Think of it all as two songs, ours and theirs,
And theirs composed of one high note, too high
For us to hear, and played so constantly, so
Uninterruptedly that they themselves
No longer hear it, if they ever could.
And ours, its crooked passage up and down
The scale of feeling, unforeseen and fated,
Note vanishing as soon as played, and played
By vanishing into the song it is–
How could it not astound them, air, just air
Resisting air, inflected with the sound
Of never-enough, and too-soon, and if-only—
Brief shapes of air between the silences
Only the song articulates by breaking.
And so imagine: it wasn’t the husband blundering
In and snatching the baby from the flames
That could have saved him, but the mother-goddess,
The glistening one herself, who held her hand
Against the heel pad, and the pliant tendon,
The skin the fire would cure now soft as ether—
An ether nearly anything could tear.
Touching the tiny foot she felt afraid,
And liked the feeling. And though the baby kicked
And kicked to feel the fire all over him,
Kicking with all his might to get free
As the flames rose, she only smiled at his strength
And gripped him tighter and would not let go.
The gods laugh, that’s what they’re good at, laughing.
They laugh at the crippled god, his shriveled legs,
His hobbling, and his mother, in a little
Shadow play of suffering at the sight of him,
Her crippled baby, laughs the loudest, and then
Laughs even louder when she hurls him out
Of heaven, and he falls, and while he falls
The laughter echoing around him is
The measure of the pure unbreathable cold
Height of the heaven he’s falling from and through,
Hilarity of light and air, delight’s
Effacement of everything but itself.
And the crippled baby tumbling to earth
In a charade of terror? Don’t let him
Deceive you—he’s a god—he’s laughing too.
The sodium streetlights down the avenue
Were vague globes where the dark turned orange,
And the orange dark. The avenue deserted,
The buildings all abandoned, or soon to be,
I drove, I can’t remember where, or when,
Though it was late, or early, and the night
Was heaviness my headlights had to push
Through slowly, till I passed a side street where
I saw two figures fighting, two men, one pummeling
The other against the hood of a parked car.
A woman nearby screamed, for God’s sake, stop!
And suddenly the hero of the story,
God-crazed with justice, without thinking, I
Slammed on the brakes, and, running hard to throw
Myself between them, shouted Hey Hey Hey,
Suddenly bigger and stronger than I was.
Well, that’s the story, anyway. In the one
I’d later come to tell about what happened,
I don’t exactly say that I was fearless,
Or even that I ran to help; I say
Instead I walked as slowly as I could,
And hoped with every step the guy would stop
Before I got there. I smile then, sheepishly,
As if to say I know it isn’t right
To seem too much the hero of a story,
It makes a better story if you’re not,
And thus makes you a better hero. And so
I then say when I got there I discovered
It wasn’t a fight at all, but only shadows
The street light threw down through a wind-swept tree
Against the car hood, and no woman screamed,
Although, in truth, she did, or might have, I don’t know
Really, I couldn’t say if she was there,
Or not, it was so late, after all, or early,
in the orange darkness of a strange
Dark city I was lost in, and besides
My heart was pounding so hard as I drove past
I couldn’t tell you what it was I saw.
What if they got it wrong, the tribe of singers,
And none of it was true: she never sailed
In the benched ships, she never went to Troy,
And there had been no bed befouled, no god-bound
Slaughterhouse of honor to be sung about?
What if the unsung were the only song,
The simile reversed, the rank and file
Massed for a sleep walk into corpse fires just
A figure now for storm clouds out at sea,
The storm itself a storm and nothing else,
Whipping great breakers onto breakers till
Even miles inland from his mountain top
The goatherd sees it turning day to midnight,
Summer to winter, sees it and shivers, driving
The flock before him to a cave where, safe
And dry now, he can watch the fabulous black
Sky crazed with lightning till the storm has passed.
If they are only moments of ourselves,
Sifted from all that in us isn’t them,
Sifted and distilled, as in a dream,
To monsters of sensation who can give
By taking and take so fully and after feel
So far from thinking anything at all
It hardly matters how the other feels–
Then who was I last night, and who were you?
And who now is it asking, warning, taunting,
What wouldn’t we too suffer or abandon
For the pleasure of that moment of
Our feeling nothing beyond our feeling that?
And haven’t we? And who on earth could blame us?
Hers were the bright veils of disclosures of
What shines by hiding, the no sooner here
Than gone sensation of desire dis-
Entangled from desire and cut loose
As mist about the body, in the heart,
The sight of her a dazzling emptiness
He swirled another mist around, gold mist
Inside of mist, a swirling doorlessness
That nothing but itself could penetrate.
And there inside it, the about to have
And having, and the having had of sleep
All flashed at once like different facets of
The single shining of the thing it was.
We’ve known it too, for moments, you and I,
Each in our own way, together, or with others,
Enclosed, and drifting, arrogant as gods
Who in the gold mist of that complete forgetting
Forget that in the killing fields below
Their shining sons, the fretted over, doomed
Swift Runner, Wily, Breaker of Horses, all
Cry out for them to bless the sword they raise
Against each other, to bless the hacking down,
The butchering, the dragging in the dust,
Not knowing that their parents aren’t their parents now,
Now they’ve never been parents, they have no children,
The only cry they’re hearing is their own.
Murmur of house flies in the window where
The twisted strips hung softening in the heat,
Swaying and trembling as the stuck flies, slimed
And furious, struggled across an inch-wide desert.
Some were caught by both feet while the wings whirred
And buzzed as the body tried to lift free of
What wouldn’t let it. And some with one wing caught,
The other whirring, could only sideways slide
And crawl around itself against itself
Over and over in a ragged circle,
Sliding and crawling till it finally stopped.
But the ones I watched most were the strongest ones,
The most determined, who would fight free of
The paper and then below it on the sill,
With forefeet glued together, and still wet
With glue, for hours would mop the gummed head with
The very gum it tried to mop away.
Sometimes I’d pencil a circle around one and
Then come back later to see if he got clean
And got away. But no one ever did,
Or if he did he only got an inch
Or so beyond the tiny winner’s circle
Of my attention before I’d brush him off
Into the pile of the other once great fighters
Filling the trough between the sill and pane.
Because she was his mother and a god,
Even down at the bottom of the sea
She could hear him crying, sprawled in the dust
Before the body of his friend. Because she was
His mother she could cry and beat her breast;
But because she was a god too, she could rise
As water out of water onto the shore
Where she could cradle him, his god-like head,
The way a mother would, to soothe but not
To save him, no, not that, because, more god
Than mother, trapped in flawlessness, she was
The glistening one, who glistened even then
Among her sisters who like sisters came with her
To cry as only they could cry whose names were
Mist and Fair-isle, Down-from-the-cliffs, First Light,
Bright Spray, Bather of Meadows, Eyes of the World.
The ocean’s river circles the great shield’s rim.
Inside it is a field, a vineyard, vine poles
Weighed down with gold grapes ripening like grapes,
Each dew-wet cluster soon to be stripped and crushed,
Forever soon to be, here where they climb forever,
And down the one footpath the pickers run,
Their wicker baskets swinging by their sides,
Young girls and boys, all running to the field,
And in the midst of them a child is singing,
Plucking such clear notes from a golden lyre
That the gold air all around him, could it hear him,
Playing and singing dirges for the dying
Where nothing dies, even that air would long
To be the air it isn’t, if it could long.
The wave is building as it approaches shore,
Out of itself upon itself, the long
Back steepening with shine until the crest
Curls over and breaks, exploding into spray
Against the backwash of the wave before it–
Earth shaker, steadily, day and night, the surf
Pounds on the shore and, in the suck and drag,
Takes back a little of it, grain by grain,
In time-lapse plundering that in its own
Time, soon, will have it all back, beach and salt
Marsh, river basin and the rising plain–
The ancient citadel itself now less
than the collateral damage of a moment,
crushed in the giant downbeat of its crashing
into the silt the idiot force will carry
over the earth and into it and out
again, ten thousand years away, beside
another ocean in another field
where an old man sees two white stones propping up
a dead tree stump, not rotted through by rain,
and wonders if it’s the grave mound of a man
dead too long to remember, or just two stones
marking the finish line of a forgotten track
Or its halfway point where the homestretch starts.
After the son dies, or the father, or the friend,
And the corpse fires all burn out; after the smoke,
The visible stench, so pleasing to the gods,
Has risen to the gods who send it back as black
Confetti, raining what began as men
Today upon the men who will tomorrow
Honor them by making more of them;
After the play hunt and the play kill of
The funeral games, and the sacrifice and feast,
When the watch fires gutter and go out and the whole
Field blackens into outer space—it’s then
And only then that even the most enraged
Can sleeping find a refuge from his name,
And for a little while the name drifts free
Of epithet and set piece into sound
No one is making. Think of a schoolroom between
Class when a teacher wipes the blackboard clean
And claps the two erasers and releases
The disarticulated powder of
A day of rules —think how they float now, the words
The men are made of, while the armies sleep,
By the wine-dark sea till the rosy-fingered dawn
Between books, before the page is turned.
Acknowledgement: Section 3 (“The sodium streetlights down the avenue”) of this poem first appeared in TriQuarterly.
Alan Shapiro is the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including, most recently, Night of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin). He is a former recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Shapiro will publish his first novel, Broadway Baby (Algonquin), later this month.