Poetry

Poetry

Self-portrait

After four years, Michelangelo has reached the end,
and now Jonah, whom he has reserved for last,
dangles his bare feet over the Sistine’s void,
sharing his precarious aerie with a dead fish,
two cherubs and a vine. A marvel of foreshortening,
he reclines on his arm and eyes God, still arguing
petulantly that he is not the man to undertake
such a harebrained job, lacking both talent
and inclination. His fingers point in opposite
directions, one to the threat of Nineveh and Rome,
the other to the safety of Tarshish and Florence,
regarding his own death as a small price to pay
to make a point. Yet as the fresco dries to stone,
he gazes beyond the gap between his intractable
pique and God’s intractable grace, dumbfounded
at the resplendent vault arching above a city at peace.

Night music

These Yorkshire fells and dales
appear ever to be falling away,
toppling from Emily’s wuthering heights
into wide accommodating valleys
carved by Derwent, Calder, Ribble and the rest
then trimmed by flocks of patient sheep
that crop the slopes and shoulders round
toward that verdant jeweled Jerusalem
folk hereby love to sing about.

Up here, along the tops, however,
driving tight along the teetering edge,
mad vertigo hangs you out there in the balances,
suspended in that stomach-clutching space
between this summit and the next,
flung far into the spinning turn,
the terrible excellence of things.

Might it be that way also at the end,
nothing all that dark and dreadful,
but a life-demanding climb,
agonizing to be sure, all the gasping way
along and up some looming harsh escarpment
grasping toward the final summit where, at last,
you stumble forward into emptiness
to find everything . . . all at once?



Twelve knives for the new year

Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory
of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home
to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives
that began in the living room
and petered out in the yard.
She said they were not precious.
But my dad whispered.
He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand.
In a delicate furious bouquet.

Lost in the Forest

“The Department of Defense announced Friday that
the battery operated ‘digital’ bugle has come of age and
is a necessity with only about 500 U.S. military buglers
to perform at the 1,800 daily funerals for veterans.”
                                    –Washington Times, 10/09/02

And now even this is pantomime—
or worse—a kind of full-bodied lip sync
at the gravest occasion. Someone
in uniform lifts horn to lips to blow
(one thinks), simulates the deep draw
that hallows breath into note and moves
us to that spacious human room
where mourning sounds.
                                And now even this
is just charade, a button pushed (at least
the fingers move), and though the tones
are clear as night and sure as sleep,
one wonders whether God is really nigh
and what besides the soldier-child might die.

Longing, Lenten

The walk back, more loss. When I open the door
it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy
end tables, check the mail, draw a bath.
The restless energy finally settles
as I pass the mirror. I peer into it.
My nose touches glass. Not much left,
already effaced, not even a cross
to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains
like pinpoints on the forehead. The rest
of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey
amorphousness, to symbolize . . . not much.
Except a wish for those hallowed moments
to be followed by sustaining confidence.
Except spirit, which means to shun its listless
weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest
prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.