Susan Stewart
king of the hill

What looked like a statue held a shove.
Even so, it was hard not to want
to run full throttle straight
into the arms, the very harm
of it. Some thought the figure at the top
was of another kin or kind, that only blind
force would send him over. Others swore
he would give or bend, that something like love
was standing there and could be swayed to reason
or sweetness—a considered push
might do him in. The view from below
was blocked by distance, and the relentless glare of the sun.

So human to feel the dominion of the sun
as a yoke, to learn that radiance will shove
a gaze back to the ground. The reason
for submission disappears: it’s just a fact of the here below—
like thinking there’s a harmless form of harm.
Time and again, the figure on the hill swore
he would never relent, that it was his want
or whim to stay there, impervious to love
and hate. Our path was made straight
by that stubbornness—just a final push
we thought. But we were blind
to the possibilities, and to what was waiting at the top.

Once we began the game, it seemed impossible to stop
caring and turn to something else. The sun
was so hot, the voices drew us on, the blind
will of a crowd bore down. Our mothers saw the harm
in it and called us back; our fathers swore
we couldn’t go. The old ones had felt the shove
and pull of it themselves, but forgot the way a want
grows to desire. The path was straight,
as clear as day—with a push
they tried to lead us on to reason.
But we were caught in a world far below
that place where thought grows light as light and love.

There were flowers in the meadow: buttercups and love-
lies bleeding; milkweed pods with down bursting from their tops;
daisies by whose petals lovers swore
to love forever; and thorns left beneath the leafy blind
of the thistles. Beauty was a mask for harm
and everything under the sun
had the power to draw us, or just the same, push
us away. Does the weed, too, feel the deep want
of replacement, the need to go straight
for the root, then draw it out from below
there in the dark earth’s hush—over
and over? Why look for a human reason

When nature has a reason
of its own? The saint said the love of a neighbor is really love
for love itself, the soul reaches out to the good; in the blind
acceptance of those about her, she makes a final push
toward the divine. Souls hover
about and above one another, in the want
of connection, a promise foresworn,
and, for a time, they set all forms of harm
aside. It’s vital, this straight-
forward link between them, as necessary as sun-
light or water. In such a world, the top
has no added value; the place to be is here below.

The thinker, too, looked below
the surface—to the master’s power and the servant’s reason.
It was the master who was blind
to history. Once he resisted the push
toward death, nothing else could harm
him; by then no more want
could arise. The servant swore
he couldn’t care less, giving reality a shove.
But the truth of his work stood there in the sun-
light, steady as need and the love
of craft. The master won, though it turned out the top
was a dead end, leading straight

To oblivion. No one can escape the straight-
forward claims of the makers, the rule of the here below;
the king stands at the pleasure of those who swore
to go on and on with the game. He tells himself it’s love
that keeps them swarming, there in the sun
and rain, elbowing and shoving
for a closer look. But he knows that what they want
is the tooth and nail of him, that the push
and prop of his image can occupy the top
for just a while. There behind the blind,
waiting, the assassin has his reason—
though it’s never just his own. And the worst harm

Comes from the innocents who never see the harm
at all. The crooked made straight,
the mad the font of reason,
the prophets at last gone blind.
The bloated carp rose to the top
of the stream and the rowers pushed
them down again with a shove;
the fishermen swore
with the sun
in their eyes that, below
the dam, the wheel of
the mill still turned: what you want

Is what you get,
 they said. And what we wanted
was to find the meadow—and everyone unharmed.
The farmers came running for the top,
frantic and clanging with shovel
and ax, cockamamie, heedless, straight
through the gardens, scattering the love-
nests of the larks and plovers. They swore
they would push
away the past. Their reason
was impatience swirling there below
their intention. Father or son,
son and father; either way, they were blind

To the particulars and all in all blind
to consequence. To stop too soon is to want
to stop wanting. The hunters have their cunning reason
and go about their work by stealth. Straight
as their arrows, they aim for death, though love
is what closes the distance. Show
the trophy high on the wall, swear
to the courage of the soldiers and sailors—the top
of the mast, pushed
deep in the dirt, flies a flag that declares the end of harm.
But the orphans lie sleeping in the meadow below
and will rise up in fury with the sun.

In the end, love, it’s only one or two standing there beneath the sun
surrounded by silence. The blind
light blanketing the hill retreats and returns, oblivious. Love
turns the world and brings it ill or harm.
We guessed there’d be plenty and then empty straits
and both would set the whirligigging top
a-spin. We didn’t need a better reason
than that to join the push
of generations. The aching want
for the future drove us on, then shoved
us back to the past. All the while, the meadow waited below.
Within the locket, it’s the image our hearts wore.

We had promised, we swore
and crossed our hearts. In that sun-
dappled wood, all faith was blind.
The little boat rolled through the straits
and inlets, intent, unswerving, toward home. No other reason
was necessary. Now here below
in the something ever-after, I’ve had at the top
of my thoughts a thought of love,
the shape it had before it turned to harm.
And what I’ve wanted
to do is return to the source, the first push
before the fulcrum’s shove.

The trail to the top
of the hill meandered. A lark hovered, shadowing the clover below,
and the hunter’s blind was in the end abandoned. Everything that seemed worth wanting
could slowly flower, like a weed, into harm. Still, the mind can straighten
its own path; the reason has a nature sworn
to truth. A final push is waiting; its patience is a synonym for love.
The king was an idol. There’s only the daylight glinting there beneath the sun.

Found In Volume 34, No. 06
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Susan Stewart
About the Author

Susan Stewart’s most recent books of criticism are Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which won the Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism in 2003 from Phi Beta Kappa, and The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics, a collection of her writings on contemporary art. Her most recent books of poetry are Columbarium, which won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle award, andThe Forest. She is a former MacArthur Fellow and teaches at Princeton.