February 2001

Ernie Hilbert


Ernie Hilbert received his doctorate in English Language and Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master's Degree in Advanced Research Methods in English Literature and founded the Oxford Quarterly. A widely published poet and critic, his work has appeared recently in American Writing, The Boston Review, LIT, Pleiades, The American Scholar, and William and Mary Review. He is the poetry editor for Random House's online literary magazine, Bold Type.
Circe    Click to hear in real audio

for Afaa Michael Weaver, 
who hammered my sword from silence

Awaken a daughter trapped dreaming of light,
Disastrous architecture of pitching sea.
Icy and classical, these cherished books,
Nourishing as much myth as history,
All we've known of goddesses and such lusts,
This ascension, which in its massiveness

Is formed after that once devastated
(But copied and so saved): each renaissance
And field of worship, of fixation and
Encumbrance, sluice, scorpion, and spire,
Battle and such ballast as is needed.
Calypso, hunched over flowered pages

In the scriptorium, e-mailed me once,
Her handwriting curved to orb—emerald-lain
Darkness, psalters and vellum, bronze figures
Of vanquished Greek kings hasped onto highway
Overpasses, territory and outpost,
Regions of empire comprehended like

Frozen light, like globes hemisected
Into bowls, frontiers foreseen in waters
Mangled by Scylla. I, unbedded, served
That earlier epoch, that enigma,
Now trapped in a realm of corporate keel-haul,
Where even the salt mist at the prow is

Scraped and gone, available for purchase,
Everything for sale, my Christ, my Circe—
And into the declining west, until
That west runs extinct, I race against my
Inquisitors, beseeching my masters
To unbuild the temples of antiquity,

The first twilight city of grunts and howls,
All that is robbed right up to the present—
Golden arc atop arcs infinitely,
Murdered legions and sweltering spirals,
Shat diamonds in the shivering clay, stained
By God and death—forcing arrows into

Your soft abdomen, what silver to pierce
And flash in this ancient sunlight: what cult of
Relics, what postcard of Justinian
In the curling skylight, what apse mosaic
In the ghastly shadow of the churches,
My lover, what gods dominated these

Tattered enemy texts and axes, maps,
Weapons-fire—grid and amniotic trance—
Fled to war, fleets scattered in northern storms
At the horizon, heaven suspended
Precisely above—stared upon, weakened,
Scholar and pedant, heretic, assuming

A frontal death pose, the dawn embedded
In secret doors hung with faded icons
And slammed off from the vaporized chancel—
Walk with me into the sunfall of the
Eastern River; gaze up at the bridge Crane
Described as harp and altar, drop my hand

And turn to leave as birds rise again in
Dark clouds, leave every city in history,
Incandescent, conquered, alone, dying—
The adolescent girl splashing naked
In the clear hot Ravenna afternoon,
Bands of cocaine across the black marble

Bar in SoHo, abandoned and plucked from
The polluted river and scorified—
Disrobed, she is but a possession to
Be desired and held, prized like tears and teeth
In a reliquary, gold coins falling
Like billows of silt from vessels above these

Darker waters, day lost in weed and depth,
For she can survive only in chains, locked
Down to a fetid bed of bone and straw,
Beaten and fucked her whole life, for her fear
Of symbols and birds that cast their turning
Shadows on the cliff’s edge, the cast-up

Enamel of all time treasured by the
Perishing concubines of the silk road—
Lurching sea arranged like ash, like a vault,
Sea torn of saints and noble as the sky,
Glimpse of life submerged beyond the sight of
Our small periscope ways, our selfish view,

Dioclesian allotments, empire sunned
Out into pine forests, hunger conveyed
Of centuries—preserve somehow this art,
This eucharistic passion, angelic
Dementia, these graffitied memorials,
Armies arrayed before shrines in sunlight,

Where collegiate backpackers cast empty
Wine bottles and laugh—pharmaceutical
Compendia concealed in exquisite
Vestments, in fragrant cassocks beneath stone
Altar-gleam, burnished and heightened, those we
Leave behind holy and lost like the dead.

Drifting in the dolphined sea, cleansed ashore,
I first met her, on the corner in a
Leather skirt, hailing a cab on Lex. Here
Would end my story if I were able.
She taught me the way to hell. After, my
Men returned to entomb poor Elpenor,

That beer-bellied old clown who fell down drunk.
Circe, I wasn’t the first to leave you.
I wasn’t the first to grind out my smoke,
Pull on my wine-spilled trousers, set sail on
The flinty waves, tiller to luscious wind.
If we only knew then what lay ahead.

All my men fell from the bowsprit weeping—
Frescoes melted and drawn down into earth,
The feast hour passing as stars screamed across
The ocean’s snowy wet pyre and cold lull,
The slaughtered of past returning to us,
Grandeur of the terrible final blow.

As I pressed on, my heart remained stranded
Back on her slow bright isle, drowsy in her bed
Forever—we, roped together, we the
Wounded, sinking in that tarry water,
Every sunset unleashed from its tarn, towed
From the empty war and noise of our dreams.



Ernie Hilbert: Poetry
Copyright © 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 15The Cortland Review