Alexander Best: “The Soul in darkness”: 12 poems

Sherbourne Street vacant lot 1Sherbourne Street vacant lot 2Vacant lot, Sherbourne Street vacant lot 3

Alexander Best

“The Soul in darkness”


He’s destroyed his health — that much is plain.

A cough that never really leaves,

those hollows under his eyes.

Oh, it wasn’t any one thing he did…

but it all adds up.


Many of his habits were simple.

Taking his tea and a smoke by the window

while the sun rose, after a night of prowling.

He’d bring coffee to homeless guys with

winning, tooth-fractured smiles.

He’d talk to cats in the laneways;  crouched down,

scratched them under their chins.

When money was scarce, still he managed

to buy drinks for charming strangers whose charm vanished

once they asked if he could lend them sixty bucks…


It was no one thing, true,

yet it all added up.

Life diminished him,

no matter what.

.     .     .

Each day brought some small joy or other.

What people called boredom

he called freedom to roam.

He listened to the water rush along the gutter toward the grate

— it was full of energy and romance.

At night when it rained,

he heard the wet wheels of traffic going this way or that

while he lay in his bed.

The city-hall tower was many blocks away,

but once in a while he heard the bell striking the hour,

and it pleased him.

He thought to himself:

this must be what it’s like to live forever.

.     .     .

They started out as friends.

Nearly always, it was good times.

Each trusted him whom he didn’t know.

By the end, they’d hurt one another a lot.

Accidental hurts? It was hard to tell

— but they hit their mark.

By the time it was really over, they’d become strangers

of the type that make up the faceless throng.

.     .     .

The number of times I’ve looked on people with desire.

Turning a corner. In a streetcar, an elevator.

At the cinema, courthouse.

In a glance, I’ve given myself to hundreds, and

I’ve taken thousands.

.     .     .

A beggar asked for change. I rummaged in my pockets.

He took a good look at me, in my old wool greatcoat;

declared:  A blank cheque’ll do.

I smiled, gave him a two-dollar coin.

Noisily my awful boots squish-squished as I

strode up the street.

We both chuckled.

.     .     .

Nothing is clear to me.

Even the cloudless sky.

Every wall is a mirror.

So many years have passed that

some things are easier — time is thoughtful.

But nothing is clear.

.     .     .

The thought of living without him was unbearable.

And yet, that’s just what they’d been doing, for years.

Out of solitude came a knowledge he felt with his whole body:

their love was for all time.

Everywhere he went, he walked with a light step.

.     .     .

I waited.  On the bench

by the massive oak tree.

Noone came.

I stayed too long,

my feet were like lead going home.

But memory calls.

I must go back.

.     .     .

The one dearest to him was ill.

Said his head throbbed, like it was his heart

— a loud beating,

outside his body.

He knew what that was like.

.     .     .

He went out on a limb — the old oak tree.

He sighed. Looked at the rope held coiled in his hand.

A nighthawk squawked.

That’s the wisdom I needed, he whispered aloud.

He lowered himself to the ground, with care

— didn’t want to sprain an ankle.

.     .     .

In the darkness of his room,

one after another, he strikes wooden matches,

leans each one against the inside of a small copper pot.

They spark, then swell to a crisp.  And he says to himself:

Lovely they are, their whole life long.

.     .     .

Meal done, now’s the hour;  some light in the sky still,

and man-made glows begin to warm each room.


spirit’s gone to my belly

— words don’t come…and that’s that.


Poem, shall we lie down, you and I?

And write ourselves tomorrow?

.     .     .

The poet in 2008

The poet in 2008

Editor’s note:

I wrote these poems in 2003 during the years when I went from one temporary job to the next, and was numb from emotional distress in my personal life.  I seemed only to “camp” wherever I was living;  I moved nine times between 1999 to 2010.   Putting furniture out on the street, I would find what I needed for my next room on another curb.  Everyone has crises in his or her life and we respond variously – with adequate action or with the inertia and blah mechanisms of Depression.  I believe that this sequence of poems reflects – in its pensive, wistful, and “world-weary” tone – the influence of Constantine Cavafy (Konstantin Kavafis) whose poems in translation I was discovering at the time.  These poems wrote themselves;  my pen moved across the page of its own accord. The gift of composing Poetry has meant my survival;  I am most grateful for that.

.     .     .     .     .