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About this Poem 
“I wrote this poem as an homage to the writing of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), the German Romantic poet who was himself obsessed with the legacy of ancient Greece.  Yet Hölderlin also looked to the seasons, the earth, the daylight, the constellations, the rivers and mountains of his immediate world, as a way of anchoring whatever reality he could find. I built my poem around two quotes from his work: the first, ‘As from dark orchard leaves, from quiet scripts,’ comes from one of his great late odes, ‘An die Deutschen’ (To the Germans). The second comes from Hölderlin’s epistolary novel, Hyperion, from a letter by Hyperion to his friend Bellarmin: ‘I dig my heart a grave so that it may rest; I spin a cocoon around myself because it is winter everywhere; I wrap myself up in blissful memories against the storm.’ Hölderlin’s misery, like that of so many of the Romantics, was tied to his desire for transcendence. Even so, in the earthly world around him the ‘quiet scripts’ continued, and continue.”
Susan Stewart

Poem from Hölderlin

As from dark orchard leaves, from quiet scripts
where each shape sends its tendril reaching—
circle and line, the swaddled bud, the petiole 
sprung, an envelope tendered.
By a window, the infant 
turns, rooting
toward the breast,
the mother humming.
(Those far things, sources 
of power and
cliffs and waves, 
at a distance.)
           Here you’ll find
a name scrawled in the bark—
last words, left to chance
and strangers.
            There, the black ant, burdened 
by a crumb, and the weight
of her lacquered armor,
switching, doubling 
back—gnarl and crevice and 
cul de sac.
driven on, and trembling,
does she have a notion 
of her own, or is it 
only species 
fearless, so abstract?
because it is winter everywhere, 
            I spin my cocoon
            I dig my heart a grave
Indifferent, a blossom 
drifting, the knob swelling, 
the leaf turned to
shadow: filigree, smudged. 
The petiole now brittle in 
the first cold nights.
                        The burden, relieved, 
weighs all the more
from the guilt 
of its release.
Too light, too light, like a sudden 
waking, the sun in your eyes: 
you cannot see for it.			
How long will we live 
in this leaf-strewn place, 
thinking we belong
to the sky?

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Stewart. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 22, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Stewart. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 22, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart was born in 1952. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Cinder: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2017).

by this poet


Your eye moving

left to right across

the plowed lines

looking to touch down

on the first

shoots coming up

like a frieze

from the dark where

pale roots

and wood-lice gorge

on mold.

Red haze atop

the far trees.

A two dot, then

a ten

Alack Alas

Hammer to a copper bowl,
someone left the light on.
Touch against the thin wrist
skin, and back again, and back 
again. Can't find the vein.

Alack A Day

Stiffing a filigree leaf, ribs 
align in alternity. Drop 
me a line, I am leaving—
the har-dee-har men come soon.
And once they are
I had heard the story before
about the two prisoners, alone
in the same cell, and one
gives the other lessons in a language.
Day after day, the pupil studies hard—
what else does he have to do?—and year
after year they practice,