Reading the Bible Backwards

By Eleanor Wilner b. 1937 Eleanor Wilner
All around the altar, huge lianas
curled, unfurled the dark green
of their leaves to complement the red
of blood spilled there—a kind of Christmas   
decoration, overhung with heavy vines
and over them, the stars.
When the angels came, messengers like birds   
but with the oiled flesh of men, they hung   
over the scene with smoldering swords,   
splashing the world when they beat
their rain-soaked wings against the turning sky.

The child was bright in his basket
as a lemon, with a bitter smell from his wet   
swaddling clothes. His mother bent   
above him, singing a lullaby
in the liquid tongue invented
for the very young—short syllables   
like dripping from an eave
mixed with the first big drops of rain   
that fell, like tiny silver pears, from
the glistening fronds of palm. The three   
who gathered there—old kings uncrowned:   
the cockroach, condor, and the leopard, lords
of the cracks below the ground, the mountain   
pass and the grass-grown plain—were not   
adorned, did not bear gifts, had not   
come to adore; they were simply drawn   
to gawk at this recurrent, awkward son   
whom the wind had said would spell   
the end of earth as it had been.

Somewhere north of this familiar scene   
the polar caps were melting, the water was   
advancing in its slow, relentless
lines, swallowing the old
landmarks, swelling the
seas that pulled
the flowers and the great steel cities down.   
The dolphins sport in the rising sea,   
anemones wave their many arms like hair   
on a drowned gorgon’s head, her features   
softened by the sea beyond all recognition.

On the desert’s edge where the oasis dies
in a wash of sand, the sphinx seems to shift
on her haunches of stone, and the rain, as it runs down,   
completes the ruin of her face. The Nile
merges with the sea, the waters rise
and drown the noise of earth. At the forest’s
edge, where the child sleeps, the waters gather—
as if a hand were reaching for the curtain
to drop across the glowing, lit tableau.

When the waves closed over, completing the green   
sweep of ocean, there was no time for mourning.   
No final trump, no thunder to announce
the silent steal of waters; how soundlessly
it all went under: the little family
and the scene so easily mistaken
for an adoration. Above, more clouds poured in   
and closed their ranks across the skies;
the angels, who had seemed so solid, turned   
quicksilver in the rain.
                                     Now, nothing but the wind   
moves on the rain-pocked face
of the swollen waters, though far below
where giant squid lie hidden in shy tangles,   
the whales, heavy-bodied as the angels,   
their fins like vestiges of wings,
sing some mighty epic of their own—

a great day when the ships would all withdraw,   
the harpoons fail of their aim, the land   
dissolve into the waters, and they would swim   
among the peaks of mountains, like eagles   
of the deep, while far below them, the old   
nightmares of earth would settle
into silt among the broken cities, the empty   
basket of the child would float
abandoned in the seaweed until the work of water   
unraveled it in filaments of straw,
till even that straw rotted
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for,   
sending their jets of water skyward   
in the clear conviction they’d spill back   
to ocean with their will accomplished   
in the miracle of rain: And the earth   
was without form and void, and darkness   
was upon the face of the deep. And
the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters.

Eleanor Wilner, “Reading the Bible Backwards” 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 Religion

 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 Religion

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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