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The Owl

by Susan Stewart

I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line -
released, although it seemed as if a knot

still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,

and yet I knew no god would mind a square
of air so small. And still it moved and still

it swooped and disappeared beyond the pane.
The after-image went, a blot beyond

the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
grass so black it had no substance

until I looked again and saw it tipped
with brittle frost. An acre there (a common-

place), a line of trees, a line of stars.

So look it up: you'll find that you could lose
your sense of depth,

a leaf, a sheaf
of paper, pillow-

case, or heart-
shaped face,

a shrieking hiss,
like winds, like

death, all tangled
there in branches.

I called this poem "the owl,"
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark

and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains

that I can't know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not

at all. It's not, it's never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world

belies the chaos of its forms - (the kind
of thing astronomers

look down to write
in books).

And, still, I thought a piece of cloth
had flown outside my window, or human hands

had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,

a snowy owl descended.