Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Up Against It

By Eleanor Wilner, MA '64, PhD '73

The wall was white, whitewash lime
that shines in the sun till white is pure pain
searing the eyes.
And the wall was marked,
pocked by a spray of black holes, like nothing
so much as the dots in a child's puzzle, waiting
for a line to make sense of them, to pull from
a scatter of points, a familiar shape.

At the beginning of the bad time
we have come to think of as usual, they stood
a man here, against this wall, simply because
of what he was, something that made it hard
to do what they wanted,
so they thought that
if they killed him first, at the very beginning,
the rest would come easy, his blood like a red
door opening into the future in which the gypsy
wind, capricious, always eluding them,
would be stilled, tied in a sack;
and the everyday which wore them
down into grit under its heels, would disappear
into clouds of power; their boots would be real
leather, the rawhide smell from what they had taken
and hadn't the time to cure.

And if he were Lorca, Garcia Lorca, the writer
with a fire in his hands (and he was)--
and if they stood him up against this wall
in its white that defeated the light, throwing it back
like a knife into the eyes--and if, in that moment,
as they raised their guns, he remembered
a dream he had dreamed but a month
before, a dream of a lamb surrounded and butchered
by shepherds--
if all this were true (and it is)--then
we approach this wall at our cost, counting its black
holes like the shrunken emblems of the cosmos eating
back its own matter--and what then?
Shall we paste up the placards
of a revolution in which we no longer believe? Shall we
tear down the wall, knowing another stands behind it,
and another, and another, to the horizon of counting?
Shall we line up the children beside it,
pointing at each hole as a lesson
through which, like a sieve,
their hope will begin
to drain out?

Or shall we plant flowering vines along the wall
to cover the record?
And when each tendril, each slow,
wavering filament,
each unruly, winding line of green
is swaying along the wall,
looking for somewhere to anchor
its urge to go on growing
(verde, te quiero verde),
what then?

Why, by then, in the long twilights, in the hard work
of planting and watering, of watching and waiting,
by then we may have understood what we can't now
imagine, desperate as we are about the white wall, the holes
in the shape of a man, the mark they wanted to leave us,
the line terror taught us to trace--
so different
from the one that he left, the one whose
shape left its trace in the heart, the balcony open,
the long spill of stars in the sky, the track
of creation's milky tongue, and, listen--
the shift and seethe of the sap
forcing its slow way toward the branching
twigs--the ear-splitting crack
as the end is riven by budding--
a salt breeze in the orchard,
the small leaves trembling with light.

Eleanor Wilner, MA '64, PhD '73, is the author of four books of poems, including Otherwise (1993) and Sarah's Choice (The University of Chicago Press, 1989), and a book on visionary imagination, Gathering the Winds (The Johns Hopkins University Press). The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Juniper Prize, an NEA grant, and other awards, she currently teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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