Ars Poetica

To grasp, like Prometheus, the fire — without
the power to give it away ...
— Betty Adcock

At first a silhouette on the horizon, then
turning solid, like Schiller coming up the path to meet
the adorable sisters, and they, pretending not to watch,

their hearts, all the time, pounding,
driven by the same spring force (that would

tear them apart), the same force that drives
the salmon upriver, against the current, the odds,
back to the home pool, even as
the autumn mind, in spite of itself,

turns backward, with the same feverish glow as autumn
gives to the summer’s leaves, a deceptive glamour,
warming the past with an amber light, like brandy
held up to the fire, or the sun sinking at dusk
into the water, into the Baltic Sea
each night, where, in the mythical depths

of Lithuanian folktale, lies the amber castle
of the female sun, burning in the dark water,
a globe the color of harvest, aglow
there in the depths of the past, though
the amber, congealed sap of a once

living force, is broken into bits, and the mythic
castle with it — strung now as beads, and hung,
a charm, around the neck of a daughter,
like the one in a Greek dream, picking flowers
when the earth opened,

and in a swirl of violet cape and the pounding of hoofs,
the dark god broke out of the earth
driven by the same spring force, consequential
and mortal,
and up there, hanging over the mythic

fields of what recurs and recurs (though never the same,
and never to be reconciled) — what is that?
    A hot air balloon filled

with passengers who paid to be raised
in a basket, to be up there looking down on
the ground where they live, a place shrunken now
beneath their gaze, while their bloated shadow floats
like a jellyfish in a green sea, barely a smudge on the pastures below,
the trace of their passage less than a breath of smoke
from a coal-fired engine — a blast of tarnished air
from the actual past, heavy metal delivered from memory.
Useless to warn the girl, whose

hand will always be reaching out for the flowers, or
the sisters inflamed with Schiller, as he with the tricolor
dream of a world he could never inhabit ...
  useless to comfort

the eyeless Tiresias who knew how terrible was
wisdom when it knew itself useless,
  and useless to read

the names on the shining black wall of the Vietnam
Memorial, the text of exactly what war has accomplished — 
and look, there, standing high above the tragic scene,

not the little figures of the wise ancients that Yeats saw
carved into the deep blue stone — but there, standing high
above Arlington, against the blank lapis of the sky:
a horse with the torso and head of a man, yes,
it is Chiron, the last of the hybrids, the wise and terribly wounded
centaur for whom immortality was a curse,
   and he gave it away

to Prometheus, who stole the god’s fire and gave it away,
as art gives the power to give it away,
for that fire is the gift that cannot be held,
for it will burn to an ash those (born
and born again, war without end) who would hold it.
More Poems by Eleanor Wilner