May 2002

Rebecca Givens


Rebecca Givens is an undergraduate studying literature and philosophy at Yale. She has published work in The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Poet Lore, Ascent, and elsewhere.

One Last Life for Orpheus 

We linger; then we hasten, late or soon,
to one abode: here one road leads us all.

—Metaphorphoses, X. 33-34

Thumbing through past epics, I brush the dust
from hard red backs, give my eyes space to recognize
figures arising again and again. I wouldn't call it
copying: retold allusions are deeply rooted. Tales lead
to their ancestors, marble tiles in a marble-covered hall.

Perhaps you had such an ancestral vision, gazing down
from the top stair. You continued the story from a crucial
angle, audience looking on. Only one girl, the audience,
but it was enough. One watching, etching the passage
of your shadow on the wall. Darkened the deepest of wells.

Call it romantic: that darkness made it difficult to prove
she was still alive. Each step was a page you'd spent
whole days on, the problems of translation
growing large. Who knew if this word or this word meant
falling? if this line would turn you suddenly strange?

She was like someone who could read you.
She was like the presence of God. Don't turn around,
she'd been praying, her hair a silent torch-light.
If only you could hold on to the thought
she was there, if only you could deduce she was there...

None of that matters. Or are you all looking—I don't
have to say how the girl appears, transfigured, your
conceptions thrown—all one body, his and hers
and the in-between bond. You believed in them,
their tale so holy no lone man would question its form.

And you, creators, understood the workings of this world.
You pressed up between the visions, learned their terms.
I don't need advice yet, just your wisdom,
the echoed tunes. (And one thing more: let me plunge
into the torrent of song that long ago has turned to stone.)



At the Church Door 

No one is supposed to enter
without feeling the breath of water.
I never learned this and so walk in,
face dry. All day it has been raining;
a lady stood outside selling flowers.
I shut my lips and wished away her rose.

They call this land holy: windows
are stained with the lives of the saints.
One man bleeds from a constellation
of wounds. At the corner are candles—
a Byzantine mother wicks full of shine.

How many candles, I wonder, have
been brought to burning in that corner?
How often have hopes for health or
wisdom been banished into flames?
It seems an honest faith, to believe
a well-struck match could mean saving.

Perhaps life seems more necessary
in the group's one call to fire. Clarity
is a difficult country: I learn that much,
traveling around. Yet I pass this altar
without a candle, unlit as I wander by.

Call me unbaptized: I've lived with no
holy water, no spirit other than my own.
Like someone turned to death's face,
seeing pale teeth pass into a smile,
I tremble to face a new set of symbols,
use geography I never had cause to know.

Still, I keep watching: a native motions
me backward. He pulls water from
a wooden bowl and brings it to my eyes.
A single drop scalds each cheek a second,
then shatters into four forgotten stars.



Winter in the Music Store 

This is the season we have chosen,
that chooses as a cellist chooses bows—
the wood hardened, a long limb, the hair
tightened like a woman's in a comb.

These are the hollows of a cello's body,
that hold a hum of silence like a globe.
Resonance their science, perfected so
there can be no sphere of quiet in the air.

Air develops hunger: though song is full,
there is nothing it can offer on its own.
Paired with the steepest music, vertigo
of men on the mountains, crafting bows,

it might be taught to sacrifice that store.
The men would go slowly, work by hand,
produce no more than one string a year.
They finish presents: take a gift of scales.

A season is half gift, Gift meaning poison
in German, a language where the winds
shuttle from a cello in circular patterns;
no other path extends where they must go.

Still, we play on through the winter, arms
at an angle: we could be digging a grave.
The man who owns it must marry dirges,
live till those brides need his life more.

Is it possible we have needed the season,
desired winter's chances, its wide berth?
Is it our passion the tall woman is playing,
our instrument that colors her hair to coal?

One line is certain: we had silence to enter,
to fill, a morning snow. We bought music
so sound would have somewhere to travel—
we never thought we'd take the cello home.




Rebecca Givens: Poetry
Copyright 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 20The Cortland Review