Eleanor Wilner

When everything is going
just one way, and seems to be
headed for a cul-de-sac
or some stunning culmination…
all at once, a creak (as a rusty hinge
warns of an intruder in the night)-

the wind from another quarter
takes the sail, the cage door opens
or the lid slams shut: and all our
plans are so much smoke, a handful
of torn paper, confetti in the air
that swirls-a letter here, a sentence
there, years of work litter the field
that lies outside the town that flood
or fire took back, as the great tectonic
plates grind out their harmonies
below the sea, and the earth turns
in its restless sleep, spun
by the hand we cannot see,
that is no hand, but brings us calm
to think it so, and think it ours
to smite our enemies,
as we turn it to a fist,
it is ourselves curled, blind
as newborn kittens, in the palm.

Eleanor Wilner has published six books of poetry, most recently The Girl with Bees in Her Hair and Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems. Her work appears in more than thirty anthologies; she has been a MacArthur Fellow, and teaches nomadically, currently in the MFA Program for Writers, Warren Wilson College.

“One sweltering day in mid-summer, sometime in the 1980s, I had taken cover on a porch of one of the oldest hotels in Cape May, N.J., a sprawling frame building dating from the 19th Century, whose air conditioning consisted of long porches that ran the length of the hotel, offering shade and whatever air happened by. There, Gunnar Gunnarson of Iceland and I sat on rocking chairs, talking; the others had gone touring, and we had the porch to ourselves and his Icelandic sagas. What I remember best was his story of the herring harvest: how people came down from Reykjavik and other towns in Iceland every year to a small port by the sea to await the return of the fishing boats, which would arrive to cheers, loaded with the riches of the herring harvest-herring that poured from the ships in an avalanche of silver. Everyone pitched in to get the fish processed before they spoiled, and afterwards there was a great festival, and as he spoke he became animated with the abundance, the joy and the camaraderie
of this great harvest, a mainstay of the economy, and more-a kind of religious celebration of the closeness of the community and the generosity of the sea. ‘And then,’ he said, his mood darkening, ‘one year, as we all waited, the boats came in, but their holds were empty-the herring were no more.‘ Impossible to convey the sorrow with which he described that moment-a depletion of a once-bountiful plenty whose loss we now understand all too well, but for which the Icelanders then were entirely unprepared. It seemed to them, he said, like the end of the world, of a way of life. We sat in quiet for a while after that, on the porch that was part of a lost past, too; and then, as we rose to part, he said, in the Norse accents of his ancestors: ‘Ya, this has been a good porch talk.'”