On Looking East to the Sea with a Sunset Behind Me

By John Ciardi 1916–1986 John Ciardi

In a detachment cool as the glint of light
on wet roads through wet spruce, or iced mountains   
hailed from the sea in moonfill, or the sea
when one horizon’s black and the other burning;

the gulls are kissing time in its own flowing
over the shell-scraped rock   a coming and going   
as of glass bees with a bubble of light in each   
running errands in and out of the sunset.

Over the road and the spruce wood, over the ice,   
and out the picture of my picture window,   
the exorbitant separation of nature from nature   
wheels, whirls, and dances on itself.

Now damn me for a moral. Over and out,   
over and in, the gulls drift up afire,
screaming like hinges in the broken air
of night and day like two smokes on the sea.

And I do nothing. A shadow three feet under   
my window in the light, I look at light
in one of the years of my life. This or another.   
Or all together. Or simply in this moment.


Lead flags of the sea. Steel furls of the surf.
Day smoke and night smoke. Fire at the smoke’s top.   
A passion from the world in a calm eye.
A calm of the world in the eye of passion.

The day that sank birdless from staring Calvary   
was another. And only another. And no other   
than the clucking calm of Eden fussed to rest   
from the black bush afire in the first eye.

A calm-in-violence like Aegean time.
Day smoke and night smoke over the palled sea   
tensed for a clash of tridents. Far ashore,   
a staring army camped beside a temple,

the base of the temple black with powder stains,   
the pediment flashing wild in light above.
—A day of the world in which a part of the world   
looked at another, two parts of a mist.

At Cassino the dusty German wetting his lips,
his eyes crashed in his face like unhatched birds’ eggs   
splashed from their nest, looked East from the burning night.   
There was no West. Light came from nowhere behind him,

slanted, flowed level, drained. He looked out, waiting.   
Where had it come from, the light of his terrible patience?   
A dead man waited to die on the shell-scraped
stones of another God, dust of the stones

caked to his body, rivers of blood within him   
ran to their dusty sea beside the world.   
Calm in his changes, risen from his changes,   
he looked his life out at the smoking world.


I have no more to do than what I wait for   
under the changing light and the gulls afire   
in rays of rose-quartz. Holy ghosts of the sea,

they rise in light from behind me. The light lifts   
long from the edge of the world and juts away   
over the top of the dark. My life sits

visible to itself; and I sit still
in a company of survivors and the dead.
Jew. Greek, German, man at the edge of himself

in the long light over the worlds he ran to   
to save unsaved. I practice the man in all,   
clutching the world from the world to praise it.

John Ciardi, “On Looking East to the Sea with a Sunset behind Me” from As If: Poems New and Selected (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955). Used with the permission of the Ciardi Family Publishing Trust.

Source: Poetry (May 1955).


This poem originally appeared in the May 1955 issue of Poetry magazine

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May 1955
 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, . . .

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