Poem by William Wadsworth
The Authority of Elsewhere
For Agha Shahid Ali
Smiling unconsciously under the Northern Lights,
the authority of elsewhere
sleeps in my bed.
I shamble in with my entire entourage appetites
demanding to be fed,
but her authority lies unconscious in my bed.
I want the particulars of her appearance.
I beat my claws on the empty air
because I want to live in her lively head,
I want my incoherent prayer
to awaken her coherence.
The atmosphere is turning red
but she continues sleeping in my bed.
Wherever I go, she goes
one step ahead into foreign languages
I have never understood.
She is Asia. She languishes
in some further wood
where no one knows
the meaning of what is said.
Her eyes are closed. She’s in my bed.
Shall I take a photograph
to prove that she existed here,
that my bed was warm enough for her,
that the possibility of happiness
is never exhausted so long
as I can see it? That there is no abyss
between the astronomer and the star,
nor any universal grief
that whispers we are far, far
from what it is we want in life?
But the photograph is wrong –
She illustrates a law
that postulates the heart:
if the heart grows a body, the body grows a paw,
the paw begins to think what part
it wants to play. Whatever it might reach,
whatever we touch,
whatever is stolen, constructed, caressed, or bought
is the fateful destination of the heart.
So any thoughts that circle in my head
are only photographs pretending to be art –
the authority of elsewhere posing in my bed.
A woman in the marketplace
in Oaxaca is picturesque.
The history of sunlight has imprinted on her face
the stark topography of a mask.
I took her picture but I’m not there:
I stare into her eyes which are placed upon my desk
and I think her life continues, or has ended, elsewhere.
Thus Mexico and Africa and Asia rise into the mist
as pyramids and history and hieroglyphs which we at best
under northern lights are qualified to dream about.
In a dream I wander out
beyond these premises to prove
that extravagant darkness is what I love.
I am searching for the ground.
I am told there is a fabulous beast
which certain populations east
of here consider sacred,
or so they say or so I’ve read,
or so, according to some authority, is not an unfounded
fact. The authority of elsewhere sleeps in my bed,
she is undercover, she is naked,
she leaves every word unsaid.
William Wadsworth’s poems and essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Tin House, and the Boston Review, among other magazines, as well as in several anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 1994, edited by A.R. Ammons and David Lehman, The Best American Erotic Poems, edited by David Lehman, and the Library of America Anthology of American Religious Poems, edited by Harold Bloom. From 1989 to 2001 he was executive director of the Academy of American Poets. He now teaches poetry at Columbia University, where has been director of the Creative Writing Program since 2008.