By Allen Curnow
Holy Week already and the moon
still gibbous, cutting it fine
for the full before Jesus rises,
and imaginably gold
and swollen in the humid heaven.
First, second and last quarters
dated and done with now,
the moon pulls a face, a profane
gold gibbous and loose on the night.
Hot cross buns were never like this.
the paschal configurations
and prefigurations could never have
nailed the moon down
to the bloody triangle on the hill.
By the spillage of light the sea told
the cliff precisely where to mark
the smallest hour when I woke
and went out to piss
thankfully, and thought of Descartes,
most thoughtful and doubtful pisser,
who between that humid light
and dark of his mind discerned
nothing but his thoughts
e. & o.e. as credible, and himself
because he had thought them, his body
had a soul, his soul had a body
an altogether different matter,
and that made two of him
very singularly plural, ergo
sum couldn’t be sumus. He thought
deeply and came up with a solution
of blood in spirit, holy adhesive,
God, singular sum
best bond for body and soul.
And the height of the night being humid,
thoickedned with autumn starlight
to the needed density and the sea
grumbling in the west,
something visceral took shape of an idea,
a numen, a psych, a soul,
a self, a cogitation squirmed
squirmed, somebody standing there
broke wind like a man
whose mind was on other things.
His back to me and black
against the gibbous gold
of the godless moon, still blinking
the liturgical full,
something stuck its ground like a man
in a posture of pissing out of doors,
thankfully by moonlight, thinking
of pissing, experiencing the pleasure
and the pleasure of thinking
of pissing, hearing also the sea’s
habitual grumble. Descartes?
I queried, knowing perfectly well it was.
And he to me, Your Karekare doppelgänger
travesties me no worse
than the bodily tissue I sloughed in Stockholm–
no wonder I caught my death
teaching snow queen Christine,
surely as her midnights outglittered
my sharpest certainties
an icicle must pierce my lungs
(at five one midwinter morning,
the hour she appointed for philosophy
by frozen sea, freezing porches)
and my zeroed extension
wait there for the awful joyful thaw.
There’s the customary stone I’m sure,
with customary lie incised,
the truth being I exist here thinking,
this mild March night.
As for the thought, you’re welcome.
No less true it was I, meaning me,
not he that was physically present
pissing, and metaphysically
minding the sepulchre
not to be opened till after the full moon.
Cogito. I borrowed his knife
to cut my throat and thoughtfully
saw the blood soaking the singular
gold humid night.
Ergo sum. Having relieved myself
of that small matter on my mind,
I leaned lighter on my pillow
for a gibbous moon, a philosopher’s
finger on his cock,
and a comfortable grumble of the sea.
(From: Allen Curnow (1979) An Incorrigible Music: A sequence of poems. Auckland University Press.)
This poem is the place I first encountered the word ‘gibbous’. It comes up so often in the poem I had to go look it up.
Rereading the poem now, I notice that there’s an Easter element to it that I had completely blanked out. My interest in it has always been in the reference to Descartes and the Cartesian thesis that we are essentially thinking beings and that we know the mind with more certainty than we know the body. The poem is a little childish really. It’s easy to ridicule someone by picturing them going to the toilet. It could be a form of ad hominem, perhaps, suggesting that if Descartes had been elderly and more taken up with the physical necessities of going to the toilet, he might have not have postulated a fundamental and unbridgeable gulf between the mental and the physical sides of a person.
It is completely question-begging, of course. If Descartes is right, and we are disembodied minds, it would be entirely possible for the mind to undergo a series of experiences exactly as if of getting up in the middle of the night to go outside and piss, so the fact that Curnow experiences that does nothing to show the metaphysical picture developed by Descartes is false. But I can’t help agreeing with Curnow that, psychologically speaking, he probably wouldn’t have had the thoughts he had, if his body had been more unreliable. Women have messy bodies. Could a woman have given us the Cartesian meditations? (Of course, the idea is pretty improbable to begin with. The chances of anyone coming up with it is pretty hard to define but surely vanishingly small. So it probably doesn’t make it substantially less likely to have come from a woman).