we saw the City

City Under Construction

As you might suppose, the work was endless. Even when at last the
City stood gleaming like flame in the troubled radiance of that
distended sun, we could not help but be drawn to where our next
project should begin: The loosening bolt, flaking surfaces, another
unnerving vibration in the yawning superstructure.

We made a joke of it: The Eternal City! And let our lives run out
reworking the old failures, refining our materials, updating tech-
niques, but always playing catch-up to a construction that just
wouldn’t hold, fretwork that wouldn’t stay put, girders complaining
under the accumulating matter of successive generations and an
unrelenting wind.

Granted, it could have been worse; at least the work served as an
emblem of perpetual promise as every flagging strut commenced
another stretch of unquestioned purpose—mornings when we rose
from our beds eager and awake, thoroughly enjoyed our food, and
hurried out to work.

Nor would it serve to slight the rich pathos we shared like a warming
drink with co-workers. For there we’d be—touching up the paint or
turning the heavy wrench for the hundredth time—and we’d smile,
shake our head theatrically, say to each other how our City was
insatiable.

Just the same, this was not precisely what we had intended—that
our City should grow into a self-perpetuating chore. Earlier, we had
imagined—more or less naively—a different sort of progress, one
with a splendid outcome. We fancied a final . . . conclusion, from
which we would not be inclined to retreat.

I recall how, long before we had so much as made a start,
before we had cleared the first acre or drawn the first plan,
we saw the City, and as near completion then as it would
ever be, infinite in the best sense, its airy stone reaching to
the very horizon, and—I think this is the issue—extending
invisibly past.

By Scott Cairns in Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (pages 60-61).

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