For the poet Dana Gioia, upon his taking a public office, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
Sometimes on evening walks you hear,
in whispers from old wells
and almost-words that rivers speak,
a quiet voice that tells
of small, secluded things. Like murmured
prayers from churchmen's stalls
or what the marbled echoes say,
it rises, then it falls.
And you may follow when it calls
or you may think to wait. The green
at dusk seems deeper than
the green at dawn. Beyond the gate
a garden opens on
long shadows overgrown with leaves
and lilac nunneries
between the gravel paths, where sparrows
seek their tenebraes.
And you may follow, if you please,
or keep to public streets. Against
the bruit of busy day,
the private houses close their eyes.
A few small panes betray
high bookshelves in a firelit room,
a woman sweeping floors,
a glimpse of some unknowing boy
at work at evening chores.
And you may follow, through those doors,
or you may turn aside. In lines
of black between the flames,
a fire writes against its light.
Dry hopes, forgotten fames,
the traceless works of childless men:
All printed there to read.
The cinders spell the deeper night,
dark need inside dark need.
And you may follow where they lead
or you may look away.
J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The Fall & Other Poems.