Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 10, 23, 38, 43, 49.
On the day of the Chowkiakow raid
an evangelist left down river
escorting three girls for the school there
but heard before arrival so stayed on board
After five days the brigands boarded
but the girls hid in the boat bottom
under straw like Jericho spies
Our evangelist father of one girl
was taken We’re afraid he was killed
for a body was found near there
looking (the people say) like an evangelist
-D. S. Martin
Take blue. It is the sky
bright with summer—a hue
that gladdens the land.
Sometimes it defines the risqué—
a blue joke. Then it’s an
indecent devaluing sort of blue.
Occasionally it must name
the blues—that gloomy sound
that never sees a summer day.
It can name the unexpected—
news that comes out of the blue
like rain from a cloudless sky.
Blue can even christen the rare
and infrequent. That happens
only once in a blue moon.
The house is silent in the night
As if all sounds have burrowed deep
Or fearing dark have taken flight
And closed loud eyes to mimic sleep.
The children dream in murmured breaths
By talking so (deep breaths to each)
They in their chatty, wakeful deaths
New life with every word beseech.
The late hour swells with pregnant dark
And phantoms of unsurfaced things,
In sleep’s forgetting they embark
The troubled passage which night brings.
That’s why we stay to talk or write
In secret knowing we but keep
A vigil by some fire’s light
To linger at the door of sleep.
Oh God, we struggle through sluices
of time like salmon called
by some instinct beyond
Oh God, we surge through falls
and reason’s streams like rivulets, lured
by some will beyond our will—
Oh God, we slice slippery through quietness
gathered into the folds of your net
that our run may be complete in
You our source.
The ancient monks saw the handwriting on the skull.
Whenever their old Adam lusted for excess,
Their grinning scold was there to remind them
Of the grave’s everlasting austerity.
Today we have a memento mori less stark,
Much better suited to an age of artifice.
I mean the old Hollywood movie, that phoenix
Rising from the filmcans to undeceive us,
To tell us death has dominion even over
The purebred idols of the silver screen,
Those who made life seem larger and are no more.
Chaplin cooking his shoe in the frozen Klondike,
Bette Davis imperiously puffing a cigarette,
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly outshining the Riviera—
How woe–betiding that these glittering are now
No more than dust guests in the deadfall.
For God help us, if death can granulate them,
What about the poor unglamorous rest of us?
Laugh if you like, but when I look up and see
The late Charlie shiver or the late Bette pout
Or hear the late Cary and Grace banter—well,
I swear, not the angel of death pinwheeling down,
Not Savonarola preaching by torchlight on Golgotha,
Could speak to me as these on the place of the skull.