for Scott Ely
Like dipping oars the egret strikes its wings
on the black water out near Pimlico,
scanning for those widening, dimpled rings
where fish break water, talons skimming low
over the shoals. An itch for landscape brings
me back here to these wetlands in the slow
half light of afternoon. Loose threads of day
spin themselves out in what I have to say.
To shape coherence from that far company—
harrier hawk circling above the swales,
white tail scrambling across the thorns and scree
of the slick limestone berm. My eyesight fails
to knit it whole. Unlike the owl in its tree
that sees even a least twitch in the cattails,
I patch together buck, scree, briar, and bird
as best I can in the clear light, word by word.
Such distance between what the eye takes in
and what the tongue gives back in its puzzle and sift,
sorting the mayflies from the dazzled spin
of oak leaves flashing silver. In the rift
between idea and flesh a brown marsh wren
flittering from a paper birch, too swift
for vision to hone in, grows still, having lit
here in the space this phrase has made for it.
Suppose the sayer changes what he sees,
or makes a marsh wren up for story’s sake
when a tanager, in fact, wings through the breeze
to cross the sawgrass shallows by the lake,
having flown from a stand of fictive trees.
What if this word-stitched landscape is a fake?
For all my honest effort, lies are hidden
in the pretense of each sentence I have written.
Think how the visible becomes a dream
when, by some quirk of thought, a beech leaf stirs
and turns into a fawn’s ear, or a stream
glints like a fish’s scales. The mind conjures
the world to artifice, skews be to seem
in wild pursuit of meaning. What endures
—a paradigm in which the marsh wren flies—
is truer still for being a disguise.
The shank end of late afternoon goes on
about its business heedless of the sounds
language has made of it. In a pond frogspawn
festers and reeks. A hare near the levee bounds
deep in the blackberry vines. When I am gone
egret and hawk will carry on their rounds.
And so will I, at my desk, when the day has passed,
setting it down in these words to make it last.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 1, on page 32
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