The First Layer of City

Marianne Boruch - 1950-

Concerning the lost and so
much of it, the Professor of Antiquities
is on TV again—

Think about that.

I love the word oxymoron like I love the word
hope loving him back such a long way.

The ancients then, via digital pulse. But never
to know except with shovel, brush,
magnifying glass. He dreams out the rest.

The rest is resting in dust. The rest too will

come out of deep down
petrified wood or gold or bronze
fierce, the spear end of it.

Not far, so many winged creatures
sculpted out of flight to peer from a ledge,
their grim human heads turned sideways, desert
a distance, a horizon. Column after column
holding up ago

what made it cool in there, made us all
the first days of the world: lie down,
close your eyes a moment,
listen to the fountain.

The Professor of Antiquities
looks into the camera as into what the Oracle saw
and says you don’t destroy,
you restore.
  All this time to recover
words for beer, for how-much-you-owe-me, for gods
and king, the body living or in death, what to do,
what’s elegy and next
marked on clay tablets with a stick.

First lost layer of city. Shock-seizure
of flames larger than night
after night some year B.C. burning back
temple or palace until

safe all words, safe,
slow-fired to stone in the lower chamber
when everything, everything else—

More by Marianne Boruch

Little Fugue

Everyone should have a little fugue, she says,
the young conductor 
taking her younger charges through
the saddest of pieces, almost a dirge
written for unholy times, and no, 
not for money.
                Ready? she tells them, measuring out 
each line for cello, viola, violin.
It will sound to you
not quite right. She means the aching half-step
of the minor key, no release
from it, that always-on-the-verge-of, that
repeat, repeat.
              Everyone should have a little fugue--
I write that down like I cannot write
the larger griefs. For my part, I 
believe her. Little fugue I wouldn't
have to count.

Still Life

Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
a lot and neighbored it next 
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass
of wine, set down mid-sip—
don’t drink it, someone said, it’s for
the painting.  And the rabbit skull—
whose idea was that?  There had been
a pistol but someone was told, no,
put that away, into the box with a key
though the key had been
misplaced now for a year.  The artist
wanted light too, for the shadows. 
So the table had to be moved. Somewhere
I dreamt the diary entry
on this, reading the impossible
Dutch quite well, thank you, and I can
translate it here, someone writing
it is spring, after all, and Herr Muller
wants a window of it in the painting, almost
a line of poetry, I thought even then,
in the dream, impressed 
with that "spring after all," that 
"window of it" especially, how sweet
and to the point it came over
into English with no effort at all
as I slept through the night. It was heavy,
that table. Two workers were called
from the east meadow to lift
and grunt and carry it
across the room, just those
few yards.  Of course one of them
exaggerated the pain in his shoulder. 
Not the older, the younger man. 
No good reason
to cry out like that.  But this
was art. And he did, something
sharp and in the air that 
one time. All of them turning then,
however slightly. And there he was, 
eyes closed, not much 
more than a boy, before 
the talk of beauty
started up again.

What God Knew

when he knew nothing.  A leaf
looks like this, doesn’t it? No one
to ask. So came the invention
of the question too, the way all 
at heart are rhetorical, each leaf
suddenly wedded to its shade. When God 

knew nothing, it was better, wasn't it? 
Not the color blue yet, its deep 
unto black.  No color at all really, 
not yet one thing leading to another, sperm 
to egg endlessly, thus cities, thus 
the green countryside lying down 
piecemeal, the meticulous and the trash, 
between lake and woods 
the dotted swiss of towns along 
any state road. Was God

sleeping when he knew nothing?  As opposed 
to up all night (before there was night) 
or alert all day  (before day)?  As opposed to that,
little engine starting up by itself, history, 
a thing that keeps beginning
and goes past its end. Will it end, this
looking back?  From here, it's one shiny 
ravaged century after another, 
but back there, in a house or two: a stillness, 
a blue cup, a spoon, one silly flower raised up 
from seed.  I think so fondly of the day 
someone got lucky 
and dodged the tragedy meant for him. It spilled 
like sound from a faulty speaker
over an open field. He listened from
a distance. God-like, any one of us
could say.

Related Poems

Embodies

Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve
                                                         blossoms on three different
branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring or perhaps none on
                                                         just those branches on which
                                                         just now
lands, suddenly, a grey-gold migratory bird—still here?—crisping, 
                                                         multiplying the wrong
                                                         air, shifting branches with small
hops, then stilling—very still—breathing into this oxygen which also pockets my
                                                         looking hard, just
                                                         that, takes it in, also my
                                                         thinking which I try to seal off, 
my humanity, I was not a mistake is what my humanity thinks, I cannot
                                                         go somewhere
else than this body, the afterwards of each of these instants is just
                                                         another instant, breathe, breathe, 
my cells reach out, I multiply on the face of
                                                         the earth, on the
mud—I can see my prints on the sweet bluish mud—where I was just
                                                         standing and reaching to see if
those really were blossoms, I thought perhaps paper
                                                         from wind, & the sadness in
me is that of forced parting, as when I loved a personal
                                                         love, which now seems unthinkable, & I look at 
the gate, how open it is, 
                                                         in it the very fact of God as
invention seems to sit, fast, as in its saddle, so comfortable—& where
                                                         does the road out of it
go—& are those torn wires hanging from the limbs—& the voice I heard once after I passed
                                                         what I thought was a sleeping
man, the curse muttered out, & the cage after they have let
                                                         the creatures
out, they are elsewhere, in one of the other rings, the ring with the empty cage is
                                                         gleaming, the cage is
to be looked at, grieving, for nothing, your pilgrimage ends here, 
                                                         we are islands, we
                                                         should beget nothing &
what am I to do with my imagination—& the person in me trembles—& there is still
                                                         innocence, it is starting up somewhere
even now, and the strange swelling of the so-called Milky Way, and the sound of the
                                                         wings of the bird as it lifts off
suddenly, & how it is going somewhere precise, & that precision, & how I no longer
                                                         can say for sure that it
knows nothing, flaming, razory, the feathered serpent I saw as a child, of stone, &
                                                         how it stares back at me
from the height of its pyramid, & the blood flowing from the sacrifice, & the oracles
                                                         dragging hooks through the hearts in
                                                         order to say
what is coming, what is true, & all the blood, millennia, drained to stave off
                                                         the future, stave off, 
& the armies on the far plains, the gleam off their armor now in this bird's
                                                         eye, as it flies towards me
then over, & the sound of the thousands of men assembled at
                                                         all cost now
the sound of the bird lifting, thick, rustling where it flies over—only see, it is
                                                         a hawk after all, I had not seen
clearly, it has gone to hunt in the next field, & the chlorophyll is
                                                         coursing, & the sun is
sucked in, & the chief priest walks away now where what remains of
                                                         the body is left
as is customary for the local birds.