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Susan Stewart

August 12, 2017

Susan Stewart read at the August 12, 2017 opening of Eve Aschheim’s Lines Without Outlines.

The Owl

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.

Biography

Susan Stewart is a poet, critic, and translator. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she is a MacArthur Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, a Berlin Prize Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book of poems is Cinder: New and Selected Poems, published by Graywolf Press this year.

In 2009 Stewart received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her 2003 collection, Columbarium, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Her poems have been widely anthologized in the United States, England, and Italy. She often has collaborated with contemporary artists and composers—most recently with Ann Hamilton, Sandro Chia, and The Network for New Music. Her song cycle, “Songs for Adam,” was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony with music by the composer James Primosch, She teaches the history of literature and aesthetics at Princeton University, where she is the Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities, and lives in Philadelphia and Princeton. She and Eve Aschheim work together closely and twice and have co-taught an interdisciplinary seminar on drawing and the line in literature and visual art.

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