightest turn,
the minutest sway or dip
of my fragile and papery ship;
and while I was unaware
of all but that flea in my hair
till I found the whole vessel tipping,
my tail was tenaciously gripping
and counteracted the list
with a deft and powerful twist
in the opposite direction
which righted my craft to perfection.
I not only steadied the hull with it:
I even found I could scull with it.
O tail, O tail,
thou fulcrum and thou lever;
thou rudder and thou oar;
thou hinge upon the door
of my great squeaking endeavor,
which opens, as I hope,
into a bright beyond;
thou secret bond
between this envelope
and him who rides it;
thou means by which he guides it
thou thing devoid of hairs;
thou secret sense
subtler and more intense
than all intelligence;
guide me to what I seek!
Who said that the flesh was weak?
that flesh was of no avail,
that flesh was doomed to fail?
He couldn't have had a tail.
The Mouse Whole: An Epic, Negative Capability
1996. Reprinted by permission of the author.