Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill-
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.
And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
What a magnificent thing this poem is. The birds, ever lifting higher, get to experience a season of phantasmal peace and light that is undiminished by the passing of shadows. This poem puts me in mind of those perfect moments, when the light is just so, and you feel as though you could inhabit that moment forever. As Walcott says, "it was the light / that you will see at evening on the side of a hill / in yellow October." I don't think I've ever heard a more concise or evocative way to describe a month as "yellow October" which to me, brings to mind the essential nature of autumn.
Just imagining how "the birds lifted together / the huge net of the shadows of this earth" is enthralling. I have to imagine all the shadows disappearing for one brief moment, and must try to imagine, though I cannot fully, a moment with light, "phantasmal light that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever." The light is the peace of nature, highlighted by its constant connection to the birds in this poem. We, the people, are the ones who share "dark holes in windows and in houses."
There's a great sense of serenity about this poem, even though the moment it describes is incredibly brief. It's a reminder that there is beauty in the world, though we may have to rethink where we find it and why. It's inevitable that time moves on, but in these moments of "phantasmal light" and peace, we need to try to live on that fine line. As Walcott puts it so sublimely, it is the "pause between dusk and darkness." The briefest instant: may it last forever.