No Messages

No Messages

by Robert Hahn


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780268036522
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Publication date: 12/31/2001
Series: Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry Series , #2001
Pages: 138
Product dimensions: 6.18(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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."

The volunteers
Insisted on "talking about it"
And closed the door

On your final speech,
Delivered off-stage
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

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:
The seawall's

Pebbled concrete
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
       plundered waters
             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
       muscular pillars,
             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

recycled words
       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
       might expect
             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 clearly—those 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.

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