The Last Man

By Eleanor Wilner b. 1937 Eleanor Wilner

for Vivian Schatz

Here, in our familiar streets, the day   
is brisk with winter’s business.
The reassuring rows of brick façades,   
litter baskets overflowing
with the harvest of the streets
and, when the light turns, the people   
move in unison, the cars miraculously   
slide to a stop, no one is killed,   
the streets, for some reason, do not   
show the blood that is pouring   
like a tide, on other shores.

         Martinez, the last peasant left alive   
         in his village, refuses to run, hopes   
         that God, El Salvador,
         will let him get the harvest in.
         “Can a fish live out of water?” he says   
         for why he stays, and weeds
         another row, ignoring the fins   
         of sharks that push up
         through the furrows.

Here, it is said, we live
in the belly of the beast. Ahab sits
forever at the helm, his skin
white wax, an effigy. The whale carries   
him, lashed to its side by the ropes
from his own harpoon. His eyes
are dead. His ivory leg
juts from the flank of Leviathan
like a useless tooth.

         One more time, the distant sail appears,   
         a cloud forms, an old icon for mercy   
         turned up in a dusty corner
         of the sky, preparing rain
         for the parched land, Rachel
         weeping for her children. “Can a fish   
         live out of water?” he asks
         and the rain answers, in Spanish,   
         manitas de plata
         little hands of silver on his brow.

Eleanor Wilner, “The Last Man” 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, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

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

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Poet Eleanor Wilner b. 1937

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Biography

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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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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