Along this stretch of sea
The pitch-pines hardly reach the height
Of a man, so strict the leveling wind.
It carves without hands or tools, but under it
They writhe & plead as at a wound
(As any body nerves its way into things)
Till it takes second thought
To set your seeing right, to see them whole
In their conditions.
Crouched behind a dune
To get shut of the wind, I’m numb down to the bone
& laughing, cradling someone else’s face
In someone else’s hands—they’re cumbersome
As if the use had been taught out of them.
—Laughing, too, to think, If this were all?—
Relentless ocean margin, its powers that be,
The elements, Necessity,
& your thinnish self to shape, no fuel, no fire,
Your back for shelter, your breath to thaw.
Did those nymphs fly the chisel or the god?
Chased by what there could be no outstripping,
You’d be forgiven for begging to be changed.
Louder still the wind rises as you rise,
Turning, to your feet—look:
Out beyond the shoals
Hundreds of gannets, sunlit, mounting, wheel
& plunge, each one the flashing flange of their
Own making, their intention, marked
By sudden pillars of spray, & now the gale
& the sound of the gale are in your inner ear,
Wheeling, plunging, making you their home.
What are they after? Say, why do you flee?
No shivering. Stand still. Strip back the bark,
The green, the grain, the wood, the branch, the bole.
after Giotto’s “Sermon to the Birds”
Even holiness, it seems to say, needs some relation.
Even where the ground is even, where the tree should stand straight up
And light come in from outside the picture,
Where all should spin like smoothest gyroscope
Around the molten hub of aureole,
Tree leans, air lights, he leans, he listens,
And the birds don’t make a peep, not one,
As if, drawn up unnaturally on solid ground,
Like iron filings or a children’s choir,
They were remembering those endless days on deck the Arc,
When scanning the horizon-ring was their only game,
Played all in silence, and not even their wings
Were any help at all.
I dreamt last night of the self-steered Phaeacian ship,
Its cargo, the gifts, the thirteen talents of gold,
The drinking cup that King Alcinous gave the hero to remember
The great court, the singer, the stories painted from life
That made him weep like a woman weeping for a husband gone.
Could he have known, before it happened,
How the ship that bore him
So swiftly, easily home
Would turn to a pillar of stone behind his back,
Or that he would forget
The masculine face Athena took
When she stood up smiling, having marked
The immeasurable distance of his throw?
A moment from now, the leaves will twitch,
The last bird land, the conducting fingers stir,
And the chorus of imagined things become themselves again,
That is, will disappear.
Is this the poverty
You meant, your Rule of Life? Over Assisi,
Over Ararat, over Ithaca, over the dried-up reefs of the Aegean,
The waters wrap the citadels in robes of stone.
But listen: the way the moment lights
Upon this picture:
Touch him just once on the shoulder and he’ll turn.
There goes the moon, there go
the Pleiades: half past
midnight, the hours pass,
and I lie down alone.
There goes one moon, but here's
the Milky Way: a waxing
sister phase, a wavering
untrimmed wick: like waking
to your voice in my stars.
And why have just the one
momentous face in the sky?
Why not a myriad Moon,
enough to braid time by,
as many moons as are
wound round Jupiter,
to swell your tides; to steal
your sleep; to ask your past
and plait your nows and futures;
to caress and kiss and tell,
today into tomorrow,
each brighter than the last,
how many moons ago
their light was courting you
and how they chase you still.
Photo credit for Walters: Madeleine Bruce