At the end of the appointed time, I, Nebuchadnezzar
raised my eyes to heaven and I returned to my right mind.
-- Daniel 4:34
We are all tethered to an iron ring.
We have all been eating grass,
dreaming uneasy dreams. All
of us crazed, all cut off.
When I look into the face
of Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, I see
my own slack mouth, dazed eyes --
perplexed, distracted, terrified.
But it's you I want to speak with. You,
after all, strolled through the hanging gardens,
paused on the palace roof to admire the view,
savored November oranges
while scanning the morning's briefing book.
Though we all bowed down, you called
for the sound of timbrel, zither, pipe and horn.
Furnace that had to burn, that glowed like gold.
Everything yearned around it like the sun.
Fuel, fuel, fuel. Control. Control.
Each day, we came again
with something: bundle of brushwood
on our backs; cool melon on a silver tray;
a briefing book, composed in our own
exquisite hand, in the learned
immortal language of Babylon.
* * *
Thanks for your response. Too bad
you can't take time to meet me here.
We might have talked about Blake,
who saw God's living fire
in minǔte particulars. Say, a single grain
of limestone from the trail that runs
past our high-rise jail. Pale
as a fleck of bone from a crematorium;
to Blake, an open door, a stone
rolled from an empty sepulcher. Or, say,
the muffled sound of jostling men, the squeak of shoes
from an unseen, hardwood floor. Or a man alone
in a small, hot room. He spreads a frayed
gray prison bathtowel out in front of him
and leans toward Mecca once again. Or, say,
a girl in the simplest black dress and polished shoes,
who stands in a parking lot and gazes up
toward a small, wired window on the highest floor.
Her hair in beaded braids, she lifts her arms
half-way, as if to fly, but can't -- and stays.
* * *
Let's talk about fear.
That starry void
of death and finitude --
the way it spreads from us
in rings. All your textbooks
start with that, the cold
abstraction of scarcity.
From that they build.
A ring of iron; the solid stone
of "bairn"; or cairn; or Stonehenge;
battle-hard patrols of soldiers
moving out; control; the mesmerizing
0's of corporate net worth; great circle
of a particle accelerator
buried near the Alps;
rings of the Gobi Desert
Blake starts somewhere else,
that minute grain of sand,
a fleck of fire, a star
turned inside out, a woman
from a parking lot.
Five windows light
the cavern'd Man:
thro' one he breathes the air;
Thro' one hears music
of the spheres; ... thro' one can look
And see small portions
of the Eternal World.
* * *
You've been having dreams
no one can interpret:
Strapped to a gurney, moving fast
along a sterile corridor.
Metal ventilator for a lung
linked to a furnace by an iron chain.
Counting every heartbeat,
16 ... 18 ... 20 ... they appear
flattened into numbers
on the monitor. 30 ... 34 ...
Your heart is clanking now.
Your doctors nod.
Black hydra of a catheter.
Then this: outside of Lagos
in a field stripped bare
of everything but pipeline
a kid in a No Fear t-shirt
and torn shoes --
bending his knees
and breathing fumes --
scoops tapped gasoline
into a rusty can. Then
the scene bursts into flame.
* * *
you haven't been warned.
Every minute particular
is saying something.
Scribble on the sidewalk
in a child's chalk.
Tagging that City workers
have been scraping off
the walls of our convention center hall.
Whatever some young Billy Blake
might be etching on his protest sign:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
In every Infant's cry of fear,
...The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
Of course it's inscrutable,
written in reverse
on copper plate, as in a mirror,
waiting for the bite of vinegar
and salt armoniac, the ghostly wash
of aqua fortis, to appear.
No one in your position
has time, of course,
for so much detail. You'll
be taking off soon, doing your best
in preparation on the eight-hour flight:
drafts of speeches; close advisors
handing you their latest brief
on macroeconomics; a moment
stolen to call your wife.
Still, here's my advice
for the opening banquet:
I love the beauty
of a silver chafing dish,
the delicate curve
of crystal, too. They could be
the serving vessels
to the hidden, holy ark
in any human heart. But when
the waiter passes you
a hand-tooled copper plate --
the flash of a wrist,
a mark of some sort you glimpse
beneath a starched white sleeve,
ask him about it. Tattoo? Or scar?
Maybe it's a Star of David.
Or, if he's very old, a number
in blue, a faded ghost.
There must be a story behind it.
Maybe it's a saber? Or a rose?
Or the pans of justice and crude scale?
* * *
What if finitude
is like an open field,
a small one,
where a king, who's lost
his mind, is tethered, on all fours,
feeding among the bunchgrass,
lilies and the mustard seed,
his tangled hair
matted with burdock,
drenched with dew?
What if he wipes his eyes
and what had seemed a starry void
becomes a single evening,
twilight, by a riverside?
Two stars seem to rise
above the 10th Street Bridge.
Mallards putter in the weeds
around a half-sunk barge.
It's September, soon
they'll be gone from us.
Even the one
who tarries in his flight
to snag a last lucky crust
from the oily surface
of the Mon, even that one
is a world of delight.
-- Richard St. John
Richard St. John's first book, The Pure Inconstancy of Grace, was published in 2005 by Truman State University Press. Following 25 years in community development and nonprofit management, he now serves as executive director for Autumn House Press, a national nonprofit publisher of poetry, based in Pittsburgh.