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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 163-166
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Owl

John Hollander

Proceedings of the ALSC: III. Poets and Their Critics

Owl

Now that the owl-light--in the time between
Dog and wolf, as some call it--ends, we wait
   As you alight on an unseen
       Branch to interrogate

The listener and the rememberer;
Lost outlines heighten--as last colors fade--
   The sounder darkness you confer
       Upon the spruce's shade.

Deluded by the noonlight's wide display
Of everything, our vision floats through thin
   Spaces of ill-illumined day:
       How we are taken in

By what we take in with our roving eyes!
Your constant ones, if moved to track or trace,
   Take their head with them, lantern-wise
       Taking heed, keeping face

In the society of night, and keeping
Faith with the spirit of pure fixity
   That sets the mind's great heart to leaping
       At what you more than see. [End Page 163]

Medusa's visage gazed our bodies to
Literal stone unshaded: your face, caught
   In our glance widely eyes us through,
       Astonishing our thought.

You who debated with the nightingale
The rectitude of northern wisdom, cold
   Against the love-stuff of the tale
       The laid-back south had told;

And yet who stood amid the lovely, thick
Leaves of the ivy, while in all their folly
   The larks and thrushes sought the prick
       And berries of the holly;

You who confounded the rapacious crow
Thus to be favored by the great sky-eyed
   Queen of the air and all who know,
       Now ever by her side;

With silent wing and interrogative
Cry in lieu of a merely charming song,
   You sound the dark in which you live
        Perched above right and wrong.

Resonance is not vacancy: although
He could hear nothing in your hollow howls
    But woe and his own guilt, Thoreau
       Rejoiced that there were owls.

Scattered and occasional questionings
With here and there too late a warning shout,
   Wisdom arises on the wings
       Of darkness and of doubt.

Where in day's vastnesses does truth reside?
In noon's uncompromising light and heat
   When even our own shadows hide
       Under our very feet?

Or in the hidden center of the quick
Resilient dark on which your narrowed sight
   So pointedly alights to pick
       Not the day, but the night, [End Page 164]

Its fruitful flower, petaled a hundredfold?
Oh it is there, truth, with the poor blind prey
   Trembling with prescience or cold
        Waiting for how your way

Of well-tuned suddenness and certitude
Tight-strung and execution highly wrought
   Leads to the pounced-on object, food
       For something beyond thought,

By overlooking nothing, overseeing
In all the stillness hidden, tiny motions
   Squirming with the life of being
       Inferences and notions.

With patient agency the beak and claws
Of fierce sublime awareness pluck it clean
   Deriving what for us are laws
       Governing the unseen.

Under torn canvas we put out to sea
Trusting, though puzzled by what glows above,
   To something like philosophy
       To be the helmsman of

Life (but whose life?). Your lessons of the land,
Down-to-tree, then, if not -to-earth, indict
   Our helplessness to understand
       Just what we are at night.

Immensities of starlight told us lies
Of what and where we are; but, we allow,
   Drunk with the Milky Way, our eyes
       Are on the Wagon now,

Fugitive slaves, leaving despair for dread
As if in search of the cold, freeing North,
   Keep gazing steadily ahead
       Keep on Keep knowing forth

You urge us, as your silences address
The power that Minerva chose you for:
   Great-winged, far-ranging consciousness
       Now come to rest in your [End Page 165]

Olympian attentiveness that finds
The affrighted heartbeat on the ground, perceives
   The flutter of substances, the mind's
       Life in the fallen leaves.

Yale University

  • A Criticism of "Owl"

  • Hollander's Response to the Criticism

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