Wrought from the Generations of Earth

Susan Stewart

One boot planted, firm as a trunk, the other shoved
down on the shovel,
                       shoving
with a human weight that barely dents the crust
over the outcrop of flinty veins that plumb through clay and chalk.
               Struck
down bluntly over and over, the shovel bounces back,
ringing the facts. Even the dead must wait above ground
                 for
a hard winter to thaw. Nothing to do but wait, hoping for
the ground to give, hoping the corpse will not wander.
           Freezing
up, the bulb cracks, aborting its bloom, and the smaller
half falls away—all things bearing their own teleology,
                   all
things turning out or not—the husk shrivels back across
the pod and the young mice lie stiff in their nest. Coming to be

                                           collapses,
radiant as a berry trapped in ice.

Under the dazzle of the white light on the whiteness, only
                   the
forms remain, a solid geometry slumping at its edges;
you can’t tell the difference between a rock and a hard place, or
a sled
                 and
a wheelbarrow sunk into the compost. The tar caddies
steam on every block, buckets of hell-sludge go up single file,
plugging
                   the
gaping roofs, or passed down to craters where traffic
ruts and wheels are wrenched away. A tomb is pried up, then resealed.
      Skull-duggery,
boneyards, dustbins. The endless digging and patching
of the world. A new wound is cut, then healed.
      The
dew evaporates from the softening snow; you can see your breath
and know you are breathing and that is enough to make you want to
speak
                                                                in
the season of longest nights.

The frail root stirs, a shiver runs down the hinges of the night
crawler,
           a
slight quiver
ruffles across the hunched neck of the wren. One day a breeze arrives,
           and
her winter
wings shake free with each short hop to the seed after next. It
doesn’t
           take
a crowbar
when the door is open. The mud turns to muck, the blood begins to
thin,
           the
rusted joints
are oiled and move again. The ice breaks and jams the river, sounding
           like
distant guns,
while the pitchfork goes in and out with ease. What will come back
           comes
back and what
doesn’t come back stays, too, somehow nascent or caught within the
           bramble,

slowly losing its name and form.

The broom sweeps up and wears away, sweeping itself into a stump.

           Pebble
tags weed
and weed tags clod—fatigue of the soiled world, fatigue-dragging
shoe,
dragging shoulder and fist, the effort toward consequence, clenched
and
           released
in
rhythm. Crops fail or flourish, toys of the weather, and the weather
does
           not
think of us in turn.
Spirit who needs a lookout, spirit not in our image, he drops to
the horizon,
gathering speed. The absolute form of offering repeated, the absolute
           form
of earthly
repetition, churning and churning along the furrow.

There by the side of the churning sea, the plowman’s bent doubled
in
the field, sees
a dark fleck—no, white wings—moving toward the sun, but does not
see
           his
fall, or even
dream a man could free himself from ground and somehow fly.

Work is wrenched from the thick, from the dense, from the places
where
           resistance
is clotted with stones. The rake gets tangled with sticks and vines,

the scythe chips off and leaves a ragged swath.
Mud muddies the spring and can only be settled by gravity. The sun

           takes
aim at the nape
of the neck, the crown, or right between the eyes.
Spoiled saints listen for miracles while cooks sift pebbles from
the grain.

What is primitive in memory stays buried in memory. Things made

           of
earth
sink deeper into earth and begin to be earth again: a vase blown
from
           sand
and fire;
the clay lamp shaped by a hand long dead and water long ago drawn

back into its bed; a spoon thinned into a silver lattice soon to
be flecks
           of
silver again.
Deep in the mine, fire flames from the methane
or shines for no reason from the diamond’s splinter.

Dust rolls cells and crumbs and lint and binds them loose with hair.

Amber hardens around the spider, the bones melt into the peat.
The soil lies opened to the gaze of the heavens like a memory exposed

           to
light.
Vase, clay lamp, and silver spoon, working loose, come glinting
as shards
           to
the surface.

Went down to the shore where the beach was hard,
                                       went
right to the edge of the inhabited world,

built a ditch and a castle, a minaret, a drawbridge,
                                  shaping
heads and limbs from the sugary sand.
Then fast-flung, crashed, a single wave
                                       erasing,
though every grain of sand remains
.

This was the only world, the world where we awakened, where the
sky
           gods
hold
one handle of the plow and the gods of the dead hold the other.
The brown gods rose from the mud and the ponds, and crept along

           the
paths
and had no names. And then the gods concealed in gypsum fought
           against
the fathers,
rising up in fury, inconsolable. When the wars of heaven ended,
sky
           held
dominion,
dominion over all below.

Deep where the bloodless ghosts assemble, at the still base of the
           revolving
world,
the girl sorted seeds in the lap of her apron, letting each one
count as a
           month,
letting
three count as a season, saying six will count as the darkness and
six will
           count
as the light.
She sang to herself, sang the whole day through, knotting rings
and
           necklaces
from
coarsest blades of grass. She sang a walking song and dreamed, her
           corduroy
blanket
abandoned to fray and lint for the birds to weave.

Look for her, lie along the meadow; you can hear the hum
           of
the stalks and leaves, the full buzz so unlike
a shell’s hollow roar. Lie along the field and feel the mineral
cold,
           bone-chilling
deep below the warmth of the loam. Lie in the dead leaves and do
not
           make
a sound
and love will cut furrows in the soil of grief.

This was the only world: great scar, worn away by reverence and
harm.
Permanence out of which all things that perish rise; permanence
in which
each enduring thing will perish. Not the earth surrendered or asunder.
Not the earth itself, but tenderness.

 

The Rose

Not so long ago, or was it?—the bud was tightly
wound and the edge
as hard to start as a roll of cellophane tape.
           
(though it wasn’t up to you or me to start it)

Remember how the “dew and velvet” first caught our eye?
           
how the butter-yellow striations went
                       
into pink, or withdrew from pink?

(though it wasn’t up to you or me to say which way it was going)

The corolla did unfurl. The anther cracked and flew. Each part in
fact
              
played its part, and when we turned away,
                       
it didn’t die—of course, or not
                                   
because of that.

Eventually, it shattered
           
like any rose, just as roses do:
                       
first the outer
                                   
petals, then the inner ones
                                               
that cling a little longer
                                                           
to the pistil,

though even that wasn’t the end, for the hip
had hardly begun—its apple-green knob would still take
months and months to ripen and wither

—the very months that send
           
their filaments toward the sun:
                       
the long ago, the start, the little longer, eventually,
                                   
the end like clockwork-notions

                                   
drawn from simple math, like clockwork.

When you and I are gone, it’s true
that time will die in time.
It won’t be up to the rose
to say which way
the wind has blown.

           
I was wandering alone in a ruin
           
as vast . . . as vast as the moon . . .

           
and thought that time

           
had a form of its own,

           
but then the rose came to save me
.

 

 

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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