“Merciless, the magistrate turns ’round…”

This pair of grotesques has always struck me as eerie. Is their fecundity enough, or are we meant to wonder what they smother under stony vegetation?


No worm discerns the robin; we dispense
With blazing wing to herald your offense.
The slug secretes his shadow under chard
Where you malinger, lest your way be barred
By negligence that chokes your bolting plants.
We yet may cast you out, beyond the ants
That vainly pray for peonies to burst.
The mess you fell today you raised up first
In indolence. For fear of flaming brand
You hide with mites; we pluck you out. Now stand
As wordless witness wild around you breeds.
The wages of our mortal sin is weeds.

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“The rebel and the teacher, the vandal and the saint…”

Since the August 2011 earthquake, this previously camera-shy angel at the National Cathedral has become a minor celebrity, as well as a herald of the restoration work to come.


No furling earth, no incandescent wing—
You know your ruin by what your ruin is not:
No bounding vault, no lapidary gate,
No corbels raised to frame the blazing glass,
No graven arch to turn the pilgrim purse,
No choristers to round the close with verse,
No patrons’ patient faces grazed with sun,
No pedestals for patronage to come,
No babbling pandemonium of spring,
No spindling girls to bind their loves with blooms,
No censer-swirling deacon, nor his drudge
To agonize the vetch that winds the thyme,
No mourning dove to peck on wispy rhyme,
No scaffold-clambered bishop overhead,
No winch-raw backs, no oaken arms to roll
The stones to where they fit, before they fall,
No nobler you to pace the slouching wall
And squat by stumps, gnaw spalls of scaly bread,
And mutter to yourself, and to the night,
To columns crowded round you how you wait
For herald, harp, and scroll,
For pinnacles set perfectly alight,
For furling earth, for incandescent wing—

Undaunted, in the purple light we meet
As spider mites anticipate the shade
And halos haunt the vestibule. We kneel,
Unwrap our roundest rasps, and raze away
The hundred thousand afternoons you woke
And strained to brace the battlements you broke.

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“No hesitation, no heart of gold…”

Outdated technology has a grotesqueness all its own. It reminds us of old ideas, and what we once hoped to do with them.


Through moonlight, in my infancy, I traced
No sphere, no stars, but grids of perfect lines
Whose magnitude redoubled as I paced
And poked the air. A fading charm defines
My life: It came, unheralded by signs,
In blue oblique, a blur, a block of smoke
Divine; and being bound by my designs
It swayed, a silent, hexachromal cloak
Of nothing. I rejoiced in what I woke,
Unnumbered form, a notion turned to light,
And bowed, and laughed, and see now that it spoke
In evanescent noiselessness: Rewrite,
Return, recast, you never will excel
The devilry of this, your only spell.

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“Singing, not necessarily sorted…”

The Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral is home to a medlar (Mespilius germanica, or die Mispel in German), a tree that was far more common in medieval gardens than it is now in North America. Its homely fruit are inedible until they “blett,” when they become little mush-balls that taste a bit like spiced apples and wine—but only after time and frost render them wrinkled and weird. This bellyacher knows that with medlars, timing is everything, even with noises that disregard sense but feel right on the tongue.


Til we be rotten, kan we nat be rype.
—Chaucer, “The Reeve’s Prologue”

In sawdust ruts, the roots encroach
On walls where wintered widows poach.
Hear sepals peep what reeves forgot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A ritter rests. His jonquil dream
Shall reck in every rustling beam
What shrivling scops by lines allot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A shovel drudge, his leafs mislaid,
Fears bishops, like their mispels, fade,
But sets aside the lightest plot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A goblin sunders thist and thorn
By mispel moonlit shade, to mourn
One perfect pearl she misbegot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

Now pray we bless the bletted mess,
That fine and blither minds profess
To round the rinds that rime did not.
Let them ripen; let me rot.

The medlar in the Bishop’s Garden, autumn 2010:

Medlar fruit (harvested with permission of the cathedral), unbletted and bletted, December 2010:

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“And there’s talk in the houses, and people dancing in rings…”

This week, we had three beautiful days of unseasonable sunshine and warmth, prompting overeager bulbs to break the soil at the edges of my garden. Meanwhile, at the cathedral, a nightmare of feathers, wings, and horns perched above the Bishop’s Garden watches, waits, and warns.


The golden groom dismounts; the war is done.
The persephonic matrons, long withdrawn,
Betray the bride, let fly their veils as one,
and race like reckless robins round the lawn.
The bulbs trod under boot cry out: oh run
oh praise him raise him high hymenaeon
So spring steals in, the beaming, spendthrift son
who flatters us, and slinks away by dawn.

Heinz Warneke, “The Prodigal Son,” dedicated in the Bishop’s Garden in 1961.

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“Mountain passes slipping into stones…”

Facing away from the cavewoman pietà, this bone-wielding caveman tears open his own abdomen, but he’s less brutal than he seems. Candor sometimes demands that you de-form yourself a bit.


Panting at twilight
the fox halts, and bends his neck:
“one white bone is yours.”
You shook me half awake look!
with cold, open, empty hands

* * *

Beneath your mirror,
light, scarf, gloves, clock, sonnet book,
a deer tibia—
you beam, and gaze into it

Lose her to God for a while

* * *

Four trees fell.
She swings
through fresh-mown sunshine, smiling
over fitful seeds
slight as a hummingbird skull
light as a hummingbird dream

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“Throw the world off your shoulders tonight, Mr. Smith…”

Silly and serious, profane and sacred, the gargoyles at the National Cathedral have become tourist attractions all their own. You can buy a book about them, the cathedral offers special tours, and I hear some strange neighbor is even writing gargoyle-themed poems.

They’re not, however, the only gargoyles and grotesques in town, or even on the cathedral grounds. Turn northeast and stroll a few steps and you’ll bump into Cathedral College (formerly the College of Preachers), dedicated in 1928 just as American neo-Gothic church building was waning and collegiate Gothic was on the rise.

Mostly Anglophilic neo-Gothic with Tudor-ish outbuildings and annexes, Cathedral College closed for budgetary reasons in 2009, but gray winter is a fine time to peep through leafless vines and trees…

…to see the grotesques on the large corner tower.

First up: a pelican feeding her young with the blood of her breast, a medieval Christian symbol of self-sacrifice that’s hardly unknown in the American South.

Harder to see: a rooster, medieval symbol of (among other things) vigilance.

This owl’s shut eyes may suggest modesty, or sinners refusing to see and do the good, or, not inconceivably, Jews rejecting Christianity.

Everyone knows that in the Middle Ages, anthropomorphized frogs gesturing sincerely symbolized…um…

Exposed only in winter, this embrambled goat-devil is suitably eerie.

The College of Preachers was built by Frohman, Robb, and Little, one of several firms that made America look a little more medieval: Philip Frohman designed more than 50 American churches, and FR&L gave Trinity College Chapel in Hartford its neo-Gothic air. Frohman himself is best known for stepping in to re-design the National Cathedral in 1919. To a large extent, the building is “his”; he reportedly still climbed the scaffolding to oversee construction until his retirement in 1971. (Like many Episcopalian medievalists of his generation, Frohman was drawn to Catholicism; unlike most, he eventually converted.)

If Frohman, his partners, and their stonemasons intended the grotesques on Cathedral College to tell an obvious story, then I’m missing their meaning—beyond, perhaps, “please decorate the tower drainage system.”

“Ne can Ich eu namore telle. / Her nis namore of þis spelle”—but I’m open to generous and creative interpretations, even wild ones, of this medieval-ish menagerie that countless Washingtonians stomp past every day without ever stopping to see.

“…and eyes full of tinsel and fire.”

[I first posted this last year on December 21. It’s the second most popular poem in the series, and I offer it again in the spirit of the season.]


Come and grace our gleeful number;
Come and shake off snows unknown.
Bells will ring while wood-woes slumber;
Bells will ring for you alone.

Rave with uncles reeked in holly;
Reel with aunts who saw you born.
Whirl away your grear-tide folly;
Hearth-life dwindles ere the morn.

Haul the ash-bin ’round the byre;
Feel the pinelight breathe your name.
From the tongue of colder fire
Cracks and calls a hotter flame.

Run and chase your sweet-lipped singer;
Run and race your hope anon.
Bells will ring where’er ye linger;
Bells will ring when you are gone.

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“Funny how my memory skips while looking over manuscripts…”

With unlikely conviction, my garden has thrived well into November. Last week I dug up a little white-orange carrot still stubbornly finding its form. It smelled wonderful: fragrant, persistent, alive, a deep-rooted argument against autumn gloom. It stirred up two rabbits, long out of season.



“Senses are quickened by subtile forebodings.”
So sops the chorist by shadow-cold doors.
Blackening leafmeal bletts into mulch,
The cinders spelt from summer pyres
Blaze low before us, blow themselves out.
The wormeled looms, woven blindly,
Fate unpatterning, feast on the ash.
From these I spair my spirit shrinking:
In winter’s wane and withring dark
No thing endures. I thank no one.


Ah. Songs missung spiel but seasonal doom.
Finding their form, fetal hornroots
Clot the bodden; now clawing one free
We breathe, haling brawn and carrick,
Sweaty scrafings, the sweetest persistence,
No lesser life from leafmeal spurned,
And we know: Something censes in gardens
In alway above eyesores and brume-song
That nurtures a savor not known here before.
Craving to taste, we partake, and give thanks.

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“Some people dance cheek to cheek…”

Although I’ve found this beast atop the northwest tower difficult to photograph, I’ve long wondered why he—she? it?—holds such a savage grip on a mere bird. Then I realized: From a monster’s point of view, they’re dancing.

(after Edgar Degas, “Four Dancers,” c.1899, National Gallery of Art)

In the wings, a measured rest.
Four as one in florid fits

Flitter in. The wald submits.
Autumns rise upon the scene:

In a rush of salmoned green
Tender tressings flip, exchanged,

Battened fast, or rearranged.
Trellising her arm, the first

Honors artifice reversed:
“Wasted branches bow, and then

Painted planklings bough again.”
Half as daft, the second sets

Flambent straps, but scarce forgets
Quips that crab her brittle heart:

“Oui, technique—mais où est l’art?”  
Sembling innocence, the third,

Primping, pincing, undeterred,
Shoulders not a knot of shame

Lest regret, or light acclaim
Drag her down, or bow her stance.

Note the last; no lasting glance
Lingers there for us to see.

Music lifts her. Fanions flee—
Blithe she twirls, and none observe

Lesser lines we scarce deserve
(You and I) to leer and know.

Laud her flourish. Let her go
Pattern grace, while we pretend

Faux Novembers never end.
Autumn twilight sets too soon;

Fumbling, we belie the tune
(You and I) that times the turns

Every gilded dancer learns.
Let their line, from fourth to first,

Misperceive why we rehearsed,
Wrought the light from blighted rhyme,

Warped the chord in common time,
Daubed the gloss, as their debut

Burnished our façade anew.
Late, they loiter back, to find

Nothing I disclose in kind.
Fold your program; feign we see

Faith in faint simplicity,
False in sight, divine in show,

Pas de deux de deux, they go,
Pirandelles of perfect stone

Turn together, dance alone.

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