tame as canaries

Jan Luyken etching, Parable of the mustard seed from the Bowyer Bible

When posting about the Bible as “a cornucopia of scenes and images” yesterday, this poem came to mind (much thanks to Christine Perrin for introducing it to my class and me). It recalls the burning bush as well as the tree of life, the great tree of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the prophet Daniel, and the mighty mustard tree full of nesting birds in Christ’s parable (Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19). It is by contemporary Russian poet Elena Shvarts.

The Book on the Windowsill

Like a lamb in a storm, or two and two crammed in a crate
I sit in these teeming branches, and tremble with fear.

A mighty tree is the word of God,
A laurel with leaves that whisper and rustle;
The prophets hang on it like thorn-apples,
Or fish on an angler’s line (jump hop!).
Confusion, darkness and beauty dwell in its shade,
Branches, fruit, a chorus of angels all singing,
Singing and weaving — what? Purple brocade.
Whales in the foliage spout fountains;
Birds fix predatory eyes on the berries,
Longing to cram their craws to the brim;
But down they go plummeting on scorched wings,
And sit caged in the branches, tame as canaries.
I cannot approach the tree in its thickets;
Yet you’re there in the heart-wood, the smouldering trunk.
The birds bob in the swirling leaves like bathers;
Jonah lies in the Whale at night, in the morning the Whale lies in him.
Down thuds an apple, and splits to show peacocks inside;
Eve wearing harlequin colours, and Adam with gilded feathers —
There’s Abraham, bright as a lemon. The hollows hold luminous spirits,
And on each calyx gazelles and fallow-deer graze.
Judith flies through the air, cracking nuts like a squirrel,
‘Holofernes!’ she cries, and preens her blue fur.
Noah is chanting and caulking a mighty barrel:
‘Lord, hear my cry when the water is high’ runs the song;
And Elijah wraps up the tree in golden ribbons of lightning.

They say you can’t read every word. If you do, you go mad.
It seems to be true: I can feel that my own mind is shaking.
Reason’s as ready to burst as an over-ripe pumpkin,
Just as the smug, stout-walled town of Jericho learnt.
So let me walk in my strange, light sleep, half-waking
And pass through the waterfalls of shades.
O Moses, when you came at last to the Promised Land
Did you ever feel you were something she’d dreamt?

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