THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL



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: 


Eleanor's essay on the persona poem, which appeared in the spring 2010 issue of The Cortland Review, and introduced four of her poems:

http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/10/spring/index.html?ref=home

 

From that same issue, a penetrating review of Eleanor's new book, Tourist in Hell, by David Rigsbee:

http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/10/spring/rigsbee_r.html

 

Christine Casson's illuminating article on Eleanor, which appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Ploughshares:

http://www.pshares.org/read/article-detail.cfm?intArticleID=9064

 

The Academy of American Poets' page on Eleanor:

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/274


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"

 

 

LANDING

 

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

down.

  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.

 


EPITAPH

 

Though only a girl,

the first born of the Pharoah,

I was the first to die.

 

Young then,

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.

 

 

WITHOUT REGRET

 

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

whispering, whispering.

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.

 


LABYRINTH

 

            sila ersinarsinivdluge

 

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.

 


SARAH'S CHOICE

 

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

with ease.

 

 

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.

 

 

BAT CAVE

 

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

church, berserk

Baroque, stone translated into

flux—murk and mud and the floral

extravagance of wet sand dripped

from a giant hand, giving back

blessing, excrement—return

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.

 

 

DINNER PARTY

 

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.           

                                               

 

MOON GATHERING

 

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.

     Without warning

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.



MAGNIFICAT


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.

                                                —Mahmoud Darwish

 

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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