[from Denise Levertov's Tesserae: Memories & Suppositions, New Directions, 1995]
The Sack Full of Wings
When my father was a little boy in Russia an old pedlar used to come by from time to time, carrying a big sack over his shoulder. Sometimes he would be seen in the streets and outlying districts of the town of Orsha, my father's home; sometimes when my father was taken to the larger city of Vitepsk to visit his grandparents and uncles, there again he would glimpse the pedlar, trudging along, always carrying the bulky sack. My father did not wonder what was in the sack, for he believed he knew: it was full of wings, wings which would enable people to fly like birds. (Of my father's great-grandfather, the Rav of Northern White Russia, it was told that although when young he had abjured the temptation to learn the language of birds, yet in old age he understood all that they said.)
When my father was ten years old another boy was born in Vitepsk who grew up to become a great and renowned painter: Marc Chagall. He and my father never knew one another, but Chagall depicted the old pedlar and his sack. He is flying, though not with wings. Perhaps the constant burden of such a concentration of wings was transmuted into the ability to levitate without stretching and flapping a single pair of them. At all events, it is clearly the same man, exactly as my father used to describe him when I was a child in London and he a middle-aged Anglican parson. I didn't discover until after my father's death in 1954 that Chagall had shared his recognition of the sack's magic.