after reading Rilke
No angel speaks to me.
And though the wind
plucks the dry leaves
as if they were so many notes
of music, I can hear no words.
Still, I listen. I search
the feathery shapes of clouds
hoping to find the curve of a wing.
And sometimes, when the static
of the world clears just for a moment
a small voice comes through,
is its own language, it says.
Along the indifferent corridors
of space, angels could be hiding.
for R. J. P.
In Chekhov's Three Sisters, everyone
is infected with terminal boredom.
When Irena says her soul is like a locked
piano without a key, I want
to tell her that playing the piano too
the fingers can wander up and down
the scales, going nowhere.
And when the talk leads always back
to Moscow, where she longs to be,
I wish I could remind Olga of the cold,
unyielding streets where even the ice hardens
to the color of stone. Sitting here, watching
someone I love slowly die, I see
how anguish and boredom can be married
for years, an ill-assorted couple, suffocating
in each other's arms. I watch Masha
at the curtain call, the tears still streaming
down her face as she moved from one self
to the other through the wall
of applause, a kind of backwards birth.
And I wondered where all that feeling
came from if not some deep pool
where one can be dragged and dragged
beneath the surface but never quite drown.
Russia...I thought, Russia...a country
my grandfather thought he had escaped from
but which he wore always
like the heavy overcoat in the story
by Gogol, or the overcoat he wrapped me in
one night when the grown-ups kept on talking,
and I shivered and yawned in an ecstasy
of boredom that made my childhood
seem a vast continent I could only escape from
hidden in a coat, in steerage, and at great risk.
In the book of shadows
the first page is dark
and the second darker still,
but on the next page,
and the next, there is a flickering
as if the shadows are dancing
with themselves, as if they are dancing
with the leaves they mimic.
Before Narcissus found the pool
it was his shadow he loved,
the way we grow to love our deaths
when we meet them
in dreams. For as we turn
the pages of the book
each page grows heavier
under our numbed fingers, and only
the shadows themselves
only the shadows welcome us
beneath their cool canopy.
for R. H.
Baskerville, Perpetua, Garamond:
I thought you were naming a dance,
but the only minuet is typeface moving
across the page, and you in your apron bowing--
journeyman to the letter, apprentice to the word.
The smell of ink, like the smell of bread
signifies morning, a bleeding of color
at the horizon, the horizon itself
a line of boldface too distant to read.
In this world there are as many letters
as leaves, as birds, as flecks of ash
whole armies of alphabets march across
margins of pavement, margins of snow.
Now there's a smudge on your forehead
where your hand strayed
making those architectural gestures,
the Pleasure of our Company is requested,
the ceremonial announcement of birth or death.
Your press is as fruitful as a wine press,
the sound of its motion like surf, hour after hour
reams of paper spreading their deckle-edged foam.
At night you distribute the type as carefully
as if you were placing your daughters in their beds.
Dark enters, a time before language,
but the sky is printed in white indelible stars,
with God's own signature--that thumbprint of moon,
like the printer's colophon
on heaviest Mohawk Superfine.
LE SENSE DE LA NUIT
Magritte, oil on canvas, 1927
Here are some clues
to The Meaning of Night:
pieces of bright foam estranged
from the sea; a woman wrapped
in a cage of winglike shapes;
the formal back of one man twinned
to the front of another--
or are they really the same man,
and could he be the undertaker of day?
If there is a meaning to night
is it contained here, or must we search
through the dreams that lap
behind our closed lids as we sleep
like the small waves in this painting
which, when the day is over
and the museum shuts down,
go back to the dark sea
they came from?
NEAR THE SACRIFICIAL SITE
On an afternoon like this
I want permission to forget
the many varieties of cruelty.
I want the only figures of the past to be
ancestors of these wild
poppies, of this chestnut tree
whose blossoms break through
the hardest wood. I know that cruelty
flourishes just down the road, persistent
as these gnarled roots which overrun
the partly ruined woods.
But on an afternoon like this--
Old Master clouds and waterfalls of light--
I ask for the mercies of amnesia.
I want to open myself to the sun
which I know has killed
with its munificence,
to smell the foxglove
with no thought of the poison
hidden in its leaf.
Linda Pastan's tenth book of poems, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems: 1968-1998 was a finalist for The National Book Award. From 1991 to 1995 she served as Poet Laureate of Maryland. Her new book, The Last Uncle, has recently been published by Norton. She is the winner of the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
credits: our thanks to W.W. Norton & Company.
Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 2005.
To read more by this author:
Linda Pastan: The Whitman
Linda Pastan: The Wartime Issue
Linda Pastan: DC Places Issue
Evolving City Issue
Pastan: The Museum Issue