Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 51 (March 1995)

An American Egret in a Japanese Garden

Transported who knows why or whence
He was simply there one spring-
The bird who came to dinner and stayed.
Of course we couldn't help wonder about him.
What was that great regal marsh-dwelling creature
Doing there among the bread-begging mallards
In the tame little duckpond of the Japanese garden
At the city-run, hedge-clipped Brooklyn Botanic?
For what a presence he was, that snow-white fisherman
With the long golden beak and the black stick legs,
Whether preening his wind-riffled feathers
As he stood on his bright-orange water temple
(That pi-shaped torii that floated like a spirit),
Or flapping prehistorically across the pond
To stalk and stab in the dark water
Plucking with dagger bill a twitching minnow.
Then throwing his head back and staring sunward
Like a savage white priest offering a fish sacrifice.

But why did he stay and stay, week after week?
Was it to speak somehow for the fitness of things,
For that awful power that floats though unseen among us
Joining deep to deep, Japanese bird to Japanese garden?
"American egret," after all, was only his birdbook name;
In essence and epiphany he was the East:
Serene, contemplative, ceremonious, animistic.
He spoke even in the silence of his torii
(Japanese: bird-home; tori, bird, iru, to dwell).
Bird, angel, ancestral voice, he spoke in white flame,
Calling from the East, calling from Eden,
Calling in beauty to the lost children of Paradise.

John Martin

Ash Wednesday in a Hard Winter

Milkwhite in his alb and still as this temple,
The priest waits with the stone patience of a heron.
I approach in the deadfall of midafternoon,
Flotsam blown in out of the snow-harrowed day.
He stabs once, twice, raking my cold brow
With the stiff bill of his ash-black thumb.
"Remember, man, thou art dust . . ."
His cello voice, half altar, half mountain,
Groans more than speaks my name and blame.
Stabbed and marked, I make my way to a back pew.
Here, the act seems mere calligraphy-
Cross and death and their one-day shadow.
Meanwhile I relax, regarding the solemnities
Of stained glass and enjoying the hearth-fire warmth.
Oh yes, a fierce winter for us and worse for the beasts.
Where is the mercy, I ask, in this season
Of bird-killing ice and tree-snapping wind,
This bitter winter made by the Maker of All Things?
But the heron priest has pressed the answer
Onto and into my everyman brow.
Murmur as I may, I know that this bitter time,
As all bitter things, was made by me
When I walked, winter innocent, in the old garden
And plucked in summer joy the ash-bearing fruit.

John Martin


Oozing perfume,
the vine kills exquisitely-
in such high style,
the trees have no idea
what's happening to them.

Ashley Mace Havird