April 5, 2020
We wait and wonder how this all will end.
When can we go to Michigan?, the children
Keep asking, unaware and filled with hope,
While everyone else tries to understand
What it might mean that things are getting worse.
Our village flushes, bloomed with daffodils
Whose bulbs lay deep, forgotten through the winter,
Only to push up now in early spring.
They tell us with their mellow prettiness
Nothing that we have eyes to understand.
Most of us look instead for news, or turn
To aging books whose pages leave a dust
Upon the fingers as they’re read once more,
As if to say that nothing lasts forever,
And even books will taste oblivion.
In one, I happen on an arcane wonder,
A man half brilliant and half charlatan.
The Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, fled
To Avignon, Vienna, finally Rome,
As thirty years of war ignited city,
And court, and Church, and left the age exhausted.
But he, the while, towed about with him
His cabinet of curiosities;
Within its dark, he kept the last stray knick-knacks
The learning of the Renaissance had gathered.
He’d show them off to courtiers just come
Back home from fighting, legs and fingers shattered,
And faces blistered red with powder burns.
“The world is bound with secret knots,” he wrote,
And claimed to have untied a few in books,
Decoding hieroglyphics, speculating
That in the depths below Vesuvius,
An ocean lay, whose forces rule our tides.
For, are not all appearances effects
Of things invisible that we detect
Chiefly within the eyeless dark of reason?
His mind was grand with theories that were wrong:
Some just bizarre, but others plump with insight,
Because he trusted that the world could be
Read by the one who hoarded up its items
And ordered them as in a lexicon.
So, with his blurry microscope, he showed
The blood from victims of the plague played host
To swarming armies so minute they seemed
To promise every war-wrecked world concealed
World within world, and each one’s rage and strife
Begot the blasting sickness of the larger.
We see on TV, Governor Cuomo speak.
Seated behind a table, answering questions
The camera cut in just too late to catch,
He says things never will return to normal.
There is no going back for such a people,
Grown crazed with boredom, locked in their apartments,
And staring down on ghostly avenues
To watch the ambulances racing past.
The flashing lights and sirens fill the void
For one great, crashing moment, while inside
A gasping body, eyes alit with terror,
Joins those whose names we will not know, but who
Will soon be counted with the mounting dead.
A friend of mine, who studies economics,
Says she’s with him: says all she sees beyond
These weeks of idleness is loss on loss,
The banks and factories, the gaudy wealth
She used to warn against as our day’s idol—
Or totem, really, warping our desires.
All this, it seems to her, will not come back.
And though she’s often wished some modesty
Might be restored to us, this vanishing
She does not welcome, knowing how the young
Will soon be left to stare, expectant, out
On debt, dashed plans, and permanent decline.
I don’t pretend to see into such darkness
Myself. I’ve watched the alcoholic ruined,
Then wakened to a new day with his vow
To free himself, and make his earnest try,
Only to fall back in familiar habits.
I think as well of those who suffered Dresden
Or Dachau, how they must have thought the waste
Spread all before them was the final vision,
Beyond which lay the leveled, worse unknown.
And yet, they, even in their resignation,
Felt, against all desire, seeds of hope
And made, within that speechless sorrow, sketches
For how a new world would be built on ashes.
Customs may not be good, but they are dogged;
And hope is not a choice, but what we do,
When our mind stretches out to feel the darkness,
So long, at least, as we can still say “worse.”
Kircher’s contemporary, Blaise Pascal,
The mathematician and apologist,
Wrote that our hope was still another trace,
A mark made in the wreckage of our souls,
To tell us we are not born for this world,
But for another that we lost and seek.
On every side, infinities surround us,
And all our partial reasonings can manage
Is to cast out our thoughts like poker chips,
Small bets we place on hunched uncertainties,
A gesture pointing toward a great abyss
That won’t unveil itself until it does.
Just think of those, two thousand years ago,
Who veiled the highway to Jerusalem
With palms, as Christ rode in. They felt they knew
Just what he was, and bid their flashy welcome.
And think of those who stared up at him hanging,
Then turned to find their homes through early darkness
And took their dinners at an empty table.
And think of those who felt the early spring
Run through them with the chill of day’s first dawning,
Which seemed so bracing in its emptiness,
So stripped, so opened by the cleansing light.
They stood amid the quiet of the garden,
And waited, for the first time, without hope.
-James Matthew Wilson