A Chest of Angels

1'I have always felt that desolation,
2that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed
3in an uninhabited natural landscape
4at its bleakest.'
5                                - Anthony Hecht
7To each his own hell. Mine was an uninhabited
8landscape as far from nature as you can get
9without actually leaving the planet, a man-made
10moon waste on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn,
11fired in the sun's kiln through unending
12afternoons when I was nine or ten.
13I can never get the whole scene put together
14in my head, thanks to whatever guardian
15spirit flags down potentially dangerous
16intruders on the verge of memory,
17but parts of me hold parts of it: my ears
18play out the hissing wires' repeated rise
19and fall, dry waves breaking above pavement;
20my nostrils chafe where fumes of gasoline
21weep from soft tarred patches in the asphalt;
22through a chainlink grid, my eyes take in
23some lot's trapped beach, its black sand an amalgam
24of gravel, soot, and broken glass; or they blink
25in sequence with the traffic light's perpetual
26solitaire at a carless intersection,
27flicking over greens, ambers, reds;
28my hands remember enough not to touch
29the shut steel trap doors of delivery chutes
30where air trembles over surfaces
31as at their beginnings in a furnace.
32What fills my mind to bursting is emptiness,
33the spirit of inverted Genesis
34transforming light and water's urge towards fullness
35into a miracle of unearthly loss.
37Sentries, a pair of gasoline pumps napped.
38Their rubber arms dangled groundwards and looped
39back up, hanging slack from the brass lapel
40their trigger-fingers hooked at shoulder height.
41They were no angels, but kept the gate of hell
42whenever I made visits to the angels.
43Behind them, next to a roll-up garage door
44always rolled up, with an invisible car
45always risen above the stone lintel
46on the hydraulic lift, a soft drink cooler
47sat coffin-like against the stucco wall.
48And always songs from a hidden radio
49promised cool mountain rivers to the hot
50flat city: somebody else must have listened,
51but I never saw a soul in all my visits.
52The angels' wings fluttered the moment I raised
53the lid, a potent shimmer, as if the sun
54itself shone from the chest, not its reflections
55playing off the steel bars and icy waters.
56The angels sat in rows between the bars,
58of their glass capes: the bluish, scalloped whorl
59of cherubim, the powers' straight sheer crystal,
60the emerald flare of flaming seraphim --
61all emissaries from the sky-washed shore
62of heaven. To put a coin in the dispenser,
63slide one of them along its plated channel
64and lift it free through the chest's narrow gate --
65to kiss the cold stars of its distillation --
66was not important; it was only important
67to see the angels swimming in the glitter
68and dip my fingers in their flickering water
69at the centre of that man-made desert,
70knowing that they were man-made, and might shatter.


57] chevroned: arranged in right angles. Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Midland Swimmer (London, Ontario: Brick Books, 1996): 97.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
Special Copyright: 

<b>This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of John Reibetanz or the Brick Books permissions department.</b>