by Carole Losee © 2005-2019

THE POEMS OF ELIZABETH SEEGER

remain under copyright protection and may not be reprinted without written permission



THE PLEIADES


When I see the Pleiades,

The dainty, dancing Pleiades –

    Like flowers clustered on a stem

    Like bees a-swarm around a twig

    Like wind-bells shaken by the breeze

    Like butterflies in nuptial flight –

When I see the Pleiades

The year begins for me.


The heady wine of autumn then

Is offered in a golden cup –

    A wine distilled from goldenrod

    From aster and from scarlet leaf

    From blue-jay’s scream and katydid

    From insect bells and silences –

The heady wine of autumn

I drink and hail the year.


The Mind rejoices, savoring

The winter’s fruit that ripens when

    Orion strides across the sky –

    By student lamp and firelight

    In windy walks on dark, cold streets

    In solitary silent thought –

The mind rejoices as the heart

Rejoices in the spring.



OCTOBER


When the wind blows

The falling leaves are like

Largesse scattered by a lavish hand

In a time of triumph;

Like a Tsar’s crowning

When the golden coins

Poured on his head and shoulders

Fell, rolling and spinning,

Flashing to the ground,

Toward the eager fingers.


When there is no wind

The leaves fall as water

Flows between the stones,

Wholly obedient

To the earth’s will:

Each in its transit

Like one released from self,

Freed from attachment,

Desireless,

Translucent,

Struck with glory.



NOVEMBER


This should be the month

Of the artificer:

The metalworker and the jeweler,

The gold and silver smith;

For all he works and deals with is displayed

Now in the woods, on hillsides,

And all along the roads.


Branches and twigs of iron and of bronze

Are interlaced in intricate design

Against a pewter or a silver sky;

Or else they stand

In the pale blue air

Changed into precious metals

By the sun.

Single or clustered leaves of gold still hang

On sapling birch and maple, while the oaks,

Who keep their leaves so long,

Turn them against the light

To all the hues of amber.


The fading fields are jade,

The lawns are chrysoprase,

The roadsides burnished copper, chased

With leaf and grass and flower, long since stilled

By the Midas-touch of autumn.

All this wealth

Is girded by the hills, smoke-blue or purple,

Hidden before but now revealed

By the bare trees.


Come, craftsman, fill your heart

With pattern, line and color,

Wrought by the alchemy

Of this dear month,

Before the snow

Covers his handiwork.



RESURRECTION


The shorn meadow lies

Like a bared body in complete repose,

The supine, deep repose of after-harvest––

Brief–– for in three days

The young green blades will pierce the air again.


So must He have lain

In supine, deep repose within the tomb,

The harvest cut––

Three days–– until His life rose up like light

And pierced the skies.



TIME AND THE SPIRIT


Time, what are you?

These lovely revolutions round the sun

These rhythmic sequences of day and night

Of season, birth and dying, What are they?

They are like dancers weaving, hand in hand,

A measure so entrancing neither we

Nor they can ever tire of their play.


We know another beat

That pulses forth out of eternity

Whose bud appears alone what time it may

Grows without year or season

Sometimes lies

Dormant beneath a bounteous summer’s heat

And blossoms, fragrant, still and luminous,

On a dark winter’s night.



I HAVE A BIRD THAT SINGS TO ME


I have a bird that sings to me

And brings

Me news of distant worlds that else

I could not know,

That preens his golden feathers in my sight

And is my treasure.


But when I loose my bird, he does not care

For this world’s rulings. Fences are to him

Lines far beneath him which his shadow leaps

In play. He eats my neighbor’s grain

Destroys his fruit,

Sings on his tree,

And far and wide I hear the cries of those

Over whose lands my golden bird has flown

Seeking his heart’s desire.


Must I, O blessèd one, cage fast your joy,

Dull your gold plumage, quench your song, for this?

Will you not listen? But, alas, has ever

Joy obeyed counsel, or a child his parent,

Or a bird a man?

What shall I do, my beauty, with your song,

Your flash of golden wings, your headlong flight?


                           ooo0ooo


Now I can loose you, my beloved . . . Fly

North, south, and east and west, over the roads,

The fences and the houses and the woods,

And the far prairies. Joy is in your heart,

Joy in your open cage that was my heart,

We know the blessèd secret, you and I,

And we can do no hurt and need not fear.


I caged you long

In my dark heart, not understanding me

Who kept you captive. Neither did I know

Why I must keep you there. But when I knew

Why birds were given song, your cage’s door

Swung open silently, your head peeped out

And all your feathers shook.

And then I caught you, held you in my hands

And whispered you the secret, and you leapt

Upon the wind and sang. The secret sings

Hidden within your song.



“ O DEATH . . .”


The summer lies

Fulfilled, serene and very still,

Upon her pyre;

And all around, lit by an early frost,

Leap up the fires of autumn:

The earth-bound sumach blazes; scarlet bine

Runs up the trunk and pole

And flares along the wall;

A low branch kindles; soon the tree will burn

Up to its very crest,

Up to the wooded height, the fires will reach

And sweep to the horizon,

Consuming and proclaiming

The glory of the summer that has died.


Earth does not lament

The death of season or of plant or creature,

For safe within her bosom lie the seed,

The living root and the slow-pulsing heart

That hides itself and nestles in her warmth.

She celebrates with ever-changing beauty

The ever-changing phases of the life

Her spinning course creates.


Autumn will die: this fire

That flames among the maples,

Smolders in ash and hickory and glows

Amber and ruby in the oaks –

Flickering along the ground between the trees,

Each smallest leaf incarnate autumn –

This fire will burn the branches bare,

Showering its sparks to drift along the wind,

Leaving the purity of twig and bough

Naked against the sky,

In November when its blue and purple smoke

Lies on the far hills;

And finally its fructifying ash

Will cover and nourish –

Under the deeper cover of the winter –

The coming spring.



BARNSWALLOW


Lean, supple and poised,

Gleaming as one

Whose limbs are oiled

For Olympian races;

Pointed of beak

Of shoulder and tail

Winged like a seraph,

Gay as a child,

Clad like an angel

In flashing blue

The swallow alights

On a line in the barnyard:

Dear and familiar

Yet alien still

As the heavenly host.


He preens his bright plumage

And ruffles each feather,

He sings in the dawn;

He and his fellows

Unceasingly chatter

Their high sweet voices

Filling the barnyard

Till, sudden and quick,

Like leaves in the wind,

They scatter and vanish,

Chattering still,

Till their high sweet voices

Are lost in the sky.


He builds him a home

In the roof of the loft

Where he raises his nestlings

And teaches them later

The skills of their flying.

If watched he will circle

In pretence of panic

With piercing twin cries;

Even as Isis

Once cried at Byblos

In guise of a swallow

Circling the pillar

That hid her belovèd.


Greater the grace

And the skill of his flying

Than the loveliest vessel

Riding the sea-ways

Could ever display.

He speeds in the air

Skims, sails, all a-twitter

For hours untiring;

Then finally turns

And dives down to the barnyard;

Banking the wing

And fanning the tail

He darts up again

Through the dark of the loft

To his small homely dwelling.


I look at him there

On his improvised perch

And he bends his sleek head

And looks down at me boldly

As wise as a star;

Familiar and dear

Yet alien still –

As one of the host

That witnessed creation

As one of the stars

That sang the first morning –

In form angelic

At home in the skies.



AUGUST NIGHT


The power of God

Is in the sound of the katydids

And of the million little swinging bells

Of insects hidden in the fields

And in the polished disc

Of the moon.

The Universe vibrates

With his presence:

The earth is a struck drum,

The moon a shining cymbal –



AUTUMN COMES ON STILL FEET


Autumn comes on still feet;

He brings peace to the ear

But to the eye

High carnival.


The bluejay’s scream

Plumbs the silence;

And the incessant sibilance of insects

Deepens it,

As a whisper does

In a holy place.


But the goldenrod flaunts its pennants

On every roadside

And on the aster

The wheel of life

Is painted a thousandfold

In gold and purple;

The golden bough and the scarlet leaf

Herald his coming.


Autumn comes

In the stillness of after-harvest;

Earth Sleeps;

The fantasy of autumn

Is her dreaming.



HOW STRAIGHT YOU STRIKE, MY FALCON!


How straight you strike, my falcon!

How unerringly

You seek and fell your prey!

Your eyes will pierce a summer wood, my beauty,

My greedy one, my fierce-eyed hunter!


But when I loose my bird, my comrades lean

Their heads upon their hands and weep, for he

Cares not a whit whether the game he strikes

Be theirs or mine.

No boundaries he sees, no fence, from where he soars,

From where he sights his find.


So, must I hood those piercing eyes,

Hold tight the silken leash

And lay my hand across the lifting wings,

Oerlaid as smooth as fish’s scales

With dappled feathers?

So, must I wound and blind you, my belovèd,

Lest you hurt others? Can we find no way,

We two, to free your fearless search?



MARTHA’S VINEYARD


I sit beside the still lagoon

Awaiting the wild goose’s flight –

The little waves lap up against the stones

The distant surf thunders against the bar

On either hand stretches untrodden moor.


About me the decoy-birds swim unknowing –

They too are wild – only a moment held

In this captivity.

And when the wild one comes

Our flight will be together.


I call him silently within my heart –

And the little waves lap up against my lips

The distant surf lit soft across my eyes

And the decoy birds answer me – their cry

startles me to believe that he has come.


O little waves and surf who are one with me,

O beauty, waiting, as her dwelling-place

Awaits the coming bride –

O friends and lovers who are my decoys –

The wild goose I await is my own soul!

How can I turn my eyes till he appear?



IN THE EGYPTIAN ROOM


The sun, through any chink or any hole,

No matter what its shape

Still casts his very image

A perfect disc of light

On any surface – floor or wall or leaf

There may be to receive it –


Who are we

To measure large or small?

Your feet or five or six above the ground

We call that small that’s any less than we (are)

And large that’s more.

What vanity

To offer our so varied, casual selves

As yardsticks for the cosmos!


Suppose that we accept

The impertinent measurement:

Behold the sun

So very large

So very far away;

And yet through any little chink or hole

He casts the perfect image of himself

On anything the laws his might obeys

Place in his path –



SHIELD ME FROM THEIR LOVE!


Shield me from their love!

O let me grow

The hard shell of a tortoise to receive

The touch of questing kisses!

Lend me your house, sweet snail,

That I be able

Hastily to retire;

Teach me your art, O gentle mole, that I

May lie beneath their feet, within the ground,

Unknown of them;

Your wings, my brother! lift me from the earth,

Let me fly sunward, far beyond their sight!



MY HORSE DOES NOT ENJOY THIS RIDE AS I DO


My horse does not enjoy this ride as I do:

With all the pains of humanity I pay for my joy in the morning;

With all their unseen weight that flings

So high the scale of my pleasure,

High as the foam from a crested wave

High as the flame of that oriole’s breast

High as the note of his song

I pay for my joy in the day.



GOD, IF MY WATERS STILL


God, if my waters still

Flow through the channels of the fields, if still

They separate and flow in diverse brooks

Not in a steady stream that seeks the sea . . .

Still let it be

Your living water that goes down my brooks,

Through all my channels.


If I must still

Weave vain designs upon the warp of space

With the sharp shuttle, time,

Give me the shining wool of your own lambs

To be the fiber of my thread.


Although my feet

Tread many highroads, many pathways still,

Your jewels in the dust that flash to greet

My eyes whenever I stoop down to look

Prove that all paths are yours.



MARCH


What are your attributes, O God?

What jewels have you chosen for to-day?

What perfume have your robes?

I have seen love shine in the eyes of men,

A bluebird gleam upon a rain-soaked bough.

And starry drops stand along leafless twigs . . .

Are these caught from a gesture of your hand?

And far beyond the fragrance of the earth

Laid widely at my feet another breath.



EAST RIVER


Suffer yourself to be created . . Rest

From your creating!

Which makes the lovelier forms . . That which to-night

Mirrors in the intricate rhythm in the tide

The lights of passing river-boats, or you?

Rest from creation . .

Let yourself be born!



I LIVE IN A CAGE OF BEAUTY . . .


I live in a cage of beauty . . .

My farthest-reaching senses find it still,

Seeking to pierce beyond, their utmost reach,

Their nearest touch find beauty still

In distant cloud, in sunlit stone.


All day my eyes perceive it, and my ears,

My outstretched fingers touch its surfaces,

And when I wake at night the moonlight falls

Across my bed.


But in this cage my bird has drooped his head

And the song dies in his throat

Feeling the bars.



ALIEN NATURALIZATION


Fast unresisting, giant, tasseled canes,

Jostling great leaves that reach a crest and bow,

Deep in the jungle of the cornfield now

Let primal power, stored in potent grains,

Released by intolerant sun and hard-flung rains,

And those enduring figures, man and plough,

Surge over you; and through your nerves allow

The throbbing pangs of this earth’s labor pains.


In English wheatfields, in a gentler guise,

You knew this power, where a frailer grain,

Knee-high and still, slow ripens English-wise

Through lingering twilights and soft-falling rain.

Sharing the sacrament of alien corn,

Part of your heart American is born.



MY FATHER’S AGE IS BEAUTIFUL BECAUSE


My father’s age is beautiful because

Each added year can only make more clear

The true shape of his life and character

Age simplifies!

In him experience and love

Itself is truer and in still tenderness

A lifetime’s honor and integrity

Mold every line and plane

To true nobility and truer beauty

Than ever youth possessed.



OLD AGE IS BEAUTIFUL WHEN IT REVEALS


Old age is beautiful when it reveals

Beauty and worth

For childhood youth and prime are garments shed

And age reveals the man as later Death

When age itself is shed

The spirit shall reveal –



OLD AGE IS BEAUTIFUL


Old age is beautiful

When no mean line

Is graven on the face

And when no sagging muscle gives away

Secret indulgence

When the visible bones

Betray no basic weakness.



PRAYER FOR THE PRESENT


Beneath the thick hair

May my brain be as clean

As a buffalo’s bleached skull

Lying on the prairie.


That the sun may draw

Its sharp shadows and its lights

With Chinese brush

In the immaculate channels.


That each breeze may bring fragrance

Into the airy chambers

And the storm-winds whistle

Through the open orifices.