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Third Annual Poetry Contest Winner:
Christopher Edgar

"The Cloud of Unknowing," which Christopher Edgar has chosen as the title of the first in his group of poems, is the title of a fourteenth-century English mystical treatise. The "cloud," as I recall, is an unfortunate but necessary mediating blur through which God calls to the faithful and which they must ultimately transcend in order to know Him. Here the cloud is full of known earthly places like the Sahara, "Old Russia," and Heathrow Airport, jumbled together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle map of the world. Yet there is a secret order to this confusion, as we learn especially in the poem "Wing," which takes us on a journey along an Egyptian frieze and then out into other museum exhibits, finally ending in Cezanne’s Provence, where a "lily-white model" gazes over a landscape that ends back among the frieze’s "Kilted men, some carrying birds." Despite the intervening complications, we are still part of the odd but orderly Egyptian cortege. Art, artifacts, things, and people partake of each other’s humanity and objecthood: "Just about anything / Looks good under glass," the speaker remarks dryly. Yet there is nothing of the dispassionate butterfly-pinner about: these objects are sympathetically alive, parts of an encompassing order, like Marianne Moore’s "Nine Nectarines" or her "Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish." Though Moore and also Elizabeth Bishop’s "Questions of Travel" and "The Map" are probably secondary influences here, these poems are unlike any I’ve ever read: deep, beautiful, and laugh-out-loud funny.

–John Ashbery

The Cloud of Unknowing

Is not a cloud at all
But a wall colored so efficiently
It seems to be an alley of trees
Some believe this cul de sac
Can be approached from every angle
While others consider it merely a frontage road
To the remnants of summer, the disused
Anchorage inside the spiral jetty. But we
Have seen this cloud, you and I have,
Just before we set out to martinize the infidel
It was there, somewhere in the Sahara,
Hovering above an Italian restaurant
Perched on the edge of a depression. White-tunicked
Waiters with jet-black hair served us cannelloni
And Chianti yet at the same time did not
Serve us cannelloni and Chianti–but then
We were at sea as we always were in those times
On a ferry yes the Dover ferry
Everyone was heaving
Patches of sawdust everywhere on deck
Always followed by the cloud
The sun came out but it was still raining
North of Leningrad the tramline ends
We trudge through acres of mud between
Grim apartment blocks in a colorless landscape
Day for night whistling in the sleet
The mud becomes woods, beyond the woods
We finally reach the little wooden village on the far side of a hill–
Bent-bark roofs as in the poem–with a little
Orthodox church, a bit like St.-Cloud
From a distance this is Old Russia I think
We meet the priest whom I like
Immediately we parted as old friends–
Never saw him again. Funny, like the
Facial expressions of the father and son
Pickpocket team in the Mexico City subway
June rush hour you all of a sudden turn to
Shake their hands "¡Que pasa?!" They looked
As if they had seen a ghost
Probably like my own face when I lost my passport
In a dream. I was in Heathrow and hung my coat
On the convenient too convenient rack outside the duty-free shops
The Pakistani woman at the gate was very helpful
But could not help me. For some reason
I was interested only in which languages she spoke
The truth was all I wanted was for her
To say Urdu, which she did.

Wing

     for Simon Kilmurry

Among cool recesses of tombs,
Scale models of funeral barges,
Ebony birds and mummified dogs,
A wall of tiny, broken frescos
Depicting cows in high relief,
A recumbent calf, legs in low relief,
A bull followed by a man,
Men walking left, three animals walking right,
A bearded Nubian with rope, men roping cattle,
Men with baboons, three men carrying animals,
Nubians hunting in the desert below,
Hunting with dogs, trapping birds,
Women walking left and right, women
Kneeling, with pink skin,
Crocodiles in the reeds,
Slaves cutting hops, scythes
Bent to the sun, graining
With the eye of Horus, watching
Representations of Mekutra and wife make
Offerings–figs, ducks, cucumbers, a wig,
Necklaces, unguents, a kilt, a foot–
Henenu holds the beer jar to his lips, his sons
To the right, knaves in jars, go to besiege a fortress,
Men climb scaffolding, the festival of Mia,
Porter and archer slaughter bulls,
Bows on stands as in the tomb of Neferu,
An official, the goddess Nekhet,
Symbol of Abydos and janus-type cows,
Acacia tree with vessels below it,
On the cornice above, related to the Osiris cult,
Cattle walk left with women attendants,
Carrying sunshades and menat necklaces, the queen
Faces them, her name written nearby,
Looking on while three
Priests recite spells,
Three men in kilts carrying birds
March silently forward
Through a false door with blue frame,
A false door with yellow frame,
A false door with red frame,
As the Festival escapes
Through alcoves, mezzanines, and porticos,
Sculpture galleries and rooms of armor,
Through teahouses of Old Japan,
Across Attic capitals and vases,
Kilted men watch Nebuchadnezzar eating grass
Like oxen, Magi bear birds by the Eastern Star,
Tempt Saint Anthony in the desert,
The Lion of Nemea, Job on his dunghill,
The Masters of Osservanza and the Griggs Crucifixion,
Kachina dolls and wood totems from Malindi,
All to become bearded warriors
Rushing to battle in Assyrian chariots with
Oriflammes of dreams foretold by angels,
Flagellations, annunciations, and ascensions,
Racing headlong through French woods, hounds baying,
Centurions offering birds to peasants sleeping

In the fields at noon, through the afternoon,
The lily-white model gazes hand under chin
Toward the slope of Montagne Sainte-Victoire,
An earthenware jar shattering, browns and greens
Spilling into the valley below–
Vineyards, farmhouses, olive trees, and viaducts–
Over the tops of trees and the horizon line,
From L’Estaque, clear but distant,
As far as the eye can see she sees

Kilted men, some carrying birds

Gradual

This book of hours is piebald
Each two alike only insofar as they are unalike
Just as winter unites enemies of spring,
Grass grows on the banks
As the waterways lie frozen. Piers
The Ploughman should be in the field
Sleeping with the other peasants,
But no, he is fickle and has gone to town.
The miller hoists another bag of grain
As his wife churns the butter.
Tiring, she opens a window and looks outside.
Trees sway gently in unison,
Stick-figures conferring on various topics of blue.
They are only doing what she asked them to,
Slowly, without prevarication, swaying gently in unison.
Centuries later, a woman
Turns her head and looks away.
A man, who loves her, becomes foreshortened
Out of sorts, short of breath, and lost for words.
She thinks him too serious–
He must remember
That when the dog barks at midnight
It is only saying hello.
The woman is thinking of saints under water.
The man is thinking of lives under glass,
Of how we are ourselves only when we are alone,
And of how we can sometimes be alone together.
The star above them looks down on them
And laughs, cruelly.
(Legend has it that there were two stars,
So the star, too, is not alone.)
The woman dreams of multicolored pylons,
Of woolen buildings, and people who are like
Woolen buildings, a raft of woolen buildings
Cast adrift on an empty sea.
In a dream the man attends a concert
Given by a Peruvian dwarf, who sings
Of vast Peruvian deserts by the sea.
Between the two lies a kaleidoscope,
A list pages long
Of things that could lie between them,
Amalgams of possibilities,
Patchworks of angry basilisks
In an empty landscape,
Endless tundra, a large country
Where there are Mounties
Because there are Nazis in the Rockies.
This nightmare of his is a film
From which he must now awake.
It is stiflingly hot. He opens a window
And breathes the cool night air flooding in
From the zoological garden. He decides to write
An opus, a treatise on how we are all trapped,
Animals in a zoo without love, from which
We will soon escape, sometime in a later chapter.
The next morning she leaves the house without
A list, because it was in her head, just as
She went swimming in the Baleares, without
A suit. He had been envious of her, naked
In the Mediterranean, as we all wish to be,
As in a bath, she bathed as he read to her–
Renard the Fox, or something similar.
She wasn’t listening, it seemed to him,
She was watching little surges of past jet past
Like bats flushed from a cave.
In fact she was remembering seeing
Not a martyr’s feet, but
A hair from the beard of the Prophet,
In the Topkapi, years ago, thinking
Just about anything
Looks good under glass.

Stone-deaf Albert Leaves the Concertina

All things being equal in this reservoir
Stone-deaf Albert left the concertina
With a wave vanishing into the arcane
He embraced the hoi-polloi with relish
Watching them, too, embrace him back, for no reason
Simply because it was a rainy summer
Everyone was happy only at night
When the light at the end of the proverb
Was a house afire
And imperial garb bore
No resemblance to the throne
Sparks of revolution kindled in the garderobe
Altering the popular mood and irrigating it
Soon stylish coups became common among the populus
Incubi and succubi turned politicos
And rain washed the empty street

Fly-by shootings were everyday affairs
Especially near the rotunda
From which Albert left each dawn
June saw many fall victim needlessly
Headlines of the dailies read
MAYOR THANKS FLAK JACKET
And SOONER OR LATER
ALBERT WILL PAY FOR EVIL WAYS

Sooner than later, pay he did
In the swill of the motorcade
A dozen parties formed
In the small capitol of our vast archipelago
The garderobe became a thermidor
Of seething hates towards the poor figure
Who embraced his assassins
Knowing his time had come
The pimpled archduke, something of a cliché,
Leapt aboard the running boards
Of the Hispano-Suiza and drew his Browning
And with one shot to the head
The great man was gone

In the dénouement, as if on cue
We moved forward in the century
Beginning to read again
We invented new forms of opera
As well as radio plays. Some summer nights
Those of us now older recalled the great man
A vestige of youth, always dressed immaculately
Slightly jaded, something of a ham, but
A man of state nonetheless, of many liaisons

 

Town and Country

Enormous shadow, be gone
Or reveal
The seen and unseen
Largesse of thirty years ago,
The Flatiron Building,
Bust of Rita Hayworth,
Grand Army Plaza,
Crass waste places of Astoria,
On first sight a group of nature studies,
Shadows from commercial signs,
People walking on the street below
Have a Coke
From the thirties and forties–
Pine needles, a moth on leaves,
A pine trunk, a birch tree–
Escapees from an Ansel Adams show–
Pictures of July afternoons
Outside the little zoo,
An elderly woman eating ice cream
With the finesse of thirty years ago,
The Flatiron Building,
The Sheep Meadow,
Sailors in Times Square,
Signs in Times Square,
Sailors in Bethesda Fountain,
Figures in the piazza
All casting shadows
Through the long green
Tunnel of the Taconic–
Birches, pines,
Needles, moths, leaves–
Bull moose in a Maine lake,
Summer 1971.

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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