Susan Stewart

Forms of Forts

Hay Fort

A labyrinth. A pencil shaft of light
wherever four bales could not squarely

meet. The twine tight, lifting as abrading. A twinge, the prickly collar
rubbing, a scratching rash along the forearm.

The heaviness of the hay in the hot dark.

So earnestly, we set to building for ourselves.
That there should be something where before there was nothing.

Then the fervent hours of catching and pretending,
the dreaming hours of strings and lucky stones.

If you touch one of your hands with another, the one that touches
will seem alive, the other like an object to be awakened.

When winter ended, the doors were rolled back and the broad day
flooded the loft.

And then we could see, in the swath of sunlight,
the stray clover bud, or jewel weed

or fire weed
or evening primrose or robin's plaintain

or thistle, or chicory,
even once great mullein—
            the leaf that is called velvet dock.

Whatever had been in the mower's path
was bound and pressed into the hay.

You cannot know both hands at once; you must
choose between the living and the dead.

A labyrinth broken open from above
or worn away at its foundations.

That there might be something when there is nothing
and the source of light confused with holiness.


Snow Fort

Come in, come here, come into
this place that has been made for us,
that was packed and braced for us
against the collapsing rain.
Come in, it's a cavern in the white
heart of the sea. Come in
where the silence is like breathing
moonlight, where a faint taste
of iodine will lie on your lips
and you'll never be cold again.
In every part of space, there is another part of space.
When this is gone, it will not disappear.


Unless and Until

Every morning begins like musical chairs,
an oldie's spinning,
the MC's cheerful: the back-stage
gets crowded with Miracles
or All-stars, Supremes,
            Temptations, or Impressions.
Then by nightfall the seats are gone
and the laughter has a cruel strain
of its own.
            You look around
and wonder at the string of progressions,
the trash in the corners that grew into ailanthus
and all those new trains
rusting fast to their tracks.
            There was an errand to be done,
someone needed a present,
ambition had the look
of a shiny bucket;
it was easier to be specific
than to keep in mind the picture
and by then the picture had changed.
And now it's numbing, this sense of the real
that comes weighed
down by a need to have things,
            not quite knowing how many
would do, or where to put them,
or how to fix them.
The look of it all becomes so polished
before the replacements arrive,
            then something must be done about
the remainders who can't, or won't,
surrender their claims for space.
            The main goal is to be going faster,
flurrying time into a sort of snowy
pile—what's due is recorded
in the records and only later
can be cashed in for cash.

            You can roll up your sleeves
for the clean-up, but others from the start
were cut out for that work.
You'll find yourself left
with your good intentions while
they'll be out of a job.
            Each catastrophe turns out
to be one in a series, and over time
the series starts to look like nature;
the worst will be swept
right under the table, and that was the game
they had in mind.
            But why try to spare you the ideal when by now
the ideal is who you are? Rather than
chipping at it day after day,
you might as well
go ahead and gather,
            letting everything
cling like burrs on a seam—each moment
as persistent as your own
fierce will and in itself
still next to nothing.
It's your field, your fence;
you've got a grip on all
the systems that underlie the system.
The dreams of reformation
that once pulled us forward have been
set up in the hallways as sad dioramas.
            Even so, I'd like to walk
through that wood again with you
where the sweet underbrush was waiting,
where necessity had a definite form
like the rain, or a roadblock,
            or a so-called act of god.
We had forged a path there
for years on end, cutting back
the brambles of unless
and unless, stripping off
the low thorns of until before,
            or after—I can't remember now—
something somehow
drew us away.


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