This poem has Clarke grappling with one the central themes of his later writing: aging. The struggle against racism and seemingly relentless procession of police violence and white indifference are all recast here as an exhausting burden for an aging man to contend with. The poet longs for a future in which he might slip into the night unremarked upon and merely walk the “criminal night” with nothing more than a “literary thought on my arm.” This poem is undated but, based on the letterhead and format of the original, is likely from the early 1980s.
Let me be able to stand up, old,
When I’m past standing up
In youth: when age has bent
Me rusty, a hairpin superfluous
As neglect; when bed and toilet
Sleeping and waking, fade
Into one long television afternoon
Of snowflakes and of screams;
When I can walk the streets
With a simple stick for walking,
Not for knocking necessary heads,
When I can put the pen down, late
In the criminal night, and walk
With a literary thought on my arm,
And have no taxis stop, nor cop cars
Pause to see who the hell is out
So black, so late in this mumbling walk
With a woman in his thought
Walking arm on mind, with me
In the early fornicating hours
Of broken husbands and homeward lovers
Loveless, as four-legged garbagemen
Their heads downward in a sniffing prayer.
Let me be able to pause, if need be,
On the weight of my years, aimless
On a shiny washed and recent side street
Without one bead of anticipated fear
For the assaulting bouqyuet of a cop;
Without the needless need to hurry
Anywhere, when all my age demands
Is a short pause on its heavy stick.
Austin Clarke (1934-2016) was a Barbadian-born Canadian novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, and broadcaster.