This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed,
a photograph, an old address, a key.
It is a list of words to memorize
or to forget–of amo, amas, amat,
the conjugations of a dead tongue
in which the final sentence has been spoken.
This is the liturgy of rain,
falling on mountain, field, and ocean–
indifferent, anonymous, complete–
of water infinitesimally slow,
sifting through rock, pooling in darkness,
gathering in springs, then rising without our agency,
only to dissolve in mist or cloud or dew.
This is a prayer to unbelief,
to candles guttering and darkness undivided,
to incense drifting into emptiness.
It is the smile of a stone Madonna
and the silent fury of the consecrated wine,
a benediction on the death of a young god,
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree.
This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds.
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
“Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.”
Savor its taste–the bitterness of earth and ashes.
This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,
a rosary of words to count out time’s
illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
the calendar compounds as if the past
existed somewhere–like an inheritance
still waiting to be claimed.
Until at last it is our litany, mon vieux,
my reader, my voyeur, as if the mist
steaming from the gorge, this pure paradox,
the shattered river rising as it falls–
splintering the light, swirling it skyward,
neither transparent nor opaque but luminous,
even as it vanishes–were not our life.
Dana Gioia’s note on “The Litany”
I could say a great many things about “The Litany,” but most of them would matter far more to the author than to anyone else. The poem will, I suppose, seem difficult to readers eager for the paraphrasable content of workaday prose. I hope the poem is not opaque, but neither did I want the language to be transparent. A reader will either understand “The Litany” intuitively or not at all. It will help, though, to read the poem aloud. Its organization is musical. Though not all art aspires to the conditions of music, this poem wants to be heard and not seen. What better way than music to describe the invisible?