Project Description

The American Sublime: Robert Penn Warren

High in the mountain pass, tucked in a crevice
of stone, the eagle’s nest throbs
with its naked young, open-mouthed and crying
to be fed. The eagle soars, the voice
of the wind in the highest pines
doesn’t whine; it sounds,
to a human ear, like sobbing.

Old man, we say you’re too rhetorical and
too sublime, as if an eagle when it spread
wide wings and rode the cold wind
down the mountain pass, its great yellow eye
wide open, could be other than it is.

Below, deep in the years, a boy
and his husky, Sila, a ruin of stonework,
a blank sheet of snow: there
for the billionth time since the earth
begat, and the cells moved in their unknowing,
mindful way toward flesh and fur, the dog
leaped at the doe’s throat and the snow
blossomed red as a bridal
sheet—the doe torn, the dog
docile again, stained crimson
on its silver muzzle, confused
by the pain on its master’s face, himself
armed for the kill. And you, that boy
grown old, the taste of blood
still fresh from the knife that cut short
the death throes of the deer, the blood still
warm on the blade after so many years, unable
to make it right, to make it fit without
the bite of the saw-wheel, tooth on tooth, turning
as the planet turns, the sun staining the sky
with red, the snow falling again
in useless white denial.

                                                    We, who say the word
ecology as if it were God, accuse you
of the orator’s sin, you
who looked long and long into the cold
blue eyes of the husky and
the warm brown eyes of the doe—
wept, and cried out… what words
without the rhetorical sweep
like the wide-open wings of the eagle
riding the cold current at the top of the pass
could do it justice, this world
without justice or help
for the heart, beating
like the helpless young in their nest
crying for the sky-driven beak, seeing, at last,
the great bird coming like love
down over them, bringing death in its beak
to comfort them, and the huge darkness
of itself, like love, for cover
against the cold galactic night.

Eleanor Wilner

Eleanor Wilner was born in 1937 in Ohio. She earned a BA from Goucher College and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Active in civil rights and peace movements, Wilner is known for writing poetry that engages politics, culture, history, and myth. Wilner typically avoids poetry that focuses on the self, preferring instead to work from what she has described as “cultural memory.” In an interview, Wilner stated that she “saw the ways in which collective vision always began with a communal crisis and an individual who, in essence, dreamed for the community. This is what I think a poet does, and I think our culture has made us shallow and dreamless by inculcating the myth that the individual is defined and set apart by his or her own personal experience.”

Writing in Poetry, Christian Wiman commented, “Thought occurs in her poems, and her poems have definite subjects, not infrequently the sort of big-game themes that wreck lesser writers: war, environmental degradation, justice, sexism.” Wiman continued, “it is a relief to come across work in which a moral intelligence is matched by aesthetic refinement, in which the craft of the poems is equal to their concerns.” Wilner has received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the Juniper Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation.

—Poem from Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1998