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Bridge over the Charles River.



Looking at a Poet on a Bridge,

by Ken Sanes

It is a summer day
and the poet is standing on a bridge,
looking at the river
and appreciating the beauty
of the world around him.
As he stands there,
pen and notebook in hand,
he watches as the birds swoop down
                    under the bridge
and then fly back around
so they can go under it again.
And while he is observing them,
he feels the warm breeze
as it is moving around him,
and has a sense of what it is like
to soar through the air
on feathered wings.
                   It is just after that,
in a moment suffused with feeling
but with nothing in particular
on his mind,
that he becomes aware
of something inside him,
something that is shaking and knocking
like it is trying to break free,
although where it is coming from
he can’t exactly say.
Then, much to his surprise,
a vision begins to emerge
and display itself before the mind's eye,
even though it is still contained
within the wall of himself.

Uncertain what else to do,
the poet stands there,
leaning against the railing
along the side of the bridge,
seemingly gazing at the river
while he tries to bring
his vision into focus.
Soon it begins to take shape
and he finds himself
peering into the recesses of a cave
at painted figures on a rock wall
of wild horses, bison, and deer
that seem to be moving
in the flickering torchlight.
As he continues looking,
he sees a young girl
dressed in finely sewn animal skins,
pressing her left hand
against the cave wall
while she blows red paint around it
through a hollow tube.
When the girl is finished,
she steps away,
leaving the red outline of her hand
on the cave wall.
Then she turns and looks
directly at the poet.
“This is our mark,” she says,
“so you will know we were here.”
The surprised poet responds
                         by stepping back,
away from the railing
and, for just a moment,
he realizes there is a hazy sun
and a mild breeze,
               with birds that are gliding
through the warm air.
Then he returns to where he was,
right up to the railing,
to see what else is in his vision.
But all he sees
is a jumble of images
and a blur of moving patterns
that fail to settle
into recognizable forms.
Finally, the scene clears
and the poet sees an ancient town
with wood and mud brick buildings
sprawling by a river
on the donkeyed landscape.
Traders and supplicants
are converging on the town
from many directions,
with pack animals carrying goods
and offerings,
while boats are piled high
with grain and farm supplies.
A bearded prophet
stands in the town square
telling passersby to smash the idols
and return to the path of righteousness.
                 As the prophet speaks
in a booming voice,
people who are buying and selling
or carrying water from the river
or engaged in various nefarious pursuits
stop to listen to him.
The poet is, himself, half leaning
over the railing of the bridge
in a misplaced attempt
to see and hear what is going on.
But it seems the town he was looking at
has already been besieged by barbarians
and reduced to smoking embers.
Now masses of people
are moving across the landscape.
They are escaping, settling down,
and fighting battles;
they are lost in the wilderness
and often dying, many of them are dying,
as they make their way
through forest, desert,
and mountainous terrain.
Then there is another blur of images
as the poet’s vision is reorganized again
into something new.
At first the poet has trouble
bringing this new phase of his vision
into focus,
so he leans further over the railing
as if to get a closer look.
As his vision clarifies,
at last he sees the scene.
And there laid out before him
is a world full of technology
in which every outpost and corner
seems to carry the imprint of humanity.
There are skyscrapers, roads,
ports and factories
as ubiquitous cameras turn
and seem to watch the poet
with a single eye.
Above the cameras, large metal vehicles
cross the sky, spanning oceans and continents
                    with outstretched wings
while a rocket lifts off,
carrying a message
for whoever -- or whatever -- will find it
in the reaches of space.
The poet’s vision has obviously
moved forward
into something like the present,
and people are now doing things
in new ways.
Then, as the poet looks
at this brave new world,
he sees leaders giving fiery speeches
about freedom
as nations make demands --
and it seems these affronts
and acts of aggression cannot stand.
Now two armies
are moving across plains and hills,
preparing to face each other in battle.
But as the scene continuously
shifts and changes
like shapes and shadows
on an uneven surface
illuminated by torchlight,
the poet wonders if his vision
               is too romantic,
too much like a D. W. Griffith
when unexpectedly
he notices the birds again
swooping down under the bridge,
and he is delighted by the way
the sweep of history
is laid out before of him
as people cross the landscape,
and the light flickers
in the darkness of the cave,
where we see only half things,
not even half things,
but images of broken images
and visions contained
in other people’s visions.
Then, as the poet stands there,
contemplating all of this,
a young girl crossing the bridge
accidentally grazes his back
with the handlebar of her bike.
The poet reacts automatically
by leaning further over the railing,
while people in boats,
traveling up the river,
stare up at him and point.
“Careful!” a man screams.
But the man is already passing
under the bridge in his boat
and is out of sight.
And the poet’s vision is
Adam ziggurats riverrun
to the nth degree
with invading cyber-armies
from another dimension,
multi-planet battles and a cast of billions.
Now planets explode
and doorways open to another place,
as armadas of ships emerge
while, in the distance,
a spotted galaxy begins to flap its arms
until it disappears into the recesses
of spotted space.
                           The poet stands there
amazed at the scale and complexity
of what he is witnessing
when, without warning,
his vision begins to change again,
but this time more radically than before.
Much to his surprise,
it stops its outward procession
and goes into reverse
so that, having written itself
into existence,
it is now as if it is writing itself out again.
At least, that’s the way it looks
to the poet in his vision.
So now, heading back into the poet,
as if the red carpet of his imagination
is being rolled back up again,
are a different set of images
of the things of this world:
a classroom unswept by laughter;
a mother apparently removing
her baby’s crib from a shopping cart;
and the papier-mâché volcano
for science class that unerupts
with fake lava running up the mountain
and smoke streaming into the crater
from where it is suspended in the air,
along with a photograph of the Milky Way
and deep fried Mars bars
and the dust in an old man’s cuff
who may or may not
be tapping his foot to a tune.
In they go, like a poet
consuming his own poetry
after having read it to a confused crowd
that almost turned into a mob.
And the poet should be leaning back,
away from the railing
along the side of the bridge
now that his vision is heading back in.
Instead, he absentmindedly
leans further over the railing
and thinks to himself
that he now understands
why unlimiteds are turned into limiteds
and how it is the price we pay
for intensity of feeling.
But then he sweeps that idea aside
in a grand gesture
with his right hand
and, as he does,
much to his surprise, he tumbles

                                         over the railing
so he is falling


                                    into the river

as his pen and notebook travel by his side.
And now he is once again alive
to the reality of the day
as he descends through the air,
undignified, in a state of disarray,
with a shocked look on his face,
when he hits the water with a smack.
A pot-bellied man in a passing boat
then pulls him out of the water,
wraps a towel around him
and hands him a martini.
“I assume you like that dry,”
the man says
as the passengers on the boat
burst out laughing.
            But at least the poet’s vision
has completed its inward journey,
and he is now unmanifest, if not
as he sits there dripping,
looking at the setting sun,
while the boat continues its journey
up the Charles River.
Then he feels the stillness and quiet,
as his eyes follow the birds
gliding under the bridge
and disappearing into the distance,
and he wonders if they are
a moving image of eternity.


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This poem includes an allusion to the lyrics of a song.

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