“Hamstead through a Window” (1937)
by Walker Evans
“Oh live oak, thoughtless beauty in a century of pulpy memoirs,
Spreading into the early morning sunlight
As if it could never be otherwise, as if it were all a pure proclamation of leaves & a final quiet—”
~ Larry Levis, from “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans”
Apparently my blog is six years old today. Happy anniversary . . . I think . . .
Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage
It’s a list of what I cannot touch:
Some dandelions & black eyed susans growing back, like innocence
Itself, with its thoughtless style,
Over an abandoned labor camp south of Piedra;
And the oldest trees, in that part of Paris with a name I forget,
Propped up with sticks to keep their limbs from cracking,
And beneath such quiet, a woman with a cane,
And knowing, if I came back, I could not find them again;
And a cat I remember who slept on the burnished mahogany
In the scooped out beveled place on the counter below
The iron grillwork, the way you had to pass your letter over him
As he slept through those warm afternoons
In New Hampshire, the gray fur stirring a little as he inhaled;
The small rural post office growing smaller, then lost, tucked
Into the shoreline of the lake when I looked back;
Country music from a lone radio in an orchard there.
The first frost already on the ground.
And those who slipped out of their names, as if called
Out of them, as if they had been waiting
To be called:
Stavros lecturing from his bequeathed chair at the Cafe Midi,
In the old Tower Theatre District, his unending solo
Above the traffic on Olive, asking if we knew what happened
To the Sibyl at Cumae after Ovid had told her story,
After Petronius had swept the grains of sand from it, how,
Granted eternal life, she had forgotten to ask for youth, & so,
As she kept aging, as her body shrank within itself
And the centuries passed, she finally
Became so tiny they had to put her into a jar, at which point
Petronious lost track of her, lost interest in her,
And at which point she began to suffocate
In the jar, suffocate without being able to die, until, finally,
A Phoenician sailor slipped the gray piece of pottery—
Its hue like an overcast sky & revealing even less—
Into his pocket, & sold it on the docks at Piraeus to a shop owner
Who, hearing her gasp, placed her in a bird cage
On a side street just off Onmonios Square, not to possess her,
But to protect her from pedestrians, & the boys of Athens rattled
The bars of the cage with sticks as they ran past yelling,
“Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?”—each generation having to
Listen more closely than the one before it to hear
The faintest whispered rasp from the small bitter seed
Of her tongue as she answered them with the same
Remark passing through time, “I want to die!” As time passed & she
Gradually grew invisible, the boys had to press
Their ears against the cage to hear her,
And then one day the voice became too faint, no one could hear it,
And after that they stopped telling
The story. And then it wasn’t a story, it was only an empty cage
That hung outside a shop among the increasing
Noise of traffic, &, from the Square itself, blaring from loudspeakers,
The shattered glass & bread of political speeches
That went on half the night, & the intermittent music of strip shows
In summer when the doors of the bars were left open,
And then, Stavros said, the sun shone straight through the cage.
You could see there was nothing inside it, he said, unless you noticed
How one of the little perches swung back & forth, almost
Imperceptibly there, though the street was hot, windless; or unless
You thought you saw a trace of something flicker across
The small mirror above the thimbleful of water, which of course
Shouldn’t have been there, which should have evaporated
Like the voice that went on whispering ceaselessly its dry rage
Without listeners. He said that even if anyone heard it,
They could not have recognized the dialect
As anything human.
He would lie awake, the only boy in Athens who
Still heard it repeating its wish to die, & he was not surprised
He said, when the streets, the bars & strip shows,
Began to fill with German officers, or when the loudspeakers
And the small platform in the Square were, one day,
Shattered into a thousand pieces.
As the years passed, as even the sunlight began to seem
As if it was listening to him outside the windows
Of the Midi, he began to lose interest in stories, & to speak
Only in abstractions, to speak only of theories,
Never of things.
Then he began to come in less frequently, & when he did,
He no longer spoke at all. And so,
Along the boulevards in winter the bare limbs of the trees
One passed in the city became again
Only the bare limbs of trees, no girl stepped into them
To tell us of their stillness. We would hear
Rumors of Stavros following the gypsy pentacostalists into
Their tents, accounts of him speaking in tongues;
Glossalalia, he once said, which was all speech, & none.
In a way, it didn’t matter anymore. Something in time was fading—
And though girls still came to the cafe to flirt or argue politics
Or buy drugs from the two ancient boys expressionless as lizards
Now as they bent above a chessboard—
By summer the city parks had grown dangerous.
No one went there anymore to drink wine, dance, & listen
To metal amplified until it seemed, as it had
Seemed once, the bitter, cleansing angel released at last from what
Fettered it inside us. And maybe there
Wasn’t any angel after all. The times had changed. It became
Difficult to tell for sure. And anyway,
There was a law against it now, a law against gathering at night
In the parks was actually all that the law
Said was forbidden for us to do, but it came to the same thing.
It meant you were no longer permitted to know,
Or to decide for yourself,
Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn’t.
Poverty is what happens at the end of any story, including this one,
When there are too many stories.
When you can believe in all of them, & so believe in none;
When one condition is as good as any other.
The swirl of wood grain in the desk, is it the face of an angel, or
The photograph of a girl, the only widow in her high school,
After she has decided to turn herself
Into a tree? (It was a rainy afternoon, & her van skidded at sixty;
For a split second the trunk of an oak had never seemed
So solemn as it did then, widening before her.)
Or is it Misfortune itself, or the little grimace the woman
Makes with her mouth above the cane,
There, then not there, then there again?
Or is the place where all the comparisons, the little comforts
Like the cane she’s leaning on, give way beneath us?
What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty window?
When the angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without your
Knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble, & the one swing
In the cage comes to rest after its almost imperceptible,
Almost endless, swaying?
I’m going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I’m bent over until it’s infinite,
I’m going to make it talk, I’m going to make it
I was about to ask you if you were cold, if you wanted a sweater, Because . . .
well, as Stavros would say
Before he began one of those
Stories that seemed endless, the sun pressing against
The windows of the cafe & glinting off the stalled traffic
Just beyond them, this could take a while;
I pass the letter I wrote to you over the sleeping cat & beyond
the iron grillwork, into the irretrievable.
~ Larry Levis
Music by Agnes Obel, “Fuel to Fire”