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  • Owl
  • John Hollander


Now that the owl-light—in the time between Dog and wolf, as some call it—ends, we wait   As you alight on an unseen     Branch to interrogate

The listener and the rememberer; Lost outlines heighten—as last colors fade—   The sounder darkness you confer     Upon the spruce’s shade.

Deluded by the noonlight’s wide display Of everything, our vision floats through thin   Spaces of ill-illumined day:     How we are taken in

By what we take in with our roving eyes! Your constant ones, if moved to track or trace,   Take their head with them, lantern-wise     Taking heed, keeping face

In the society of night, and keeping Faith with the spirit of pure fixity   That sets the mind’s great heart to leaping     At what you more than see. [End Page 163]

Medusa’s visage gazed our bodies to Literal stone unshaded: your face, caught   In our glance widely eyes us through,

    Astonishing our thought. You who debated with the nightingale The rectitude of northern wisdom, cold   Against the love-stuff of the tale

    The laid-back south had told; And yet who stood amid the lovely, thick Leaves of the ivy, while in all their folly   The larks and thrushes sought the prick

    And berries of the holly; You who confounded the rapacious crow Thus to be favored by the great sky-eyed   Queen of the air and all who know,

    Now ever by her side; With silent wing and interrogative Cry in lieu of a merely charming song,   You sound the dark in which you live

    Perched above right and wrong. Resonance is not vacancy: although He could hear nothing in your hollow howls   But woe and his own guilt, Thoreau

    Rejoiced that there were owls. Scattered and occasional questionings With here and there too late a warning shout,   Wisdom arises on the wings

    Of darkness and of doubt. Where in day’s vastnesses does truth reside? In noon’s uncompromising light and heat   When even our own shadows hide

    Under our very feet? Or in the hidden center of the quick Resilient dark on which your narrowed sight   So pointedly alights to pick

    Not the day, but the night, [End Page 164] Its fruitful flower, petaled a hundredfold? Oh it is there, truth, with the poor blind prey   Trembling with prescience or cold

    Waiting for how your way Of well-tuned suddenness and certitude Tight-strung and execution highly wrought   Leads to the pounced-on object, food

    For something beyond thought, By overlooking nothing, overseeing In all the stillness hidden, tiny motions   Squirming with the life of being

    Inferences and notions. With patient agency the beak and claws Of fierce sublime awareness pluck it clean   Deriving what for us are laws

    Governing the unseen. Under torn canvas we put out to sea Trusting, though puzzled by what glows above,   To something like philosophy

    To be the helmsman of Life (but whose life?). Your lessons of the land, Down-to-tree, then, if not -to-earth, indict   Our helplessness to understand

    Just what we are at night. Immensities of starlight told us lies Of what and where we are; but, we allow,   Drunk with the Milky Way, our eyes

    Are on the Wagon now, Fugitive slaves, leaving despair for dread As if in search of the cold, freeing North,   Keep gazing steadily ahead

    Keep on Keep knowing forth You urge us, as your silences address The power that Minerva chose you for:   Great-winged, far-ranging consciousness

    Now come to rest in your [End Page 165] Olympian attentiveness that finds The affrighted heartbeat on the ground, perceives   The flutter of substances, the mind’s      Life in the fallen leaves.

John Hollander
Yale University

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pp. 163-166
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