Susan Stewart is the author of five books of poems, including Columbarium, which won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the forthcoming Red Rover. Her many prose works include Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which won both the Christian Gauss and Truman Capote prizes for literary criticism, and The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics. Recently she co-edited TriQuarterly 127: Contemporary Italian Poetry and her translation of the selected poems of Alda Merini will appear in 2008. Annan Professor of English at Princeton, she is a former MacArthur fellow, a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Three poems by Susan Stewart


The Owl

I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line -
released, although it seemed as if a knot

still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,

and yet I knew no god would mind a square
of air so small. And still it moved and still

it swooped and disappeared beyond the pane.
The after-image went, a blot beyond

the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
grass so black it had no substance

until I looked again and saw it tipped
with brittle frost. An acre there (a common-

place), a line of trees, a line of stars.

So look it up: you'll find that you could lose
your sense of depth,

a leaf, a sheaf
of paper, pillow-

case, or heart-
shaped face,

a shrieking hiss,
like winds, like

death, all tangled
there in branches.

I called this poem "the owl,"
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark

and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains

that I can't know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not

at all. It's not, it's never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world

belies the chaos of its forms - (the kind
of thing astronomers

look down to write
in books).

And, still, I thought a piece of cloth
had flown outside my window, or human hands

had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,

a snowy owl descended.

[first appeared in American Poetry Review]


The Lost Colony

They never learned to tell
one bird from another, a shrub

from a weedy sapling,
or when the season had

forced a flower's bloom, not
even if a berry

had ripened into poison.
And yet they drew endless

distinctions between
colors and polish and

coarseness of weave,
and would not let

their daughters
marry out.

They didn't keep
their children, though they

gave them tests and fed
them. They were known

for meticulous records, for
their trophies and peeling stars.

They burned things up
or wore them down, had ranks

and staff and lecterns,
machines that moved them

from place to place, bright
jewels and playing cards.

They were old when they could
have been young, and young

when they could have been old.
They left a strange word

in a tree: croatoan,
and a track in the dust of Mars.

[first appeared in Boston Review]


Day-lily

Unrecognizable now, a mash
of airy sweet-
ness stuck
to itself, an orange smear
dank across
the book where it rests.
At dusk you
had brought it from
the ditch bank
to the desk—
three waves, three
sepals, each dashed
maroon above
the stem, all
in all, thick
as cloth.
The stamens
sprung up, antennae:
June dusk,
dusk for
listening.
Now at dawn
an ant, determined
undertaker,
makes his way
like a cursor,
diagon-
ally over
the page,
the lily
of the day
is fairer
far in May,
fairer far
in May,
the lily of the day.


[first appeared in TriQuarterly]