Donors

Poem by Robert Shaw

In this dull town it’s just another workday,

at least for those who work. The carpenter,
off to the right in his side-panel shop,
grizzled and loosely turbaned, plies his tools,
adding finishing touches to a mousetrap,
aiming to match one on his windowsill.
If only he’d invent a better model
the world, they say, would beat a path to his door;
but as it is, no customers intrude
upon his placid bouts of joinery.
 
In the next, nicer room his so-much-younger
bride nestles against a settlebench,
chores of the morning done. She is profoundly
lost in the book she’s reading, which her careful
housekeeping has dust-proofed in white linen.
Wrapped in a crimson robe whose crumpled damask
folds and peaks return a light not earthly,
she has not yet glanced up to see the winged
informant who with her shares center-stage;
and he seems bashful, diffident to break
the spell her eyes are held by. On the table
a candle just extinguished lets a tuft
of smoke escape—the wick put out, perhaps,
by the guest’s entering flutter. Everything
is tidy otherwise; the polished brass
of the washpot, the fresh towel on the rack,
the lilies in the jug will not for long
divert us from the prodigy now bound
to infiltrate their order. Through the diamond-
leading of the glass behind the angel
a naked, ghostly-white homunculus
no bigger than a hummingbird glides down,
cleaving air on a sheaf of golden beams,
carrying his cross like a child’s plaything
toward a beginning and its certain end.
 
And all the while that this is going on,
sequestered in a panel at the left,
the donors, Mr. and Mrs. Inglebrecht,
kneel in the courtyard, gazing ill-at-ease
through the swung-open door at Mystery
making itself at home. Dark-clad, a bit
on edge for all their bürgerlich deportment,
they could be neighbors who have stepped across
to borrow salt or venture a complaint,
or landlords dropping by to take the rent.
A pity they should feel so out of place
when their own coat-of-arms emblazoned glows
from a high window. But there it is:
no matter what their errand they must wait
cooling their heels and punishing their knees
between the rosebush and the clean doorstep
while curiosity consorts with fear.
They watch as miracle prepares to happen,
making them after all like us in giving
all their attention to the central scene,
giving their mundane selves up to this moment
before the angel speaks to end the silence
with the incredible ordaining words.