From Issue 20: Trafalgar Square

Philip St. Clair

Near the Empty Plinth on Wednesday afternoon: we were adrift,
mixing with tourists on the broad gray steps,
and above us, overcast presaged rain. Not much busking going on:
no woodwind trios from the conservatory nearby,
no morris dancers, no painters of children’s faces – even Yoda,
who levitates as he sits in lotus, had taken the day off.
But there was a piper in kilts, his skirl muted from the damp,
and there was a mime in leotards, her chalk-white face
twisted in fear as she ran both palms inside the invisible box
that trapped her. Near the statue of George Washington
a man in a knit skullcap cradled a sign: I AM NO TERRORIST.

A sudden gunshot made us flinch; the pigeon flock
burst skyward with clumsy flaps. Alarmed, we looked about —
no one crouched or ran and the police were unconcerned.
My wife knew at once. Just a recording of a shotgun blast
set to play at random five times an hour, a farmer’s trick
meant to drive off any nuisance birds by making them wary,
by keeping them uneasy, but it wasn’t working here:
the pigeons scattered to the air, wearily circled Nelson’s Column
for a moment or two, then drifted back down.

Across St. Martin Place to the church. Three homeless men,
fitfully day-sleeping, had huddled together
on the narrow edge of the portico, kept there by a metal railing —
the vicar, we suspected, must have had a talk.
They wore the livery of the down-and-out: grimy sweaters,
shoes without socks, trousers ragged at the cuff.

The church was empty. We walked down the center aisle,
sat in a pew halfway to the altar, better to see
the great east window, once blitzed in a wartime raid,
now a field of plain glass squares, and in its center
a tilted oval of milk-white crystal that seemed too heavy
for the cross of glazier’s lead that held it.

Then it erupted in white flame. The blaze pulsed once, twice,
disappeared, and for a moment I sat astonished,
thinking that unbidden grace had come upon me,
but then I knew that rifts in the low gray clouds
had let the occulted sun strike it and fill it twice,

and I remembered one afternoon with friends
who chatted and laughed over wine on a suburban porch:
fatigued by all their banter, I stole a moment
away from them to stare into the tree-lined distance,
and I saw a space ten feet before me
begin to churn, and as the light within rumpled, folded,
a small round portal opened, and first I thought
it led to a hidden universe, but it was only a cloud of gnats,
swarming as they left for somewhere else,

and then I thought I should come back and take my place
among my witty friends, tell all of them
what I saw and what it came to be, eager to enter their talk
by a joke at my expense, but a voice within
said no, not now and not here and not with these people:
you must keep covenant with yourself
and not betray what has been revealed in your fragment
of solitude, your time of elsewhere and other,
your flash of wonder and delight unmapped by reason.

Three more tourists had entered the church:
stage whispers, the rustle of shopping bags. They wandered
down the left-hand aisle, pausing at the stairs
that led to an elevated pulpit, and when one of them touched
her sandal to the lowest tread, an old parishioner
rose out of the shadows, waved her arms, drove them away.

 

Philip St. Clair has published six collections of poetry.  He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council and was awarded the Bullis Prize by Poetry Northwest. He lives in Ashland, Kentucky.