A Prospect of Beauty and Unjustness
July 2008 WLT
I walk down Heerengracht,
where pigeons dip their necks
like question marks into the fountain.
Then left at Long, while the sun slips
Toward the sea and the moon takes its place
above Signal Hill.
Above me, starlings clatter
Higher still, turning right at Wale,
seagulls tilt like white kites
against the wind.
I step on the old silences of the city.
Here is the place on the hill where artists came
for peace and the view of the harbour.
Below, the city reveals itself.
We still walk the neat streets of their paintings.
Under the angled mountain, its blue light,
the starlings are cold but, looking at them,
I see the loveliness
of their chaotic and coordinated hunger.
What can explain
this exact and unjust beauty?
The flock clusters at sunset for warmth and seed.
Poetry cannot be afraid of this.
Sketching the streets, the artists stood
on the burial ground of the city’s slaves.
In the paintings is something
of the private grief of their bodies.
In precise patterns the starlings follow one another
and redouble on their own flight-tracks,
slipstream of warmth,
blood-trace of the self.
Nothing to begin with,
and nothing again.
Around me, the air is thick with history.
Two hundred years ago,
slaves could no longer be sold.
Nothing, and nothing again.
I look again at the painted city, falling
silent at sunset, even the birds stilled.
In the last flash of the sun, the city gleams
white and hard as bone.
State College, Pennsylvania