Howard's analysis anticipates the poems of No Messages, which are grounded in specific circumstance and often in geographical place while they progress, through motions of the mind and maneuvers of language, toward a 'state beyond,' which involves a reformulating or a re-seeingreconfigurations of an apprehended world through language and form.
In its exploration of the seams and the seamlessness of language and reality, No Messages is an apt introduction to the new millennium. The "no messages" of the title reflects a basic tension in contemporary poetry, between its claim to exit in the realms of language and structure, and its sense of responsibility to render the world in its actuality, in a clarified or confronted state. A striking balance of this tension is found in the collection's central section, a suite of poems responding to the influence of James Merrill.
While No Messages is devoted to re-visionings of the world in language, it remains grounded in circumstance and place and in the actions and convictions of historical figures. The book opens with John Knox on the beach at St. Andrews in Scotland and closes with John Brown on the bank of the Pottowatamie River in Kansas. Between these two shores, No Messages describes a series of luminous arcs connecting this world and the world beyond.
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Hail and Farewell at St. Andrews
Over the ruffled patch of sand
Where castle and seawall meet,
A crow hangs in the wind,
Its steady gaze fixed on the shore,
Its eye clear.
I hail it as a messenger.
As if a last conversation
Were possible, and could still happen
Here at the world's end
Where John Knox was dragged from his pulpit
Down to a French ship.
Although I was never forced to believe
In anything of the sort,
Who wouldn't thrill to a herald
With news of the other shore?
Although the crow will lift away,
Its wings absorbed
In blank sky,
A dialogue dissolved, at last,
Or as usual, like a flake of floating ash,
Like a wafer on the tongue.
After two years in a French galley,
Released but beyond recovery,
Knox believed words were literal still.
Body of Christ, Blood of Christ.
Asked to believe in "Divine Mind"
I grew up answering "nothing."
Had I been Catholic
I would have loved Communion,
It seemed so concrete,
The kneeling, the parting lips,
The solid sounds, so unlike
My inheritance from you, the keys
To a vaporous, unseeable realm
Where error andair were the same word,
Where details dissolved.
Like Freud, your attendants
Had misread Lear.
"Wisdom," he said, "appears
Disguised in myth, asking the King
To renounce love and be friends
With the need to die."
Insisted on "talking about it"
And closed the door
On your final speech,
And out of my hearing, lost
In particles of dust
With their own unfolding lives to lead,
In folds of the fluted curtains.
If I knew
What you said and declaimed it,
Who would hear?
The crow with its wings spread wide
Makes a claim for meaning greater
Than anything I could say,
Now that one says so little, unless disguised
As molecular comedy, to hide
Its oracular origins.
Gilt letters on a white wall declared
CHRIST'S THREE DAYS' WORK 1N THE SEPULCHRE
PROVED DEATH UNREAL AND LIFE ETERNAL.
Who wouldn't save the best for last?
A cloud of sorcerer's dust
And the children who were locked in the attic
Are released, spirited away in a trunk
To tumble out later flushed and happy
As winners on Wheel of Fortune.
Is anyone there
To welcome the stranger and say hello?
No band, no banner, no boat, no shore?
"Four times a year, we scatter the ashes from a plane"
Over the Superstition Mountains
Which as you never wearied of saying
Were purple at dawn, and deep blue at dusk,
And still are. Sometime therefore TBA
You will have joined the currents of dust
Rising on airstreams from the desert floor
To sway among the coral leaves
Of the stone flora.
One could say the hovering crow
Was a stone figure, its arm raised
In wordless farewell.
Or a messenger no one heard.
Though Lester Young would say
If one person
Is really listening and even if he
Just went to the men's room
You have an audience,
Hearing words in their slow decay
From believing body and blood
Were transparent gates
To a world which is all
That is the case:
And the castle wall's granite blocks
Framing the scene:
Yellow beach grass bending in the wind,
The blown sand,
The pale drained van Goyen light.
The shapely, gestural clouds, the gulls
Wheeling down, the rooflines,
The walls, the narrow lanes
There is another shore, facing
Our own, solid and detailed,
Where people like us
Go about their daily tasks.
Van Goyen's method
Was to plant himself on the sand,
His sea-level observation post,
And present the other world
Close at hand, unfolding in scenes
Whose radiance has been dissolved,
Where only the signature sepia light
Remains, for his plain demonstration.
Canal and Camelback Mountain
But I know too
that under the glassy skin
is a function, no more to be denied
than the long decline
of a steel mill, used as a set
for post-apocalypse action films, I know
it is fed by pipes with
under the command of its authority
and you know all there is to know
about this water, where it comes from, what it
costs and the pros and cons
of alternatives but
it is all
this system red in tooth and claw
which works as well as anything else,
we know its history
and tributes, Mussolini's
Futurist arcs and rays,
the scrubbed planes
of Sheeler's industrial landscapes
and Roebling's elegant answer
to the art of suspension
hovering over the Ohio
in the mirrored sunset.
At this hour
the canal is all artifice,
released from obedience
to be pure image, obsidian stele
or white marble street in Corinth
where thoroughbred races were run
to honor the dead
colors streaming by as the jockeys
bend to their tasks
as the colors plunge to a
drained reversal, pure and precious
as an inky Whistler nocturne or these
offered to the dead for their
nightly stroll beside still water,
words like the bleached clothes
whose newness and freshness
amazes them so.
At such times the canal has not
forgotten its role
it is only off duty
snaking with coppery
green and orchid-orange
until it flames out
and one can say then
the mountain's craggy profile
broods like a classical figure
of betrayal and grief
or one who feels this
could say it
as the great night turns and day
returns to the desert where water flows
down from the mountains
to the cities where we live today as you
respectful of authority.
Say You Will
According to legend
The ripple of a butterfly's wing
From one flower to the next, like a seducer
Gliding among the guests,
Is the faintest of flutters here
But halfway around the globe it tosses
Cars in the air
And uproots trees, or actors
Gape at a wall as if it were so
Which is all the same to us, later on,
Shaken like a leaf
By a moment of true feeling,
The extra beats in your wrist
Speeding up the breath
Of someone who answers, why yes, as if to say
Anything is possible today,
It seems, and a door opens
Where you saw no door although
It was there, you needed
Someone to say so.
Just One Look
O toi, qui vois la honte où je suis descendue,
Implacable Vénus, suis-je assez confondue?
Ye wrathful gods! What did you have in mind, to buy the picture
Without seeing what it was? Just one look and you brought it home
To fill a white space on the kitchen door, who knows why.
I think it might have reminded you of Ghiberti's doors of paradise,
Somehow, the dazzling scenes in this silver-and-black exhibit poster
Whose rhythm is vaguely familiar, whose rows of panels are artful enough,
No longer the sardine cans they were but transformed, objets trouvés
Bathed and polished to a lustrous glint, their lids
Peeled away, and elliptical scenes within, hammered in low relief,
Cloisonner-small, each surrounded by a backdrop of midnight plush,
A blackness that swarms and gapes, like deep suicidal pauses in Chekhov,
Like the blank gaps in the Parthenon frieze, which centuries later
It seems we have not seen clearlythose figures we assumed
Were wending their way to a feast, the usual grist for a poet's mill,
Are a deadly processional, on their way to a human sacrifice, and the daughter
Whose rounded hips sway beneath her pleated gown has another story.
She is doomed. What we took for serenest art is a mad scene, a plea
To those implacable gods who withdraw themselves at will,
Whose random returns invade us, in forms we can hardly face
In the mirrors of our darkened rooms. They rise within us
And float back down, and now what we took for surface is not,
And the thin layer of sea, which you saw from the plane window
As the aquamarine of a travel poster, is something else,
A refracting realm where you sink confounded, descending in reefs
Unfolding their umber feathers, and the shadows in fact are caves,
The hiding places of blue flashes and orange gleams and eyes looking up.
How strange you must appear to them, in their trembling sky,
With luminous beads of air trailing behind you.
How strange you were in those afternoons of greenish light
Drained through the curtains, bizarre, as he curled tightly behind you
In echoing curve where you kneeled and raised your hips,
How deep that was you murmured in the pillow as you pressed
Your face down in a pose of devotion, and how absurd,
How indecipherable those images were, as you pleaded,
As you looked back and lifted your head, to kiss, in tribute
To the visitation you would later call delirium, those afternoons
No longer you, denied, or half-forgotten, like Ghiberti's doors
Which burned in your sight the day you first saw them,
The low swell of their sinewy metal, the flaring bronze
Of scenes you had known from black-and-white photos mounted on boards,
Pored over in a library carrel, barely remembered, like the vertigo
When you reached the top of the tower and looked down,
The unwilled Oh as the roofs and squares below
Swarmed in new shapes, drifting back down again, and sifting away
Until one day, who knows why, you kneel in surprise before the door
To see these almost abstract patterns like stylized flora and fruit,
These fragments of scenes, for what they are: a shoulder, a thigh,
A tongue flickering in a wreathed grotto, an ardent arbor,
A rising stalk in the grip of a guiding hand, a finger crooked
As it probes a ripe fig, a rondure tipped in glittering arousal,
Steamy variations pleased, as you see, by repetition, silvered scenes
Of swooning Eros, afloat in a setting of sheerest black,
Which is not the design element we thought, but night
Falling on our fêtes galantes, on the torchlight and lutes,
On the small glowing scenes drifting in the dark, from which our gaze
Is averted. There is no limit to the power of our denials
And the forms we give them, the rows of columns glinting
In the sun, the measures of the temple whose inner steps
Lead down to the spring, which is so cold your forehead aches
When you cup your hands and lift its shadowed water to your face.