Caravaggio, "St. Francis in Ecstasy."

FIRST ATTEMPT

My prayer rose like incense
in the dead of night,
curling upward against the sky.
Sweet smoke coiled like patterned
rings, a great chain (and gray).
Curved against the curtain of midnight.

So my prayer was, as it poured upward in the sky.
So my prayer was doubled-dark in the night.
Gray touched black and grazed, wound along
invisible curvature. Gray shaped by the night.
Shaped and held by the dark,
which was itself alive.

I halted abruptly after this, unable to come up with a way to transition into the next “half” of the poem, where the darkness “responds.”

SECOND ATTEMPT

My prayer rose like incense
in the dead of night,
curling upward against the sky.
Sweet smoke coiled like patterned
rings, a great chain (and gray).
Curved against the curtain of midnight.

So my prayer was, as it poured upward in the sky.
So my prayer was doubled-dark in the night.
Gray touched black and grazed, wound along
invisible curvature. Gray shaped by the night.
Shaped and held by the dark,
which was itself alive.

Yes, I saw it – I saw the darkness move. I saw
the living night of unspeakable bright.
It caught the thin silver of my prayer and spun,
flared out like wings – dark and light,
woven close now and feathered soft.
Stretching sudden, reaching out – for me.

And I reached back, narrow arms open wide.
I reached for the whirling fire-night, the
burning silver-shadow wings shining dark.
Still the wings stretched more, shuddering,
as if to enclose the earth – and I,
I spread my arms, too.

We did not touch, the fire that flung itself
out across the globe, and me with my
featherless wings. Still we both burned,
my pale flesh ignited in the shadowed light.
We burned and reached and I –
I saw (in the silver and the dark) – I saw the face of Christ.

THIRD ATTEMPT

My prayer rose like incense
in the dead of night,
curling upward against the sky.
Sweet smoke coiled like patterned
rings, a great chain (and gray).
Curved against the curtain of midnight.

So my prayer was, as it poured upward in the sky.
So my prayer was doubled-dark in the night.
Gray touched black and grazed, wound along
invisible curvature. Gray shaped by the night.
Shaped and held by the dark,
which was itself alive.

Yes, I saw it – I saw the darkness move. I saw
the living night of unspeakable bright.
It caught the thin silver of my prayer and spun,
flared out like wings – dark and light,
woven close now and feathered soft.
Stretching sudden, reaching out.

And I reached back, narrow arms open wide.
I reached for the whirling fire-night, the burning
silver-shadow wings shining dark.
Still the wings stretched more, shuddering,
as if to enclose the earth – and I,
I, too, spread my arms.

We did not touch, the fire that flung itself
out across the globe, and me with my
featherless wings. Still we both burned,
my pale flesh ignited in the shadowed light.
We burned and reached and I –
I writhed, mirroring the night.

I, a bony reflection of the spreading wings.
The spreading fire, whose feathers of light extended
to show and to conceal what burned within.
And in the crossways of shadow and splendor,
bent together and unblent – I saw –
in the crossway of silver and dark –
I saw the face of Christ.

FOURTH ATTEMPT

My prayer rose like incense
in the dead of night,
curling upward against the sky.
Sweet smoke coiled, gray shaped by the night.
Shaped and held by the dark,
which was itself alive.

I saw the darkness move.
I saw the living night.
It caught the thin silver of my prayer and spun,
flared out like wings – dark and light,
woven close now and feathered soft.
Stretching sudden, reaching out.

And I reached back, narrow arms open wide.
I reached for the whirling fire-night, the burning
silver-shadow wings shining dark.
We did not touch, the fire that flung itself
out across the globe, and me with my
featherless wings.

I, a bony reflection of the spreading wings.
the spanning fire, whose tongues of light extended
in the crossways of shadow and splendor,
bent together and unblent.
And in the wreathe of silver and of dark –
I saw the face of Christ.

“FINAL” VERSION

My prayer rose like incense
in the dead of night,
curling upward against the sky.
Sweet smoke coiled, gray shaped by the night.
Shaped and held by the dark,
which was itself alive.

I saw the darkness move.
I saw the living night.
It caught the thin silver of my prayer and spun,
flared out like wings – dark and light,
woven close now and feathered soft.
Stretching sudden, reaching out.

And I reached back, narrow arms open wide.
I reached for the whirling fire-night, the burning
silver-shadow wings shining dark.
We did not touch, the fire that flung itself
out across the globe, and me with my
featherless wings.

Featherless me, a bony reflection of the spreading wings,
the spanning fire, whose tongues of light extended
in the crossways of shadow and splendor,
bent together and unblent.
And in the wreathe of silver and of dark –
I saw the face of Christ.

At first, the battle was simply to get the whole thing onto the page. To get from Francis’s beginning prayer to the height of his mystical vision (seeing Christ). After that, it became a matter of how to say it that made the most sense within the poem’s themes (of dark and light and wings). But even after following the logic of the images, I quickly realized the poem was much too long. Poems are built on leanness, and even an ounce of extra wording distorts them. So I began to collapse stanzas together, developing images much more quickly and giving the poem a more rapid cadence. Whole lines vanished. It did not matter whether they were nice little lines; it mattered how effectively they expressed the total movement of the poem. If they didn’t, they were eliminated – no matter how pretty they had been. Editing is a cold and cruel art.

The poem is better than it was in previous versions. I know this as a simple fact, neither triumphant nor sad. But it could be even better, if I had the power. That’s a fact, too.

I’ll learn. Perhaps that is prideful, but I think I might get there someday. So long as I continue to permit myself struggles and failures.

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