Poems: Geoffrey Babbitt

Illo for Geoffrey Babbitt's poems.

Blake at the Star Wheel

for Cami Nelson

“Hour after hour labouring at the whirling Wheel . . .
Yet the intoxicating delight that they take in their work
Obliterates every other evil.”


in the copperplate rolling press workshop
on the ground floor of 13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth,
among the smell of nut oil, varnish, & lamp black,
surrounded by iron pots for boiling oil, pans
for heating copper, tallow candles, racks
of gravers, fine linen for straining varnish,
vessels for mixing acids, old rags, pumice stones,
fine sheets of paper, copperplates, charcoal, & chalk,
Blake polishes a ruddy sheet
of copper just in from the coppersmith
and, to cut a smaller copperplate, he
hammers chisel upon anvil, leaving
ragged edges to the piece he will engrave
with a firm & decided hand at once
guiding burin with long strokes that bite
the copperplate into mirror image—engraving
eternal work—untractable—

the copper furrows ploughed by the graver
are ridged with a delicate bur
of metal—all the white or light
parts eaten away with aqua fortis
—the infernal method, melting apparent surfaces,
displaying the infinite which was hid—
to leave a prominent outline
in relief, as in stereoptype—How do we
distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse
from the ox, but by the bounding
outline? Leave out this line and you leave out
life itself; all is chaos again—

onto stone Blake smears
dry pigments: bone black, gamboge, yellow
ochre, Prussian blue, madder lake
and mixes them with honeyish
linseed oil, works them in
with his palette knife into black ink—he coats
the leather-covered dauber and gently
taps the raised copper—daub
daub daubdaub-daub-daub—layer after
thin layer of mottled ink—then he places
the inked plate to the center of the bed
of the press, face up,
covers with moistened
prepared paper and coverleaves—and
pulling the star wheel, hand
over hand, Blake cranks the press
through the two metal rollers,
pressing the paper into the recesses of the etched copper,
transferring image to paper
so forcefully that the image
is slightly embossed—

lifting back the coverleaves,
setting the waste sheet to the side, with a folded
sheet of paper peeling the printed
sheet from the copper, drying and pressing it—
for reuse, he oils the copperplate, wraps
it in paper, and stores it in a drawer

the printed sheet, once dry, he & Catherine will
illuminate with watercolors, grinding their own colors
from powder—indigo, cobalt, Frankfort
black, ultramarine, etc.—& with a camel’s hair brush
a broad premier coup wash—once dried,
superimposition of one color scumbling
another—all a play
of shadow and translucent
light—stippling to define, say,
Adam’s muscular structure—little
strokes articulating muscles
and setting Eve dancing lightly
on the balls of her feet,
so lightly she loses substance,
becomes transparent—
despite copper, cranking star
wheel, & biting burin,
she glows without definable surface,
buoyant upon the page, lighter
than a sunbeam

A Screenplay with Blake

for Donald Revell

In a field of tall, dry grass
haymakers swing their scythes in separate rhythms.
The sun illumines great beams of dust
above them. I see an approaching
walker. I picture him wearing a beard.

One worker stands sweating, sharpening his blade
with flint. The walker
sees the field open
like a flower around the resting haymaker.

I want to ask the walker to lend me his beard.

In a film I once saw, a great poet
carried an umbrella through light rain from one
side of the screen
to the next as he passed
a café in which the director
sat across the table from a friend. For an instant,
the poet is at the center
between the two friends, looking into the café window,
looking into the camera at you
and at me.

Shaving my own beard so I can put the walker’s on,
I hear rain on a city sidewalk.

In a field of tall, dry grass
Virgil stands in flame, and
to pull his pilgrim through, he says:
“Even now I can almost see her eyes.”

The walker sees bright angels
among the haymakers. They
open like flowers, and from them
tiny streaks of light fall like light rain.

The resting worker
wipes his face. His arms are weary,
and he dreams of the meal he will have
after the cuttings have all been raked.

The director’s old friend is a director, too,
who will die soon. Before men scatter
his ashes over the Hudson, the dying director
wants to give us lightning over water.

Shortly after Dante makes it through the wall of flame,
Virgil disappears without a word.

Rain falls on the young and the old,
in separate rhythms. I want the poet
to go on carrying his umbrella.
I want to keep him
from the rain. It is foolish
because he draws angels out of water.

Rinsing my beard trimmings down
the sink, I can only smell hay.

Yellow petals fall from an open hole in my palm.

The Vision of Ezekiel

Still a child, walking
in the fields, Blake saw the prophet

Ezekiel sitting under a tree.
Despite Ezekiel’s importance

in Blake’s symbolism, Blake
would only draw him once,

basing Ezekiel’s Wheels (now
in Boston) on the first chapter of Ezekiel when

the prophet saw God near the river
Chebar: “And I looked, and, behold,

a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud,
and a fire infolding itself . . . Also out of the midst thereof came

the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their
appearance; they had the likeness of a man”

—these would become the basis
for Blake’s four zoas. In his black chalk

and watercolor work, however, the prophet
lies supine under his own vision—

diminutive, pushed to the dark
bottom, under the rings of eyes

—long hair and a white beard, wearing
a gown, mouth open in surprise

or wonder, arms bent upward, fingers spread
as he beholds the wheel. How much does

old Ezekiel here resemble what young Blake
saw? And how much did he mean to him? Was Ezekiel

seen because already important
or grow important because seen?

When Blake returned home, he ran in
and said what he saw—

Ezekiel sitting under a tree in the fields—
for which his mother beat him.
Geoffrey Babbitt’s poetry has appeared in Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, Barrow Street, Octopus, TYPO, CutBank, Notre Dame Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, where he is a newly appointed associate editor of Seneca Review.

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