For a e-interview with Eleanor Wilner in this issue.

For a review of Reversing the Spell in the Spring Issue


For a complete list at bn.com


'Last Self-Portrait as Rembrandt, For Instance,''Multiple Image, Retro-Girlhood '40s Style,''No High Ground,'Attic Light,''Winter Conception'first appeared in Bellingham Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Winter 99/00.

'Daphne Planet as Urn'first appeared in Sycamore Review, Vol. 12, No.1, Winter/Spring 2000.

'Lyrics for a Virtual Folk Song'First appeared in One Trick Pony 1998.


Photo of Eleanor Wilner by Phillip Valencia copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

Eleanor Wilner Eleanor Wilner

Last Self-Portrait, as Rembrandt, for Instance

The three birds had sat on the table by the tall
                Dutch doors for all those years—the doors
to the manicured gravel sweep of gray leading
                to the blue, magnanimous curve of a calm
and virtual sea—a brush dipped first in deep marine,
                then dipped and dipped again into the glass
of turpentine, then spread across the only slightly
                mottled surface of the white, light implicit
in the way the blue gave way to wash. While
                on the wall, slim figures held their poses
easily, so tranquil in bronzed oils, a choreography
                cast in the foundry of a framing eye,
no thoughts but turning shadows crossed
                their brows, the ribbons on their hats
were caught, lifting in some long-forgotten air. A dog,
                wrought-iron, gleaming in a thick and lacquered
black, sat by the huge, cold hearth, its spectral flames
                a backdrop for the burghers in their velvet coats,
cheeks rouged by wine and firelight, while
                 watching, all the time, from the table
by the tall Dutch doors, three Delft birds, blue and white,
                placed to catch the last long rays of sun
as it slid into the Zieder Zee, gold mirror
                 in the closing hour of light. A last beam caught
the bright bead of an eye, it gleamed—a wing
                 tip stirred, one bird stretched its leg, another
fluffed its feathers out, the third one tried its voice.
The surface of the lake began to stir, the wind was up,
                the figures on the wall shook off their trance,
the dog began to bark, the stars shone in the door,
                the vines had come inside the room, the ceiling
stood open to the night, the newly risen moon shone through
                one ragged hole and was repeated in a pool of rain
that had gathered on the pocked and pitted floor.
                 A match flared in the derelict and darkened house.
I saw myself, a pair of staring eyes and wild, disordered
                hair in the cracked mirror of the hall, and stood
a moment there, undone, until the match flame reached
                 my hand, and light, however small, became
pure pain. I blew it out.

Musical Chairs

The chairs were set up on the hillside
so that to sit in them at all was a feat
of balance. The music came from a band
of insects—locust hum and cricket chirp,
and the steady murmur of bees in
clover. They would hush whenever a cloud
passed over the sun, its shadow sent
like an omen across the high meadow, as
warmth and color went: that's when we had
to rush and sit in the unstable chairs—one
short, of course (that's how the game is
                 The music resumed when the sun broke
through, the field simmering with heat, and
as the hidden chorus sang again,
one more chair would be taken off.
Then round and round we went, trying to
seem at ease, but watching nervously,
elbowing others aside, wanting to be where
a place stood waiting when the sun went in
and the music stopped. I don't know why we
thought we had to play, eyeing each other,
vying for seats on the uneven field
on which the game was played.

Today, at last, it's clear
the game was a diversion,
a mirror, unacknowledged,
of what was going on—
our shrinking number; how, one by one,
time cut back our company,
downsized us when the music
stopped. Longevity! who wants to be
the one left sitting on the silent hillside now?

Unstitch the Universe

unwind the winding sheets,
and dispronounce the end,
recall the proclamation
unblow the trump,
displace the final battleground
withdraw the Armageddon maps,
unspool the reel of film
and let the images unroll
                along the verge, unplot
99999999999999the play and then invite
999999999999999999999 the company to forget
99999999999999the lines that they so carefully
                had learned, and let it all unhappen
in such a joyous wake for certain things
that monks would drop their habits,
swinging, ride the bell ropes in the tower,
and ring the sweet unmaking
of the hours, and you and I, the thieves
of time, undo the latches,
and let all that is
uncounted, unaccountable,
                find its true weight as it tumbles
99999999999999through the open lattice of the sky
999999999999999999999alive, with what is possible—
99999999999999now that the winding sheets
99999999999999have been hung out to dry.


The heroes and the heroines of the day, in gray suits
                of gabardine, forgot to what lengths the gods
99999999999999would go to guard their gold—old serpentine
999999999999999999999and sleepless lengths of sinuous green,
9999999999999999999999999999scales that undulate and shine with
99999999999999999999999999999999999an iridescence that even a treasure of gold
9999999999999999999999999999 can't match for the glamor of its sheen.
999999999999999999999 In the sweet, delirious sweat of our desire, we forgot
99999999999999the powers whose aid we needed to enlist; forgot
                the coiled fire behind the smile, forgot
9999999999the hot breath on the neck, forgot what lies in wait for those who reach
9999999999999for the gold reward that hangs, so tempting, from the branch,
999999999999999999999the soft fleece that retreats before the hand; forgot
9999999999999999999999999999the huge and bulging ropes that flash and stretch, unseen,
99999999999999999999999999999999999in and out of computer screens that ring
9999999999999999999999999999the floor of the stock exchange, the great hinged jaws
999999999999999999999swinging open slowly like the great doors
99999999999999of a foundry furnace, whose blast of heat
                no one expected, the floors beginning to buckle,
the mosaics to uncouple their bright bits of broken
                matter, until, through the splitting of cells, the cracks in the ceiling's
99999999999999lost pattern, what at first seems a tendril
999999999999999999999 of vine, a mere shoot pushing its small life
9999999999999999999999999999into the light, continues to extend itself
99999999999999999999999999999999999until it is all out in the open again: what
9999999999999999999999999999guards the gleaming hoard, miles and miles
999999999999999999999of it, a swelling stream, gray, reptilian, its old hide dirty now
99999999999999from so long in the attics, the cellars, the locked
                closets of lost memories—its skin parched and cracked,
some of the scales dull or long since dried
                so that it creaks when it tries to writhe—
99999999999999and that is when, with a terrible roar,
999999999999999999999and a shudder of tectonic force, it splits
9999999999999999999999999999 its old skin, and out and out, like viridian paint
99999999999999999999999999999999999slowly squeezed from the tube, it emerges again,
9999999999999999999999999999a green river of sheen, it pours out, and pours out,
99999999999999breaks down doors, breaks through walls
in showers of bricks and crumbling concrete, it pours forth
                in a torrent, wide as the Amazon and as well-stocked
99999999999999with jaws, hungry, foaming, it twists,
999999999999999999999it rears up, it roars forward, goes on, swallowing back
9999999999999999999999999999its path, drowning its banks as it ceaselessly flows—

999999999999999999999the eyes of alligators float by, riding the long closed jaws,
999999999999999999999watching for whatever moves; in the mangrove trees
999999999999999999999hangs a golden fleece: beards of Spanish
999999999999999999999moss, backlit in the setting sun.

Lyrics for a Virtual Folk Song

We had this one-trick pony,
and she would sweetly go;
her one-track mind would bring her home,
and us, whom she would tow.
We had a little cart she pulled,
for none of us would walk;
we were like thoughts that you can't shake
but heavier by far.
And some of us rode in the cart,
some also on her back,
while she would trot her one-track road,
with the lightest, gayest heart.
That was the one trick that she owned:
to live unburdened, free,
as if she were alone, except
for the little rum-thum-tum of her own small hoofs on stone,
and the pungent smell of grass
in the golden air. For summer's
hay meant winter's feed, and all
the days were hers; all
blithely unaware of us
who were her constant care,
she never turned her head
to view how many she was harnessed to,
nor felt our presence there.

But after all, we wore her out;
what she ignored became
at first an aching in the joints
(did she wonder at its source?),
until she went quite lame...
but to the last, she stayed the course,
and we stayed quiet, to our shame
we never let her know—
for she was our one-trick pony,
and she did so sweetly go.

Multiple Image, Retro-Girlhood '40s Style

The cover of LIFE magazine—five out of one:
here was replication in the flesh, a litter
of five baby girls, insanity, a freak show
from that staid outpost, Canada: maples, Mounties,
snow, ice, the odd moose, Eskimos.
But now, anomaly—the Dionne
Quintuplets: their names in headlines,
Annette, Emilie, Yvonne, Cecile, Marie:
their effigies outsold the Shirley Temple doll,
everywhere, their images, always dressed alike—
five little girls, black-haired and sweet,
their birthdays in the rotogravure, and in
the ads as they grew—five little girls
in shining raincoats, patent leather bright,
each a different hue: smiling sugar
in their candy-colored coats—

9999999999999999999while, hovering out there, above the dark
9999999999999999999Canadian woods, some exiled, migrant thing
9999999999999999999hunting down the frozen lanes of ice, stopped
9999999999999999999to linger over the frame house of the Dionnes:
9999999999999999999five lit windows, from each the same face
9999999999999999999staring out, wild, through five pairs of eyes.

Their parents lost them to the State—Ontario
exploited them, put them in the province window
on display, three times a day a tourist draw,
their fivefold image sold on the auction block to the press,
the advertisers; so they grew, dressed
(like my sister and I) alike: meant to be quiet,
clean, and sweet, adorable as the Dionnes, tulip
neat, interchangeable as dolls or eggs—the Dutch girl
on the cleanser can holding the Dutch Cleanser can with its Dutch girl
holding the cleanser can ... infinite recessional of white and
shining tiles, those gleaming bathrooms like the fields
of Northern ice—white on white on white ...

9999999999999999999One night those many years ago I had the dream.
9999999999999999999The fields of snow, nothing nearby for miles,
9999999999999999999 one tall house set stark against the white—it looked
9999999999999999999like a child's drawing of a house: that tall, that simple.
9999999999999999999Each window a drawn square—out of which
9999999999999999999erupted red, orange and yellow tongues
9999999999999999999with the terrible roar of flames. Were there others
9999999999999999999there? Red fire engines from a child's lexicon for help?
9999999999999999999Adults standing around in coats, shaking their heads
9999999999999999999watching? I ran into the burning house and rescued
9999999999999999999them, one by one, the Dionne Quintuplets, I carried
9999999999999999999them out, I saved them all—

while up there, in the real Canada, the Dionnes
faded from view, had miserable lives, two
died young, the rest withdrew, were forgotten
by the State, the promoters, the tabloids,
the barkers at the sideshow of our times—
though somewhere in an attic

in a weathered wooden house, there is a trunk
in which five bright raincoats lie,
jewel-tones, the colors of jello,
or lifesavers in their five assorted flavors,
each with a hole in its center—the game to see
how thin you could suck it before
it shattered, leaving you with a mouth
full of momentary glass—sharp,
as if it would draw real blood,
but then it's gone—a melt
of cloying sugar on the tongue.

No High Ground

999999999999999999999 —for John Balaban

999999999999999999999 I see a man get up
from the news and go out back, and gather
boards, a hammer, nails, begin the thankless
work of boarding up a house before a storm.
It is Florida, September, the season of
the hurricane, each with a human name—
as if we couldn't bear a world bereft
of likeness to ourselves, although we risk
the madness of ascribed intent to what
are only vagaries of water and of wind.
(Think of the drunken Noah amid the bloated,
floating dead.) You can hear the sound
of hammering, dull, insistent thuds,
the little human bass that beats its time
against the rising whine of wind.
Above, the rags of palm fronds
rattle against the roof. How poor we are,
and frail. The sound of tearing palms
recalls our war (what was it they said
it was for?). The mind stops here,
at the precarious edge. The hammering
goes on. The storm is drawing near,
and nearer. A drumming on the wood,
sudden rain lashes the walls; the lights fail.
The boards groan. Will the house stand?
We gather the children around us, knowing
what we must do. We must think up a story
to tell them. Shall I begin, or you

Attic Light

The light moved with a kind of languor
                across the wooden floor, a slow slide
of honey-colored fire, warming what it passed as
it brought the grain to life: a swirl
of spiral lines that made even the milled board
                of an attic floor into a live and speaking
thing. As the light slid across the wooden sea
                of that uneven floor, it marked
the passage of the hours, the distant sun become
an intimate, entering through a high
and dusty pane, motes swarming in a slanted
                beam of veiled light, and here and there,
where wind moved a branch outside, light shivered
                 as it fell, and bits of it swam wildly in the wood,
bright schools of fish in a world turned liquid
by the light.

                 As the hours passed, the angle shifted, long
fingers of sun slid into the corners where—like memories
                put away so long it seemed nothing could
99999999999999touch them—some dark shape was picked out by
999999999999999999999the light as it slid by, as if in afterthought:
99999999999999 a painting, or its replica, time-darkened, in a gilded
                frame, its moulding sculpted in the old elaborate
mode: it was Titian's Danae, stretched out naked on
                 her couch, in a trance of passion, as the shower
99999999999999of gold poured out of a cloud and bathed her open
999999999999999999999 thighs—it seemed that you could almost hear
99999999999999 her sigh, and shift in her sweet unease, just as
                the last of the light that day picked out
and brightened, for a second, the rapture of her gaze,
                she who had been safely locked away, now lost
99999999999999to everything but the blinding golden fall of her desire
999999999999999999999and his, when time was young and matter
99999999999999still inhabited by gods ... and then the light moved on,
                the painting slid back into its darkened corner
in the attic overhang, and disappeared.
9999999999999999999999999999999999999The trap door
                open in the center of the darkening room, the ladder
99999999999999leading, rung by rung, down into the lighted well
999999999999999999999of the second story, from which familiar voices
99999999999999called, seemed faint and faraway; while the late light,
                as the horizon rose to blot it out, gave off the gold, life-giving glow
of that distant burning star—in the night of space,
                an island spouting fire, furious red fountain
99999999999999raised against the black, insensate sky.

Winter Conception

Silence in the forest's heart, and snow.
Palimpsest of trees, centuries of winter text—
bare twigs that interlock in blurred white
air, as one thought leads to the next,
half-obscured in snowy veils,
no end, though, to their reach or
to the snow; flakes thicken, the silence
deepens as they fall, lint from the pockets
of the cold, last bits of what is emptying
out, the wind whirls it to a dizziness
of white, and the blizzard swallows
back the view, and every syllable
of sound; a blotter to our useless words,
even the creaking of wood in wind
is silenced by the snow.

The wind breathes in and out
in clouds of white, the snow pure
kindness after so much noise,
so long a war of elements, of jarring
things whose natures clash, spring
back or shatter—the clang of armored
flesh, desire's fangs, the shouts
of dying men, bombed cities full
of burning souls, as Semele
who asked to see her god unveiled
saw only fire, and was consumed.
In whose thigh will the drunken
force of life hide now, concealed
inside the falling snow, this wood
of birch and ash, as, veiled again,
the god, aroused, moves toward
another bed, and time folds back
its long white sheets of snow.

Daphne Planet as Urn

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

Fall-out from there: a silver
scatter of ash, charred
laurel leaves, radioactive,
words, scraped and clawed,
reveal the clay below: two figures
on a Grecian urn, forever chaste,
the flight, her fear released
in figure, bas-relief,
of him—invention of the story
to explain how fire infects
the soul and runs, even the one
with intellect and lyre, into
the arrow of desire, which like that
straw the hurricane drives into wood,
takes on the force that alters—while
the storm persists—even nature.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

And to what altar? From this the poet
turns away, and turns the urn in
the slowly dying light, watching it play,
though dimly, on the never-to-be-
joined for which the pulsing blood
is flowing toward the blade, and as
the light fades into the gentian violet
of the dusk, and then is gone,
the urn remains an object in the hands,
which place it on the table in the dark
and running the fingers over it
as if it were a raised braille text
whose code the daylit vision
cannot break, the moment comes
when the need to break it overcomes
the fact that it was entrusted
to our care:
99999999 the crash of pottery against
a wall, the bright shiver of sound, the silence
after, the sound of steps (not running now)
leaving the scene.
999999999999 But, outside, in the dark,
the sound of hammering, the shouts of men,
the rumbling wheels, the wheeze of an engine,
cross-fire of flashlight beams, steps,
and then (oh yes, and then)
99999999999999999999999 that heifer
lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks
with garlands dressed
. And we are bound
to take her part, now that the urn is gone,
bound to divest the truth
of beauty, part the garlands, tell the rest.

Like Warmed, Vague Stars

sunken objects in the tidal flat
when the sea has flooded in
wink dimly from below: indistinct
dull sheen, pewter in candlelight,
the sweet indefinite of what
lies half-submerged,
uncertain as to provenance
or shape, significance—
a snatch of song carried on the wind
in a foreign tongue, fading image
of a dream that sinks as you awaken,
passing lights of a ship glimpsed
through a mist at sea, a lantern
wrapped in the blanket
of a fog, warm slant of golden wash
from a door ajar...
9999999999999999999 all those faint
lights, obscure, cheer the worn spirit,
tired of steering by fixed stars
that shed a clear, cold light—
instead, just distant glints
that won't cohere: the moon, bright
smear in a luminous cocoon;
the streetlights in their glowing
fur, thick mist that veils the city
in its near-opacities; thoughts that blur
before they catch...and the watch
dozes at his post, and even
the heart lets down its guard,
like an exhausted child, and sleeps.