Poems by Denise Levertov

 

The Great Black Heron. 2

An excerpt from "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus". 3

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell 4

St, Peter and the Angel 5

Sojourns in the Parallel World. 6

The Secret 7

The Mutes 8

The Métier of Blossoming. 10

Losing track. 11

In California during the Gulf War 12

Talking to Grief 13

September 1961. 14

In Mind. 16

Celebration. 17

Untitled. 18

Aware. 19

The Fountain. 20

'I learned that her name was Proverb' 21

Intrusion. 22

Stepping Westward. 23

Variation on a Theme by Rilke. 24

Adam's complaint 25

Zeroing In. 26

To the Reader 27

The ache of marriage: 28

An Embroidery. 29

Wanting The Moon. 30

The Thread. 31

Seeing For A Moment 32

Looking, Walking, Being. 33

A Woman Alone. 34

To the Snake. 35

Settling. 36

February Evening in New York. 37

The well 38

For the New Year, 1981. 39

O Taste and See. 40

The Elves 41

The Fountain. 42

Opening Words 43

Come into animal presence. 44

From the Roof 45

Beginners 46

Making Peace. 47

Talk in the Dark. 48

Annunciation. 49


The Great Black Heron

 

Since I stroll in the woods more often

than on this frequented path, it's usually

trees I observe; but among fellow humans

what I like best is to see an old woman

fishing alone at the end of a jetty,

hours on end, plainly content.

The Russians mushroom-hunting after a rain

trail after themselves a world of red sarafans,

nightingales, samovars, stoves to sleep on

(though without doubt those are not

what they can remember). Vietnamese families

fishing or simply sitting as close as they can

to the water, make me recall that lake in Hanoi

in the amber light, our first, jet-lagged evening,

peace in the war we had come to witness.

This woman engaged in her pleasure evokes

an entire culture, tenacious field-flower

growing itself among the rows of cotton

in red-earth country, under the feet

of mules and masters. I see her

a barefoot child by a muddy river

learning her skill with the pole. What battles

has she survived, what labors?

She's gathered up all the time in the world

--nothing else--and waits for scanty trophies,

complete in herself as a heron.


An excerpt from "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus"

 

ii  Gloria

 

Praise the wet snow

        falling early.

Praise the shadow

        my neighor's chimney casts on the tile roof

even this gray October day that should, they say,

have been golden.

                Praise

the invisible sun burning beyond

     the white cold sky, giving us

light and the chimney's shadow.

Praise

god or the gods, the unknown,

that which imagined us, which stays

our hand,

our murderous hand,

                   and gives us

still,

in the shadow of death,

            our daily life,

            and the dream still

of goodwill, of peace on earth.

Praise

flow and change, night and

the pulse of day.


 

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

 

Down through the tomb's inward arch

He has shouldered out into Limbo

to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:

the merciful dead, the prophets,

the innocents just His own age and those

unnumbered others waiting here

unaware, in an endless void He is ending

now, stooping to tug at their hands,

to pull them from their sarcophagi,

dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,

neighbor in death, Golgotha dust

still streaked on the dried sweat of his body

no one had washed and anointed, is here,

for sequence is not known in Limbo;

the promise, given from cross to cross

at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.

All these He will swiftly lead

to the Paradise road: they are safe.

That done, there must take place that struggle

no human presumes to picture:

living, dying, descending to rescue the just

from shadow, were lesser travails

than this: to break

through earth and stone of the faithless world

back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained

stifling shroud; to break from them

back into breath and heartbeat, and walk

the world again, closed into days and weeks again,

wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit

streaming through every cell of flesh

so that if mortal sight could bear

to perceive it, it would be seen

His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,

and aching for home. He must return,

first, in Divine patience, and know

hunger again, and give

to humble friends the joy

of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.


St, Peter and the Angel

 

Delivered out of raw continual pain,

smell of darkness, groans of those others

to whom he was chained--

 

unchained, and led

past the sleepers,

door after door silently opening--

out!

    And along a long street's

majestic emptiness under the moon:

 

one hand on the angel's shoulder, one

feeling the air before him,

eyes open but fixed . . .

 

And not till he saw the angel had left him,

alone and free to resume

the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of

what he had still to do,

not till then did he recognize

this was no dream. More frightening

than arrest, than being chained to his warders:

he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.

Had the angel's feet

made any sound? He could not recall.

No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.

He himself must be

the key, now, to the next door,

the next terrors of freedom and joy.


Sojourns in the Parallel World

 

We live our lives of human passions,

cruelties, dreams, concepts,

crimes and the exercise of virtue

in and beside a world devoid

of our preoccupations, free

from apprehension--though affected,

certainly, by our actions. A world

parallel to our own though overlapping.

We call it "Nature"; only reluctantly

admitting ourselves to be "Nature" too.

Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,

our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,

an hour even, of pure (almost pure)

response to that insouciant life:

cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing

pilgrimage of water, vast stillness

of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,

animal voices, mineral hum, wind

conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering

of fire to coal--then something tethered

in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch

of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.

No one discovers

just where we've been, when we're caught up again

into our own sphere (where we must

return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)

--but we have changed, a little.

 


The Secret

 

Two girls discover

the secret of life

in a sudden line of

poetry.

 

I who don't know the

secret wrote

the line. They

told me

 

(through a third person)

they had found it

but not what it was

not even

 

what line it was. No doubt

by now, more than a week

later, they have forgotten

the secret,

 

the line, the name of

the poem. I love them

for finding what

I can't find,

 

and for loving me

for the line I wrote,

and for forgetting it

so that

 

a thousand times, till death

finds them, they may

discover it again, in other

lines

 

in other

happenings. And for

wanting to know it,

for

 

assuming there is

such a secret, yes,

for that

most of all.


The Mutes

 

Those groans men use

passing a woman on the street

or on the steps of the subway

 

to tell her she is a female

and their flesh knows it,

 

are they a sort of tune,

an ugly enough song, sung

by a bird with a slit tongue

 

but meant for music?

 

Or are they the muffled roaring

of deafmutes trapped in a building that is

slowly filling with smoke?

 

Perhaps both.

 

Such men most often

look as if groan were all they could do,

yet a woman, in spite of herself,

 

knows it's a tribute:

if she were lacking all grace

they'd pass her in silence:

 

so it's not only to say she's

a warm hole. It's a word

 

in grief-language, nothing to do with

primitive, not an ur-language;

language stricken, sickened, cast down

 

in decrepitude. She wants to

throw the tribute away, dis-

gusted, and can't,

 

it goes on buzzing in her ear,

it changes the pace of her walk,

the torn posters in echoing corridors

 

spell it out, it

quakes and gnashes as the train comes in.

Her pulse sullenly

 

had picked up speed,

but the cars slow down and

jar to a stop while her understanding

 

keeps on translating:

'Life after life after life goes by

 

without poetry,

without seemliness,

without love.'


The Métier of Blossoming

 

Fully occupied with growing--that's

the amaryllis. Growing especially

at night: it would take

only a bit more patience than I've got

to sit keeping watch with it till daylight;

the naked eye could register every hour's

increase in height. Like a child against a barn door,

proudly topping each year's achievement,

steadily up

goes each green stem, smooth, matte,

traces of reddish purple at the base, and almost

imperceptible vertical ridges

running the length of them:

Two robust stems from each bulb,

sometimes with sturdy leaves for company,

elegant sweeps of blade with rounded points.

Aloft, the gravid buds, shiny with fullness.

 

One morning--and so soon!--the first flower

has opened when you wake. Or you catch it poised

in a single, brief

moment of hesitation.

Next day, another,

shy at first like a foal,

even a third, a fourth,

carried triumphantly at the summit

of those strong columns, and each

a Juno, calm in brilliance,

a maiden giantess in modest splendor.

If humans could be

that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,

swift from sheer

unswerving impetus! If we could blossom

out of ourselves, giving

nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!


Losing track

 

Long after you have swung back

away from me

I think you are still with me:

 

you come in close to the shore

on the tide

and nudge me awake the way

 

a boat adrift nudges the pier:

am I a pier

half-in half-out of the water?

 

and in the pleasure of that communion

I lose track,

the moon I watch goes down, the

 

tide swings you away before

I know I'm

alone again long since,

 

mud sucking at gray and black

timbers of me,

a light growth of green dreams drying.


In California during the Gulf War

 

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among

trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,

the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

 

certain airy white blossoms punctually

reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink--

a delicate abundance. They seemed

 

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed

festival day, unaware of the year's events, not perceiving

the sackcloth others were wearing.

 

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well

with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,

daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

 

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches

more lightly than birds alert for flight,

lifted the sunken heart

 

even against its will.

                      But not

as symbols of hope: they were flimsy

as our resistance to the crimes committed

 

--again, again--in our name; and yes, they return,

year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy

over against the dark glare

 

of evil days. They are, and their presence

is quietness ineffable--and the bombings are, were,

no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophany

 

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms

were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed

the war had ended, it had not ended.

 


Talking to Grief

 

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.


September 1961

This is the year the old ones,
the old great ones
leave us alone on the road.

The road leads to the sea.
We have the words in our pockets,
obscure directions. The old ones

have taken away the light of their presence,
we see it moving away over a hill
off to one side.

They are not dying,
they are withdrawn
into a painful privacy

learning to live without words.
E. P. "It looks like dying"--Williams: "I can't
describe to you what has been

happening to me"--
H. D. "unable to speak."
The darkness

twists itself in the wind, the stars
are small, the horizon
ringed with confused urban light-haze.

They have told us
the road leads to the sea,
and given

the language into our hands.
We hear
our footsteps each time a truck

has dazzled past us and gone
leaving us new silence.
One can't reach

the sea on this endless
road to the sea unless
one turns aside at the end, it seems,

follows
the owl that silently glides above it
aslant, back and forth,

and away into deep woods.

But for us the road
unfurls itself, we count the
words in our pockets, we wonder

how it will be without them, we don't
stop walking, we know
there is far to go, sometimes

we think the night wind carries
a smell of the sea...

 


In Mind

 

There's in my mind a woman
of innocence, unadorned but

fair-featured and smelling of
apples or grass. She wears

a utopian smock or shift, her hair
is light brown and smooth, and she

is kind and very clean without
ostentation--

but she has
no imagination

And there's a
turbulent moon-ridden girl

or old woman, or both,
dressed in opals and rags, feathers

and torn taffeta,
who knows strange songs

but she is not kind.


Celebration

Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.

Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,

deft hands. And every prodigy of green –

whether it's ferns or lichens or needles

or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –

greener than ever before. And the way the conifers

hold new cones to the light for the blessing,

a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind

transcribes for them!

A day that shines in the cold

like a first-prize brass band swinging along

the street

of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds

with the claims of reasonable gloom.


Untitled

 

Scraps of moon

bobbing discarded on broken water

but sky-moon

complete, transcending

all violation

Here she seems to be talking to herself about

the shape of a life:

Only Once

All which, because it was

flame and song and granted us

joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,

turns out to have been what it was

that once, only; every invitation

did not begin

a series, a build-up: the marvelous

did not happen in our lives, our stories

are not drab with its absence: but don't

expect to return for more. Whatever more

there will be will be

unique as those were unique. Try

to acknowledge the next

song in its body-halo of flames as utterly

present, as now or never.


Aware

 

When I found the door

I found the vine leaves

speaking among themselves in abundant

whispers.

My presence made them

hush their green breath,

embarrassed, the way

humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,

acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if

the conversation had ended

just before you arrived.

I liked

the glimpse I had, though,

of their obscure

gestures. I liked the sound

of such private voices. Next time

I'll move like cautious sunlight, open

the door by fractions, eavesdrop

peacefully.


The Fountain

 

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water

to solace the dryness at our hearts.

I have seen

 

the fountain springing out of the rock wall

and you drinking there. And I too

before your eyes

 

found footholds and climbed

to drink the cool water.

 

The woman of that place, shading her eyes,

frowned as she watched—but not because

she grudged the water,

 

only because she was waiting

to see we drank our fill and were

refreshed.

 

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.

That fountain is there among its scalloped

green and gray stones,

 

it is still there and always there

with its quiet song and strange power

to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.


'I learned that her name was Proverb'

 

And the secret names

of all we meet who lead us deeper

into our labyrinth

of valleys and mountains, twisting valleys

and steeper mountains—

their hidden names are always,

like Proverb, promises.

Rune, Omen, Fable, Parable,

those we meet for only

one crucial moment, gaze to gaze,

or for years know and don’t recognize

 

but of whom later a word

sings back to us

as if from high among leaves,

still near but beyond sight

 

drawing us from tree to tree

towards the time and the unknown place

where we shall know

what it is to arrive.

 


Intrusion

 

After I had cut off my hands

and grown new ones

 

something my former hands had longed for

came and asked to be rocked.

 

After my plucked out eyes

had withered, and new ones grown

 

something my former eyes had wept for

came asking to be pitied.


Stepping Westward

 

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.
If woman is inconstant,
good, I am faithful to
ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now
is a time of ripening.
If her part
is to be true,
a north star,
good, I hold steady
in the black sky
and vanish by day,
yet burn there
in blue or above
quilts of cloud.
There is no savor
more sweet, more salt
than to be glad to be
what, woman,
and who, myself,
I am, a shadow
that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out
on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens
they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket
of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me
in
fragrance. I can
eat as I go.


Variation on a Theme by Rilke

           

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day's blow

rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.


Adam's complaint

 

Some people,
no matter what you give them,
still want the moon.

The bread, the salt,
white meat and dark,
still hungry.

The marriage bed
and the cradle,
still empty arms.

You give them land,
their own earth under their feet,
still they take to the roads.

And water: dig them the deepest well,
still it's not deep enough
to drink the moon from.


Zeroing In

           

"I am a landscape," he said,

"a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.

There are daunting cliffs there,

and plains glad in their way

of brown monotony. But especially

there are sinkholes, places

of sudden terror, of small circumference

and malevolent depths."

"I know," she said. "When I set forth

to walk in myself, as it might be

on a fine afternoon, forgetting,

sooner or later I come to where sedge

and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,

mark the bogland, and I know

there are quagmires there that can pull you

down, and sink you in bubbling mud."

"We had an old dog," he told her, "when I was a boy,

a good dog, friendly. But there was an injured spot

on his head, if you happened

just to touch it he'd jump up yelping

and bite you. He bit a young child,

they had to take him to the vet's and destroy him."

"No one knows where it is," she said,

"and even by accident no one touches it:

It's inside my landscape, and only I, making my way

preoccupied through my life, crossing my hills,

sleeping on green moss of my own woods,

I myself without warning touch it,

and leap up at myself--"

"--or flinch back

just in time."

                "Yes, we learn that

It's not terror, it's pain we're talking about:

those places in us, like your dog's bruised head,

that are bruised forever, that time

never assuages, never."

 


To the Reader

 

As you read, a white bear leisurely

pees, dyeing the snow

saffron,

 

and as you read, many gods

lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian

are watching the generations of leaves,

 

and as you read

the sea is turning its dark pages,

turning

its dark pages.


The ache of marriage:

 

thigh and tongue, beloved,

are heavy with it,

it throbs in the teeth

 

We look for communion

and are turned away, beloved,

each and each

 

It is leviathan and we

in its belly

looking for joy, some joy

not to be known outside it

 

two by two in the ark of

the ache of it.


An Embroidery

Rose Red's hair is brown as fur

and shines in firelight as she prepares

supper of honey and apples, curds and whey,

for the bear, and leaves it ready

on the hearth-stone.

 

Rose White's grey eyes

look into the dark forest.

 

Rose Red's cheeks are burning,

sign of her ardent, joyful

compassionate heart.

Rose White is pale,

turning away when she hears

the bear's paw on the latch.

 

When he enters, there is

frost on his fur,

he draws near to the fire

giving off sparks.

 

Rose Red catches the scent of the forest,

of mushrooms, of rosin.

 

Together Rose Red and Rose White

sing to the bear;

it is a cradle song, a loom song,

a song about marriage, about

a pilgrimage to the mountains

long ago.

            Raised on an elbow,

the bear stretched on the hearth

nods and hums; soon he sighs

and puts down his head.

 

He sleeps; the Roses

bank the fire.

Sunk in the clouds of their feather bed

they prepare to dream.

 

Rose Red in a cave that smells of honey

dreams she is combing the fur of her cubs

with a golden comb.

Rose White is lying awake.

 

Rose White shall marry the bear's brother.

Shall he too

when the time is ripe,

step from the bear's hide?

Is that other, her bridegroom, here in the room?


Wanting The Moon

 

Not the moon. A flower

on the other side of the water.

 

The water sweeps past in flood,

dragging a whole tree by the hair,

 

a barn, a bridge. The flower

sings on the far bank.

 

Not a flower, a bird calling

hidden among the darkest trees, music

 

over the water, making a silence

out of the brown folds of the river's cloak.

 

The moon. No, a young man walking

under the trees. There are lanterns

 

among the leaves.

Tender, wise, merry,

 

his face is awake with its own light,

I see it across the water as if close up.

 

A jester. The music rings from his bells,

gravely, a tune of sorrow,

 

I dance to it on my riverbank.


The Thread

 

Something is very gently,

invisibly, silently,

pulling at me-a thread

or net of threads

finer than cobweb and as

elastic. I haven't tried

the strength of it. No barbed hook

pierced and tore me. Was it

not long ago this thread

began to draw me? Or

way back? Was I

born with its knot about my

neck, a bridle? Not fear

but a stirring

of wonder makes me

catch my breath when I feel

the tug of it when I thought

it had loosened itself and gone.


Seeing For A Moment

 

I thought I was growing wings—

it was a cocoon.

 

I thought, now is the time to step

into the fire—

it was deep water.

 

Eschatology is a word I learned

as a child: the study of Last Things;

 

facing my mirror—no longer young,

   the news—always of death,

   the dogs—rising from sleep and clamoring

      and howling, howling,

 

nevertheless

I see for a moment

that's not it: it is

the First Things.

 

Word after word

floats through the glass.

Towards me.


Looking, Walking, Being

 

"The World is not something to

look at, it is something to be in."

Mark Rudman

 

I look and look.

Looking's a way of being: one becomes,

sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.

Walking wherever looking takes one.

 

The eyes

dig and burrow into the world.

They touch

fanfare, howl, madrigal, clamor.

World and the past of it,

not only

visible present, solid and shadow

that looks at one looking.

 

And language? Rhythms

of echo and interruption?

That's

a way of breathing.

 

breathing to sustain

looking,

walking and looking,

through the world,

in it.


A Woman Alone

 

When she cannot be sure
which of two lovers it was with whom she felt
this or that moment of pleasure, of something fiery
streaking from head to heels, the way the white
flame of a cascade streaks a mountainside
seen from a car across a valley, the car
changing gear, skirting a precipice,
climbing . . .
When she can sit or walk for hours after a movie
talking earnestly and with bursts of laughter
with friends, without worrying
that it's late, dinner at midnight, her time
spent without counting the change . . .
When half her bed is covered with books
and no one is kept awake by the reading light
and she disconnects the phone, to sleep till noon . . .
Then
self-pity dries up, a joy
untainted by guilt lifts her.
She has fears, but not about loneliness;
fears about how to deal with the aging
of her body—how to deal
with photographs and the mirror. She feels
so much younger and more beautiful
than the looks. At her happiest
—or even in the midst of
some less than joyful hour, sweating
patiently through a heatwave in the city
or hearing the sparrows at daybreak, dully gray,
toneless, the sound of fatigue—
a kind of sober euphoria makes her believe
in her future as an old woman, a wanderer
seamed and brown,
little luxuries of the middle of life all gone,
watching cities and rivers, people and mountains,
without being watched; not grim nor sad,
an old winedrinking woman, who knows
the old roads, grass-grown, and laughs to herself . . .
She knows it can't be:
that's Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby from The Water Babies,
no one can walk the world any more,
a world of fumes and decibels.
But she thinks maybe
she could get to be tough and wise, some way,
anyway. Now at least
she is past the time of mourning,
now she can say without shame or deceit,
O blessed Solitude.


To the Snake

 

Green Snake, when I hung you round my neck

and stroked your cold, pulsing throat

         as you hissed to me, glinting

arrowy gold scales, and I felt

         the weight of you on my shoulders,

and the whispering silver of your dryness

         sounded close at my ears --

 

Green Snake--I swore to my companions that certainly

         you were harmless!  But truly

I had no certainty, and no hope, only desiring

         to hold you, for that joy,

                                                which left

a long wake of pleasure, as the leaves moved

and you faded into the pattern

of grass and shadows, and I returned

smiling and haunted, to a dark morning.


Settling

 

I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
Tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill.
I've boasted I would not care,
I'm London-born.
And I won't. I'll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.
  


February Evening in New York
 

As the stores close, a winter light
opens air to iris blue,
glint of frost through the smoke
grains of mica, salt of the sidewalk.

 

As the buildings close, released autonomous
feet pattern the streets
in hurry and stroll; balloon heads
drift and dive above them; the bodies
aren't really there.

 

As the lights brighten, as the sky darkens,
a woman with crooked heels says to another woman
while they step along at a fair pace,
"You know, I'm telling you, what I love best
is life. I love life! Even if I ever get
to be old and wheezy--or limp! You know?
Limping along?--I'd still..."
Out of hearing.

 

To the multiple disordered tones
of gears changing, a dance
to the compass points, out, four-way river.
Prospect of sky
wedged into avenues, left at the ends of streets,
west sky, east sky: more life tonight! A range
of open time at winter's outskirts.


The well

 

At sixteen I believed the moonlight

could change me if it would.

              I moved my head

on the pillow, even moved my bed

as the moon slowly

crossed the open lattice.

 

I wanted beauty, a dangerous

gleam of steel, my body thinner,

my pale face paler.

                   I moonbathed

diligently, as others sunbathe.

But the moon's unsmiling stare

kept me awake.  Mornings,

I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep

that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,

and woke rested, and if not beautiful,

filled with some other power.


For the New Year, 1981

I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won't shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.


O Taste and See

 

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.


The Elves

Elves are no smaller
than men, and walk
as men do, in this world,
but with more grace than most,
and are not immortal.

Their beauty sets them aside
from other men and from women
unless a woman has that cold fire in her
called poet: with that

she may see them and by its light
they know her and are not afraid
and silver tongues of love
flicker between them.


The Fountain

 

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water

To solace the dryness at our hearts.

I have seen

 

The fountain springing out of the rock wall

And you drinking there. And I too

Before your eyes

 

Found footholds and climbed

to drink the cool water.

 

The woman of that place, shading her eyes,

Frowned as she watched—but not because

she grudged the water,

 

Only because she was waiting

to see we drank our fill and were

refreshed.

 

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.

That fountain is there among its scalloped

green and gray stones,

 

It is still there and always there

with its quiet song and strange power

to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.


Opening Words

  
I believe the earth
exists, and
in each minim mote
of its dust the holy
glow of thy candle.
Thou
unknown I know,
thou spirit,
giver,
lover of making, of the
wrought letter,
wrought flower,
iron, deed, dream.
Dust of the earth,
help thou my
unbelief. Drift
gray become gold, in the beam of
vision. I believe with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief. Be,
beloved, threatened world.
Each minim
mote.

Not the poisonous
luminescence forced
out of its privacy,
The sacred lock of its cell
broken. No,
the ordinary glow
of common dust in ancient sunlight.

Be, that I may believe. Amen.


Come into animal presence

 

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track and into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence?
The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.


From the Roof

 

This wild night, gathering the washing as if it were flowers

            animal vines twisting over the line and

            slapping my face lightly, soundless merriment

            in the gesticulations of shirtsleeves,

I recall out of my joy a night of misery

 

walking in the dark and the wind over broken earth,

            halfmade foundations and unfinished

            drainage trenches and the spaced-out

                                                circles of glaring light

            marking streets that were to be

walking with you but so far from you,

 

and now alone in October's

first decision towards winter, so close to you--

            my arms full of playful rebellious linen, a freighter

            going down-river two blocks away, outward bound,

            the green wolf-eyes of the Harborside Terminal

                                    glittering on the Jersey shore,

and a train somewhere under ground bringing you towards me

to our new living-place from which we can see

 

a river and its traffic (the Hudson and the

hidden river, who can say which it is we see, we see

something of both.  Or who can say

the crippled broom-vendor yesterday, who passed

just as we needed a new broom, was not

one of the Hidden Ones?)

            Crates of fruit are unloading

            across the street on the cobbles,

            and a brazier flaring

            to warm the men and burn trash.  He wished us

luck when we bought the broom.  But not luck

brought us here.  By design

 

clean air and cold wind polish

the river lights, by design

we are to live now in a new place.


Beginners
Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.


Making Peace

 

A voice from the dark called out,
"The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war."

 

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can't be imagined before it is made,
can't be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

 

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

 

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long
pauses. . . .

 

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light--facets
of the forming crystal.


Talk in the Dark 

 

We live in history, says one.
We're flies on the hide of Leviathan, says another.

Either way, says one,
fears and losses.

And among losses, says another,
the special places our own roads were to lead to.

Our deaths, says one.
That's right, says another,
Now it's to be a mass death.

Mass graves, says one, are nothing new.
No, says another, but this time there'll be no graves,
all the dead will lie where they fall.

Except, says one, those that burn to ash.
And are blown in the fiery wind, says another.

How can we live in this fear? Says one.
From day to day, says another.

I still want to see, says one,
where my own road's going.

I want to live, says another, but where can I live
if the world is gone?


Annunciation

 

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos
Hymn, Greece, VIc


We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
                   Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
                  The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
                                            God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

          ____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
                   Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
             More often
those moments
     when roads of light and storm
     open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

         ______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
                          only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                   Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.


The Love of Morning
 

It is hard sometimes to drag ourselves
back to the love of morning
after we've lain in the dark crying out
O God, save us from the horror . . . .

 

God has saved the world one more day
even with its leaden burden of human evil;
we wake to birdsong.
And if sunlight's gossamer lifts in its net
the weight of all that is solid,
our hearts, too, are lifted,
swung like laughing infants;

 

but on gray mornings,
all incident - our own hunger,
the dear tasks of continuance,
the footsteps before us in the earth's
beloved dust, leading the way - all,
is hard to love again
for we resent a summons
that disregards our sloth, and this
calls us, calls us.