• 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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