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The German visual artist Gabriele Leidloff made this striking radiograph
of the life mask of Goethe, which she allowed to be digitized for publication in ARCHIPELAGO.
Accompanying it is “The Flight of the Crows,” written in her honor
by Robert Kelly, the American poet.


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for Gabriele Leidloff


They sweep across the vast Eurasian land mass
they are friends of every weather
who has ever seen a crow discomfited
they pass among the living and the dead
the black is full of life the grey is dead
the mournfulness at the heart of the spectrum,
the grief at the heart of matter,
across the world from Goethe's Rosa-Purpur

but who ever saw a crow reading Goethe,
though they may be the dark angels at the end of  Faust,
pelting that gay devil with red  roses,

a rose is a wound, did you know that?
We pelt one another with our wounds,
we give us roses for love, the crows
mock us from the heart of the sky

which is not different from the heart of earth.
Easy. Listen. Crows, listen to crows,
they know where all things are
and decide between the living and the dead

and both of them are of use, of use to them, the living
are of use to them, and the dead.

It was in Berlin, I was one of the living,
I walked in the cold bright morning
around the Schloß in Charlottenburg,
and there at my feet came a crow strolling,
a kind I’d never seen, I thought at first
it was a matter of my eyes, or a fall of light
that cast a pale shadow on his back,
I saw him grey shouldered, capped with grey a little, hooded
with a sheen of  less than black,
I thought it was a mistake, an imperfection
in the perceptual medium, a shadow
floating in the milk of sky,
a blemish on my skin,
so I asked him,

And what would you be
I asked the crow
and the bird cawed precisely as a crow would call

So I know there is a kind of crow
that I don’t know,
the populations, they sweep across Europe
they are grey and black
or they are black. Or they are not.

I asked you
about a bird

you sent its photograph,
its telephone number I could call
and ask it for a date, fly me or fly you, my sky or yours,
I want to be where there are crowds in the sky
and their shadows on a Prussian lawn

you understand I love crows,
they are my morning and my ministers,
they tell me most of what I need to know

I want to listen to them cawing cawing
because I can map any city by their cry,
their music is all algebra,
their music is all abscissas and mantissas
their music is all map and graph and chart
their music is all where and flute and harp.

You sent me their picture because they were grey
and you looked in a book and knew who they are.
I open a book and find a sky
I open your letter and find some birds

the birds are words,
they tell me that when I was in Hamburg
I was on the borderline between the crows,
the line between the crows in heaven
flows along the Elbe down on earth,

but in England both kinds of crows are known,
and this grey crow the golden woman
who dances in the air above Charlottenburg
and whose name another woman gave me in Winterhude,
this crow the English call their hoodie,
their hooded crow,

so I have a name
I have a word
a word and a voice
to say it

birds in a book and a word in the sky
how many of us know how to fly

is not really the question, you can, I can,
one can lie back on a west-easterly divan
and watch the birds come streak across the sky
like novice nuns running back from class

you watch the sky until a bird appears.


So the real question is what do you want to learn?
And why do I want there to be some living thing that moves
at its own will or whim across my world
and makes a noise and wakes me up

so there I go obedient as ever to
the oracle of crows.

        Crow on right:
    keep going as you go.
Crow on the left.
Think twice. Stop what you’re doing
and reflect.
    Crow behind you.
    Turn back.
Crow ahead of you: follow, follow

walk towards the voice of the crow
no matter how far you have to go.

A word once spoken
becomes a whole world’s sky


So it is a matter of voices, of
listening to voices.

You and I both have interesting voices.
You have a beautiful voice, in fact.
It is a voice I often— long before I met you—
have heard speaking my poems in my ear
before my body flexes to get them written down.
I told you all this already,
back in Germany, where somehow
it was, maybe is, easier to tell the truth.
I told you all this, and told you I think also
how your voice is truest, most beautiful, tells
the truth deepest, when you’re not
doing anything fancy with your voice. It’s when
you’re just talking that the truth comes out,
the long deep water of your voice, the long
deep voice of yours which is like the color of silence,
the flesh of shadow, the sheen on a crow at dawn

It is strange to think: one can have
a voice. It is like being able to have a wind
or a weather. To have a sea.
A voice. Your wonderful voice
the color of amber hidden in someone’s palm.
Your voice is the shape of milk in a cup left out in the morning
by someone who left for work and hours
later her husband wakes up and finds it
your voice gets milk on the rough of his mustache,
what do you want to learn,
listen to your voice,

your voice is the adolescence of a king, shy about his body
under his stately robes, your voice is the mirror
in which a sixteen year old emigrant
studies her cheekbones using
the glass of the porthole for her mirror
wondering what America will be like, your voice
is the orchestra still playing on the sunken Titanic
dreaming under a century of water,
your voice is shivering Indians watching Spaniards in big ships,
what do you want to learn?
If you can hear me you can hear your voice,
your voice is the oil on a wrestler’s muscles,
your voice is the opera house at midnight
empty of everything but feeling and understanding,
your voice is nothing like sunshine, nothing like light,

your voice is the sound of everybody's native language.

They carry us, words
carry us, crows carry us,
the sky puts up with us,
the sky takes us home.

I lived one year in the Savoie
where black birds meant the Resistance
meant the men who smuggled Jews out of France
into the difficult and unwelcoming Valais,
are you Jewish, am I anything,

the words are hard to live in but they welcome us.
The crows have nothing to give
but what they have they give to us.
And everything that can ever be said
is said in the sound of anybody’s old voice.


21-29 May 1996


©“Goethe”, Gabriele Leidloff. ©“The Flight of the Crows,” Robert Kelly.

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