Steadied by the Darkness

Northern Lights over Fairbanks, Alaska (Stormscape Photography / Michael Phelps)

In the Sleep of Reason
by John Haines (1924 – 2011), from The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems

And so I closed that book,
laid down the pen
and closed my eyes.

What had I thought to find,
reading by the light of cyphers,
abstract and piercing
in their constellations?

Nothing that night and the wind
could not have told me,
had I raised my head,
dimmed my lamp, and listened—

I, a thoughtful man, prone
to the dust of bindings,
coughing in the dry sequence
of verse and chapter
(for I had reasons).

And while I was sleeping,
came a small beak at my heart,
like a thorn, insistently
probing . . .

And I in terror awoke,
to know in that room
a tread ceaseless and pacing.

As if from within my being
came this upwelling,
of brute and shouldering forms:

heavy and beastlike, buoyant
and birdlike, but nothing
I could name, they moved
at ease, about and within me . . .

creatures of the starlight,
but also of the mind,
harbor to wolf and warlock.

So much do I remember now:
the pulse of obedient hearts,
hot tongues licking
the night; and I heard,

like a dry wind over leaves,
the scaly rustling of reptiles
coiling and resting . . .
All turned in the lamplight

eyes that never turned from mine
in their bright interrogation
(for I could see them,
and yet they were not there).

And I would speak, my hand
upheld to shield me,
when the shutter clapped
and my lamp blew out—

(was it a natural wind,
or a spirit-breath
lifting the leaves
of heavy trees in the night?)

And all subsided in the hush
that followed, in the calm
of great wings folding
and shadowy forms lying down.

I rose and left that room,
the house of my grief
and my bondage, my book
never again to be opened.

To see as once I saw,
steadied by the darkness
in which I walked
and would make my way.

See also: “John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86,” by Douglas Marin, New York Times, Mar. 5, 2011