Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2011 v10n1
print version

Elegy with an Angel at its Gate

1. Muir in the Wilderness
We were the uncountable stars, at first.
We were nothing at first, and the light
Of what was already over still in it.

We were never the color-blind grasses,

We were never the pattern of the snake
Fading into the pattern of the leaves,
Never the empty clarity one glimpses

In water falling, in water spreading itself
Into the thin white veil of what is never there,
The moment clear and empty as a heaven

Someone has just finished sweeping

Before the moment clouds over and again
Becomes only an endless falling of water
Onto stone, and falls roaring in the ears

Until they ring, and the throat suddenly
Swollen with the eucharist of failure,
A host invisible and present everywhere,

Or, anyway, present everywhere we are.

And one by one we vanished from the place,
Vanished from it by becoming part
Of everyone, part of the horses bending

Their necks to graze, part of every law,
Part of each Apache heirloom for sale
In a window, part of the wedding cake,

Part of the smallpox epidemic, part of God,
Part of each blind crossroad, part
Of the unending rain turning to snow,

Part of each straw in the lighted,
Open doors of boxcars as they pass,
Part of the wars, part of each silk piece

Of lingerie, part of what can never be
Untangled, evaluated, cross-examined, part
Of the drive by, part of the young woman

Brushing her hair, part of the lover,
Part of the tenderest parting of flesh,
Part of what must part flesh forever,

And part of what holds it together,
Part of each one watching, with an open
Mouth, the movie at the drive-in, part

Of the slaughterhouse with its fly-covered
Windows, part of the scent of linen, part
Of what holds the limbs of the oldest trees

Up and out through summer after summer,
Part of the fork in the road where we took
Both directions at once to disappear in them,

Into the noise that cuts us in half, part
Of the noise, part of what doesn’t come back,


Indifferent dog, indifferent horse, indifferent

Fly riding its back beneath the trees,
Led by the indifferent stable boy who hates
The girl who rides the horse because she’s

Rich, because he reads Marx by candlelight,
Is in love with her, is leaving tomorrow
To harvest sugarcane in Cuba, is a part

Of a part of a vast revolution, of an age
Of revolutions that will free him, free us,
Free everyone, put all of us to one side,

To be part of another, larger thing that ends
By becoming a movie about it, the popcorn,
The audience sitting there watching it

With their mouths open, the big screen there
In front of them, each one a part of it
Designed to stroll languidly out

Into the hot, impossible evening in the city,
Where the signs that flash on and off above
The stores, reflected in windows and off the cars,

Resemble the piping on the ushers’ uniforms.

2. Bunny Mayo in the New World
We brought the shape of the angel with us
In the shapes of women and in the shapes
Of ships because we trusted only what we

Could feel by hand, beneath us and above us.
And sure some among us had seen angels,
In the blacksmith’s empty fire in the street

With no one there. And sure someone felt an angel
In the shape of the mad daisy the hammer
In his hand became before he was emancipated

From his troubles and his flesh was left hanging
From limbs of trees and little gateposts
In the rain—as a lesson to us all—

The kind of thing the British made us memorize,
Generation after generation after generation
Until it was knowledge not worth knowing.

Larry Doyle touched an angel once, he said,
In the woods, and said its back was thick,
Thick and fat and flat. And look at what

Happened to your Larry Doyle at the end,
Gone to hell in an Easter Basket with
Your permission, Mrs. Munna Mayo.

We was just two tents of flesh over bones.
Still, it was a surprise how easy it was
To leave the place on a warm spring afternoon,

And clatter over these long planks into
The ship with its hull shaped like famine itself,
Angel and woman and famine taking the same shape

And crowding one another in and out of it.
To follow the path those shapes kept
Disappearing on, I knew where that led,

I’d seen asylums grazing the sides of hills.
More of ‘em around the City every day.
You see an angel in a bar in North Beach Love

You keep your cake hole shut about it.
Remember, a lie here and there is a veniality,
Forgettable and necessary as sin unless

You’ve become overattached to your state
Of unemployment and think there’s a sandwich
Under every pillow; otherwise, where it says

Experience on the application, you’re better off
Letting your imagination fill in the blank.
But seeing things is another matter altogether.

Here in the Sunset it is. It’s not allowed.

3. Stevens
This was one idea, like water seen through glass,
Then like a water seen through completely,
Seen through and regretted and longed for

In a downpour in Hartford where he sat,
Piano and attorney of the soul, turning
Angels into air, the air into a mirror

Reflecting everything and the nothing
In everything, so that when he dozes off
In the chair, the manicurist bent over

His nails, filing them, the sound of the file
Is the sound he made as a boy, running
Over the dry beach grass on a winter day,

One step ahead of the quiet, one step ahead
Of what is overtaking him, the background chorus
Of semis on the interstate, and their new god,

Shirtless and asleep in the trailer parks,
The treeless slums on the outskirts of the slums
With trees in them, trees the past stuck there?

But he’s just a man asleep. He could easily be
The pages of the newspaper spreading around him
In the yard, he could easily have been

No more than the illiterate light of a warm
Afternoon in winter shining at that moment
In which I suspended all my judgments

Of this place, because they were not mine.
But have it your way, for there wasn’t any us,
There was only the empty light and a path

Running beneath the trees with no one on it,
No sound of a keel scraping the sand
of some New World, no coinage of what’s sexual.

The new god is a revolver in the sun.

4. Like the Scattered Beads of a Dime Store Rosary
One August afternoon, in the midst of lying
To my counselor to get things over with,
The counselor appointed by the court,

A nice enough young guy with a cold,
Too many cases, and stains on his shirt,
I thought of him, of how the whole point

Was not to be trapped by circumstances,
Not to spend a night in a jail in a Day-Glo
Orange jumpsuit, and then walk home past

Houses flaking into paint, into the pieces
Of some puzzle the children have abandoned,
Each lighted porch a history of desolation.

The point is to live beyond all jurisdiction,
To be the uncountable stars again, the shape
Of the animal running through tall grasses.

It is too late for either of us now.
Angel in the gate, walk with me sometimes,

Or whatever it is you do, air stepping
Or gliding through air, as far as you want,
As far as eternity is, in our poor neighborhood,

With the toys spreading over the lawns behind you,
And the children gone, and the sills they leaned
Out of, once . . . thin, dry, freckled as leaves,

And framed by a house that is too delicate now,
Too brittle to withstand the lightest touch,
Or any mere kingdom’s nowhere breath,

With the light coming back to one star
In the late summer dusk after another
Until at last the sky above it resembles

The vast rigging of some lighted ship
Drifting slowly out of reach. Come with me,
Stray a little from your task, which is set

In stone, where you must stare out, stupidly
Pretentious, with your frown and Roman hairstyle,
And with ears that might double as handles;

Walk with me a little, just for company,
As far as your owner allows, or as far as you
Want, in our poor neighborhood; be the air

Cutting through an empty world of air,
Be the cold air of an angel, older, thinner
Than fire, like something almost remembered

From a childhood swept clean by fire,
Spreading its wise chill over my flesh
Until my flesh is my own and not my own;

For a moment, and then for one more moment,
Let me belong to another; let me step
From the snare, the lie, the trap

That would have me believe only the empty scrape
Of a man’s steps as he walks home,
As he begins to hear that sound and no other,

Begins to hear, in the ancient trees he passes,
Only the echoing of his steps;
If only for the company, walk with me a little

Through the litter and catcalls of this place.
With the wrong, other angel trapped in stone,
With the heaven behind you on fire,

So that I might recognize my own voice
When no one speaks, so that I might know
Who touches me in that realm where fingers

Are extinct and no one’s there, the place
This one with its trees once whispered of,
Once granted us, gave us a path to

That ran under the trees and the infinite
Whispering of what we really desired,
The dry, white path empty under the leaves

As we turned from it, and walked back
To the ship with the silly carving of the body
On its bow, and lost the place—

Lost it forever in a matter of a few seconds—
So that its melody might run through my limbs,
And loosen them, a lovely dust,

And sunlight through the windows of other lovers—
As yet unborn, their faces pressed against
The windows of the cells in the rush of the blood

Like faces pressed against the windows of a train—

Walk a few steps more with me,

Show me the house I must still be living in,
Where eternity was no more than my hand
Scurrying across a sheet of paper,

Kindling blent to the music of its hush;
Walk with me a little way past it, now,
With the wrong, other angel trapped in stone,

With the heavens behind you on fire.  end

return to top