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The Temple

John Reibetanz
From:   Midland Swimmer. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 1996, pp. 58-59

In the Hans Christian Anderson tale named after her, the Snow Queen spirits little Kay away from his playmate, Gerda, and takes him north to her palace. She sets him to play with pieces of ice in one of the vast halls, promising to free him and give him the whole world and a new pair of skates if he can make the pieces spell Eternity. When Gerda comes and rescues him, the pieces of ice feel the children's joy and spontaneously form themselves into the word.

I saw eternity last night: unlike
the chipped rendition Kay must piece together,
this version flowed.
                            A drift of photographs
ran through our hands all evening as we plied
through eighty years of family history.
The albums I'd remembered from my childhood
had long been cast off, like the snow queen's sled
or the finned, sled-prowed Olds you captained then;
the photos, set loose from their trim black moorings,
swept on at random--houses, faces, porches
tumbling over each other across decades.
At eighty-two, unseaworthy, your memory
swelled the nearly soundless drift with murmured
baptisms, a lonely widower's spill of misplaced
names, lost captions, dispersions.
                                             What was steady
through quiverings of hand and voice, like bone
under the water's feathers, was Niagara,
the fringed abutment unchanged, shouldering
what looked like an unchanged burden of mist.
Through the flipped prints' glossy cataract,
the shimmer-and-disappearance of the latest
style of lapel or grille, it kept returning—
the same untiring arm hefting the same
white chiffon-skirted partner up and over
               As you kept returning,
now grey, balding and slightly bowed, now straight
and pompadoured, in secular pilgrimage
to worship, at this shrine of water and rock,
a dance that never skips a step, a voice
never out of breath: what fitter temple
for a declining man to come back to
than this, whose changelessness is ceaseless spill
and change, an unhoused force so varying
it seems to wear the oneness of substance—
streaming so quick the shutter of the eye,
missing it, freezes it to a snow queen's palace.

Your skating partner, unlike Kay's, did not
return; you feel the snow palace melting;
you've never believed the promise of new skates:
so the stone shrine you worship at is liquid—
current, never the same, pumping through
eroding watercourses.
                           All our stones
are really waterfalls, even the hard
diamond an icicle, a frozen moment
in the descent of carbon: at the core
of all our monuments, a pulse like yours.

You bowed to it at the temple of Niagara,
camera in hand, and as you bowed you caught,
in box and body, the white columns' flow.

John Reibetanz's works copyright © to the author.

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