Edward Hirsch, a MacArthur Fellow, has published nine books of poems, including The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010), which brings together thirty-five years of work. His book-length elegy, Gabriel: A Poem (2014), which The New Yorker calls “a masterpiece of sorrow,” won the National Jewish Book Award for poetry. He has also published five books of prose, among them, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a national bestseller, and A Poet’s Glossary (2014), a full compendium of poetic terms. He is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Ewdard Hirsch’s homepage: www.edwardhirsch.com
(Hofmannsthal in Greece)
He saw tumultuous plains, interminable plateaus,
and the green breasts of a goddess withering in heat.
He saw the last road carved into a slope of Parnassus,
then into a petrified riverbed, curving between cones.
Ruins and more ruins, thousands of boulders scattered
like thoughts under the motionless pillars of a cloud.
Flowering hedges and broken columns, a cornfield sprawled
on its back like the Temple of the Gods, Delphi
and the Delphic Plain, the flat stretch of millennia,
stony cradle of a civilization that would not be rocked.
He saw two black rams butting on a peak, masses
of sheep cowering before the wolfish barking of dogs,
a young shepherd with a lamb slung over his shoulders
riding a red bicycle through a cypress grove.
All day villages sparkled and disappeared, like lights
fading on an open sea, or centuries passing,
yet a couple undressed in the next compartment,
a child slept, and twilight climbed over the mountains.
He saw fires of the Ancients flaring in a granite body,
Andromeda rising, a divinity that would not die out.
I remember the bells of Santa Maria Maggiore
ringing on a crisp November morning
Under an undiminished blue sky
that seemed to go on forever
Over purple hills rising in the distance.
And I remember the rich unquarried blues
of the Janiculum at twilight,
The sky veined and chipped like marble,
The wind dipping
and soaring on transparent wings.
We were always stepping off
into the glassy Roman light
And moving back into polluted shadows,
Climbing the penitential stairs
and crossing under arches,
Sifting through cold smog
and unholy traffic,
Pointing at stone carvings
Of children dressed as angels
under vaulted domes and ceilings.
That was your last season as yourself,
the fall before your fall–
After that you were too sick and tired
to rouse yourself from bed, to travel–
And now, so many years after your death,
The past has the retrospective sheen
of ultramarines and aquatic blues,
The burnished clarity of wet leaves
falling to earth.
So many mornings the light pressed down
On the swollen eyelids of daybreak–
It was always raining
or starting to rain–
And the sun was a pilgrim straggling
over the seven hills.
Cold winds twisted up from the Tiber
And fog unraveled in the clouds
like a scarf of smoke.
At the Protestant Cemetery
the rain-driven winds
Blew across the names
that were written in water,
And at the center of the world
The Forum glittered like a lake of time
that had swallowed the ancients.
There were days when the sadness was everywhere
Like the gray light
that drizzled and pearled
On the cypresses and umbrella pines,
the eccentric churches and buildings,
The palaces lined up like wedding cakes
melting in the grand piazzas.
But there were also the nights
When the fiery oranges of elation
deepened over the rooftops at sunset
And the city was a net of stars
spreading out before us.
At those times it was impossible to believe
That a pale horse was already grazing
in the fields, waiting for you…
There was a cold morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,
At the stone eagles of the Last Judgment
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed
One hundred and twenty-four stairs–
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli–
Built in gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.
For me it all came down
to a solitary November day
When the sun was a bluish white flame
a constancy in the sky.
All afternoon it shivered in front of us
like a bright summons
While the windows streaked
and flashed with light
And the wind tugged and pulled at our sleeves,
Pushing out at our shoulders
as if it were going to lift us
(But only one of us was already
Preparing for the journey)
into the radiance and beyond….
All poems on this post: © Edward Hirsch
Published with the permission of Edward Hirsch