The Historian

by Douglas Dunn

Where Shug MacFarlane burned his midnight oil
In that cramped attic room of his, upstairs
From where his granny took ten years to die,
There’s now a roadside space without a house.
An apple tree remains, a pile of rubble,
And a thud on the eye to those who know what was.

Shug, though, was masterly at ‘were’ and ‘was’
Beside his lighted lamp in the smell of its oil.
In that windowed glow, he was ‘the boy upstairs’
At his study of history, of what had to die,
Empires and dynasties, each Royal house,
All of which came to destruction and rubble.

Where I live now is similar, but has no upstairs,
Unless my attic is. But I’ve no desire to die.
Where I live might not be much of a house,
But it suits me, though I foresee it as rubble,
I, who also am master of ‘were’ and ‘was’,
Though time has passed, and I need burn no oil.

In a pool of candlelight, I sit in my summerhouse
Surrounded by my own metaphorical rubble
And think of tenses, the need of ‘were’ and ‘was’,
That roadside space, the legendary ‘upstairs’
Where a boy pored over what was doomed to die
In the books he studied in the scent of oil.

Many have lived in the fragrance and light of oil.
Many more have died for it, and many more will die.
What better cause to die for than your own house ?
I don’t possess ‘upstairs’, but I’ll go there, and sift my rubble,
Sift through my histories of ‘were’ and ‘was’
In the nervous and attic darknesses of ‘upstairs’.

It’s not that I’m afraid of climbing ‘upstairs’
Holding an oldfashioned stormlamp lighted by oil.
It’s just that I’m scared witless of ‘were’ and ‘was’,
Of ‘is’, and ‘will’ and ‘shall’, and forthcoming rubble.
I watch the oildriven traffic, and know that my house
Feels vulnerable, and I don’t want anyone to die.

It will be by light of oil when I climb ‘upstairs’,
Though it won’t be to die, but to feel my house
As whole, not rubble, not as Shug’s is, or was.