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The Conversation


ISSUE:  Winter 2004

Sun flickers through the trees beyond the window
outside the room in which we sit all morning,
talking around the table whose wooden surface
quickens with shuttled light and shade, leaf shadow
and sun both weaving and woven, each by each,
as if the table were remembering
within its grain the living tree it was.

All morning as we talk inside the room
around the table, our bodies are aswarm
with light and shade, our voices like a web
hung in the air between us, stitching and
unstitching in the telling and the hearing,
the taking issue with, concord and discord,
every one of us around the table

at one and the same time Penelope and suitor,
the wiley mistress unraveling what she weaves,
and the brash lords impatient for an answer,
the unhemmed shroud itself a keeping faith,
a holding off of the tyrannical,
wealth-squandering and inhospitable
insistence on a final yes or no.

Another time, around another table,
I listened to a woman scholar read
from an ancient story, a poem about a girl,
the sister of a queen, whom the king rapes,
cuts out her tongue so she can’t tell her story,
locks her in a tower where she stays
until she weaves the story of what he did

into a gift of sorts, a fabric she has
delivered to the queen, who frees the girl.
And after vengeance more unspeakable,
they’re all turned into birds whose very songs
wreathe the deceit and mutilation and
revenge into the cadence of the poem
the woman wove into a fresher version

of the ever changing forms that bonds
of love and violations of those bonds
and appetite and greed assume
in their migrations from an ancient tongue
into the living voice, that woman’s voice,
Ovid become the scholar reading him
to us inside a room around a table.

And as I listened I remembered a story
the father of a friend of mine told him
one night at dinner, around another table,
in a small kitchen in the Bronx, a story
the father’s father told him as a last gift
on a cattle car, before the herding off
and the selection—the story itself a thread

torn from the fabric of a people, the whole
cloth of a people trampled and ripped and burned
away to ash except for this one story
my friend repeated to a few of us
twenty years later around another table,
his own voice twined with his father’s as he told

the sacred story of a holy man
who when his people needed him for something
would go into a clearing in the woods
and light a fire, and there in the tangling light
and shade, with night birds singing from the trees
beyond the fire, would say a secret prayer,
and whatever needed doing would be done.

And how his son, a generation later,
when called on by the people for the help
his father gave, would go to the same place
in the same woods and say, “We cannot light
the fire but we know the prayer, and that
must be enough.” And what he had to do
was done. And his son, too, in turn, would find

the clearing, and say, “We can no longer light
the fire, we can no longer say the prayer,
but we still know this place, and that suffices.”
But later still, whenever the people called
on the next son for some important task,
all he could do was sit down at his table
and say, “We can no longer light the fire,

we can no longer say the prayer, we do
not know the place, but we can tell the story
around the table of how it all was done.”
My friend’s voice twined with his father’s twined with mine
as I then told the story in response
to what the woman read, and as I spoke,
and someone else replied, and others turned

the talk this way and that, I noticed how
our hands made flickering bird shapes in the mesh
of sun and shadow all along the table,
and in the pauses of our weaving words,
among the slips and silences, I heard,
or thought I heard, beyond the room, birdsong
crossed with birdsong within a shroud of leaves

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