The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
Have you ever questioned your own perceptions?
If so then you will read this poem in a certain way. That is the joy of poetry for me, that three different people can say “this poem is about…” and each one be correct in their assumptions because of their life experience. Poetry is a living thing and should always be treated as such. This is why we write about a poem as if it is still living, in the present tense, using words like “this poem IS about” rather than “this poem WAS about…” If you want to get the A grade or higher, learn this one fact.
Back to the perceptions.
Our thoughts are important. They are important to our life. They shape who we are and how we act and react to different stimuli. So when something happens that shakes us to the core, we have to rethink our thoughts and perceptions about life. To me, that is what this poem is about, a “moment” in life when “after so many years,” we come to a blinding realisation that what we thought about this or that, was in fact, a lie.
If we go verse by verse, as usual, then we will see this, but take specific note about the tenses used in the poem as we do. The first line begins without tense, misleading as ever and very cleverly laid down. The word “after” denotes a possible tense that is coming, like looking back over so many years. Is this an example of future tense? I doubt it. Line three is in fact, the first example of a tense, when we see the word “stand.” This is present tense. [stood = past tense etc]
So, after a long voyage, or a lifetime of living, one comes to a realisation, standing there in your room, that what you thought was right and good is in fact a false realisation. You stand there, “in the centre of your own room” or “house,” in other words wherever you call home, thinking and “knowing at last how you got there.” This is the moment in time when you know fully how and why you are where you are. In essence, this existential knowledge comes only by experience. As you stand there you think you “own this,” moment in your life and that you alone have been in control all your life.
You feel good about it. You feel as if you have been successful in life, that your efforts have been worth it, but then, as you think this, you begin to realise just what a load of rubbish this really is. Now for a 16 year old student, who has little experience in life and has little experience in studying, this poem will be too much like hard work. One needs a few years under the belt for this one to hit home, or some really tough experiences as a child. Realising in that “moment” that life is not all it is “cracked up to be” is something that comes with time.
So, that false realisation makes us realise that the “moment” we think of is in fact “the same moment when the trees unloose their soft arms” and we begin to see something else. Is this line about death? Could this poem be taken this way, to reflect that all this is happening at death? Possibly, but as stated earlier, three different readings can give three different responses. The whole second verse seems to be leading towards the demise of the protagonist because of words like “the air moves back from you like a wave,” offering a simile and metaphor to reflect death in pure beauty. Air moves back from you, in a way, when you die.
Words like “collapse” are also indicative of death and decay. Coupled with “you can’t breathe” such words bring the reader to the point where they see that in life, whatever this person has thought has now been set in place by death, or by the very thought of it. What is then left is the thought of what is actually the truth behind the greatest adventure we face; life itself. These cliffs and waves that are mentioned “whisper” to us saying “you own nothing.” That is a very definite statement indeed, for we are only here on this earth for a short time. If the earth has been here for millions of years and we only live on average for “three score and ten,” then seventy years is nothing in comparison.
So now the reader is left with a feeling that they “own nothing,” being made to see that whatever they did in life was just their way of saying it was theirs, but what is the truth of the matter is that they [we] were “just a visitor” in this life. Everything that we hold dear will not last. Everything comes to an end. We never “found” things because things find us. That is what the poem is saying.
Notice now the use of the tense in the word “were.”
The poet says “you were a visitor.” This for me, is important because it makes us as readers think back over our life [in my case 54 years of life, marriage, children, career, joyous times, sad times etc] and see that what we think we owned was in fact given to us on loan for a brief span. We do not own the land. We do not own each other. We do not even own life itself, for it is given to us [by whoever or whatever] and we take what we can from it for the betterment of humanity.
So, as the poet suggests, we may go about “planting the flag,” making our mark in the soil of earth [or even the moon], we may proclaim that we have lived a life that has been full of things we have owned, but in the end, the message is simple; life speaks back and says “it was always the other way around.”
Does this suggest that we humans have got something wrong? If so, then what? Is it that we need to stop hating, coveting [look it up], lusting for power and that we need to be more loving towards each other? Is this poem saying that we need to be more careful with the world’s resources? We own nothing so be more careful with what we have got? Possibly so. In the end, what comes from reading this poem has to be that what we consider to be the truth, to be real, and factual and accurate is in fact, a false realisation, so we should consider our perceptions when we consider the life we live.