By Robert Schultz
—out of Emerson
The circle is the highest emblem
in this cipher of a world.
Standing in a field,
the eye scans the horizon, the clock’s hand sweeps,
and the effort of thought presses out a wave,
forms a ridge on which we heap our rules,
our rites and usage. So we build a wall
to hem in life.
But the quick soul
There is no outside, no enclosing wall,
no circumference to us,
only wheel beyond wheel.
In common hours we sit statuesque. We wait,
empty, the mighty symbols that surround us always
seeming prose and toys.
Then the god comes.
By a flash of his eye he burns away
the shrouding veils. We statues live
and the meanings of even the furniture clear—
of the cup and saucer, of the table,
the clock and its dial.
People wish to be settled,
but the ground on which we stand
slides. All that was solid shakes and rattles;
foundations dance. Only unsettled
do we live in hope.
Our way of life is wonder-filled:
Abandonment, it whispers to us.
No love can be bound
by secure oath against higher love. The heart refuses
to be imprisoned.
No man, no woman—
if truth is in him, if the god has touched her—
will be fully known. The last chamber,
the final closet will remain unopened.
We scale a mysterious ladder.
Rung by rung, it points the way
to the unattainable flying Perfect.
In this cipher of a world, the circle is
the highest emblem.
The field cannot be seen
from the field. A striding center,
I step on horizons.
Poet’s Commentary: I have been spending a lot of imaginative time in the nineteenth century lately and one result has been a small sequence of poems in which I have taken some of my favorite prose passages from the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, William James, and Whitman and made poems out of them. Especially from the perspective of our own time, the humane generosity and venturesomeness with which these authors treated matters of faith and thought is a source of inspiration and solace to me. I was raised in the Lutheran church and have spent most of my professional career teaching at ELCA colleges, and I wish our nation's public dialogue on matters of faith and learning were less reductive, less tending toward caricature, less hostile to difference, and more like the atmosphere and discourse that I have found at the church's colleges and in the authors whose example inspires me.
Robert Schultz is the author of five books and recipient of an NEA award, Cornell University's Corson Bishop Poetry Prize, and The Virginia Quarterly Review's Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry. He has taught at Cornell, the University of Virginia, Luther College, and for the past twelve years as the John P. Fishwick Professor of English at Roanoke College.
*This poem first appeared in The Hudson Review LXVI, 2 (Summer 2013). 331-2. Used by permission of the author.