Robert Pinsky

III. Mysteries of the Future

People stream slowly from a city church,
Their clothes bright in the sudden winter daylight,
Their bodies clean and warm inside the cloth
Like flags and armor in the dazzling air,
Sun flashing and wincing from the curbside ice.
Their pace is dreamy, strolling to their cars
Over the gritty sidewalk, in Sunday clothes.

It is Chicago; and though in many ways
It could be some place in another country,
The way I see the people and the church—
As mysteries, not just unknown or foreign—
Makes it this country: and Chicago, a setting
We make as we discover. It makes me think
Of how small children, with laborious
And grubby fingers, improvise a scene
From disproportionate, inspired arrangements
Of toys and objects: mirror for a pond,
And gathered on the shore amid strange buildings,
In mad, pedantic order, animals
And people. The squirrel, immense, bears on his shoulders
Riders including and anthropomorphic lion,
In pants and glasses. Barnyard and jungle creatures
Have landed their airplane—some are on the wings—
Right on the hotel roof. Wagons and cars
Parade down to the water…
                                             The girls and women
In pretty colors, the males in blue or brown,
Pause eddying on the steps, as though to blink
Like science-fiction travelers through time,
Uncertain if the surfaces they see
So brazenly gleaming mean to hail them toward
The mysteries of the past, or of the future.

Whether they have slept in church or not, they look
Refreshed in spirit, ready for the cuisine
And music of this era ahead or back,
Younger or older than the one they knew.

“For here we have no continuing city, but seek
For one to come”—Hebrews, 13:14.
I can’t say if our country is old, or young,.
The future is an electrocuting thought—
That stuns the thinking reed to quiet, and heightens
The sense that every thing we make is mortal,
Or part of some continuing epitaph.
Our very sentences are like a cloth
Cut shimmering from conventions of the dead—
Hung sometimes to flutter from a spar or gallant,
Nudged forward like the paper boats of candy
Launched for the gods downriver, in the future.

If I could sail forward to see the streets
Of that strange country where you will live past me,
Or further even by a hundred years;
And walk those pavements with my phantom steps,
And find Chicago flashing in winter sun;
And church doors ready to swing open, or melt
Before my penetrating ghost—my courage
Would fail, I think: best not to mount the steps
Where I could leave no footprint in the snow…
Best not to see those garments.
                                                  The shining casket,
Pure gold, where Philip of Macedonia lay
Twenty-three hundred years, and his breastplate
And greaves of gold and ivory, are gorgeous still;
But all the treasury of woven fabrics
And splendid leather that lay around the king
Technicians using instruments can deduce
Only from the fine dust scattered on the floor
Around the casket; the long hardwood handle
Of his bright spear fell slowly to a powder
Where it was propped, and left the point adhering
Eerily to the stonework of the wall.

It’s fearful to leave anything behind.
To choose or make some one thing to survive
Into the future—where the air and light
That spread around us here in all directions
Stand ready to dim, discolor, and unravel
The colors that we fit around our bodies,
Precious and mutable, a second skin.
(Although the soul may be immortal, or not—
And some believe that even the body may rise—
Our cloth must die, and parch away forever.)

Jefferson in his epitaph records
That he was the author of the Declaration
Of Independence, and of the Virginia law
Providing public education; and founder
Of that state’s University—omitting
His “high office”…as if it were a bound,
Or something held, not something he had done—
The ceremonial garment he had been given
By others, with a certain solemn function
And honor; eventually, to be removed.

The church, Gothic Revival, and waiting cars
With brightwork glinting through a haze of salt
Suggest Nostalgia and Progress—which are in spirit
Less blatant, intimate, tragic than Epitaph:
As though the people, blood rising to their cheeks
As they walk into the cold, could leave behind
The image of themselves in their good clothes—
To survive as a memorial, compacted
By twenty centuries of the slowest fire
As if to something made of stone, or metal.

In the familiar boast or accusation
Americans have scant “historic sense”;
Nostalgia and Progress seem to be our frail
National gestures against the enveloping,
Suffusive nightmare of time—which swallows first
The unaware, because they are least free…
But time’s nightmare and freedom from it, differ
For different peoples: like their burial customs;
And what they choose to say in what they leave.
To speak words few enough to fit a stone,
And frame them as if speaking from the past
Into the void or mystery of the future,
Demands that we be naked, free, and final:

        God wills us free, man wills us slaves.
        I will as God wills Gods will be done.
                     Here lies the body of
                          JOHN JACK
                A native of Africa who died
        MARCH 1773 aged about 60 years

        Tho’ born in a land of slavery,
        He was born free,
        Tho’ he lived in a land of liberty,
        He lived a slave,
        Till by his honest, tho’ stolen labors,
        He acquired the source of slavery,
        Which gave him his freedom,
        Tho’ not long before
        Death the Grand Tyrant
        Gave him his final emancipation,
        And set him on a footing with kings.
        Tho’ a slave to vice,
        He practiced those virtues
        Without which kings are but slaves.