A Selection from Elementary


Follow back from the gull's bright arc and the opsrey's plunge,
past the silent heron, erect in the tidal marsh,
up the mighty river, rolling in mud. Branch off
at the sign of the kingfisher poised on a twisted snag.
Not deceived when the surface grows calm, keep on,
past the placidity of ducks, the delusive pastoral dreams
drawn down by the effortless swallows that drink on the wing.
With the wheat fields behind you, do not neglect to choose
at every juncture the clearest and coldest path.
Push through the reeds where the redwing sways,
climb through the warnings of hidden jays,
climb, climb the jostling, narrowing stream
through aspen sunlight into the evergreen darkness
where chattering crossbills scatter the shreds of cones.
Here at last at the brink of the furthest fall,
with the water dissolving to mist as it shatters the pool below,
pause beneath timber-line springs and the melting snow.

Here where the shadows are deep in the crystal air,
so near a myriad beginnings, after so long a journey,
expecting at least a golden cockatoo
or a screaming eagle with the wings of flame,
stifle your disappointment, observe
the burgher of all this beauty, the drab
citizen of the headwaters; struggle to love
the ridiculous ouzel, perched on his slippery stone
like an awkward, overblown catbird deprived of its tail.

Not for him the limitless soaring above the storm,
or the surface-skimming, or swimming, or plunging in.
He walks. In the midst of the turbulence, bathed in spray,
from a rock without foothold into the lunging current
he descends a deliberate step at a time till, submerged,
he has walked from sight and hope. The stream
drives on, dashes, splashes, drops over the edge,
too swift for ice in midwinter, too cold
for life in midsummer, depositing any debris,
leaf, twig or carcass, along the way,
wedging them in behind rocks to rot,
such as these not reaching the ocean.

Yet, lo, the lost one emerges unharmed,
hardly wet as he walks from the water.
Undisturbed by beauty or terror, pursuing
his own few needs with a nerveless will,
nonchalant in the torrent, he bobs and nods
as though to acknowledge implicit applause.
This ceaseless tic, a trick of the muscles shared
with the solitary sandpiper, burlesqued
by the teeter-bob and the phoebe's tail,
is not related to approbation. The dipper,
denied the adventure of uncharted flight
over vast waters to an unknown homeland, denied
bodily beauty, slightly absurd and eccentric,
will never attain acclaim as a popular hero.
No prize committee selects the clown
whose only dangers are daily and domestic.

Yet he persists, and does not consider it persisting.
On a starless, sub-zero, northern night,
when all else has taken flight into sleep or the south,
he, on the edge of the stream, has been heard to repeat
the rippling notes of his song, which are clear and sweet.

        -- --William H. Matchett