As letters of the alphabet
fall from the rafters,
from the arms of God,
gather them up
into as many pockets as you have.
They will be very small,
all but weightless on their own.
This will take some time.
Let the rest of them
whirl in the offstage breeze
or drift like snow
in your hair,
on your tongue,
on your shoulders and feet.
Arrange them if you want.
Let them arrange themselves.
By and by
you will have all the words
that have ever been spoken or sung.
Some of the letters
will arrive as fire
and fall as ash.
Some of the letters
will be silent.
Those are the ones to use
to make a wish.
for Remy Charlip, on his birthday
Note: In the early 1980s, artist, dancer, choreographer, writer and teacher Remy Charlip began creating a series of “Imaginary Dances,” in which a reader on stage would describe elaborate works to be performed only in the audience’s minds.
Man on the street comes up to me and says,
Now you’re a fine upstanding example, sir—
Fine example of what, I’d like to know,
I shrug—I’ve never known what to do with praise—
but he’s embarrassed at himself, the shirt
and pants he’s slept in, his smell, the upward flow
of pavement-crushed hair he’s trying to pat down,
and nothing to show for sixty years on earth—
except that he wants to say, and has chosen me,
that he’s ninety days today without a drink—
this time may it be for good. You’re not alone
in that, I answer, and blessings on us both—
I’m sober this morning myself. Yes, I can see
it, he says.—We could be each other, I think.
As if you are to
be a saint for us now and
receive our prayer, as
if set behind a
pane of glass like an icon
in a darkened church
to be worn away
slowly by the pressure of
our breath, you lie down
stilled life, dressed in heaven’s blue,
origin of birth
made to embody
death’s own evidence, a place
by way of devotion—so
near—as far from us
as you will ever
be—yet no—at the closing
of death’s door I see
this is not you—that
though I will fear death I must
not believe in it—
Family angel, 1964
Underneath the dim
eternal lamp the monstrance
of the sacrament
stands open all the
hours of God’s death, the crosses
wrapped in shrouds. At the
fourth station Jesus
meets his mother, handmaiden
of silent sorrow
who will have to live
on. My mother must think I
am playing somewhere,
doesn’t know that I
have sneaked into the church to
pray, but surely she
thinks of him, too, the
boy I waited all winter
for, the one taken
without a breath, name
the family does not mention.
There is another
angel in heaven
now, she said, to hear our prayers,
and that was all, a
tiny open place
on the new grass without a
stone—no sighing, no
why. She smoothed a fresh
cloth over the table and
went about her work,
setting places for
the family to sit and eat.
He would have been like
me—why should I doubt
it?—I would have taught him what
I know. Let me weep
with you, mother, all
my days, I read in the book,
waiting for a voice
to call me brother,
breath frozen silent in the
incense of the air.
The fallen bird
for Remy Charlip
A hard thud interrupted my book where I sat,
and I turned in time to see it hit the pavement,
a tiny wren stunned by a window,
the expanse of it not infinite at all, a trick of light.
Nothing moving but the bird’s one eye
as it lay on its side looking up, re-seeing,
re-gathering, in a calm of fright.
If it could make a sound it didn’t.
Then one wing started fluttering, subsiding,
the engine of itself trying to restart
though it didn’t seem possible, not enough
to be a bird again. Then the other wing
joined in. The wren hopped to its feet.
Then another stunned and motionless interval
as of a mind weighing placidly
whether to live or die.
I found a paper plate in the shack
and ran some water in it, and set it before the bird,
trying not to be such a towering animal
lest I stop its heart. It stood still. I imagined its brain
was swelling by now from the blow.
Then it hopped up slightly to perch
at the edge of the plate, hopped down
to the water, and froze again in place
for a very long time, like some neglected
specimen in a science fair diorama. Was it
as conscious as I of the other birds going on singing
from the upper limbs of the circle of trees
across the grass, or had it started
to part from their company? Cheerful as I am,
I tend to incline toward death,
and I thought of you, dying
two thousand miles away in the hospice
where I hope yet to see you again,
and remembered your picture book
that we turned to in such relief and sorrow
oh thirty-some years ago
when a four-year-old boy in our school
died at home in the night of a fast-moving fever,
the story about the bird, to help us speak
with the children, with ourselves, of what it is
when somebody dies, when a child dies, as if we knew.
The bird looked down at the water, then away,
nothing but its head even slightly moving,
then pecked down at it once, only once, to get a drink,
and stopped again—this time, it seemed, for good.
Four children found a dead bird in the woods
and gave it the blessing of a burial with what
they had at hand, as best they could guess
what to do, making it up as they went.
They wrapped it, they spoke to it, they sang.
They were glad that the bird had lived, but the bird
was dead. It wasn’t coming back. This was a true
and terrible feeling, but the boys and the girl
were going to go on living. Some of the parents
wanted a different story—
maybe the boy had moved away, and why
should their children have to know about death,
and what would they understand? His name
was Henri. We planted an apple tree in the garden,
and in the spring something of him seemed to return,
but not the living boy. And look at how I already
mourn for you. But I had turned back to my reading,
looking over now and then, thinking now and then
what I’d do when the bird toppled over.
Half an hour or more it had stood there
transfixed. It was time to go, but still,
I wanted to see—wanted just to quicken it
a little, or let it die without so much waiting.
I jiggled the paper plate the slightest bit,
and I’d been fooled after all, wise fool that I am
with all my vast knowledge of death. The bird
had only been summoning, summoning,
and it took off like a shot and flew, and I lost it,
and I have not seen that creature since.