Wayne Miller

Winner of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award in 2009

 A PRAYER (O CITY—)

 

O arrow landed deep in Harold's eye—
O voice
             pressing upward against the sky—
O light and steam.
(When the western windows
of the City go pink, the rooms behind them
lock shut with clouds.)
O clouds—
                (Slipping down in the morning
to part around the skyrises, to marble
the rooftop shanties and gardens,
the hammocks and clotheslines.)
And graying water tanks—
                                           (Our water lifted
into the clouds—and me, drawing it
down into my cup, my breath
pressed to the shimmering surface.)
O City—

               (That breathes itself
into the glass—that pulls me to the window
I press my gaze through,
I press my face to—)
O City—

              (And the makers,
who drew the City through the membranes
of paper and canvas,
giving the city to the City—)
                                                        O City—
(And our tables and demitasses,
stereos and fire escapes,
our kisses in doorways, weapons
and sculptures, carnivals
and fistfights, sex toys and votives,
engines and metaphors—.)
 
City of Joists—
(The City shot through with them.)
City of Doorways—
                               (The City opens us,
and we step through.)
O Light-Coming-on-in-a-Window—
(Since you've opened the fridge,
opened your book, opened your room
to the room next door.)
 
O City—
               (Pushing through the dark
like the nose of a plane.)
O City—
               (It could be a bomber,
night-black, the instruments on auto,
the pilot asleep in his lounger.)
 
O City—
               (In the hull below, words
are written on the bombs in Sharpie.)
 
(There's also a folder of letters
lying off to the side in the dark.

In one of them, the pilot's brother
describes some fingerprints
he's found pressed inside the lip
of a broken jar.
 
He's an archaeologist.
The prints are from the jar's maker—
just after the Battle of Hastings,
near the end of the eleventh century.)
 


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Elizabeth Alexander on Wayne Miller

This ravishing poem begins and ends by invoking the violence of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The "arrow landed deep in Harold's eye" is the disturbing lyric opening of the poem. The surprise of this poem's mediation is how we move from England in the eleventh century to cities everywhere across time, cities now characterized by "stereos and fire escapes, / our kisses in doorways," but nonetheless always close to the violence in whose names those cities are made and destroyed. This poem moves with admirable velocity. Its effectively repeated "O" is prayer, yes, and also exaltation, exhortation, and lament.

The poem ends with a moving, breathtaking image: A bomber pilot's archaeologist brother in the twentieth century finds a fingerprint "pressed inside the lip / of a broken jar / . . . .The prints are from the jar's maker — / just after the Battle of Hastings / near the end of the eleventh century." We finish grounded in the signs of human life that tell stories of who walked the earth before us. One brother drops bombs, another reads the signs of the dead who compose the past. And so the human history of the city goes on.

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