The Loon's Cry

Howard Nemerov

Spring 1956

On a cold evening, summer almost gone,
I walked alone down where the railroad bridge
Divides the river from the estuary.
There was a silence over both the waters,
The river’s concentrated reach, the wide
Diffusion of the delta, marsh and sea,
Which in the distance misted out of sight.

As on the seaward side the sun went down,
The river answered with the rising moon,
Full moon, its craters, mountains and still seas
Shining like snow and shadows on the snow.
The balanced silence centered where I stood,
The fulcrum of two poised immensities,
Which offered to be weighed at either hand.

But I could think only, red sun, white moon,
This is a natural beauty, it is not
Theology. For I had fallen from
The symboled world, where I in earlier days
Found mysteries of meaning, form, and fate
Signed on the sky, and now stood but between
A swamp of fire and a reflecting rock.

I envied those past ages of the world
When, as I thought, the energy in things
Shone through their shapes, when sun and moon no less
Than tree or stone or star or human face
Were seen but as fantastic japanese
Lanterns are seen, sullen or gay colors
And lines revealing the light that they conceal.

The world a stage, its people maskers all
In actions largely framed to imitate
God and His Lucifer’s long debate, a trunk
From which, complex and clear, the episodes
Spread out their branches. Each life played a part,
And every part consumed a life, nor dreams
After remained to mock accomplishment.

Under the austere power of the scene,
The moon standing balanced against the sun,
I simplified still more, and thought that now
We’d traded all those mysteries in for things,
For essences in things, not understood—
Reality in things! and now we saw
Reality exhausted all their truth.

As answering that thought a loon cried out
Laughter of desolation on the river,
A savage cry, now that the moon went up
And the sun down-yet when I heard him cry
Again, his voice seemed emptied of that sense
Or any other, and Adam I became,
Hearing the first loon cry in paradise.

For sometimes, when the world is not our home
Nor have we any home elsewhere, but all
Things look to leave us naked, hungry, cold,
We suddenly may seem in paradise
Again, in ignorance and emptiness
Blessed beyond all that we thought to know:
Then on sweet waters echoes the loon’s cry.

I thought I understood what that cry meant,
That its contempt was for the forms of things,
Their doctrines, which decayed—the nouns of stone
And adjectives of glass—not for the verb
Which surged in power properly eternal
Against the sea wall of the solid world,
Battering and undermining what it built,

And whose respeaking was the poet’s act,
Only and always, in whatever time
Stripped by uncertainty, despair and ruin,
Time readying to die, unable to die
But damned to life again, and the loon’s cry.
And now the sun was sunken in the sea,
The full moon high, and stars began to shine.

The moon, I thought, might have been such a world
As this one is, till it went cold inside,
Nor any strength of sun could keep its people
Warm in their palaces of glass and stone.
Now all its craters, mountains and still seas,
Shining like snow and shadows on the snow,
Orbit this world in envy and late love.

And the stars too? Worlds, as the scholars taught
So long ago? Chaos of beauty, void,
O burning cold, against which we define
Both wretchedness and love. For signatures
In all things are, which leave us not alone
Even in the thought of death, and may by arts
Contemplative be found and named again.

The loon again? Or else a whistling train,
Whose far thunders began to shake the bridge.
And it came on, a loud bulk under smoke,
Changing the signals on the bridge, the bright
Rubies and emeralds, rubies and emeralds
Signing the cold night as I turned for home,
Hearing the train cry once more, like a loon.

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