Presence of Absence

(After Herman Melville)

It appalls me in some dim and random way.
In nature it enhances beauty, as in pearls or gardenias.
In people, it offers power over others.
In monuments of death, it implies sympathy and light.
In brides, innocence and purity.
In the elderly, a benign benevolence.
To the old Iriquois, it meant the deep winter sacrifice of a sacred dog.
Roman Catholics see in it the Passion of our Lord.
In the vision of St. John, it meant shining robes for the redeemed.

Yet inside this color is a panic in the blood.
Remove some of the kinder associations and combine it
with a terrible object and it magnifies that terror
with a ghastly mildness and a pale dread.
To the shark, the polar bear, the squalls of the Southern ocean
it adds a supernatural and a nameless terror.

The tall pale man of the Eastern European forests
gives the wanderer as much inner darkness as the milk foamed sea
gives the sailor. A young colt in a sleepy Vermont valley
will stamp and snort at a shaken bear skin. Though the colt has
no memories of past violence, it carries an instinctive,
an inherent knowledge of the demonism of the world.

Mystic signs carry these ancestral hints, so to me they must
exist somewhere. Is there a dumb blankness of annihilation
in the distant stars? Or a colorless atheism from which we shrink?
Nature paints the world in a sexual riot of color.
While the paintbrush is colorless, look at its source
long enough and you will receive a blindness that removes
both the world’s beauty and the terror of seeing it.

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