One Hundred and Five Candles

for Mary Fitzgerald Unthank nee Hurley
8 November 1905 - 16 September 2010


They say the first one is invis­i­ble,
 you only feel its heat. It’s shin­ing
 some­where out in space — or is it
 the womb — where love is a can­dle
 in the dark, cre­ated by a spark of
 some­thing felt though never seen.
 The next one, then, is num­ber two
 but we’ll call it one so that you can
 light it again, a red can­dle per­haps
 or a candy-twist pink. By this time

 you grasp & grab at con­scious­ness,
 at these appari­tions that re-appear,
 reg­u­larly, and each time in greater
 num­bers: three, four, five candles. 
 The sym­me­try of six demands your
 grudg­ing respect, which is fur­ther
 whet by num­ber seven, or heaven.
 Nine revolv­ing bod­ies in a child’s
 plan­e­tar­ium, then the ten’s maudlin
 return to its begin­ning: a one & a
 
 zero, together, on the same cake.
 Com­pared to this, eleven’s a breeze.
 By now, you’ve grasped the basic
 terms of the deal: some­one lights
 the can­dles, then you just sit back,
 pre­tend­ing to count stars. Twelve
 can­dles brings you a dozen roses
 which you’re too young to blow out.
 From thir­teen onwards it’s all a blur.
 The teenage can­dles, a sound­track
 
 fea­tur­ing a style of music no one
 over the age of eigh­teen even hears.
 Nineteen’s similar to the invis­i­ble
 one we touched on at the start, only
 warmer, and full of beer. Twenty
 brings us back to ten, which is to say
 the decade, ready-made. By this stage
 you view the whole can­dle thing with
 unaf­fected dis­dain, although you still
 pro­tect your own like a bird its brood
 
 every time what you know will come
 comes around. To move on to candles 
 in their thir­ties is to doc­u­ment a series
 of increas­ingly intel­li­gent — no, bril­liant
 cru­sades against the light­ing of those
 can­dles which are yet to come. When
 you think of light­ing forty can­dles, by
 your­self, in a dark room alone, a weird
 kind of uneasi­ness comes over you.
 Thence­forth, every year for at least a
 
 decade, you light those can­dles with
 the minia­ture flame thrower some­one
 once gave you as a present. For the
 bar­be­cue, you remem­ber. The can­dles,
 dipped in kerosene, sing in delight as
 you make your big light-sabre sweep.
 From sixty onwards you expe­ri­ence
 what it’s like to be caught inside some
 cheer­ful wax­work mon­tage, sixty two
 and three, espe­cially, arous­ing your
 
 long-forgotten enthu­si­asm for years
 spent set­ting stuff on fire. Seventies?
 Don’t speak of the sev­en­ties can­dles, you
 don’t want to hear. The late sev­en­ties,
 though — there’s a film, right there, in
 sev­enty eight or sev­enty nine candles. 
 The golden glow of eighty can­dles, set
 on fire, burn­ing right through the night.
 The triple zero birth­day cake, a dou­ble
 one next to another big zero. You alone
 
 get it: the invis­i­ble can­dle, stage left,
 wear­ing a hat that’s com­pletely green. 
 The six­ties mon­tage reap­pears right at
 the end of the eighty-ninth, spoil­ing an
 oth­er­wise flaw­less run of candle-lighting
 cer­e­monies that some­one should have
 filmed, had the means to do so existed
 at the time. Ninety and ninety one, to
 their credit, pro­ceed with­out a hitch. 
 Then you hit ninety two & you notice
 
 that some­one else lights the ghastly
 things now, and you don’t even mind,
 par­tic­u­larly. You review the wis­dom of
 this while sit­ting com­fort­ably on ninety
 seven, & the ninety eighth doesn’t hurt
 a bit. You occupy your ninety ninth like
 a remote eagle its eyrie, watching over 
 the abstract world two miles below you.
 When you hit the big igni­tion switch that 
 will set in motion a slow-combustion of
 
 one hundred mile-high candles you’re
 already in heaven. The immen­sity of that 
 agri­cul­tural slog over mid-on seems so
 easy that you’re light­ing the next one as 
 we speak, dis­patching the following three 
 with ease, spank­ing a radi­ant thrill of love
 into each of those one hun­dred & four
 can­dles, etch­ing their flames into space
 & then set­tling again on your still-warm
 eyrie, to sur­vey an earth par­secs below.
 
 The can­dles, clearly, will not be denied
 their even­tual vic­tory for much longer.
 You, for your part, feel no fear. Softly,
 all in one moment, you realise some­one
 has blown the hun­dred & fifth one out.
 
 

16 September 2010
DEN HAAG

(revised 11 February 2011
KARLSKRONA)

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