The Pilot in the Jungle

The Pilot in the Jungle


Machine stitched rivets ravel on a tree
Whose name he does not know. Left in the sky,
He dangles from a silken cumulus
(Stork's bundled upside down
On the delivering wind) and sees unborn
Incredible jungles of the lizard's eye:
Dark fern, dark river, a shale coliseum
Mountained above one smudgepot in the trees
That was his surreal rug on metered skies
And slid afire into this fourth dimension
Whose infinite point of meeting parallels
He marks in ultra-space, suspended from
The chords of fifty centuries
Descending to their past—a ripping sound
That snags him limb by limb. He tears and falls
Louder than any fruit dropped from the trees,
And finds himself in mud on hands and knees.


The opened buckle frees him from his times.
He walks three paces dressed in dripping fleece
And tears it off. The great bird of his chute
Flaps in the trees: he salvages its hide
And starts a civilization. He has a blade,
Seventeen matches, his sheepskin, and his wits.
Spaceman Crusoe at the wreck of time,
He ponders unseen footprints of his fear.
No-eyes watch his nothing deep in nowhere.


He finds the wreck (the embers of himself)
Salvages bits of metal, bakelite, glass—
Dials twisted from himself, his poverty.
Three hours from time still ticking on his wrist
The spinning bobbins of the time machine
Jam on an afternoon of Genesis
And flights of birds blow by like calendars
From void to void. Did worlds die or did he?
He studies twisted props of disbelief
Wondering what ruin to touch. He counts his change
("Steady now, steady…") flips heads or tails and sees
The coin fall into roots. An omen? ("Steady…")
He laughs (a nerve's slow tangling like a vine)
Speaks to himself, shouts, listens, hears a surf
Of echo rolling back to strand him there
In tide pools of dead time by caves of fear,
And enters to himself, denned in his loss,
Tick-tick, a bloodbeat building on his wrist,
Ratcheting down the dead teeth of a skull
(The fossil of himself) sucked out of sight
Past heads and tails, past vertebrae and gill
To bedrocks out of time, with time to kill.

— John Ciardi

"The Pilot in the Jungle" is from The Collected Poems of John Ciardi by John Ciardi. Copyright © 1997. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Home page image: "Wegbereiter Ikarus," print, woodblock on paper, by Wilhelm Geissler, 1966. (Courtesy NASM)

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.