The Pilot in the Jungle

By John Ciardi 1916–1986 John Ciardi

Machine stitched rivets ravel on a tree
Whose name he does not know. Left in the sky,   
He dangles from a silken cumulus
(Stork’s bundle upside down
On the delivering wind) and sees unborn   
Incredible jungles of the lizard’s eye:
Dark fern, dark river, a shale coliseum   
Mountained above one smudgepot in the trees   
That was his surreal rug on metered skies   
And slid afire into this fourth dimension   
Whose infinite point of meeting parallels   
He marks in ultra-space, suspended from   
The chords of fifty centuries
Descending to their past—a ripping sound   
That snags him limb by limb. He tears and falls   
Louder than any fruit dropped from the trees,   
And finds himself in mud on hands and knees.


The opened buckle frees him from his times.   
He walks three paces dressed in dripping fleece   
And tears it off. The great bird of his chute   
Flaps in the trees: he salvages its hide
And starts a civilization. He has a blade,   
Seventeen matches, his sheepskin, and his wits.   
Spaceman Crusoe at the wreck of time,
He ponders unseen footprints of his fear.   
No-eyes watch his nothing deep in nowhere.


He finds the wreck (the embers of himself)   
Salvages bits of metal, bakelite, glass—
Dials twisted from himself, his poverty.
Three hours from time still ticking on his wrist   
The spinning bobbins of the time machine   
Jam on an afternoon of Genesis
And flights of birds blow by like calendars   
From void to void. Did worlds die or did he?   
He studies twisted props of disbelief
Wondering what ruin to touch. He counts his change   
(“Steady now, steady ...”) flips heads or tails and sees   
The coin fall into roots. An omen? (“Steady ...”)   
He laughs (a nerve’s slow tangling like a vine)   
Speaks to himself, shouts, listens, hears a surf   
Of echo rolling back to strand him there   
In tide pools of dead time by caves of fear,   
And enters to himself, denned in his loss,   
Tick-tick, a bloodbeat building on his wrist,   
Ratcheting down the dead teeth of a skull   
(The fossil of himself) sucked out of sight   
Past heads and tails, past vertebrae and gill   
To bedrocks out of time, with time to kill.

John Ciardi, “The Pilot in the Jungle” from Live Another Day (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1949). Used with the permission of the Ciardi Family Publishing Trust.

Source: The Collected Poems of John Ciardi (University of Arkansas Press, 1997)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet John Ciardi 1916–1986

Subjects War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 John  Ciardi


To millions of Americans, the late John Ciardi was "Mr. Poet, the one who has written, talked, taught, edited, translated, anthologized, criticized, and propelled poetry into a popular, lively art," according to Peter Comer of the Chicago Tribune. Although recognized primarily as a poet and critic, Ciardi's literary endeavors encompassed a vast range of material. From juvenile nonsense poetry to scholarly verse translations, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.