A Legend of Saint Francis
By Isabella Fey
A park! That decorative note
Set in contemporary asphalt, pricked
By neat grasses, colored by the rote
Of ingeniously spaced annuals, and tricked
From natures purpose to pursuit
Of fenced frivolities; earth serves the will of civic gardeners
Who prize the surface green but not the root,
And fill each season with prefigured bruit
Of crying flowers: the tulips country dance, the blurs
Of royal iris, and canna, autumns flaming messengers.
Paths, benches, here and there a clock,
Signs indicating exits every block;
Children and nursemaids, old men out of work,
The labeled trees where neither mysteries nor dangers lurk,
The shallow lake, the times all out of joint,
And the great city visible from every point.
A park, then!
I offer no retreat
For poets, lovers, and such uneased men;
No sunlit magnitudes,
No desert wild and sweet
For contemplation of beatitudes.
I offer whats to hand, poets have little choice
History supplies the happening, they the voice.
Yes, historythis tale I offer you,
Though in no standard text or book of fact,
Takes its sanction from the original act,
And like all truth, beyond all fact, is true.
The Sunday churchbells filled the air
That called to church but not to prayer,
Thousands of people in their Sunday best
Chatted and fidgeted while waiting to be blessed;
The streets were clean, the households, fresh and trim
And Monday droned already in the Sabbath hymn.
And in the park, the pagan sun held swày
And poured alike on pious man and sinner,
And favored with undichotomizing ray
Both those who do and dont say grace at dinner.
And silence, that old priest, conducted mass
Liturgical above the humble grass,
And choral insects lent their silver score,
And dust thou art resolved to dust once more.
And presently along the path serene
A loiterer came, a young man darkly dressed,
Black coat fastened over sunken chest,
A folio in his arm, a hat of green
Crowning the dark abundance of his hair;
His face, limbs, general deportment, had the air
Of hunger suffered recently; his eyes,
Dark-lidded, had the depth but not the lightness of the skies,
For darkness like a double self companioned him,
One of the older and forgotten seraphim.
He walked along with strangely measured pace
As if some former life or discipline
Had tamed his eager feet and curbed his chin
And yoked his spirit to deliberate grace.
And no one noticed him. Children played
With deadly innocence upon the gravelled walk,
Nursemaids lined the benches with their envious talk,
Ceased talk to scold their charges, went to talk again;
A slight breeze swayed the grass; the old men swayed
Blown by the keen winds of regret; the loiterer stayed
Wrapped in a secret glowing, and betrayed
Only his outer darkness to the world of men.
And this particular Sabbath might have passed
Into the limbo of accomplished time
And left no story to complete this rhyme,
Had not the dark-robed visitor at last
Been moved to break his eremitic fast.
A crust of bread, unmoistened even by a tear
He drew from out his pocket; his wan mouth puckered as he held it near
But did not eat; for on the tailored lawn
A sudden flurry caught his eye, a sparrows flight,
A flock of sparrows greedy for the sight
Of that dry crustthe towns free pensioners
Reduced to chilly want and feathered scrawn
By careless children and meticulous gardeners.
The stranger did not hesitate, he crushed
The dry bread with generous hands, and while the sparrows rushed
Pell-mell upon the feast, each shouldering out the others,
He murmured gently as of old: Come, eat, my Brothers!
And swallowing the wry juice of hunger, he stood stock still
And watched the ravenous sparrows work their will
Upon loves meager sacrifice; until,
Bemused with love and hunger, he took his artists folio,
Propped it against a waste receptacle,
And sketched, more woe than comedy, more love than woe.
And now the world took notice. First a child
Came running curious and unskeptical
To see the picture; then a nursemaid smiled,
Nudged her companion and strained her eyes to see
What eccentricity this might be;
An old man loitered past, stopped, gave his approval grudgingly,
And then confided that he too had been
In youth an artistbut art is fair,
And beauty surely leads to sin, -
And now he slept in parks and dined upon despair.
A laborer came by, who cleaned the park at eve,
Taking his Sabbath holiday, and unable to conceive
Of other amusement, spent it in the park
And seeing the stranger sketch, he thought it quite a lark
To find the place he cleaned at night
Transformed on paper to a thing of light.
And so the crowd grew larger, curious
To gape, to wonder and to criticize;
A nursemaid wiped the easy moisture from her eyes,
Another, moved more readily to despise,
Whispered that the thing was spurious,
Mere jugglers trickery; and a third was furious
To see the Sabbath broken by a clown.
But the staring children did not smile or frown
Upon the sketchers efforts; they accepted him
Straight from the soul, with childhoods golden clarity,
Not with the critics learned charity
For things attempted, but as cherubim
Must know the Lord, direct, unsullied by the minds disparity.
And all the while the sketcher did not turn
To note the idle crowd intruding on his task;.
His hand divinely swept with unconcern
Over the sketching block, whose empty mask
By charcoal stroke and smudge had been withdrawn
Upon a panorama of celestial lawn.
Cries of approval from the crowd: But he can sketch!
A starveling talent! How much does it fetch?
The grudging praise of men whose souls are mute,
And, unable to assert, can but dispute.
And now the miracle begins: One greedy bird
Distracted from his world of grub and crumbs
By sounds not understood and dimly heard
Beyond the sparrow-level, leaves his greedier chums
Deep in the grass still struggling for the bread,
Pecking and squawking and each stealing from his neighbors,
He rises and circles round the artists head,
Beholds the work of art, and now he drums
With eloquent wings upon the air,
His comrades leave their labors,
And lo, the whole flock flutters there,
The dark aerial halo of the artists sable hair.
And human vision takes the wheeling flock:
For there in the compass of the sketching block
These birds behold such vistas and such trees
As never sparrow nested in; no flower such as these
Found blossom in a single summer; the shallow lake
Has grown into the lake of Galilee;
Paths straight-stretching to eternity;
The city fades to sloping mount and hill
Where men may walk and talk with godhead still.
And just in the center of this transformed park
The artist sketched a thing far stranger than the rest:
Himself he stands, dark-garmented, but dressed
For more than mortal sorrow, his face no longer dark,
And on his hands and brow and breast
The signs well known of old were pressed,
Where love and death had stricken him with the self-same mark;
And instead of saintly blood,
Light poured from these stigmata in a flood.
And lastly the quarreling sparrow flock
Had undergone transcendent change: a snow-white brotherhood
Of gentle doves, they perched on tree and rock
And even upon his shoulders, who had wrought their good,
The saints own brothers, without hunger and without fear they stood.
The living sparrows, filled with human vision.
Experience a miracle of envy and of rage;
They flap their wings and twitter high derision,
Recall their wintry hungers, and how gardeners wage
Each spring a scarecrow battle for the seed
Designed by Providence to fill a sparrows need,
While pigeons and doves grow fat in man-made nests,
Loved, petted, gutted with crumbsthe citys welcome guests.
And shrill with exasperation, the outraged sparrows
Fall on the artist like keen darting arrows,
Beaks poison-sharp and wildly drumming wings,
They stab him on head and hands with multitudinous stings,
And so wreak vengeance for their bitter lot
On the one being who has harmed them not.
The artist endures it, but the Sabbath crowd
Confused by the onslaught, tries to flee
From the charmed circle, a nursemaid screams aloud,
The old men crush one another trying to get free,
A child is trampled, panic reigns, a mob forms suddenly
From the Sunday loiterers, blows are exchanged,
Women cry hysterically, the trampled child
Uninjured, bites someones ankle, and as if arranged
By signal, a young girl faints and the mob goes wild.
Somewhere a policemans stick tattoos
A riot-call, park attendants in their uniforms appear
Abruptly from nowhere, traveling in safe twos,
They fall upon the crowd, and not taking time to hear
Precisely what happened, nor having wish to know,
They collar the innocent and let the guilty go,
Handcuff the artist, disperse the excited horde,
And law and order are immediately restored.
So far the miracle. Now human thought
Supplants divine intention. The offending visitor was brought
Post-haste to the station, examined, registered, arraigned
For disturbance of the peace, tried, found guilty, sentenced to thirty days
Or thirty dollars. He served an uneventful term,
Emerged with six pounds evidently gained
From wholesome county diet, promised to mend his ways,
And thanked the prison doctor that no germ
Had festered the wounds on hands and breast and brow
Pecked by the angry sparrows. The wounds were cleanly healed, and now
He had only the tell-tale scars, the secular mark
Of some would-be miracle miscarried in the park.
And that was the last of him. For the old men and children, those
Who might have borne witness to an uncommon thing
Saw little meaning in a sparrows wing,
And when that Sabbath drew to its undistinguished close,
The high music of one miraculous Sunday
Faltered and died in the urgent prose of Monday.
Yet the event was not immediately dismissed.
The Sergeant of Police, to whom the park
Sent two officials, discussed the curious twist
Whereby the thing had happened; and all three were in the dark,
For the Citys Ordinances, when carefully re-read,
Said nowhere that art or artists were prohibited.
Yet the unfortunate incident called for some clear measure
To safeguard public grounds for public pleasure.
After much legal head-scratching and conferring,
The Sergeant, whose tact in civics was unerring,
Suggested for the safety of the crowd,
That conspicuous signs be posted:
"LOITERING NOT ALLOWED"
And so it came to pass that that same employee
Who cleaned the park at eve, and who did see
The nameless miracle, and did remember,
And who, after the crowd dispersed
Did rescue the drawing and hide it in his breast
This very worker, not wiser but more humble than the rest,
And having no fear that the drawing might be cursed,
Said nothing about the material evidence,
Took home the picture, though ignorant of its sense,
And hung it in a niche above a waxen taper
Where he might sometimes look at it while deciphering his Sunday paper.
THE COMMONWEAL November 10, 1939