Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, including From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and most recently Blood Labors, named one of the Best Poetry Books of the Year for 2018 by TheNew York Times and The Washington Independent Review of Books. His poetry has won many awards, among them
the Massachusetts Book Award and fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. His critical and editorial works include Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Awake in America, The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, and To the Many: The Collected Early Works of Lola Ridge. His most recent work is On Serious Earth: Poetry and Transcendence. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.
Daniel Tobin Poems
From AT THE GRAVE OF TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
No, you do not ask anything unattainable of me. You merely, through your revelation and your grace, force what is most human in me to become conscious of itself at last. Humanity was sleeping—it is still sleeping—imprisoned in the narrow joys of its little closed loves.
Teilhard de Chardin
Spira mirabilis, miraculous spiral, and from the one
infinite point my many chambers flowering inwardly
to form the outside this itinerant holds in his hand.
What am I but a translation of symmetries awakened
from the violin wavelengths of things coming to be,
not condemned to drift among possible impossibilities
like so many dead ends in shale, some Bright Angel
or Burgess, a petrified chamber on the planet’s scale,
four hundred million years a wink to my pinhole eye?
When he looks in my lustrous emptiness does he see
how close he is with his kind never to have been at all,
chance roll from the compass-angle palm of the divine?
Still, I am the ensemble that redoubles sum by sum
into pinecone-bract and sunflower—golden array
of assemblages, each uncurling like a fern, unlikely
in their aspects till the eye shoots deeper in—even
their outspread numbered branching on the Earth
a kinship with the kinship of more hidden symmetries.
What will he hear when he lifts me to that near twin
and his inquisitive crown leans closer and he presses
me against the hollow in himself—an ancient wish?
Or this ocean-rush of pre-dawn nothings whispering,
hushing out? Or will it be the true God in all that is,
living and incarnate, altogether apart, not far away?
His wrestling with me is inside, though the errant
wastes beyond the Great Wall assume the vivid cast
of soul, trawling emptiness, terrain in which he sifts
his beginnings from brickearth and loess, sheer-flung
ramparts of Aeolian dust where the species quartered
long ago, not that long in its aboriginal glimmerings.
Knuckle-bone, skull-shard, the patiently-honed edge
of a blade, sheer-gleaned, wholly lithic, he carries back
across the Yellow River to the museum at Tienstin—
all belated relics of the beast who knows he knows,
while the remnant of me slips fleetly from the sieve,
quartz-chaff, first replicator, to run away on the wind.
Still, my older brethren celebrate a silence of lattices
cooling out of liquid into emerald and amethyst,
diamond facets in which the slightest flaw catalyzes
to greater beauty, azure mist from pure translucence
ghosting the stone. Am I not these lowlier tessellations
folding inside the very fabric of things, wanton tilings
crossing even from the inanimate into life, a feigning
of firm ends? Here is the helix with its rooted tapestry
of ties, far-flung from the materials, routed, branching,
the soul inseparable from the universe of being born,
infinitesimal, with the labors of seaweed, the industry
of bees at their hive-work, sweet honey from the rock.
(Garment and Corpus)
Most of what I wear no one can see, my nakedness
the nothing ghosting each barely probable array
from lack to leap to face to galaxy, till all you know
collapses into now: what this man called the bloom
of matter’s marvelous garment in the flesh, a brede
just visible on the edge of what will be, was and is.
To walk these bustling human streets, to go astray
in Shanghai, Louvain, Paris, and in Rome, or clamber
breccia, to find in the teeming dishabille and shards
some sidelong glancing image of my resplendence,
one must have a sightline honed by longing love
that would stitch in its bright gaze what came before
and what will come ahead, and so fathom the circuit
from the arrow of the line, my haunt, my harrowing.
like particles of light fired through a regnant screen,
each double of the other launched to opposite zones,
till the action of his science and the action of his faith
keep impossible counsel across the shattering gulf.
What vision, but mine, narrows the brash infinities
out of the improbable rattle bag of what might be,
warp, woof of a great Thought, not a great Machine?
He saw it first at the front in that dying soldier’s eyes,
the agony like a plumb-line down a bottomless well
ascending there with my own, transfiguring into joy.