The M at the End of the Earth


implicit in power and form in every sparrow’s nest       Dante

Lights ripple on a highway glazed with rain.

The night turns silver, trucks slip by, cars rustle—

all heading south, into the land of M.

A boot-heel clicks on the concrete outside.

There are cowboys playing cards next door,

their bids sound like cries in the motel’s thin wall.

Rain was scouring down, night falling—

it was here or there, the rest-stop where this afternoon,

under the dark ponderosas, a young man in shorts

came swinging past on crutches,

calling to a friend, his right knee withered

and dangling free as he lurched past the car.

A fresh amputation—Iraq, I guessed.

And in the phone and info booth, a tall black woman

trying to make a collect call, speaking to the operator,

though her eye-line’s as to me, asking, Do you speak English?

so that I reply, loudly, Yes, I do. She smiles back at me,

pointing to the receiver. Five minutes later,

the phone was ringing. Couldn’t see her, so I picked it up—

a man’s voice on the other end, Delia? Delia? Is that you,

Delia? . . . when I tell him I can’t find her, can’t see her,

that she’s gone, You know her? Who are you,

what’s your name? You tell her, man, tell her, please,

say Curtis says you gotta turn around.

This on I-40,

west of Flagstaffe. That was when I turned around.

I figured my life on the map and saw I wouldn’t make it back,

that I’d never make the Canyon any other way.

Our first afternoon in Auckland—remember this, babe?—

a mynah bird in Miranda’s garden.

Then on K Road, waylaid by rain, we ducked into

McDonald’s—strange refuge, we’d never been before.

An order of fries for Nina,

after her night in Garuda’s silver belly.


queued for burgers and shakes—it was their land.

And then it was birdland,

as though in this last place in the world,

the world had turned upside down for us,

to find us with this simple cup of joy—sparrows

pecking at crumbs on the floor, and swooping from

their perch in the rafters, to feed on the fries

our fingers held in offering.

So the night turns silver—

after the rain, a full moon rising over Arizona.

The night makes shapes, an alphabet swoops and …

and it’s this I want to say—it’s as they arrive in Dante,

on wings of light, volitando cantavano as the poet says,

the saints in the realm of Jupiter revolving

in a swell of song, spelling out words in stars

and rhinestone spangles

as though it were Vegas,

and a laser show and showers of neon

were shaking the tree of paradise.


the rolling open hills of this afternoon’s highway

there was good reception on NPR,

Manfred Mann’s Mighty Quinn, ‘feeding the pigeons on a limb’,

and then the mysteries of Texan archaeology.

Listen up: there are artifacts

in strata older than Clovis.

No-one knows where they came from.

Out of the willowy light of the moon? Or boats—

from east or west?—both are possible.

Who really cares?

Here in the motel’s front-room, stashed with off-season junk,

there’s an old world map, America-centred, of course,

so that Russia, the old USSR, is cut plumb in two.

Out on the wings of the world, as it were . . . and that’s all

you know or need to know on earth—

that the US is as it says, us and them, them or us,

and the way of its way in the world

hangs on a motel wall.

Five days ago,

in downtown L.A., walking beneath a narrow sky,

the sun caught up in the towers above me,

a few beams glancing down, into the shadows

where I’m following a sidewalk talker—

she could be Masai—graceful and tall,

polished obsidian skin, a black hood pulled over her head,

she raps out her syllabics to the world, chanting her oracles:

fast, but you is overspent, coolbreeze was my friend today

hey! hey! cup— hey, cup, hey!—the hawk is talking speed to me—

She doesn’t stop for the Don’t Walk signs,

so that we follow like disciples, we the people, jaywalking

in her wake, into the traffic, and all its horns sounding.

And on to Seventh and Figueroa, she leads me

to a bus-stop—where it’s one dollar fish Friday

at the McDonald’s and

—take me back to K Road, babe—

a pigeon’s perched on the puffed-up golden M,

preening its feathers, a glimpse of

iridescence in the sign’s slow neon.

It surveys the sidewalks where she’s long gone,

the sidewalk talker, into the sibilance

of crowds and passing cars;

it overlooks the jewelry store next door

where two lovers laugh: a sharp-suited man,

a woman with a blue flickering stone.

The pigeon sees it all, then tucks its head under a wing—

it turns from those who stream out of the McDonald’s,

under the golden arches, fingers clasped on

big macs and shakes and filet o’ fish,

while two ragged beggars—this I really saw

in downtown L.A.—a Latin mother and child,

holding a broken cup at the door.

And the text falls

from heaven the returning words

I wanted to say—how Dante has the saints in Paradise

chanting their creed in lights, which

dance their message to us— Diligite iustitiam,

qui iudicatis terram

their voices sing

—Love justice, you who judge the earth—

        and as the spell spells itself out

the M of terram,

the M at the end of the earth,

the M that lives in cheeks, brow and nose,

that with the eyes as ohs

spells a word in every human face—

‘oMo’, man, the legend of Omo Dei,

the M of all our mortal journeys in this world—

dissolves into a fleur-de-lys,

and again into an eagle’s crest and wings—

a bird that takes flight in the backlit sky

its wings beating slow

its talons clasped on arrows and an olive branch

a shadow that glides

out and over the empire of M.


Cliff Fell









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