The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Eleanor Wilner
I have no personal memory when I'm writing. It gets assimilated into the dreamtime of our culture—the air we breathe, the images we all share.
Eleanor Wilner lives, writes, and teaches from her
post among the first rank of American poets, from which she continues, as in
her youth, to engage the public issues of our time in her poetry. As indicated by the quote above, she eschews the confessional in her work, preferring to pursue her lifelong devotion to progressive causes, mythology, and the larger community we all share. Among her honors are fellowships from the
MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Juniper
Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes. In
addition to her seven collections of poems, including her most recent, Tourist in Hell (U. of Chicago,
fall 2010), she has published a verse translation
of Euripides's Medea (Penn Greek Series,
1998) and a book on visionary imagination, Gathering the Winds (Johns Hopkins Press, 1975). Her work has appeared in over forty
anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1990 and The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Fourth Edition). She has
taught at many colleges and universities, including the University of
Chicago, Smith College, and Northwestern University, and currently teaches in
the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She
lives in Philadelphia.
In this issue of Innisfree, Eleanor shares nineteen poems from her seven collections; moreover, she gives us an introduction in which she discusses her reasons for making these selections. First, a few links:
From that same issue, a penetrating review of Eleanor's new book, Tourist in Hell, by David Rigsbee:
Christine Casson's illuminating article on Eleanor, which appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Ploughshares:
The Academy of American Poets' page on Eleanor:
Eleanor Wilner introduces her poems in this issue of Innisfree:
We write the poems we need to read, somehow create what we had been trying to see—through a kind of otherness, a self-forgetfulness that imagination enables. So when Greg McBride kindly invited me to do a little retrospective collection for Innisfree, I was in a quandary, as the urgency that brought the poem into being was gone, and (peace to you, brother William) I have never been one to find "emotion recollected in tranquility" very potent stuff. Given that the poem had cooled the need that fueled it, how to relate to it years later? So I decided to simply choose the poems that surprised me the most at the time of writing them. This is a sorting technique that dramatizes the fact that not knowing what a poem will become is a requirement for writing one. And this isn't surprise for its own sake, but for the emergence into view of something: at first a distant sail, but when it nears—something utterly unexpected, and eloquent with meaning in what it becomes. Not knowing what's coming, what the poem would unveil, starting only with an image, and then watching to see what happens, as if the page were a space—somehow attention and expression become simultaneous, in a way I can describe but not explain. So here are some poems that particularly caught me off guard by where they went; they are in the order of the seven books in which they appear, from the 1970s to the present.
Maya (University of Massachusetts Press, 1979): "Landing," "Epitaph"
Shekhinah (The University of Chicago Press, 1984): "Without Regret," "Labyrinth"
Sarah's Choice (The University of Chicago Press, 1989): "Sarah's Choice," "Classical Proportions of the Heart"
Otherwise (The University of Chicago Press, 1993): "Being as I was," "Bat Cave," "The Bird in the Laurel's Song"
Reversing the Spell; New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998): "Dinner Party," "On Ethnic Definitions," "Of A Sun She Can Remember"
The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004): "Moon Gathering," "The Apple Was a Northern Invention," "The Girl with Bees in Her Hair," "Be Careful What You Remember "
Tourist in Hell (The University of Chicago Press, 2010): "Magnificat," "The Show Must Go On," "Like I Really Like That"
It was a pure white cloud that hung there
in the blue, or a jellyfish on a waveless
sea, suspended high above us.
It seemed so effortless in its suspense,
perfectly out of time and out of place
like the ghost of moon in the sky
of a brilliant afternoon.
After a while it seemed to grow, and we
inferred that it was moving, drifting down—
though it seemed weightless, motionless,
one of those things that defy
the usual forces—gravity, and wind
and the almost imperceptible
pressure of the years. But it was coming
The blur of its outline slowly cleared:
it was scalloped at the lower edge, like a shell
or a child's drawing of a flower, detached
and floating, beauty simplified. That's when
we saw it had a man attached, suspended
from the center of the flower, a kind of human
stamen or a stem. We thought it was
a god, or heavenly seed, sent
to germinate the earth
with a gentler, nobler breed. It might be
someone with sunlit eyes and a mind of dawn.
We thought of falling to our knees.
So you can guess
the way we might have felt
when it landed in our field
with the hard thud of solid flesh
and the terrible flutter of the collapsing
lung of silk. He smelled of old sweat,
his uniform was torn, and he was tangled
in the ropes, hopelessly harnessed
to the white mirage that brought him down.
He had a wound in his chest, a red
flower that took its color from his heart.
We buried him that very day, just as he came
to us, in a uniform of soft brown
with an eagle embroidered on the sleeve,
its body made of careful gray stitches,
its eye a knot of gold. The motto
underneath had almost worn away.
Afterwards, for days, we saw
the huge white shape of silk shifting
in the weeds, like a pale moon
when the wind filled it, stranded,
searching in the aimless way
of unmoored things
for whatever human ballast gave
direction to their endless drift.
Though only a girl,
the first born of the Pharoah,
I was the first to die.
we were bored already,
rouged pink as oleanders
on the palace grounds, petted
by the eunuchs, overfed
from gem‑encrusted bowls, barren
with wealth, until the hours of the afternoon
seemed to outlast even
my grandmother's mummy, a perfect
little dried apricot
in a golden skin. We would paint
to pass the time, with delicate
brushes dipped in char
on clay, or on our own blank lids.
So it was that day we found him
wailing in the reeds, he seemed
a miracle to us, plucked
from the lotus by the ibis' beak,
the squalling seed of the sacred
Nile. He was permitted
as a toy; while I pretended play
I honed him like a sword.
For him, I was as polished and as perfect
as a pebble in a stutterer's mouth.
While the slaves' fans beat
incessantly as insect wings,
I taught him how to hate
this painted Pharoah's tomb
this palace built of brick
and dung, and gilded like a poet's
tongue; these painted eyes.
Nights, by the light of whatever would burn:
tallow, tinder and the silken rope
of wick that burns slow, slow
we wove the baskets from the long gold strands
of wheat that were another silk: worm soul
spun the one, yellow seed in the dark soil, the other.
The fields lay fallow, swollen with frost,
expectant winter. Mud clung to the edges
of our gowns; we had hung back like shadows
on the walls of trees and watched. In the little circles
that our tapers threw, murdered men rose red
in their clanging armor, muttered
words that bled through the bars
of iron masks: the lord
who sold us to the glory fields, lied.
Trumpets without tongues, we wove lilies
into the baskets. When they asked us
what we meant by these, we'd say "mary, mary"
and be still. We lined the baskets on the sill
in the barn, where it is always dusk
and the cows smell sweet. Now the snow
sifts through the trees, dismembered
lace, the white dust of angels, angels.
And the ringing of keys that hang
in bunches at our waists, and the sound of silk
There is nothing in the high windows
but swirling snow,
the glittering milk of winter.
The halls grow chill. The candles flicker.
Let them wait who will and think what they want.
The lord has gone with the hunt, and the snow,
the snow grows thicker. Well he will keep
till spring thaw comes. Head, hand, and heart—
baskets of wicker, baskets of straw.
You've lost the clue—somewhere
in the maze, the golden thread's
run out . . . and the air
is getting thick and grainy as old film,
filling with something foul and dank
as steam rising in the heat
from a heap of compost: the animal's lair
is just ahead, the thread's out,
you'll have to go it alone and chance
what's there. The walls have narrowed
to a channel, damp to the hands
that grope your way; the rank air
hangs against the stone, as if
the stone had hooks and held it.
You can't stay where you stand; in the dark
ahead you hear the snorting
and the dull report of hoofs
moved restlessly in place, and then
the corner's rounded. You feel it first
before you see it, and know you've found
the chamber. It is a widening in the stone
lit by a feeble light
that's lost its force from filtering
down the deep rock chimney
from the sky, a sky that's so remote
it's dwindled to this sickly glimmer.
The floor that opens out around you
is spread with straw, in places worn almost
to dust that rises from the ground
where something stamps and stumbles
in its place; the cloud obscures
its shape, postpones
the moment when you'll have to face it.
As a beast will suddenly stiffen at the scent
of someone unexpectedly about, there is
the silence of held breath, a slow settle
of the dust. Just so it appears, as if
a mist had risen and the moon come out.
You both stand frozen for a moment—
two pairs of eyes take hold
and widen, each to take the other in.
The beast is the color of turning cream,
slender with a fawn's grace, fragile
as gentleness grown old, its large eyes
soft with sorrow, its horns
are ivory candelabra, its worn flanks
scarred with roads like countryside
seen from the air. It neither shrinks back
nor approaches, but waits, as snow just fallen
waits for the wind to shape it to the land.
So, slowly you approach, extend your hand and
let the soft nose sniff it, then touch the velvet
muzzle as you touch a rose, wanting to know
its silk but not to bruise it. And then
you know, and turn to go, and hear the light foot-
falls that follow yours and never falter,
only pausing where you pause
as branching way leads on to way. Somewhere near
you hear the sound of dripping water, slow
and even over stone. You feel a nuzzle
at your shoulder, as if to say
this way, go on. So, sometimes led
and sometimes leading, you go until you feel
the air grow fresher, and there's a filament
of light, a slow unravel of gold
like a ray of sun as it passes through the water.
A moment later, the two of you step
blinking into the shining day.
We stood high above the tree line
where the glacier's edge, touched by sun,
becomes a maze of running streams,
a million veins of silver opened into summer.
We stood a long time there amazed
before we felt the bite of hunger and,
together with the sun, began
the long climb down.
A little late rain The testing
the desert in the beauty of its winter of Sarah
bloom, the cactus ablaze
with yellow flowers that glow
even at night in the reflected light
of moon and the shattered crystal of sand
when time was so new
that God still walked
among the tents, leaving no prints
in the sand, but a brand burned into
the heart—on such a night
it must have been, although
it is not written in the Book
how God spoke to Sarah
what he demanded of her
how many questions came of it
how a certain faith was
fractured, as a stone is split
by its own fault, a climate of extremes
and one last drastic change
in the temperature.
"Go!" said the Voice. "Take your son,
your only son, whom you love,
take him to the mountain, bind him
and make of him a burnt offering."
Now Isaac was the son of Sarah's age,
a gift, so she thought, from God. And how
could he ask her even to imagine such a thing—
to take the knife
of the butcher and thrust it
into such a trusting heart, then
light the pyre on which tomorrow burns.
What fear could be more holy
than the fear of that?
"Go!" said the Voice, Authority's own.
And Sarah rose to her feet, stepped out
of the tent of Abraham to stand between
the desert and the distant sky, holding its stars
like tears it was too cold to shed.
Perhaps she was afraid the firmament
would shudder and give way, crushing her
like a line of ants who, watching
the ants ahead marching safe under the arch,
are suddenly smashed by the heel
they never suspected. For Sarah,
with her desert-dwelling mind, could
see the grander scale in which the heel
might simply be the underside of some Divine
intention. On such a scale, what is
a human son? So there she stood, absurd
in the cosmic scene, an old woman bent
as a question mark, a mote in the eye
of God. And then it was that Sarah spoke
in a soft voice, a speech
the canon does not record.
"No," said Sarah to the Voice. The
"I will not be chosen. Nor shall my son— teachings
if I can help it. You have promised Abraham, of Sarah
through this boy, a great nation. So either
this sacrifice is sham, or else it is a sin.
Shame," she said, for such is the presumption
of mothers, "for thinking me a fool,
for asking such a thing. You must have known
I would choose Isaac. What use have I
for History—an arrow already bent
when it is fired from the bow?"
Saying that, Sarah went into the tent
and found her restless son awake, as if he had
grown aware of the narrow bed in which he lay.
And Sarah spoke out of the silence
she had herself created, or that had been there
all along. "Tomorrow you will be
a man. Tonight, then, I must tell you
the little that I know. You can be chosen
or you can choose. Not both.
The voice of the prophet grows shrill.
He will read even defeat as a sign
of distinction, until pain itself
becomes holy. In that day, how shall we tell
the victims from the saints,
the torturers from the agents of God?"
"But mother," said Isaac, "if we were not God's
chosen people, what then should we be? I am afraid
of being nothing." And Sarah laughed.
Then she reached out her hand. "Isaac, The
I am going now, before Abraham awakes, before unbinding
the sun, to find Hagar the Egyptian and her son of Isaac
whom I cast out, drunk on pride,
God's promises, the seed of Abraham
in my own late-blooming loins."
"But Ishmael," said Isaac, "how should I greet him?"
"As you greet yourself," she said, "when you bend
over the well to draw water and see your image,
not knowing it reversed. You must know your brother
now, or you will see your own face looking back
the day you're at each others' throats."
She wrapped herself in a thick dark cloak
against the desert's enmity, and tying up
her stylus, bowl, some dates, a gourd
for water—she swung her bundle on her back,
reached out once more toward Isaac.
"It's time," she said. "Choose now."
"But what will happen if we go?" the boy
Isaac asked. "I don't know," Sarah said
"But it is written what will happen if you stay."
CLASSICAL PROPORTIONS OF THE HEART
Everyone here knows how it ends,
in the stone amphitheatre of the world, everyone
knows the story—how Jocasta
in her chamber hung herself for shame
how Oedipus tore out his eyes and stalked
his darkened halls crying
aaiiee aaiiee woe woe is me woe
These things everyone expects, shifting
on the cold stone seats, the discomfort
of our small, hard place in things
relieved by this public show of agony
how we love this last bit best, the wait
always worth it: the mask with its empty
eyes the sweet sticky horror of it all
the luxurious wailing, the release
the polis almost licking its lips,
craning our necks to make out the wreck—
the tyrant brought low, howling,
needing at last to lean
on a mere daughter, Antigone, who
in the sequel will inherit
her father's flair for the dramatic
her mother's acquaintance with death;
her hatred of falsehood, her own.
We feel a little superior, our seats
raised above the circle where the blinded
lion paces out his grief, self‑condemned,
who could not keep his mastery to the end
(so Creon taunts him). What a flush
of pleasure stains our faces then
at the slow humiliation of an uncommon man
a Classical Golgotha without God, only
an eyeless wisdom, Apollo useless
against age, guilt, bad temper
and, most of all, against Laius
whose fear twisted the oracle's tongue,
child‑hater, the father who started it all.
The same night, as the howls rose
from the palace of Oedipus, the crowd
rising, drawing on their cloaks to go home,
far from the stage, that dramatic circle
that fixed our gaze, out there
on the stony hills gone silver under the moon
in the dry Greek air, the shepherd sits
he who saved the baby from thc death
plotted by Laius, he who disobeyed a king
for pity's sake. Sitting there alone
under the appalling light of the stars
what does he think of how the gods
have used him, used his kind heart
to bait the trap of tragedy?
What brief can he make for mercy
in a world that Laius rules?
Sitting there, the moon his only audience,
perhaps he weeps, perhaps he feels
the planetary chill alone out there
on what had been familiar hills.
Perhaps he senses still the presence
of the Sphinx. And maybe
that is when he feels the damp
nudge against his hand.
By reflex, we could guess, he reaches out
to touch the coat of wool, begins
to stroke the lamb. "It's late," he says
at last, and lifts the small beast
to his chest, carrying it down
the treacherous stony path toward home, holding
its warmth against him. There is little drama
in this scene, but still its pathos has
a symmetry, because the lamb's small heat
up close exactly balances
the distant icy stars,
and when it senses home, and bleats,
its small cry weighs against
the wail of fallen kings.
There is, as well, the perfect closure
as the shepherd's gate swings shut
and a classical composure
in the way he bears
the burden of his heavy heart
BEING AS I WAS, HOW COULD I HELP . . .
It was the noise that drew me first,
even before the scent. The long water
had brought something to my den, spilling
its banks, leaving the hollow pod
of reeds in the cool mud. Whatever it was,
it cried inside, and an odor rose
from it—man-smell but sweeter.
Two small hairless cubs were in it, pink
as summer oleander, waving
the little worm-like things they had
instead of paws. Naked like that, they
made my blood go slow, my dugs
begin to drip. I tipped the pod, they slid
into the ferns, I nuzzled the howling
pair, they found my side, they suckled
there and drank their fill. That night
the red star in the sky was bright,
a vulture's eye that waits
with a patience that I hardly understand.
The twin cubs slept in their shining
skin, warm at my side. I dreamed:
The trees were falling, one by one,
the sound deafening, the dust that rose
from one a mist to hide the felling
of the next. The mountains were
cut in two; great stones were rolled
and piled like hills until the sky
was shut; where the trees
had grown, pillars of stone rose
high, the birds circled, but
their skulls struck the sky.
Teeth chewed the earth; our den fell in
like a rotted log when weight is
added to decay; nothing to eat, the cubs
howled, the flesh fell from our bones,
we ran under a strange sky whose light
was wrong: it rose from the city walls,
bounced off the leaden heaven—flat
as the sound of a stone striking mud.
One of the brothers killed the other.
Blood poured where the streams had run.
Nowhere to drink, we slink from one rock
to the next, hunger drives us to the walls
where, sharp as the eyes of men, death
waits with its thousand iron thorns.
But the warm sun woke me. I forgot.
The twins were all I saw, for days
we lay together by the den, the river
ran beside us like a friend; they drank
and laughed at the morning light
that played in the shelter
of the leaves. Forgive me,
I was wolf, and could not help
the love that flowed from me to them,
the thin sweet river of milk.
Even now, though the world has come
to match the dream, I think
I would give it again.
The cave looked much like any other
from a little distance but
as we approached, came almost
to its mouth, we saw its walls within
that slanted up into a dome
were beating like a wild black lung—
it was plastered and hung with
the pulsing bodies of bats, the organ
music of the body's deep
interior, alive, the sacred cave
with its ten thousand gleaming eyes
near the clustered rocks
where the sea beat with the leather
wings of its own dark waves.
Below the bat-hung, throbbing walls,
an altar stood, glittering with guano,
a stucco sculpture like a Gaudi
Baroque, stone translated into
flux—murk and mud and the floral
extravagance of wet sand dripped
from a giant hand, giving back
for the first fruits offered to the gods.
We stayed outside, superior
with fear, like tourists
peering through a door, whose hanging
beads rattle in the air from
one who disappeared into the dim
interior; we thought of the caves
of Marabar, of a man who entered
and never quite emerged—
the caves' echoing black
emptiness a tunnel in the English
soul where he is wandering still. So
the bat cave on the Bali coast, not far
from Denpasar, holds us off, and beckons . . . .
Standing there now, at the mouth
of the cave—this time we enter, feel
inside the flutter of those
many hearts, the radiant heat of pumping
veins, the stretch of wing on bone
like a benediction, and the familiar
faces of this many-headed god,
benevolent as night is
to the weary—the way at dark
the cave releases them all,
how they must lift like the foam
on a wave breaking, how many
they are as they enter
the starlit air, and scatter
in wild wide arcs
in search of fruit, the sweet bites
of mosquito . . .
while the great domes of our
own kind slide open, the eye
that watches, tracks the skies,
and the huge doors roll slowly back
on the hangars, the planes
push out their noses of steel,
their wings a bright alloy
of aluminum and death, they roar
down the runways, tear into
the night, their heavy bodies fueled
from sucking at the hidden
veins of earth; they leave a trail of fire
behind them as they scar
the air, filling the dreams
of children, sleeping—anywhere,
Chicago, Baghdad—with blood,
as the bombs drop, as the world
splits open, as the mothers
reach for their own
in the night of the falling
sky, madness in
method, nature gone
into reverse . . .
here, nearly unperturbed,
the bats from the sacred cave
fill the night with their calls,
high-pitched, tuned to the solid world
as eyes to the spectrum of light, gnats
to the glow of a lamp—the bats
circle, the clouds wheel,
the earth turns
pulling the dome of stars
among the spinning trees, blurring
the sweet globes of fruit, shaped
exactly to desire—dizzy, we swing
back to the cave on our stiff dark
wings, the sweet juice of papaya
drying on our jaws, home
to the cave, to attach ourselves
back to the pulsing dome, until,
hanging there, sated and sleepy,
we can see what was once our world
upside down as it is
and wonder whose altars
those are, white,
encrusted with shit.
THE BIRD IN THE LAUREL'S SONG
How long have I been here? I can't recall
how many suns have risen and withdrawn
since I came down to this branch to rest.
How strange it felt at first, warm
under my feet, and when I landed here
and clamped my claws around its bark
I could have sworn I heard a moan. Is this
the work of men, I wondered then,
who like to decoy us with images of wood
we take for friend, then lay in wait for us, armed,
their arrows tipped with our own feathers.
Yet this was opposite of that—a tree that feels
like wood, an ordinary laurel, leaves a polished
green, but with a pulse inside, I swear,
the engine of a heart like mine; and something
not quite planted in its stance—the way it swayed
and seemed to reach out toward me as I passed.
And so I stopped, and sat.
But I'm uneasy
now, the forest ways are broken here,
some sadness haunts this tree
that I fear, mortally, to sound. Nor can I sing
when these leaves rustle in the air
around my perch, and breathe and whisper
in my ear, and speak of what I cannot
bear, nor compass with my airborne
mind—some deep attachment to the ground
whose price is to be rooted there; it makes
my wings ache with the thought, and
I must fly away from here—but yet am held
in dappled light like a net of lace
that will not let me go. O gods,
if you can break the spell that holds us
both together in this glade, then I will
stay with what it is within that suffers here.
The river stirred in a passing wind, and the sun,
stretched out on its back, moved
in a shiver of gold, and the woman who stood
by the river's bank, looked around
as if awakened from a dream, a little dazed.
She reached down to pick the book up
that had fallen at her side, and some flowers
she had gathered in a nearby field. Then,
following the river bank, she wandered off,
singing to herself.
But it was I who sang,
though I look out through her eyes;
it is I whom the gods hear, I who laid down
my wings, and nested here out of love.
The fire is lit in the hearth, and flickers.
It is this minute exactly. Helen steps
from the shadows of the room. The room
is stone, and the woman—all he had heard.
Paris, the aesthete, connoisseur of sculpted
flesh, arbiter of marble,
looks at her with a gaze so intense that she,
though aware of her effect on others, is
newly glazed in his eyes, an urn just pulled
from the fire, with its armor of pearl. She wears
pale gray robes; her jewels are the frozen honey
of amber that the hearth fire catches and
swirls into a molten gold. Paris turns
the exquisite ring on his finger, toys with it,
envies her grace a little, her icy detachment,
and turns away in a weariness it took centuries
to ripen, an idleness no occupation can touch,
perfection itself cloys—and his eye falls
on the oiled body of the boy who is
pouring the wine for Helen, the boy who is
watching Helen, watching her breath stir
the hovering dust, watching and breaking
his heart over her. Now they are being called
to the table and to whatever desultory
conversation they can devise. While she
watches Paris, and Paris the boy, and the boy
Helen, Menelaus is thinking of his messenger,
running toward Mycenae, perhaps, even now,
entering the Lion Gate, carrying a letter
to his brother, Agamemnon, proposing
that they join forces in conquest, together
take Troy, rich fortress corrupted by treasures—
a ripe fruit, half-rotted and ready to fall.
And, his eyes lit by the flames, he turns
to his honored guest Paris, whose gaze
he has followed, and smiling, the host
lifts his cup, and calls for more wine.
ON ETHNIC DEFINITIONS
In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague,
the ghetto was so small, so little
space for the living, and less (by rights)
for the dead—they buried the bodies
standing up: the underground
train to Sheol, packed
for the rush-hour of ghosts, when
the train arrives, when the final trump
sounds and the Saved dead rise,
with a sigh, they'll at last lie down.
OF A SUN SHE CAN REMEMBER
After they had been in the woods,
after the living tongue woke Helen's
hand, afterwards they went back
to the little house of exile, Annie and
Helen, who had lived in the silent
dark, like a bat without radar in
the back of a cave, and she picked up
the broken doll she had dismembered
that morning in her rage, and limb
by limb, her agile fingers moving
with their fine intelligence over each
part, she re-membered the little figure
of the human, and, though she
was inside now, and it was still dark,
she remembered the missing sun
with a slow wash of warmth
on her shoulders, on her back—
as when you step shivering out of
a dank shade into the sun's sudden
balm—and as the warmth spread,
it felt like the other side of water,
and that is when she knew how
light on water looks, and she put
her outspread hands into the idea
of it, and she lifted the lines of light,
cross-hatched like a web, out of
the water, and, dripping, stretched
the golden net of meaning in the light.
And they will gather by the well,
its dark water a mirror to catch whatever
stars slide by in the slow precession of
the skies, the tilting dome of time,
over all, a light mist like a scrim,
and here and there some clouds
that will open at the last and let
the moon shine through; it will be
at the wheel's turning, when
three zeros stand like paw-prints
in the snow; it will be a crescent
moon, and it will shine up from
the dark water like a silver hook
without a fish—until, leaning closer,
swimming up from the well, something
dark but glowing, animate, like live coals—
it is our own eyes staring up at us,
as the moon sets its hook,
as Artemis once drew her bow;
and they, whose dim shapes are no more
than what we will become, take up
their long handled dippers
of brass, and one by one, they catch
the moon in the cup-shaped bowls,
and they raise its floating light
to their lips, and with it, they drink back
our eyes, burning with desire to see
into the gullet of night: each one
dips and drinks, and dips, and drinks,
until there is only dark water,
until there is only the dark.
THE APPLE WAS A NORTHERN INVENTION
When she ate the pomegranate,
it was as if every seed
with its wet red shining coat
of sweet flesh clinging to the dark core
was one of nature's eyes. Afterwards,
it was nature that was blind,
and she who was wild
with vision, condemned
to see what was before her, and behind.
THE GIRL WITH BEES IN HER HAIR
came in an envelope with no return address;
she was small, wore a wrinkled dress of figured
cotton, full from neck to ankles, with a button
of bone at the throat, a collar of torn lace.
She was standing before a monumental house—
on the scale you see in certain English films:
urns, curved drives, stone lions, and an entrance far
too vast for any home. She was not of that place,
for she had a foreign look, and tangled black hair,
and an ikon, heavy and strange, dangling from
an oversized chain around her neck, that looked
as if some tall adult had taken it from his,
and hung it there as a charm to keep her safe
from a world of infinite harm that soon
would take him far from her, and leave her
standing, as she stood now—barefoot, gazing
without expression into distance, away
from the grandeur of that house, its gravel
walks and sculpted gardens. She carried a basket
full of flames, but whether fire or flowers
with crimson petals shading toward a central gold,
was hard to say—though certainly, it burned,
and the light within it had nowhere else
to go, and so fed on itself, intensified its red
and burning glow, the only color in the scene.
The rest was done in grays, light and shadow
as they played along her dress, across her face,
and through her midnight hair, lively with bees.
At first they seemed just errant bits of shade,
until the humming grew too loud to be denied
as the bees flew in and out, as if choreographed
in a country dance between the fields of sun
and the black tangle of her hair.
a window on one of the upper floors flew open—
wind had caught the casement, a silken length
of curtain filled like a billowing sail—the bees
began to stream out from her hair, straight
to the single opening in the high façade. Inside,
a moment later—the sound of screams.
The girl—who had through all of this seemed
unconcerned and blank—all at once looked up.
She shook her head, her mane of hair freed
of its burden of bees, and walked away,
out of the picture frame, far beyond
the confines of the envelope that brought her
image here—here, where the days grow longer
now, the air begins to warm, dread grows to
fear among us, and the bees swarm.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU REMEMBER
Can you see them now—the statues?
Can you see them, stirring on their pedestals,
trying out their stiff arms, stepping gingerly
down, breaking the glass walls that encase them?
At the Vatican, forcing the door of the locked
room, tearing off the plaster-of-Paris fig leaves,
rummaging about in the heaps of broken-off
genitals, so that, when they leave God's palace of art,
like the eunuchs of China's final dynasty, who left
the palace for the last time, carrying in small jars
the parts of themselves taken by empire—
so too, the statues would be whole now, heading home.
They tear themselves from the fountains, leaving
behind the public play of the waters; climb down
from their candlelit niches, deserting
their place in the great composition. They enter
the long loneliness of roads, their exodus making
a path from the cities, a gleaming white stream
like refugees returning to their distant, burned villages,
their memories a desolation of marble.
Day and night they travel—some leading the horses
on which they've been mounted for years in piazzas,
their postures heroic. All were on foot, even
the gods, unaccustomed to walking; and angels
from tombstones—their wings hanging useless,
scholars and poets, tall women in togas, a boxer
with a broken nose, a hooded woman stumbling
under her son's dead weight, an armless Venus,
a headless Victory led by Justice—the blindfold
torn from her eyes. Their streams converging
on the road to the mountains, they climb higher
and higher, like salmon returning to the ponds
that had spawned them, the statues,
relentless, make their way to the quarries
from which they were hewn—the opened veins
in the heart of the mountain.
An avalanche heard from a distance, rumbling
and thundering, or an earthquake, a war begun,
or a world ending—we could only guess
what we had heard. Then word spread that the statues
were missing: the fountains, the squares, the galleries
stood empty; the gardens were vacant,
the pedestals naked, the tombstones abstract.
And, it is true, where the quarries had been
(you can travel there and see for yourself)
the mountain is whole again, the great rift closed,
and young trees grow thick again on the slopes.
When he had suckled there, he began
to grow: first, he was an infant in her arms,
but soon, drinking and drinking at the sweet
milk she could not keep from filling her,
from pouring into his ravenous mouth,
and filling again, miraculous pitcher, mercy
feeding its own extinction... soon he was
huge, towering above her, the landscape,
his shadow stealing the color from the fields,
even the flowers going gray. And they came
like ants, one behind the next, to worship
him—huge as he was, and hungry; it was
his hunger they admired most of all.
So they brought him slaughtered beasts:
goats, oxen, bulls, and finally, their own
kin whose hunger was a kind of shame
to them, a shrinkage; even as his was
beautiful to them, magnified, magnificent.
The day came when they had nothing left
to offer him, having denuded themselves
of all in order to enlarge him, in whose
shadow they dreamed of light: and that
is when the thought began to move, small
at first, a whisper, then a buzz, and finally,
it broke out into words, so loud they thought
it must be prophecy: they would kill him,
and all they had lost in his name would return,
renewed and fresh with the dew of morning.
Hope fed their rage, sharpened their weapons.
And who is she, hooded figure, mourner now
at the fate of what she fed? And the slow rain,
which never ends, who is the father of that?
And who are we who speak, as if the world
were our diorama—its little figures moved
by hidden gears, precious in miniature, tin soldiers,
spears the size of pins, perfect replicas, history
under glass, dusty, old fashioned, a curiosity
that no one any longer wants to see,
excited as they are by the new giant, who feeds
on air, grows daily on radio waves, in cyberspace,
who sows darkness like a desert storm,
who blows like a wind through the Boardrooms,
who touches the hills, and they smoke.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
I just want to remember
the dead piled high behind the curtain.
The play had been staged as long as we could remember,
a sordid drama in which truth kept changing sides,
the name of the enemy was never the same;
sometimes the players poured over the edge
of the proscenium, spilling into the audience,
who ran terrified from the house
that had become a scene of massacre; sometimes
the drama played at a distance relaxingly remote,
caught and burnished in the bright little
dollhouse screen, so far away it was no more
than fireflies in a bottle, mere hiccups of light—
the carpet bombing, the village, torched.
So that—unless the street were yours,
and the terrible crying of the wounded
your own—it was impossible
to tell what was real, so much was not
what it seemed, was simply not:
not at all, not anymore, not this, not that—
yet the music was upbeat, the messenger
smiling, the voiceover a reassuring pour
of syrup in the artificial light. Meanwhile,
though the labels changed, and the set
was rearranged for every act—the plot
remained unvarying, never veering off
from the foretold end. So, when the curtain falls,
we know for certain what is going to be
piled high behind it. Yet we wait, we go on
waiting, as if the bodies might still move,
the actors untwine themselves from the pile,
step through the opening in the folded-back curtain
into the brightly lit house, the resounding applause,
the audience pulling on coats to go home,
the silent streets filling again with laughter and talk;
while deep within the darkened hall, the actors
by their lit mirrors, lift from their sweat-soaked
faces, the eyeless masks.
LIKE, I REALLY LIKE THAT
Beverley said, though you could barely hear her
from where we sat, high on the slopes
of the local mountain, the snow beginning
to give way to spring, absorbing the sound
in its softening drifts. An odd place for
the premiere of a play, but Bev believed in
the mountain, knows it's in for some fancy
erosion, and fancies that—and she wants
a vista as part of the plot. Just then, Jon says:
I don't know anything about it, but
I know what I like. I think that's what
Beverley meant when she said I really like
that, because they were talking about what
a Japanese cosmetic company calls
Beautiful Human Life, which is what
Beverley's play is about—moving, as it does,
between pine trees and palmettos, cutting a wide
swath across the little planet where we bunk
and play musical instruments and torch
villages. And this is where I say: consider
the heart (though they are attending
to the play and pay me no mind) the heart,
I return to my subject, is a treadmill
in a drawing by Escher, as it moves
up and down, in and out, taking us
with it— the rooms change, but it is
uncertain whether you are going
on, or returning where you once
began—a problem of perspective and
memory. But now Beverley's play is moving
toward its denouement; the chorus is
singing like mad, wearing costumes made
of rabbit hair and silk, they are praising
the great goat of spring, so loud
their praise, and with so much heat,
that the snow beneath us begins to move,
and we are sliding (no way to slow this down)
at ever accelerating speeds, along with the tons
of snow, it's all going now, and we're riding it,
all's a blur, the trees a green fur, a fuzz,
the wind a cold blast in your face—
but that Beverley! She knows a bad ending
when she sees it—and she calls it off:
to hell with the trope, the slope, the whole
blessed thing: she is almost shouting now,
and hitting her tambourine, and the badgers
and marmots that line the path, holding
their glowing lanterns against the night,
have picked up the beat, and one by one,
as we all sing the chorus, they swing
their little lights, and the whole hill rocks.
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