Last October, I came across a poem so stunning in its language and images that I reached for my special notebook, which is dedicated to holding these treasures. I can’t explain why the poem bowled me over, spun me around and laid me out. It just did, so I copied it onto a blank page, word for word.
A poem needn’t be over-explained or analyzed, at least not at first. It’s up to the reader to discover it, approach quietly, walk in, then surrender and inhabit the lines. Reading this poem again recently, I was grateful for the way it consoled me.
The poem was written by William Jay Smith (1918-2015). When I looked him up on the Poetry Foundation website, I learned that he was a friend of Stanley Kunitz’s. Why wasn’t I surprised? The poetry world is small and wondrous.
He took the universe into his room
And shut the door;
Planets circled round his wall,
Stars along the floor
Rose and fell with the grave, slow-breathing dark;
Comets swam like the teeth of the swimming shark,
Beams of oak had monstrous ears,
And jackal’s bark.
Sea birds came from distant
Islands, frigates, terns
Preened in the low revolving light
Their sea-bright feathers, wheeling,
Crying, darting down
Toward flickering shoals
Through the long night.
Past and future, two lean panthers
Black as coal,
Paced out the limits of his brain,
His life’s veined ore;
And he could see
Gates opening before him quietly
Upon a rose-banked carriage waiting in the rain.