The Messenger

By Eleanor Wilner b. 1937 Eleanor Wilner
The messenger runs, not carrying the news
of victory, or defeat; the messenger, unresting,
   has always been running, the wind before and behind him,
    across the turning back of earth, leaving
      his tracks across the plains, his ropes
       hanging from the ledges of mountains;
         for centuries, millennia, he has been running
       carrying whatever it is that cannot be
      put down: it is rolled in a tube
    made of hide, carefully, to keep it dry
   as he runs, through storms and monsoons,
sometimes on foot, sometimes poling a boat   
through a flooded mangrove swamp, or   
   setting stiff sails to cross from island to island
    running before the wind. In some ages, peasants
      have helped him—bringing him small cakes
       of rice wrapped in the weeds of the sea and
         new sandals woven of hemp for his torn
       bleeding feet; sometimes in the heat of noon
      they would offer a drink of rosewater, sometimes
   a coat of fur against the winter snows;   
and sometimes at night, he would rest
by a fire where voices wove with the music
   of gut-strings, or with mountain pipes whose
    sound was like wind through the bones
      of creation—and he would be cheered
       by the company of others, the firelit glow
         of their faces like a bright raft afloat in the dark;
       at times, rumors spread of his death, scholars
      analyzed his obsession, dated his bones, his prayer bundle;
   but at dawn, he always arose, in the mists,
in the blur of so many mornings, so many shoes
worn into scraps and discarded, so many   
   the cities that burned as he passed
    them, so many the skulls abandoned
      by armies, so many whose blood
       stained the threads of their prayer rugs,   
         so many, so many, so many—
    and that green, sunlit hill that kept
   rising from the dark waters of flood, outlined bright   
against the sky, the odds, the evidence—
and he, the messenger,
running through history, carries this small tube,
   its durable hide—carries it, not like   
    a torch, no, nothing so blazing;
      not like the brass lamp that summons
       a genie, no magic wishes;
      not like the candles that hope sets aflame
    and a breath can extinguish ...

He carried it like
   what has no likeness,
    what is curled up inside and
      he swore he could feel it, though
       perhaps he had dreamed it, still
         at times, stopping under some tree
       or other, when the night was warm,
      so close the stars seemed to breathe in   
   the branches, he would lie quiet,   
then it would seem
that whatever it was in there
would pulse softly with light, a code   
   only the heart could break
    (but of course he couldn’t say
      for he was only the messenger)—
    and at sunrise, wearily, he would rise   
      to his feet and trudge on, sometimes   
       running, sometimes stumbling,
         carrying whatever it was that could not
          be put down, would not be cast aside—
         and besides, he would chide himself,   
       weren’t they all as tired as he,
      and hadn’t they helped him, time
    and again, on his way?

Eleanor Wilner, “The Messenger” from Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Eleanor Wilner. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271,

Source: Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)

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Poet Eleanor Wilner b. 1937

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Concrete or Pattern Poetry

 Eleanor  Wilner


Eleanor Wilner was born in 1937 in Ohio. She earned a BA from Goucher College and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, where she completed her dissertation on the imagination, a work later published as Gathering the Winds: Visionary Imagination and Radical Transformation of Self and Society (1975).  Active in civil rights and peace movements, Wilner is known for writing poetry that engages politics, culture, history, and myth. . . .

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SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Concrete or Pattern Poetry

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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