The Thing with Feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers--
That perches in the soul--
And sings the tune without the words--
And never stops—at all--
—Emily Dickinson, “Poem 264”, 1861
I The sky fell on the Myall River last night and all along the coast and in a wide fetch out to sea rain fell too like some new order of things upon the end of time and somewhere underneath that vast depression the moon grew round and it rose and it raised a king tide higher yet than it would have risen on its own and the wind drove the sea upriver. By twelve the river had taken the wharves and by one it had taken the road and by two it lay down on the steps of the pub and gave in till morning came and carried the stream back to its bed again and put the world to rights. And the rain still floods the morning out of which the river falls and the weather’s dropped anchor over the town, the future in rehearsal. I sit above the river and beside me on the pylon a black cormorant spreads wings in the rain and looks down on the falling torrent and grows slicker than he was when he left the water. There’s just no escaping it. The bird is the maestro who’s spent more than he walked on with; he drops his arms when the music dies and slumps into the uproar. Surrender’s the only proper posture now. II The rain falls on and the day waxes while the moon sleeps and the future slips imperceptibly into the past. Much bigger rivers than this have emptied into deserts so that I might sit here in frayed linen shirt and weathered jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live with what I know about the salting of the land and the warming of the air and the rising of the seas and the coming end of everything. It’s hard to make out in the rain among the mangroves of the other shore, but the vast contraption of the present moment— the mad machine of modernity herself, the virtual economy of our souls— what we’ve made of the given world is a delicate and over-wrought conceit, a monstrous, atrophic piece of industrial plant, which has stood in the weather far too long; it’s been running forever on oil and faith and oil and faith are failing. This, then, is the clever and penultimate mess we’ve made of our time on earth: the more we get the less we have till time herself is running out. But listen—there’s weather on the river now like Bach on the radio and one hopes it never ends. There’s coffee in my mouth and the whole day, at least, ahead and I look and the cormorant is gone. III Later I come outside and stand again in the perpetual rain and ask the river how we are hedging our doom. Twelve pelicans fall from the cloud and ski for fifty metres to a standstill and something tells me our landing won’t be as soft. But what would a river know about doom—in particular, ours—and what would a pelican do but fledge its young and curse the rain and fish the river dry? I sit where I sat this morning and I watch the day drown, and there’s weather on the river now like a phonecall after midnight and grief is the colour of the bottom of the sky. There’s weather on the river now like children in the playground and mercy’s the lamp in the evening’s tent. She’s the gelatin scrim on the face of the water, the daub of forlorn incandescence upon mangroves and fishing boats, the yellow of the pelican’s eye. There’s weather on the river now like cluster bombs on Babylon and fear is the wrack line on the wrong side of the street. There’s weather on the river now like a change in the government and hope is the thing with feathers. And as I watch she turns and beats her wings and then she walks and then she runs and then she rises like some plump and indefatigable martyr up into the unending rain and she passes under the bridge and tracks the river down to the sea, a thing she’s always done and never stops at all.