Fatal Birds of the Soul


Night. Night. Spring sleeps on ice below,
within the vaulted limestone corridors,
awaiting a birth. The Poet hesitates
to summon an equinoctial tempest,
for soon enough the seeds and homing birds
will make their own way back, unhelped.
He calls instead on Night to season him:
Night with its trembling hopes is his;

not Spring, whose promises are often false
(the open seed is never what the flowers
prophesied); not Summer, when green
and sun grow fat in gluttony of light;
not Fall, whose frost reaps only solitudes;
not even this Winter is really his.
(The glittering ice-eyed avenue cracks
at the edge of a thaw, more pastry-faced
than glacial). To Night alone,
the waxing-waning-equipoised base
of the spun year, he takes his oath.

Night. Night! Wherever his shadow falls,
its kingdom precedes him;
wherever his pen dyes paper black,
Night reaches up to etch itself.


Lamp-lit, air in a tremolo of antique
instruments, he incubates the moment,
the blast of elegance that renders vowels
oversize, enlarging thought and form.

Who, if he cried, would hear among
the order of Angels? Which one among their
multitudes would answer him? (One,
he would guess, whose amplitude
he had already loved in resemblances!)

Love at first sight — what is it
but the eye-dart of the un-met Angel?

And what if one of these beings
should suddenly arrive and press
its form and frame against his heart?
His breath would stop. He’d fade into
the strength of its starker essence,
blinded and numbed by possibilities.

All those he ever thought he knew
enough to love them, are swept away,
in the light-blast of a single sentience.

There is no God, yet Angels stride
the emptiness of stars. He apprehends
that Beauty, angel-possessed abstractedness,
is but a clue to that deep nullity;
for Beauty is nothing but tentative Terror
he’s still just able to bear. Why he adores
it so is that its lassitude deigns not
to destroy him. Even one Angel is terrible.

He looks up, and looks at it,
and for a while, returns to writing.
There is a poem, after all, to finish,
the summoned inner voice must have
its full until the rounded line is reached.

His reticence, as the Angel watches
patiently, lets it suffice that such Beauty
is seen from the corner of one eye;
it is well that he does not speak to It,
letting the pen invoke his terror,
spare him the muffled croak of sobbing.

(O Love that has gone before,
to and beyond the tomb,
this is no harbinger of reunion!
We who have lived with raven
and crow and the lurking vulture
take no comfort from wingbeats.)

Night. Night. Let the Angel come sideways,
halo’d at the edge of vision, winged
but still as the sculpted head of Hermes
that flickers on his candled book-case.

Let the Angel come gradually. Let him wait
until the pen is closed, the manuscript
turned over so the dead may read it
as their faces press upward; let it wait
until he stands, and bows & makes inquiry
on what business an Angel should be about.


Night. Night. Wary of those who come
with just a midnight’s yearning, he waits
for sign or sigil, a blazon’d sword or staff.
Nothing. White dust in air would be
as vague, white chalk on board left ghost
by hurried erasure, as legible. What use,
this Angel, if the being is what he appears?
Men have given him little, books much.
What could an incorporeal creature tell him?
How readily these sentient ones,
these brutish Gabriels with perfect teeth,
perceive our need, and our world-malaise.
Here one moment, and gone the next,
Angels alienate; they make us doubt
the truth of the sight-interpreted world.

Words up his sleeves, the poet knows
how artfully we weave our sights into transcendent cloaks.
There lingers, perhaps, and taking root
for more than its outward worth
the Ordinary made Sublime:
some tree on a hill, to be seen
each day with new utility and hope;
the counterfeit loves that arrived
during yesterday’s walk, now pressed
between denials and dried;

add, too, the old housebroken loyalty
of habits that liked him and stayed
and never gave notice, and, finally,
that half-a-world that he envelops at dusk,
already his kingdom with no admittance
required by benediction or grace, his,
the Night, his the deep Night,
when pin-prick wind
feeds on his face from cosmic spaces.
He looks at it; the Angel regards him.
There is no gesture of going, or staying.
He has not offered it a chair, nor poured
a second cup of tea (as if a phantom
needed rest or stimulant!). It has not smiled
or offered a word of comfort. Male
or female, being of dark or light,
mute if messenger, closed hands
and clenched jaw not of caresses
made or expected, for whom
would this dis-enchanter
stay? longed for by all, painfully draped
from trees for lonely hearts to admire —
if it is not about love, what is it?

Somewhere in a ruined abbey
is a black, unyielding bell,
its clapper of life long gone, so that
nothing save the hammer-blow
of final Apocalypse can ring it.

He thinks, Can this be lighter for lovers?
Does the Angel come with a clarion,
the high trilling of silver bells?
Go off then, he thinks. Your business
is with some fool in love, not me.

Lovers! They only deceive themselves!
When will they learn? Throw out your
loneliness: it is but air from the absence of arms to encircle you.
Exhale the idea. Gift it to birds —
at least they will use the lift of it for flight.


Springs needed him. Stars arching up
from winter sleep awaited the names
with which he’d anchor them. What
is a poet for? Waves from the past
anticipated the nights he’d call them back.

Sometimes, on city street, he’d hear
a violin surrender itself to bow and arm
behind an open window-way. What
is a poet for? to make of anything
and everything a Heaven, all with words;
to beat down Hell, if that is what
the story indicates. This was entrusted him,
and to a few others before and after.

But he seldom equaled it. Was he
not always led off by expectations,
made the fool by mere coincidence,
as though all this were signaling
there was someone he was supposed
to love? (He stalked immensities
on his pages, but lovers stalked him,
their shaggy sentiments going in and out,
and sometimes even staying
until the sparrows awoke him).

If even one were love, why did
those pages piled high not earn
and keep some fair companion? Why now
this incorporeal Angel accusing him?


One arm extended, the Angel advances,
and places on the poet’s paper’d table,
a single, silver arrow, fletched in black.
No blood has stained its point or shaft.

He gazes in terror and fascination:
no sword is as mighty as his wielded pen,
but as for Love’s arrow —

When longing seized him, late at night
in the final ache before sleeping, he sang
of great lovers: the fame of all they felt
is never immortal enough that he could not
add to its luster among the fixed stars.
He almost envied some of them (Antony
and his Egyptian queen, dead Romeo
and expiring Juliet, the unforgettable and
unpursued Beatrice, leading Dante on),
especially the forsaken ones enduring
beyond the need for requited love. Each verb
of his verse aspired to unattainable praise
for them. He did not mourn the Hero,
but Lovers whom we have utterly lost.
Exhausted Nature takes them back
without transforming them again,
dead in a sunken city,
dead in a ruined tomb,
dead despite the ascent to Purgatory’s
heights. Dead at the beginning
of love instead of at the end
of a long life of mutual devotion.

He held their valiant possibilities
and revered them; wished that his own
old sufferings could yield such fruit.

To one afar, who shunned him,
to another, already entombed,
had he not written in his lines,
In Love’s name I abjure you.
Let me instead be like
those valiant doomed lovers.
Is it not time I freed myself
from you, and, quivering, endured?

But there, the Arrow before him.
If in his name it had flown,
it had reached no one;
if aimed for him, it lay there
unshot, unclaimed and pure.

Where was the bow, the quiver,
the bold arm tensed, the eye
with perfect aim, the string
whose one vibration would fell him?

The Arrow endured the string,
fell somewhere where the Angel
acquired it and came as messenger.
In this, its conciliated leap
it was much more than itself.

An arrow, motionless, is sad.
It knows that staying
is nothingness.

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