Ben Stevens: The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter they flew any higher, caught
fire, drifting through the air askance, soot-

colored and aglow as twists of paper lit —
gently, lest they burn unevenly –, let

go, and spiral themselves into smoke, living
rings of whispering yellow, or sparks given

off of sputtering logs: the sound wind
makes in a furnace, in a city unforged, when

printers’ stuttering presses and type slag
words away in a shimmering draft, sag

low to the ground like glass with age, ash
thick on its silvery breath and skin smashed

open and ragged and feathery light, wings
rustle and curl, with toneless peal sings the

paradise almost lost in the flames, rush of
flames almost invisible for the fire, blush of

darkness visible, the stubble — like grass burnt
down — of the city, the towering unswept

chimney of air unmortared: the church, hot,
tottering, sputtering perch of ardent pigeons.

–Benjamin Eldon Stevens

(Edited 4 October 2009, begun 27 September 2009. Milton, whom I am in time to appreciate as the language’s greatest versifier, was blind long before 1666, when he returned to London in time not to appreciate but to experience — hearing, feeling, probably smelling — the Great Fire, which seems to flicker behind his descriptions of Hell in the first book of Paradise Lost. The detail inspiring this poem comes from Samuel Pepys, who of 2 September 1666 writes: “the poor pigeons … were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”)