16 October 2010

Lisa Olstein

[from Lisa Olstein's Lost Alphabet, Copper Canyon, 2009]

[white spring]

I am working on a specimen so pale it is like staring at snow from the bow of a ship in fog. I lose track of things -- articulation of wing, fineness of hair -- as if the moth itself disappears but remains as an emptiness before me. Or, from its bleakness, the subtlest distinctions suddenly increase: the slightest shade lighter in white begins to breathe with a starkness that's arresting, and the very idea of color terrifies. It has snowed and the evening is blue. The herders look like buoys, like waders the water has gotten too deep around. They'll have to swim in to shore. Their horses are patient. They love to be led from their stalls. They love to sharpen their teeth on the gate. They will stand, knees locked, for hours.

. . .

[newcomers to the field of endeavor]

There's something dead in the road. No one will touch it. The specimen I'm studying won't sit still. I can no longer do it: swab the ether, drop it into the flapping jar. Ilya watches me from across the room. If I lay the jar on its side with the lid removed eventually the moth will slow its beating. A rinse of sugar-water at the rim draws it to the edge, keeps it there drinking, for a moment, as if from a great glass flower. I usually have time to record family and size, primary markings. This one moves quickly, lights for barely a second at a time. Soon it will fly off and come to rest on some other surface in the room, usually the rough ceiling, which is becoming winged with them.

. . .


Moths ride the room as if a meadow. As if rainfall, hover, nectar, soar. I close my eyes. I feel them, the smell of them, the smell of me. Surely this insight is a defect. I will not cherish the pain or need it. As if to covet any part would render increase when it is clear that wishing is nothing. But there are patterns; parts of my brain gain voice, grow louder. Small doors of perception open, close.

. . .

[from this vantage point your view will be clear]

Any shift in philosophy introduces the need for new habits of body. I am learning how gently to lift them, to turn them swiftly and rest them again, on their wings, wings to table, which I sand smooth each morning. To do it with no fluttering, with as little as possible. It is a strange gymnastics, their bodies, mine: what to grasp, when to release, the nature of a turn, the will of the whole channeled into the fingertips. It takes all my strength. It is necessary to practice, to imagine myself the moth, my arms its wings, my legs gone.

Young Smith

[from Young Smith's In A City You Will Never Visit, Black Zinnias, 2008]

She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul

                    (Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
                    "What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief")

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume --
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
                          Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search --
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.

The Properties of Light

xv. illuminance

Beneath the aureole
always the umbra --

that "blackest region
of a shadow" --

though beneath
the umbra, as beneath

the cysted flocculi
of the sun, always

a deeper light
that gives the dark

its burnish -- and it is
in this subtle gleaming

of the black,
in this quiet here

beneath the absence,
that the light achieves

its first and only
deliverance from grief.

02 October 2010

Francis Jammes

[from Francis Jammes in World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, eds Katharine Washburn & John S. Major, tr. Richard Wilbur, Norton, 1997]

A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys

                                      to Máire and Jack

When I must come to you, O my God, I pray
It be some dusty-roaded holiday,
And even as in my travels here below,
I beg to choose by what road I shall go
To Paradise, where the clear stars shine by day.
I'll take my walking-stick and go my way,
And to my friends the donkeys I shall say,
"I am Francis Jammes, and I'm going to Paradise,
For there is no hell in the land of the loving God."
And I'll say to them: "Come, sweet friends of the blue skies,
Poor creatures who with a flap of the ears or a nod
Of the head shake off the buffets, the bees, the flies . . ."

Let me come with these donkeys, Lord, into your land,
These beasts who bow their heads so gently, and stand
With their small feet joined together in a fashion
Utterly gentle, asking your compassion.
I shall arrive, followed by their thousands of ears,
Followed by those with baskets at their flanks,
By those who lug the cars of mountebanks
Or loads of feather-dusters and kitchen-wares,
By those with humps of battered water-cans,
By bottle-shaped she-asses who halt and stumble,
By those tricked out in little pantaloons
To cover their wet, blue galls where flies assemble
In whirling swarms, making a drunken hum.
Dear God, let it be with these donkeys that I come,
And let it be that angels lead us in peace
To leafy streams where cherries tremble in air,
Sleek as the laughing flesh of girls; and there
In that haven of souls let it be that, leaning above
Your divine waters, I shall resemble these donkeys,
Whose humble and sweet poverty will appear
Clear in the clearness of your eternal love.