The Open Window [excerpt: one poem from a series]
Wittgenstein, determined to find
the window's perfect proportion, decided on ten to one,
height to width
but like a coastline,
a window is infinite, its perimeter
increasing forever without ever surpassing its frame
has everything to do with sight as exceeding. For centuries
they thought light
was something that flew out from the eye, the reaching child
had everything to do
with a windowsill on which sits a shell.
(Cole Swensen, from The Glass Age)
From the Vacuum Tube
Toward the painting Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
In a carnival tent, near a village square,
on planks purpled by beef blood and a swirl
of velvet show cloths, a crystal tube shimmers,
long as a chimneysweep's leg. At its top, a coin
and feather wait, their brass clip catching the light
as a crowd gathers. And then they are falling together —
the guinea, the feather — through the airlessness,
through the vacuum space the silent crowd
seems almost to increase, each stunned breath sucked
in, in. When they land together on the tube's
glass floor — the feather, the coin — when they settle
simultaneously, someone curses the devil, someone
bites the coin, someone clips it again
in the tube's slim throat, and the falling
continues, guinea and feather, through the seconds
and days, through the decades,
until Wright of Derby pockets the coin, plumps
the feather to a white bird. He has painted
the glass — more bowl than tube —
and the slender pump, the solemn crowd,
one moon at the window, one moon
in the breast of the dying bird, slumped
on the bowl's glass floor. A girl hides her head
in a candlelit hand. A man looks up to an opening wing,
imagines the lifeless weight of the bird
falling on through the airlessness. No papery sway,
no tumble, just head and breast and tail and wing
falling together simultaneously — a movement so still
in its turbulence, he can find in his world no
correspondent: not the wavering journeys of snow
or sound, not the half-steps of dust or moonlight —
and the bird not beauty, the movement not fear,
although there in the candle's copper light, both
fall equally across his upturned face.
(Linda Bierds, from The Seconds)
All the Ghosts
Their dream decelerates our spinning planet
one millimeter-per-second per century
until they have matched velocity with us
and can stride into our lives and live again —
a matter of eons, nothing to them, so patient,
since the massed wish of all the dead
is only the slide of a hem across a floor,
or the difference on your face of milder air.
It is their fate, they murmur. It is anyway their way
to shun the theatrical or gothic gesture.
They would not rattle chains if chains could hold them.
It is the wind, so much stronger, that slams doors.
They are heard, if ever, in the dramas of your dreams
where you cannot tell still voices from your own,
intervening, if at all, in the neural substrate,
shunting a lone election Maybe or Maybe not.
Theirs are evasive and oblique persuasions,
stone by stream, for example, snows on outer planets,
undetected constants haunting physicists,
eddies where time runs sidelong or remembers.
Their delight is yielding, wind within the wind,
to faint velleities or fainter chances,
for they find among death's consolations, few enough,
the greatest is, to be mistaken for what happens.
When your eyes widen, they are surging to observe
the evening's trend to mauve, and all you have chosen
so slowly you are unaware of choosing.
And you may feel them feel, amused or touched
(history has not been long enough to decide which)
when your blunt patience emulates their own,
when you sense, like them, all fate might well be focused
in the exact glint of a right front hoof uplifted,
when you wait, as they must, for that crisis of precision
when it will make all the difference in the world
whether a particular petal's side-slipping fall
hushes the rim of a glass, or misses.
(James Richardson, from The Best American Poetry 2005)
A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, "Hand me the sack,"
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?
(Jane Hirshfield, from The Best American Poetry 2005)
Some things the book doesn't mention —
the way she would walk the walls daily
and compass the horizon, Brittany
beyond it, and beyond that, island upon
island to the edge of the world walled
like a garden. Or how she'd woken
that night, to hear his breathing turn
like a change in the weather, swell
of a slack sail, the first whisper of rime
on a ripened fruit's skin, and saw him
adrift in the sheets, straight and naked
as a needle. And saw the shape of his
dreams, something like a ship's bow-wave
going on ahead, and saw, because love
was different then, how he'd think of her,
if at all, as the catch and drag of her skirt,
life's element of resistance: the skin
of an apple to the teeth, frostbitten grass
to the feet, a horse's straw-sweet breath
in air, or hawk in crewel work: like
the thing he lacked. And how she'd be
the heavier for it, but for all that, how
they'd have twinned, his idea and hers,
like sail and wind, wind and wing,
if life had been different then. Or still
like tapestry and needle: the turning
under, and the stitching in.
(Jane Griffiths, from Icarus on Earth)
And one old one of mine, since Paul Muldoon particularly liked it:
I’d wanted to build it of aspen—
one wide wood united, like fungi,
interlinked by mingling roots—
a single whole, that would enclose and frame
our future home. But each trunk, taken alone
was too slender, too lithe to be planed.
We had to go with oak. I decided
better to dwell in than on it.
The fire devoured all. Like any frame
of primitive joints and untempered beams
it was just a matter of time, the blaze
insatiable, its decadent, dancing tongues—
there was an ecstasy in it, some phantom glimmer
even as we watched all we’d ever owned
dissociate into memories and drifting smoke.
In the end, nothing was left
but a stone Buddha, seated amid the ashes,
that canny smile on his lips.
Building again, I’m coming to believe
that all our dreams and constructs are
is a reusing of materials. I think
I may have felt this way before.
The burns have healed, leaving
their crimson imprint, an autumnal birthmark
the shape of a pressed leaf.
Waking in the middle of life, I imagine
a half-birthed sloth, somewhere
high up in the vaulted canopy—
by magnificent instinct, pulling itself
into the amazing world.