As they conquered the summit of a living face
They knew it was preordained,
An answered prayer: too good to be by chance.
So much was here – for meat and warmth –
A promised land, with just enough (in
Tribulation) to make you doubt the
Godhead, so to test one’s mettle and one’s faith.
Above you shone the sky, and wheeling light.
Beneath, the quantifiable
Resonance of stones and joints –
Like a big, dark, heavy bell –
Subversion, primal and profane.

Regrets were bad. They made you feel
Your skull had been cleaved by an axe.
We’d all glimpsed Hell; a season there was a
Commonplace, and mortal life was short enough.
One might be plucked down, or tumble from a
Precipice (without justice, without reason, purpose)
From this seeming Empyrium of voluptuary, marbled
Skin, and blood that was yours to take by right.

And yet, there was no value to a life that had not been
Confessed, reclaimed. Yes, there were teeming voices
No better than your own; lost souls no more redeemed
Than yours: not bad, but choked with the grubby moral
Grey of muddling self-interest. Not bad, no; but it was
Feckless to count on them: on faces that toiled so close to
Stones that they were stone themselves. There was no glamour
In them: no prospect of renewal: no chance to spin careers, in
Silk, for those who really, barely were alive. Nothing to leave
You gasping in hope, or dizzy with revelation
Like a child. Oh no. Instead

They’d leave you spitting a lifetime’s
Disappointment, stuttering through that metal
Clench of rigid, mortified jaws.
The sky, the sky.
Without it, there was
No tapestry to life, no texture, even:
Only unleavened monochrome, causing us to
Seek solicitude, not solitude. Not daring to
Take dread in both hands, and make it
Fight on our side; make it force the boulder
For us, one more time, like a great, angry spring.
Instead we’d seek a more enduring magic.
Bemused by temporal love (and what had seemed a
Timeless moment, so hard won, yet simply a bruise
On the passage of our mortality): instead, we’d dote
In our dotage, spoon-fed without the need to speak,
Blameless: because (untouched, unsullied, uncurled
From our larval ball of endless childhood) we had done
Nothing, tried nothing, gained and lost nothing.

For, how could a louse know?
It is through death (of one kind or another) that we grow;
The noble rot of follies, of our best and brightest intuitions,
In soft dull air – in the sort of hour when nondescript and
Unrecorded creatures die their quiet deaths –
Laying a bloodied trail to grave, ineffable loneliness.

Stephen Jackson

May 2006

An afterword:

Sisyphus concludes that all is well. Each atom of his stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus


Stephen Jackson

London, United Kingdom

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

I thought to myself, “If headlice believed in a God: how would they envision it, describe it?” I took human affairs – above all, the great pioneering explorers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras – as my model.

Artwork Comments

  • Suzanne German
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