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e live in time. We eat its bread, we drink its wine. We divide it up into increments and wear its watches, measuring it out with coffee spoons (as T. S. Eliot put it), in time clocks and daily schedules, in billable hours, regular TV shows. We pass habitually, at times it seems even unconsciously, through our days and nights, weeks and months, calendar years. There are holidays, ritual occasions (some national, some religious), to mark this passing.
Poetry offers us another way of marking time through rhythm. Poetry sounds off letters and syllables, it mesmerizes words and enchants language, it sacramentalizes experience. Poetry cannot offer us literal bread and wine, but it can deliver the words for "bread" and "wine" in such a way that these objects become more than themselves, so that we have them in another way. Poetry offers us spiritual sustenance through the body of words. It does so not through institutional authority but through the unauthorized testimony--the authored revelation--of an individual condensing eternity.
These are experiences so intense they rupture the carefully constructed frame of daily life. These are moments when we seem set aside, set apart, when we stand outside the social frame in another space, on another plane of existence. We exist, paradoxically, both inside and outside time. "We still keep alive," Octavio Paz once put it, "the sensation of some minutes so full that they were time overflowing, a high tide that broke the dikes of temporal succession." Paz called the individual poem "a means of access to pure time, an immersion in the original waters of existence." Whenever we enter the original waters of existence through the properties of language, when words deliver up the sensation of our own radical strangeness, then we have entered the realm of poetry and the sacred.
A boy on a bicycle
is carrying Chinese food
in crisp white cartons
to all the people in all the buildings on the street.
To him, delivering what was ordered,
it does not matter that on each door there is a sign:
no menus, or menus
inside a red circle with a diagonal line,
the international symbol for no menus.
On one, someone has written please.
On another, a comic yet desperate black scrawl:
or we will kill you.
To him, it does not matter
which angel of death passed over
which building on West 48th Street,
which mark on which lintel
saved who from what.
Everyone has been saved from something.
All that matters (now) is that his bicycle is not stolen
from where he chains it to a little sidewalk tree
unfurling leaves as silver-green as money.
At the bottom of the bag,
a wax-paper packet holds golden cookies
folded over fortunes and--what is it?
A small round thing like white coriander seed,
and the taste of it is like wafers made with honey.
Lena Higgins, 92, breastless,
blind, chewing her gums by the window,
is old, but the Great Comet of 1843
is much older than that. Dry land
tortoises with their elephantine
feet are often very old, but giant
sequoias of the western Sierras
are generations older than that.
The first prayer rattle, made
on the savannah of seeds and bones
strung together, is old, but the first
winged cockroach to appear on earth
is hundreds of millions of years
older than that. A flowering plant
fossil or a mollusk fossil in limy
shale is old. Stony meteorites buried
beneath polar ice are older than that,
and death itself is very, very
ancient, but life is certainly older
than death. Shadows and silhouettes
created by primordial sea storms
erupting in crests high above
one another occurred eons ago,
but the sun and its flaring eruptions
existed long before they did. Light
from the most distant known quasar
seen at this moment tonight is old
(should light be said to exist
in time), but the moment witnessed
just previous is older than that.
The compact, pea-drop power
of the initial, beginning nothing
is surely oldest, but then the intention,
with its integrity, must have come
before and thus is obviously
older than that. Amen.
Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind,
I grew old giving thanks.
Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz
and Robert Hass
Forget the sun and the dizzy moths.
Forget the pieces of mockingbird that the cats have left by the side gate.
Forget the hose running under the honeysuckle:
the lemons are offering us holiness again.
They are making us go down on our knees to smell them.
They are making us think of our old loves, to grieve over them.
They are singing every little song, they are conjuring every temptation.
They have been having sex with the oranges and tangerines, the yard
is rife with their pollens, they are sweeter than they even know.
They speak together. They are amazing me with their navels and nipples.
How they flaunt themselves on the spider-veined limbs all pained with thorn.
They are trying to make me lazy, to turn me against my simple work--
they do not want to be plucked from their own dreaming.
They are telling us again how they come each year, bringing secrets
from their other world, and how we are never able to decipher them.
How long now before we put up the aluminum ladder
and pull on the leather-palmed gloves? How long with the shape
and heft of lemon voluptuous in my hand? How long
with the summer in its steep track, and the low cars cruising
out on the avenues, and the drone of the small airplanes
like bees over the far houses?
don't alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
left-over flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
in chill air. Be glad.
They equal their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See how
three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Don't be fooled by a whirring heart,
what you think you know
about it, what you guess. Don't be fooled
by the cries, the little beaks
and claws, their constant hunger.
We're the violent ones.
If even one of us could hold
still enough that one of them
found it safe to stand inside
our finally untroubled
and untroubling gaze, who
wouldn't hear what singing
As if he cannot help himself
from adding up what's lost to the good times
so difficult to have in this world,
Cooke's throaty voice warbles
up out of his reed-thin, man-child body,
half balm, half aching need,
his trademark whoa-ooh-oh-oh-oh
lingered over, drawn out until it hangs in air,
honey-tongued, heavenly, fragile
as consolation. I'm listening
to a 1956 recording, and Cooke, twenty-five,
has already discovered his gift
for making women tremble
and shake with the spirit in church aisles.
He's retelling the Gospel story
of a woman who wants only
to touch the hem of Christ's robe, a song
that will sell twenty-five thousand copies,
propel Cooke into a gospel star,
and begin the long chain of small decisions
that ends with a bullet in his lungs.
Still eight years away--
the $3-and-up motel, the hooker charging
assault, Cooke's cherry red Ferrari
purring in the parking lot
as he slumps to the floor, naked save for
an overcoat and one expensive shoe--
but I can't keep from hearing
the urgency in his voice as the woman, pushed
by the terror of self-recognition,
her flesh dying from the inside
out, staggers through the crowd around Jesus,
and, with only the slightest brush
of her fingers, touches
his robe, believing it will make her whole.
"Who has touched me?" Jesus asks,
and Cooke sings, "It was I-I-I,"
extending the moment in his clear, sustained
yodel, pulling us into the miracle
of how, after night-long drifts
from bar to bar, the slur of zippers and
whiskeyed words dimming the nameless
landscapes of a hundred
identical blackened factories stuck between
billboards and railway bridges,
after a week of days piling
one on another like dirty laundry, Sunday arrives,
and everyone rises and testifies
and sways under the wings
of notes that swoop and glide and make us whole,
if only for the duration of the song.
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