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.
Three poems by Susan Stewart
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-
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
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
colors and polish and
coarseness of weave,
and would not let
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]
Unrecognizable now, a mash
of airy sweet-
to itself, an orange smear
the book where it rests.
At dusk you
had brought it from
the ditch bank
to the desk—
three waves, three
sepals, each dashed
the stem, all
in all, thick
sprung up, antennae:
Now at dawn
an ant, determined
makes his way
like a cursor,
of the day
far in May,
the lily of the day.
[first appeared in TriQuarterly]