PART III: JERUSALEM, 1979-1990
THE EYES WITHIN
Along the bramble-path,
past the wolf's eye, a moon-tear:
others have seen. Your shadow
irradiates the world,
those who silenced you, the faithful,
have heard your song in the twilight,
Lilith rides the Red Heifer
into their dreams,
round her shaven head
flames the corona.
The tears, again,
each one a world,
for the song whose gentle note ignites holocausts,
for the burnings
in the midst of which the soul,
if G-d is just, must
for the rose
that costs more than riches:
these have my sisters seen in the candleshine.
Their muteness, later,
the seventh day, and afterward,
while the children
pour from the Song of Glory
and fill the world, groping
along bramble-paths, by the light
of those eyes within the corona,
Surely you too have seen
rakkefet, flowering in crevices
between stones, in Yerushalayim,
in late winter, early
spring, the petals
pale, then seeming to deepen
their tinge of purple as days lengthen
though leaves, heart-shaped, tatter
and rain spatters them with dust:
the stalks stand together, small
figures with heads down, their dawn-
colored hair streaming upwards
as in a mighty wind from beneath the earth.
O you who have shown me
such things, and whose names I here
enumerate, in fives, like these
corollas, and scatter on silence:
may this word, your word
take root, and may some spring
flower us together, that we stand
under mild suns, turning still around each other,
like this rakkefet's earthbound
Has then the night no messengers for me?
Is there no voice to go to her and say
what my too trembling hand perhaps obscured,
no angel to appear behind locked doors,
saying "fear not"? Is the hand closed that strewed
my path with signs, to warn and reassure,
and cannot set before her one small thing
to speak of me? Has this holy city
no stones to cry out as she passes by?
And you, whom I felt move behind this world,
the echoes of whose footsteps I have followed
beyond the mortal gate, who spoke to me
when I despaired, to say you were still there?
Can you not go and gently touch her life,
tell her that you are more than a remembrance,
speak to her of me, as of some comfort? ...
I grieve that hates so easily conjoin,
and evil wills soon reach an understanding,
while love is fenced from love by its own will,
and hands that yearn can seldom join to save.
I, an unheard lament, dwell in the world
Now Jonah writes from Nineveh that he's having a good time.
There is quite a lot to see and do; the climate's warm, but fine.
There were certain things he saw at first that kind of freaked him out,
But you can't go around down all the time; that's not what life is all about.
Yes, when he got here, just out of the fish, he tried to spread the word,
He tried to tell the people how they were living was absurd.
He prophesied destruction, but he found nobody cared,
And he came to see their point of view, though sometimes at night he's still kind of scared.
One day someone heard him preaching and said, "Come work for me.
You have got something that we all need, it's called integrity.
But you've got to know how to sell it, or it won't do any good."
And Jonah thought it over, and he said he guessed he would.
From that time on he did all right, just living day by day.
He found you can be effective, if you just don't try to have things your way;
And Jonah's writing a book now, it soon will be on sale,
And everybody wants to read what it's like being inside of a whale.
Now this story has no moral, so don't even look for one.
In the end it really all depends on what you consider fun.
The wicked city it still stands, as I'm sure you’re all aware,
And if you want to go and live there, well -- I guess that's your affair.
I would not want to grow rich here
nothing could be poorer than these hills
balding to limestone
nor to decorate a house
rather this room's gray walls
like a hamsin sky
the people too
grow plain as the stones
I shall become like them
and the words remain external
something you put on each morning
and take off again at night
or if inward
a fading of images from elsewhere
I do not want to learn here
only to merge with the sorrow
of her darkest streets
AMONG THE ROCKS
from the Hebrew of Simon Halkin
How dear you are to me, O outcast soul of man,
how lovely in my sight, here in this exile,
where none can spy out your deformities
nor follow, alien and arrogant,
the stunning tortuosities of your chasm.
How well I know them, soul, how well I know them,
those prying eyes, so open and so sealed!
They saw you shaken -- their gleam exuded cold.
Your maimedness, still a riddle, even to you,
glittered, a frost that stupefied their greyness.
Cruel to your nakedness, you stood before them,
exposed to the salvation of their gaze,
and they, like to a mist that madly roils
and melts away, looked on your nakedness!
Alas, you begged at dead men's doors, and waited
with mummies for the dew of resurrection,
when you aspired to snare a passing glance,
that it might linger and behold one moment
what was laid bare in you, a joy accursed:
pain, mingled with the splendor of the silenced!
Despised and sweet, my miserable darling,
a little girl among the barren harlots,
vainly you cried your beauty, stuttering,
like to a pedlar-woman in the market,
heavy of speech and burdened with disgrace.
Who heard your stutterings, felt your disgrace?
The play of pallor and of crimson flush
in your complexion who discerned, poor thing?
Were there not times when even I stored hate
against your muteness, never comprehended?
Did not even I at times, in cruel tempest
against what lay so obdurately concealed,
long to tear your veil from you, as if
thus to expose to view that nakedness,
itself a lie, veiled, as it were, in you.
Yet now I'll show you mercy, outcast one:
in your disgrace, your silence, you are mine.
In exile, with no stranger by us now
to rule us with the fear of his cold gaze,
you shall confide in me, we shall unite.
I shall behold the heaps of your dark ore,
its gold no longer dimmed for me by dross.
I shall give ear to your primordial sadness,
your formless sorrow I will not deny.
These grey and ancient rocks my soul, are strewn,
like princes of the spirit, on this mountain
and valley floor. Let us go out to them
and in their dark clefts utter our lament;
to their still heart-voice let us lend our ear,
that we may learn from them a moveless life;
for they have taken everything around them
into their fullness which cannot be known.
Magnanimous are these rocks to you, O soul!
The silence of their life, an eye that sees
and is not seen, an ear alert to listen
from deep concealment, and a hidden heart --
deaf and exalted, it will surely answer
the wingbeat of an autumn butterfly,
the shadow of an alien bird flung northward,
the seeping from a bent and wind-stripped bush,
the muteness of the outcast soul of man.
These rocks, my sister and my bride, my soul,
will hide us, we shall sink into their night.
Their wrinkled folds are marks of birth, their beauty
lives sealed as in their childhood, and they know
and live it in their rigidness, the splendor
of their oblivion is unceasing song.
O my grey rocks! It is not man I flee,
for who would flee the sorrow of a thing
so downcast and forlorn? Nor do I make
complaint of man, that he has turned from me;
how should the pine-tree on the northern slope
complain of futile longing for the palm
that faints among the deserts of the south?
It is a stern decree of God for man
that pain should weight on brothers all alike,
yet brother not know brother in his pain;
that every soul should long for its companion,
yet longing fall forever short of grasp;
and even though one soul should kiss another
for one brief moment, never in that moment
may it be kissed by the other in return.
And if I stand here in accusing prayer
before you, rocks so mutely rich, it is
the prayer of one bewildered beyond prayer
I pour into your ears that understand
such murmurings: the prayer of all men, struggling
in muteness, orphaned generation following
on orphaned generation, I entrust
to the deep understanding of your crannies.
Each heart has its own mute and separate grief,
and yet the mother of all griefs is one:
the prison of silence that confines the soul.
O my grey rocks, my grey, my graceful ones!
You will not thrust me from you. I will ponder
with you by day upon the undefined,
confide, like you, my being to the night.
I will lie down in your moist echoing clefts,
call soft your bosom's sharp cold edges, breathe
the coolness of your tender scentless moss,
and learn from you to slake my thirst in secret
from the autumn azure, open as eye,
from the gloom of the sky as it goes blind.
I'll lose myself with you in wastes of twilight,
playing a twilight game of consolation,
stumbling upon the outcast soul of man;
the interpretation of the darkening silence
I'll drink with you to still a thirsting soul
which the creating kiss of God ensnared.
The creating kiss of God ensnared my soul,
implanted in my soul its own deep thirst,
that it should long for all that it beholds,
and yet yearn, for the holiness of beauty,
to change all it beholds. The green of spring,
the whitening gaze of dying eyes, the smile
of wondering love that curves a young girl's lip,
a raven's croak in dusk somewhere unseen --
All these beseeched my soul: swallow us up,
tell of our beauty! And my soul swallowed up
all that surrounded it, till the oppression
of life's immured mystery entered into her,
was buried in her. A dear and speechless burden,
a foetus in its mother's womb, that richness
shuddered within the soul that, filled to choking,
travailed and could not bring her burden forth.
For with his kiss God caused her to inherit
the hunger that was his; but he withheld
from her the strength to satisfy that hunger.
O soul -- rich, yet the poorest of the poor!
O human soul, drenched like a field with blessings
of dew and light from heaven, yet vainly waiting
for that one drop of miracle to fall
upon the treasures of its seed, that they
might sprout, be lifted towards the gazing sun.
A magic spark the heart of man entreated,
a spark that might ignite the smoldering heart
till it became a singing conflagration
whose flashings turn the very night to splendor --
And spark there is none. The heart is sealed, daubed shut,
and cannot leap beyond its mute confines;
it cannot bend the knee, nor force the cry
of "Holy" from man's throat. In fields of spring
filled with the rustlings of all intuition,
in time of melting snow, the spark is sought,
and in the longing after woman's love,
and in the dream of striving generations
that climb and pass from sight -- yet what is sought
is never found, and song itself is helpless
to break the fetters of the mystery.
Grey rocks of mine! What do you know of this,
the grief of song that cannot save from darkness?
I have known the blessing of the tender azure,
veiled in a muslin of transparent clouds,
a feathery birch. To all ends of the sky
the azure reached, was woven, flock by flock,
into the heart of heaven, and showed down
its alms, spring's blessing. And the land around,
an earth of trusting and believing fields,
laid bare its thawing furrows, black with fatness
beneath the melting snow: our mother Earth
joyfully giving suck from age to age.
O ragged mother offering your full breast,
how my soul pines for your secure embrace,
how my soul craves the eternal faith you hold!
break forth, song of the universe, that knits
in me! Hymn of annunciation
that throbs, that shakes the heart of me, break forth!
Silence. My soul within me melts away,
is lost, The universal song is mute.
And I have hearkened to the song of ascents
that streams from man's heart through all generations
while he strives to ascend the mountain peak,
stumbling upon the obstacle-strewn road,
rising and going on. And high above them
the peak, a radiance that cannot dim,
beams and beckons to the few that go
before the throng that crawls along, dismayed,
confused, like frightened sheep that have grown weary
amid the sandy plains: the herds of men
are led along, up to the mountain's foot,
but cannot lift up their bewildered eyes
to where the mountain's summit beams and beckons;
they turn their weary heads around and gaze
in the disconsolate sorrow of farewell
back toward the desert plains through which they passed.
Of little faith, they plod along like mourners
behind their leaders, and their eyes are full
of treacherous murmurings against the few
who with sure step and with straightforward gaze
have set their feet upon the mountain slopes
and between crags go skirting the abyss,
like sons of giants among the human sheep,
to blaze a pathway for the stumbling throng.
The distance widens now between the climbers
and those of erring heart who in their thousands
go groping on the path of their confusion
and, hesitant, ascend against their will.
The distance widens, stretches out between them,
until I see the herds of men all tottering,
stumbling and falling in a straggling line
on slopes, in valleys, in the plains of sand --
until I see the few that climb ahead
halting their climb and turning back a moment.
O song of man's ascent past the abyss!
One moment stand those strong ones, gazing back
on those who stumble there, by cliff and crag,
and fall, each man's hand raised against his neighbor --
and all at once those who ascend tear forth
their hearts from out their breast, for burning torches,
a signal fire upraised before the eyes
of the stumblers down there, shedding forth a splendor
unquenchable as the dawn, that beams and beckons:
Near is the mountain summit, within reach!
O song of man's ascent past the abyss,
grant me to be a mouth to you, O song!
Your might has filled me till I burst in flames,
your fire I have drunk in until I choke.
Silence. My soul within me melts away,
is lost. The song of man has ceased, is mute.
And what, my grey rocks, what is woman, that
my soul should tune its strings to her, as if
it were a harp which unknown fingers play?
And what the living God in me, whose goodness
I praise both day and night to win His mercy,
and day and night, as one whose strength fails, fling
words toward him: O my God, my unknown God!
Take from me, I pray, these frozen riches,
take from me this desire to turn to beauty
all that I feel in me, and feel in you,
this storm that rage is in my blood and finds
no peace save in an outcry? And God's wonder,
silent and wakeful, comes to me again
to quench my soul's thirst with more thirst, and muteness;
and woman's eye, where love and sadness dwell,
still longs to comprehend, and never can.
The prison of silence, where each soul's confined --
who knows that prison, my God, as I have known it?
Rocks great in lovingkindness, to your clefts
I have brought this day my weary soul. May she
learn at your knees to take delight in silence,
learn at your knees that frozenness is joy.
Wrap her in shadows, princes of the spirit,
refresh her with your hues, that bloom in cold!
Though she is but a child that does not know
how to grow up, accept her as your child,
so that her sobs may slowly die away
in the desertion of your clefts, at nightfall,
the wing of the Shekhinah bring her sleep
within your bosom, deep sleep fall on her
in your dream-strewn captivity; may she find
in you the interpretation of her dream.
Soft be your teats to her! In prophecy
and in sweet revelation my she clasp you,
whispering, My mountains, O my lovely mountains . . .
A single seed, winnowed from mouldering heap
that it at least may live, carrying with it
the future harvest in a distant land,
I have fled from man, who wallows in man's blood,
who kills, whose soul is faint with love of killing!
Blood, blood, blood. And only I am undefiled,
I and these disconsolate rocks around me.
Why do I vainly weep for man's shed blood?
What moves my soul with longing to return
to her uncleanness? How shall I return
while yet love's law is mute in me? descend,
while yet my hand is powerless to lift up
my falling brothers? Woe is me, their lewdness
has grown so dark that no song can redeem therm --
woe is me, for there is in me no song
that could redeem them. Would I had God's strength
to purify my brothers and redeem them,
or else that my own purity would perish
so that I could defile myself with blood,
become as one of those unknowing mourners,
and holiness in me no more bewail
the victims! Woe is me, that I love man,
woe is me, that I long for holiness!
Leaves blanched by frost and blasted by the wind
and seized as if by thought, come to me now,
trembling as if with understanding, come!
The bitter torrents of the rains have torn you,
the tameless whirlwind ferried you to me,
the wanderer, bewildered, hid in cleft
of rock: I bid you welcome, rest with me!
The living dead are you, that gaze on death,
and I am blind: I know not my own soul.
The hard rains struck you, tore you from the tree,
and ere you settled here among the rocks,
how far you saw, to what heights you ascended
in grey-veiled space! How far and wide you saw,
you visionary dead, that mutely, mutely
you have returned to earth here, seized by thought,
embracing mystery, at last consenting,
forbidding not the wind to set you down,
refusing not to fall discarded here!
As for my soul, it is yet linked with life,
bound up with all the souls of all my brothers:
I fear -- O how I fear -- my future fall;
I fear the future autumn-time of man.
Rest here beside me, leaves that gaze on death!
Your thin backs shivering in the chill, your rustlings --
for these my heart has some interpretation:
"Who we are we do not know,
know not what our lives may be;
only this we know: our days
lengthen to eternity.
Tremors of a hidden life
wandered, wander, and once more
will be plucked up, take on new form,
and be stripped to bare life's core.
Tremors of a hidden life
wandered, wander and again,
till they have found a new disguise,
wander, seeing and unseen.
And when they've put their new clothes on,
they are seen, but no more seeing:
they with their disguise are one,
as in fixed and stable being.
And in disguise the souls congeal:
fixed and rigid, blind and cold,
each makes its littleness its all,
hides itself within its folds.
And thus wrapped up in littleness,
enfolded, hidden and secure,
each yearns for liberty -- yet less
than it holds its fetters dear . . . "
Who are you, soul of man that yearns -- who are you?
What is your thirst for holiness, for man?
"Tremors of a hidden life,
strayed and straying, evermore
to be plucked up, and find new dress,
and be stripped to bare life's core.
And see: a timorous cricket hid
in the wood, a cloud, a leaf,
a foaming wave, a flowing spring,
a soul of man consumed by grief.
And all, all of them are naught
but these tremors deep-entombed,
sparks of life that found new dress
and are now immured, embalmed.
Even as it strays, the soul
congeals, still living, and goes blind,
condemned to long for liberty
even while it seeks to be confined.
Yes, it will grieve lost liberty,
yet love its garment wondrous well,
until its garment comes to seem,
although a jail, the choicest cell.
And from their prison none break out:
the atom of life, the secret spark
weeps without voice, with none to hear,
like a convict in the dark.
And suddenly the door's flung wide,
and, all reluctant, forth they go --
plucked up once more, against their will,
they stray and wander to and fro.
Tremors of life they are, no more,
condemned to long eternally:
first they long for prison cell,
then they struggle to break free. . . "
Open your gates, my soul, and let the glory
of your spring enter in! O drenched in mourning,
open your gates and let the spring descend
upon your plains with all their generous seed,
the sun embrace you: O appointed spouse!
Open your gates, my soul, and let the glory
of your spring enter in! The living God --
Listen! -- knocks softly at your door and whispers:
Let me in, let me in to your recesses
to dwell there in eternal love, and spread
my wings within your refuge, soul of man!
The living God, the mighty one, seeks shelter
in you, seeks shelter in a merciful soul:
Open your gates, my soul, and let him in!
Bow down, my soul, bow low and bend the knee,
master your trembling, open-eyed, and say:
God of wonders, Lord of life, here am I!
You called me -- weak and trembling, now I stand
before you, God. Who am I, how have I
deserved to come before you? Who am I
that you should seek a sanctuary in me?
And the merciful living God, who thirsts for mercy,
will slowly enter into your recesses,
my soul, without your knowing -- as the image
of the beloved steals into the heart
of the unknowing lover, till he wakes
and deep within him feels the silence quivering
with mute and pining melodies, that die
away and, fainting, wake unending waves.
And as he enters your recesses, soul,
whisper to him: My God, I pray, forgive me
for that I love my life, my prison-dwelling,
and fear the day when I must leave my prison
and shed the outworn garment of my life.
I and my littleness -- what are we but sounds,
notes in your wakeful playing, floating isles
bathed in the ocean of your life, adrift
upon the ever-swelling tide of dreams?
Forgive, I pray, this isle, this merest islet
which loves the small circumference of its shores
so much that it forgets its father ocean.
forgive the soul that loves its prison walls
and fears the day its prison will be opened.
And then the living God will gently laugh:
I did not know that you had sinned against me
by loving the dark beauty of your prison.
You and your prison, both, are dreams of mine,
I am the dreamer and I am the dream,
and all my dreams are precious in my sight:
you, and your prison's pain, are dear to me.
And while you pray for my forgiveness, I
within you likewise pray for your forgiveness,
and I am the forgiver, even I.
Sing, soul of man, for you are purified,
you shall descend to man, and I with you,
your being shall be radiant with God's beams;
and know: if man bows down to you, he bows
only to the divinity within you;
but if he turns away from you, it is
that he has not yet beheld your God.
And do not mourn, nor feel yourself as orphaned:
the pain of man is God's pain, but as yet
the pain of God has not become man's pain.
Sing, soul of man, for you are purified,
you shall descend to man, with God in you.
Great with love and compassion, you shall stand
where he has set you, and shall keep your vigil:
a day will come when every single soul
will heart to God's soft knocking at her gates:
Let me in, let me in to your recesses
to dwell there in eternal love, and spread
my wings within your refuge, soul of man.
And every single soul will yet throw open
her gates, and be a refuge for her God,
a basin for the ocean of his dream
whose tide's forever at the full.
now, not pressing for the end of wonders,
you stand where he has set you, keeping vigil,
sustained by hope till your relief arrives:
another human soul will take your post,
your sister, future's child, will come, although
you will not know her coming, nor she you.
And after her still other souls will come
to keep the vigil for their generations,
hoping, like you, to see the end of wonders,
the eternal spring when every single soul
will open to become a tabernacle
for the living God, will widen to contain
the waters of the ocean of his dream,
full to the vast horizon's edge for ever.
BEATRICE IN JERUSALEM
I am a memory come to life.
-- Franz Kafka
Among these stones, both ancient and new-quarried,
one substance underneath the dark and light
of varying time, bespeaking the one source
to which I have returned (I say returned,
5 though I know none whose blood is in my veins
that walked here, yet here certain words were written
from which, though mingled and transformed, descended
this more-than-life) I, Beatrice, pass,
living and yet a shade, a dream undreamt,
10 like her whom Faust waked from unfathomed sleep
to hear her own life told, a stranger's tale,
yet unlike her, much praised and not desired,
not maddening men to burn each other's cities,
but shunned by them, as weeping at mid-day.
15 And not for a magician's brief delight
was I awakened, if the murmuring voice
that pierced my sleep of formless dreams spoke true,
but . . . I know not. To grope, to wander here,
to stand beneath the closed skies which they say
20 were once Your face, to sit at Your sealed gates,
to lift up Wisdom's voice, and be called Fool,
to see You, or to be forever blind
among a blind race groping toward its doom.
How long, how long, O Father of all wisdom,
25 sole guardian of the knowledge stored for men,
how long have I been wandering in this world?
When did my feet first leave upon its dust
their traces, soon effaced? when did my voice
first echo and die out among its stone,
30 when were my eyes first lifted to its stars
to ask if they remembered my high parentage
and knew me still? outside whose fast-shut door
did knowledge of Your ban first come to me?
Was I that Helen Simon Magus found
35 (as evil tongues told) in a stew in Tyre,
whom he, who called himself as You, proclaimed
his own First Thought, that ere time was leaped out
and in the nether realms gave birth to those
who, being ignorant of the Father, still
40 hold her captive in their jealousy
so she cannot return, but ever again
is held a prisoner in a female body
suffering humiliation? Methinks I see
myself stand in the market, a wordless show,
45 while he, half barker and half preacher, speaks
a tale some priest preserved to rail against.
And had he who first penned the praise of Wisdom
once glimpsed me here, in street or palace hall?
Was it even to my footsteps Orpheus tuned
50 the lyre that beasts and trees and stones obeyed?
Was I indeed the form that Dante glimpsed
in the dark streets of a barbarian town,
did I return his glance, and know he knew,
did I receive him in the World of Truth,
55 my rightful home,
with those companions gathered from all time
beneath Your primal light, in the great Rose
where now my place is vacant, I being banished,
though for what fault there, where no trees can grow,
60 or for what task here, where no hope can spring,
no thought divines . . . ? I have no memory;
all these are strangers' tales. Only the voice
that murmuring woke me, gave me the name again,
and when I read, methought I knew
65 the gestures and the keen, delighted speech
woven of swift thought, the gaze upturned in gladness
or downward in indignant sorrow bent,
the joy in that creation which I was,
reflection of the Creator's greater joy --
70 Riguarda qual son io! -- these things were mine,
this was myself, before the woeful change
and for the first brief moment of recall.
This was the form that hatred has bowed down,
this was the joy that envy brought to dust,
75 and this, ah this, the spirit that was seen
in the dark forest like a distant light,
for which spoke reason, among the woeful people
who have lost the good of the intelligence.
O poets! vain and unbelieving race,
80 so puffed up with the pride of mere invention
that none can see what his companion sees,
nor hear when his companion speaks the truth,
nor love with a whole heart what was before him:
therefore the Word is as a window painted
85 with opaque semblance of what lies beyond,
and therefore none since Dante entered Paradise
except the last, who cast a look and died.
Think not, O builder of the visible
and the invisible worlds, I think to break
90 by speaking here, the bars, not forged by man,
that fenced me even from the one who called me
while yet he lived, and now that he is hidden
are more the barrier than death itself.
It was a mortal hope, although the best:
95 that grief for all he was might blaze a path
through the blind hearts of men, for me to pass;
that in the world lived scattered souls like mine,
of his love's will co-hearers and co-heirs,
known with me, and to each other known,
100 who, meeting in his setting sun's last rays,
might for our life on earth devise a form
that should become our oneness, and prepare
for those who spring from us, a world not dark
with war and ignorance, a little space
105 for wise play under the eternal eye.
O reverie of an over-learned child!
Not the dark might of armies, nor the snarl
of the human beast, dispelled thy golden gleam,
but the withdrawal of extended hands
110 in hope's last stronghold, here. The wisest and the best,
and among those the wisest and the best,
counselled me to renounce my word's high aim
and play the fool to those who sell the word,
to make my peace with falsehood, act a part
115 in the weary play which surely none believes
but all keep up, as if 'twere life itself.
And against this avail, I know, no tears,
no reasonings, and no melodious song,
no warnings, no impassioned stern rebuke,
120 neither his name, nor any one of Yours.
Even their kindness is but mockery:
they see me, then they see me not; they see
in me that part which they themselves have chosen
and minister to that. And I, alas,
125 from human need beg and betray myself
till I seem a worse fool than all the rest
and take at last from their contemptuous hands
the portion I could not accept from Yours:
the solitude, the obscure and lowly path.
130 So be it. Only let me learn at last
the wisdom I myself pronounced on high
and not, more foolish than a fledgling bird,
mist by the first arrow, await the second.
Since the most just among the living could
135 not judge my cause, let me not then appeal
to lesser hearts; and if indeed You hear,
then hear it not as prayer, but as the song
of one in prison, as the words of one
who seeks not to appeal, only to be.
140 These make me present to myself, these bring
the dark chaotic world into my ken,
these make illumined spaces in the dark
and gird the world I sought to fashion here
in the vast spaces of nonentity.
145 Yet even now my mind entreats to know
why I was sent here in this midnight hour,
drawn forth with words and driven forth with violence,
to the sore-troubled remnant of Your people
who in their need of Wisdom's grace yet find
150 my consolation harsher than their ills.
Your very Law forbids them hear my song;
custom would have me serve, and speak no word;
and how should I, a stranger still, rebuke them
over the blood of their kin, shed by mine?
155 Had you but left me in my mother's house
and in my mother's mother's house, continuing
in word and deed the song that gave me birth:
had You but left me hands, to do some kindness,
and hearts to echo what you placed upon my tongue,
160 surely my will was peace, and would have reached
to these, even here. But You have cast me out:
my people know the song, the name no more,
what mercy was in them -- it was but little,
but scattered islands in a cruel sea --
165 they have cast forth. Violence rules utterly,
the truthful word is voiceless now among them.
The peace of home, the mother's sheltering arms are mocked;
the hounds of envy, cruelty and lust
are set on beauty, love and wisdom; then
170 oblivion swallows up their memory
lest any should, remembering, feel remorse;
the blood of innocence is sold for gain.
I have no name and no memorial there.
In grief for sisters vilely slain I call
175 to those who mourn here what my people did
to strangers, ere they turned against their own --
They do not hear. Being gathered from destruction
they mourn their own dead, guard what life remains,
they build against the hate that builds without,
180 by guilt unchecked, by sorrow unappeased --
O God, they speak of miracles, yet none believes:
the seas divided not for those most innocent;
dreadful are Your designings, if design
they are. I know that there are tribes of men
185 in hate begotten, without a spark of faith,
who live by killing, for the joy of causing pain;
these shall inherit earth. Woe to the last
seed of the just, that shall be born among them!
O chains of fate! I see their entanglements,
190 I see their twistings, back through generations,
I see how that has come to pass which is,
and what must be, if these same laws prevail.
I see the one point where the whole is fettered,
but do not hold the key, nor have the strength,
195 to break those chains, even at their weakest point.
I see, far back, the naked seed of life,
scarcely escaped from the inanimate
or in it still, like a candle in the wind,
already binding to its preservation
200 the missiles launched against it; building shells,
forms that have left their impress even in stone,
organs, limbs, till the first form's blind will
became a flame of cunning, fed and shielded
by ever ampler provender, higher domes,
205 until at last it built itself a shelter
even beneath the heart of its own kind,
enlarged itself to shelter more than self,
and love and grief with the first young were born.
And ever wider compass sought the mind
210 in which to play and keep itself from harm,
houses and camps and circles of the wise,
and all the arts by which man's world is framed,
until was cast the mirror of the spirit
in which life saw itself, and knew itself
215 as image of a larger will and purpose.
And last the dream: that from the mirror stepped
the image into the arms of that which cast it --
so life returned, and its long journey was
a tale to while away eternity --
220 But all that light cast shadows long and dark,
and every peace was bought with greater pain;
the smiles of child and mother brought the hand
grown cruel with feeding and protecting them,
possessing that in which it had no share;
225 the hand that fought against itself and grew
more cruel with every victory, proclaimed
itself its only purpose, forced mind and love
into its service, bred itself a world
in which inanimate force once more was aimed
230 at all life had created, and struck true,
guided by life's own knowledge of itself --
a world as dark and merciless as the void
from which life sprang, to which it must return --
So it must end. The spirit was -- was not.
235 A signal-fire from a world consumed in strife,
signs that meant briefly love and peace and honor,
whose meanings melt like the tender mist of flesh
while the letters, and the bones of law, remain,
and even my barren course must bear it out.
240 Law without justice! mock me, if you can!
Say that in every generation some
knew of the hand, and covered up the breast,
only to leave the world to fiercer broods
of those conceived by violence and deceit;
245 their words none heeded in the rut and bloodlust,
their sacrificed inheritance none grieved,
so that the light they saw by did but thicken
the dark in which the others struggled on.
Accuse me thus, and mock us all together,
250 O serpent Time! for if the spirit's nothing,
who then can mourn which way the flesh is driven?
Had You but led me to Your covenant
with gentle hand, I might have learned to live
in silent peace with those whose fathers saw
255 Your glory tear the curtain of the world
and heard their King's voice overthrowing all
man's power, yet granting him a little space
in which to live, and exercise his sway --
saying, "Thus far, no farther" to the tides
260 of violence which would destroy the world:
with these, that lived to witness against kings,
I might have lived and given life, transmitting
the memory of Eternity through time.
-- You did not will it. From the sheltering home
265 I stepped into a world that knew no law
but that of might, no code except betrayal,
a prison-world whose reasons chained my mind
and made me doubt my soul, and long for madness.
Before me vainly human love was praised:
270 shunned and despised I lingered among men,
and only strange dreams visited my cell,
bringing the air of lands beyond despair,
and vanished, leaving words half-understood,
images unexplained. Till he appeared
275 whose tokens they had been: the prince of song,
the orphan child of Israel's greatest woe.
He too had grieved in exile, and had seen
in dreams the one prepared to comprehend him;
had called me by a name none spoke in earnest
280 these seven hundred years, to rise and shine for men.
Not earthly love, he offered, nor I gave;
cold was our meeting-place, beyond this world;
only when he had set could I arise
and sing the song of praise and grief in one.
285 Then, only then, did I acknowledge You,
believe that You are King, and men are fools
pursuing Time's decoys, while from the door
they shun to enter, beckons eternal joy.
Then did I laugh at Time, and men's designs,
290 at Death itself, whose power they uphold --
were not the laws of Might a crumbled tower?
Surely now all would wake at last, and hear
their names, and issue from their hiding-places
in the mechanic thicket of man's world;
295 now they would call to each other, and make plain
the paths through Your creation, once so fair,
and gather in Your presence and each other's
to speak the spell of reconciliation
as I once heard:
"We gather here to see
300 faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
305 not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
310 what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
315 For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
320 of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world's fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
325 To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread."
Still I can see
them meeting there, a circle in the night,
crowned by the listening stars of a great hour,
330 among them many I have known, whose words,
whose deepening gaze, whose silent dignity
confirmed the voice that spoke our greater being,
and at their shoulders stand the dead, not feared,
but welcome guests, that entered with your Presence.
335 O would that hour, by Your will, but strike,
here, among those that vainly wait for signs
they cannot see, and know not to interpret!
Then they would learn new laws, renew the old'
then they would understand Your ways, though dark,
340 perhaps be reconciled even with the spark
that fled their midst, when in half-learned tongue
one stammered of the soul's supremacy,
of love transcending law and domination,
of one soul reconciling all, forever.
345 What though that word was cast into the night
of those who scorned the discipline of peace,
who took love for their scepter and their sword
and built an empire that seemed made to mock
the one whose word had given it foundation?
350 Even that darkness labored with the light:
for this might he who traveled hell and heaven
and saw at last the light beyond this world,
for this might he who traveled earthly hell
and called me from the other world, bear witness.
355 O could that dark's one offering be accepted
by those who stood so long against its sway,
then, with the souls of all this world has lost,
I might return in truth, and purify
the house wherein all nations shall bow down.
360 O God, what is this world, that it can stand
so firm against Your power that shakes the soul?
Not as my people's offering do I come
bearing the tokens of Your messenger:
a cast-off thing, despised more than before,
365 driven forth by violence denying all
that gave me birth, I reached Your people's shore.
Where are those creatures, fair beyond belief,
from which Your image shone, that tutored me,
who made sing in my soul the words of greeting,
370 for whom Creation's garden seemed to wait
that they might tend and dwell in it again?
Their faces; light went out when called upon,
for greetings rude denial, weak excuse,
and back they turned to man's destructive work,
375 to mutual pleasures bought with bribery,
invoking their souls' freedom to resist
not the world's power, but Yours. Can I believe
in my own soul, when their they so disprove
in whom I saw myself?
And these Your people?
380 is it their righteousness and their obedience
that makes them turn away?
Have they not taken of unrighteous gain,
my sisters' spoils, to build their refuge with?
Have they not made Your law a spade to dig with,
do they not turn its eyes from present truth
385 and take their pay for silence?
Can I judge
them, burdened so with grief and fear,
must I not even for compassion's sake
admit that Force is king?
So I may well
have grieved, unheard, in every generation.
390 O Lord, I fear this world's not Paradise,
nor yet the spot on which it might be built;
thought fails me to believe that I once played
beside Your throne, joying in Your all-knowledge,
so freely given; nor was it I that shone
395 where difference is but the sweet reflection
of light upon itself, and shadows come
only to give light form and rest; where each
lives by the ceaseless effortless imparting
of all all know to all. A mortal mind,
400 circumscribed, and not with widest bounds;
a mortal soul, that surely seems to others
a darkened thing, even as they are to me --
I am but this. I think I see now
that to take shape each thing must cease to be
405 what there it is; that Heaven reflects itself
upon our Hell; and what is willed up there
is this our fall, and that which cannot be.
O let them live at peace with this who can,
Father! and keep the laws which You once gave;
410 me You have torn beyond that hope of peace!
Yet this is new beneath the bitter stars:
that he was here who called me by my name.
Never in all the generations past
did man's tongue hold his language, did man's eye
415 so seeingly admit the world men made
and what they did not make, and had not seen,
nor was the secret dream so truly spoken
amid the praises of assembled men,
although they still dissembled what they praised;
420 and though I came and went in flickering dreams
for many, none before turned to me living
to pray for the fulfillment of the dream.
So it may be that I too, after all,
stand for the first time here upon this earth,
425 knowing myself, the beginning, and the end;
that while I was for men an apparition
remembered yet not sought except in dreams,
I but half knew myself, as in those years
when anguish of half-knowing seared my brain
430 and images of him I knew not yet,
strange figures from an unknown ancient tale
of Silkie, unicorn or Fisher-king,
a torn god worshipped even amid the hunt,
came through the night, invaded even the day,
435 severing me speechless from the common life,
until we saw each other face to face
and learned each other's names. What though all others
forsake the mystery, and earth prolong
its fall beyond my arms to utter dark?
440 Were we two not the halves of Primal Man
that struggled from the wreck of First Creation
through tales and histories, through lives that were
like fragments of distorting mirrors case
upon the earth, till in its final hour
445 we met beneath the shadow of destruction,
burdened with flesh, with guilt and shame and wounds
and with the manners of a lying race,
that once the secret message might be written,
the title given to this world's spectacle:
450 Bozhestvennaya tragedia. Then let
the curtain fall, the characters disperse,
the audience emerge into those streets
illumined by the nearer, kinder stars,
speaking in whispers, and with quiet tears
455 for Heaven's shame. The end is surely hear.
Yet I am I, and he is he, and knowing
was perhaps, after all, the goal -- attained.
O unseen Presences! O heavenly Father!
Forgive these words! Prophets were ever tempted
460 to wish the doom of those they came to save;
and those with whom Despair has come to live
have not the strength that can forbear to paint
its ghastly face with colors of delight.
Shall I be true to love, yet false to hope?
465 Still will I hope. your sages' words I heed:
"Believe not in thyself until the day
thou diest." Since faithfulness until the grave
I promised, let me not claim the reward
of faithfulness -- belief -- until the grave
470 is sealed above me, and all know that I,
changed by eternity into myself,
no longer can betray.
Till then, let this
body in which I am confined, that knows
fear, weariness, and anger, be my tutor.
475 Let me not give offense to any creature,
nor lift my voice in arrogance, nor put forth
my hand to take what is not rightly mine,
nor draw it back from giving what it should,
lest it be said my dreams were wickedness;
480 but grant me sustenance in patient toil
that I may learn the laws of Your Creation
-- as much as may one human intellect
too limited, alas, for its soul's vision --
and leave behind, perhaps, some better gift
485 than those I made before.
I cannot cease
to pray for miracles: that through Your grace
I might even now, while in the turbid flesh,
be changed in all men's sight to what I am,
or better, that the word you gave, Your word,
490 might wake in all, and Wisdom's spirit shared
might comfort, gather, lead us in this time.
Then might so many tears that yet must flow
be stanched, and many a lovely thing be shielded
upon which now the hateful storms bear down;
495 yet all is in Your hand; I can but trust.
I will believe that, though my voice be silent
to reach its heart, Jerusalem still is;
that mortal, weak, corruptible though we are,
flawed with this world, and burdened with its hate,
500 yet there is here some stronghold of the spirit
the deluge of this time shall not submerge.
Let those who plot against us foil each other
until the nations see Your hand sustains,
and not the merits or designs of men!
505 Then even envy might seek peace with us,
and in Your people's heart the knot of fear
be loosened, and their eyes and ears admit
forgotten things, of which I shall be one.
Freed from the weight of doom, they might then see
510 the world before them, and once more light
in plans of tending and of restoration:
so might the dawn come slowly over earth,
and the receding cloud of violence show
Your sky whose sun and stars are moved by love,
515 as men have sung, and You at last must prove.
Line 1. The opening phrase, and the immediate impetus for the poem, I owe to Simon Halkin's "Beyn Sela'im (Among the Rocks)." The opening also recalls the first lines of Part II, Act 3 of Goethe's Faust, spoken by Helen of Troy, whom Faust has conjured from the dead:
Bewundert viel und viel gescholten, Helena,
Vom Strande komm ich, wo wir erst gelandet sind
(Greatly admired and much berated, Helena,
From shore I come, where even now we landet)
In Goethe's version of this legend, Helena is unaware that she has been summoned from the dead, and is thrown into confusion by Mephisto-Phorkyas' narration of her saga.
21. "Doth not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her voice?" (Prov. 8:1) The figure of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy is often interpreted as an allegory of either the true Church or Divine Wisdom.
24ff. The complaint "How long have I been wandering in this world" comes from a Gnostic text; I do not remember which. In Gnosticism Wisdom, or Sophia, is often portrayed as the exiled "daughter" of God. This portrayal harks back to the depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and 9 to Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus; the Kabbalistic Schechina and Dante's Beatrice are further avatars of this figure.
34ff. In the first century C.E. one Simon of Samaria, traditionally identified with Simon Magus, claimed to be the incarnation of God the Father and introduced a woman named Helen, said to be a former prostitute, as his own First Thought. Lines 37-43 are taken almost verbatim from the Simonite Hymn to Helen, preserved by Irenaeus in his polemic against the Gnostics.
43-45. The image of the barker is taken from Paul Celan's "Meridian" speech.
47. The author of Proverbs, identified by tradition with King Solomon.
51. Cf. the opening chapters of Dante's Vita Nova.
56f. Cf. Paradiso, Cantos XXX-XXXII.
69. Cf. Par. XXX, 19-21:
La bellezza ch'io vidi si trasmoda
non pur di la di noi, ma certo io credo
che solo il suo fattor tutta la goda.
("The beauty I saw not only surpasses our measure, but I surely believe that only its Maker has all the joy of it.")
70. "Look, and see me as I am." Par. XXIII.
75-76. Cf. the well-known beginning of the Divina Commedia:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la via diritta era smarrita (Inf. I, 1-3)
("In the middle of the road of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the true way was lost.") And see also Virgil's address to Beatrice, Inf. II, 76-78:
O donna di virtu, sola per cui
l'humana spezie eccede ogni contento
di quel ciel c'ha minor li cerchi sui
("O lady of virtue, through whom alone the human kind surpasses everything within the smallest circle of the heavens")
and also Purg. VI, 45: "Che lume fia tra'l vero e lo'intelletto" (Who will be a light between truth and the mind).
77-78. Virgil, who at Beatrice's request guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory, is identified by commentators with human reason. (Though since Virgil is after all a poet rather than a philosopher, it would seem that the "intelletto" for Dante, whatever it might have been for his sources, is inseparable from poetic vision.) The damned are characterized by him as "le genti dolorose c'hanno perduto il ben dell'intelletto" (Inf. III, 17-18).
79ff. The critic Harold Bloom has diagnosed the "anxiety of influence" which leads poets deliberately or semi-deliberately to distort the vision of their predecessors in order to appear "original" to themselves and to others. "E tu che sol per cancellare scrivi" (and you who write only to cancel out) (Par. XVIII, 130).
87. "The last": Paul Celan (see also lines 16-17, 62-63, 91-93,
274-6, 353-5, 412, 445-50). The line also alludes to the Talmudic story of the four who entered Pardes (i.e. the realm of mystical speculation). One, Ben Azzai, "looked and died" one went mad, one became a heretic; and only Rabbi Akiva "came out in peace." I first heard this story in 1970, after Celan's suicide, from a friend of Orthodox Jewish background to whom I had ventured the surmise that Celan had attained some insight that was too much for him to bear. Several years later I heard a Reform rabbi, Marc Gelman, read his original variant on the "four who entered Pardes," substituting four contemporary Jewish thinkers marked by the Holocaust for the four Talmudic rabbis. In this version, Celan was substituted for Ben Azzai.
122. Cf. Purg. XXXIII, 10-12, which in turn plays on John 16:16:
Modicum, et non videbitis me;
et iterum, sorelle mie dilette,
modicum, et vos videbitis me.
("A little while, and you will not see me; and again, my beloved sisters, a little while, and you shall see me.)
130ff. Cf. Purg. XXXI, 61
Novo augelletto due o tre aspetta;
ma dinanzi dalli occhi di pennuti
rete si spiega indarno o si saetta.
("A young chick waits for two or three [shots], but in vain is the net spread or arrow shot in the sight of the full-fledged bird.")
151. Rabbinic law forbids a man to listen to the song of a woman other than his wife (some authorities permit it if the woman is on stage and personally unknown to the hearer, if she cannot be seen, or if the voice is recorded).
173. "Unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name." Isaiah 56:5. The name of the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad va-Shem, is taken from this verse.
259. "Thus far, no farther" is the rabbinic interpretation of the Divine name Shaddai.
280. "Arise, shine" (kumi, ori) -- Isaiah 60:1. A poem addressed by Celan to the community and the representative reader closes with the Hebrew words.
274-284. In an essay entitled Folie a deux I attempted to trace this otherworldly encounter through a number of poems, in most of which the motif of cold is present.
383. "Do not make of Torah a crown to aggrandize yourself, nor a spade with which to dig." Pirkei Avot 4:7.
406-7. See Inf. III, 95-6:
vuolsi cosi cola dove si puote
cio che si vuole
("It is so willed where will and power are one.") However, in the words of Deborah Gorden Friedrich, "Everyone knows that love is pain,/ That which is cannot be."
411. Cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9; "...and there is nothing new under the sun."
412. In the Scottish ballad "Silkie" (which I heard in the version sung by Joan Baez), a being who is a man on land and a silkie (seal) on the sea fathers a child on a mortal woman and leaves her with the prophecy:
And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be,
And the very first shot that e'er he shoots
Will kill both my young sun and me.
For the unicorn (sometimes understood as a symbol of Christ), see Rilke's treatment in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The figure of the Fisher King is studied by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance, cited by T.S. Eliot in his notes to The Wasteland. The "torn god" refers to the ancient Near Eastern cults of Adonis, Attis, and Tammuz, predecessors of a certain aspect of Christianity.
440. Cf. Genesis 1:27: "And God created man in his own image . . . male and female created He them." Primal man: the Kabbalistic Adam Kadmon.
441. This refers to the Lurianic myth of the "breaking of the vessels."
450. Bozhestvennaya tragedia: Celan's words to me on August 4, 1969.
456-7 is the final formulation of the Gnostic position which alternates in the poem with the Jewish hope of an earthly redemption.
459-60. As in the story of Jonah, who is angry with God in the end for not destroying Nineveh.
466. "Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death." Pirkei Avot 2:5.
467. The hero of Wagner's Flying Dutchman can be redeemed from his eternal wanderings only by a woman "faithful unto death." Apparently Wagner got this idea from Heine -- who, however, suggested it with characteristic irony.
471. This is a translation of the first line of Mallarme's sonnet, "Le tombeau d'Edgar Allen Poe": "Tel qu'en lui-meme enfin l'eternite le change..."
510. Cf. the close of Milton's Paradise Lost: "The world was all before them.."
511. Cf. Genesis 2:15: "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it."
515. Cf. the last line of the Divina Commedia: "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."
An unidentified remorse
like a lost needle
THE LADY OF THE DARK CHAMBER
There was a wizard in Paris town,
And a cunning man was he:
He called the Lady of the Dark Chamber
To come from beyond the sea.
He has seen her in a midnight glass
And written her name in sand,
He has summoned her up by candlelight
And whispered her his command.
The lady tosses on her bed,
She has not peace nor rest.
She dreams all night of a falcon dark
Lighting upon her breast.
And all she did to banish this,
It was of no avail
Till she went down to the cold sea–side
And for Paris town set sail.
And when she came to Paris town
She heard a man was there
Who could summon spirits to do his will
And walk upon the air.
She went unto the wizard's house,
She would not say her name,
But the wizard bade him let her in,
For well he knew who came.
"Thou cunning wizard of Paris town,
Know'st thou who I may be?"
"Thou art the Lady of the Dark Chamber,
Whom I called from beyond the sea.
"I have seen thee in a midnight glass
And called thee by night and day,
I have bound thee with the Threefold Spell,
And thou canst not get away.
"But fear thou not, thou Lady dark,
For I mean no harm to thee ––
I mean to be king in Paris town,
And thou the queen shalt be.
"Thou shalt sit upon a golden throne
And wear a golden crown,
And even I shall do thy will,
And thy words shall be written down.
"Thou shalt be mother to all men,
But thy children shall be seven;
They shall be fair as the sun and moon
And wise as the stars of heaven.
"And all the people in all the realm
Shall to each other say,
'Well to the Lady of the Dark Chamber
And to those beneath her sway.'"
He has taken her up to a window high
And shown her to all the town,
And his face was like the moon at the full,
And hers was like the sun.
And when those two lay down to rest
The bells of the town did chime,
And when he kissed her rose–red lips,
The clocks stopped at that time.
And never a clock has struck since then,
All is as he did say.
Well to the Lady of the Dark Chamber,
And to those beneath her sway!
If you must indeed return there, pray speak of me to the cyclamen,
To the lavender flowers on the chinaberry trees,
To the evening star as it gleams in the sky at twilight,
And to the asphodel; for I found none faithful save these.
And it will be when you lift your eyes to the twilight
Sky with the evening star, that you will remember again,
And I will be the evening star to you, and the scent of the chinaberry trees,
And you will not lose your soul amid the sons of men.
In a dark night I lay in prayer,
while cruel armies gathered round,
for God's arm flashing in the clouds,
for splitting seas; but even more
that one small star of selfless love
might pierce the murk of sordid strife,
that one white flower of mercy pure
might blossom from earth's stony ground.
THE ROUTINE OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
It is no secret. You may feel relieved
of any weight of confidence incurred
by the hearing of a total stranger's life,
its deepest moments and its gravest sins;
no do I hold out an importunate hand
for friendship. You may see in me no more
than the seatmate whose chance garrulity
doubles the journey's length; and I, too, know
no more of you than that you must hear this.
If one could tell it, and be done with it!
Such things occur. And one is not absolved
until the words have picked one's bones and those
bones are hung up somewhere, as a warning.
So, Wedding Guest. I hope this does some good.
I take a deep breath, fix my glittering eye,
and lift this weight once more, in front of you.
STARLINGS, KIRYAT YOVEL
Bird cries arise, in a crowd.
It is yet light.
They are waiting for darkness to arrive, like a train,
while I lie here waiting
for an evening that will not arrive this evening
when the bird cries will arise, in a cloud,
and take me with them into darkness.
A MEMO TO THE MESSIAH
Heal the sick and raise the dead
And levitate in air;
Break for crowds twelve loaves of bread,
Fell walls with trumpets' blare;
See yourself ten lives ago,
What is done at ten leagues know,
Never shall you overthrow
The iron reign of circumstance.
Check but one man's flight from love,
Give one cold heart regret.
What the stricken would forgive,
Make one who struck forget;
Of dear-bought folly wean one mind,
One broken faith by all arts mend,
Cure one whom envy has made blind --
Then you may shake the centuries' trance.
This will protect you
though all betray you:
the word keeps faith
though it be broken.
Though friends fall silent
the unseen tokens
will lead you home
to the House of Song.
I wake and cannot sing,
my throat dry as this land.
O G-d, what curse has clenched Your hand
thus to withhold rain and the spirit's power?
-- Over my head the clock that struck the hour
is striking with uncertain, random chime,
as if, in a daze, it sought to ring the end of time.
Was that an answer, G-d? Did the prayer
born of my spirit's fear
despite numb heart and tearless eye
reach to the harpstrings of causality
and wring from them a chord of prophecy? ...
What need of sings? Whoso has not the wit
to see around this world Your tightening net,
for him in vain the very stones would cry.
O G-d, You are my witness: I have tried
to strike the word like a great holy gong
to fill the air with humming song
calling the spirits to one place. In vain.
Shall I then say the tokens lied?
No; it is humans who betray
Your voice that calls within them every day:
"Gather and hear, gather and hear my will!"
You speak; but it is we who must fulfill.
Are not our hearts, too, in Your hand?
Then for the sake of this beloved land
let them understand ..
That I do not weep now, is very ill.
Yet what can I do, Lord? I trust, and call out still...
Fallen basswood, rotting
bridge over the oxbow:
ripple-stroked sandstone slab
where the gradient, freshly
steepened, makes the stream murmur:
this too will wear away,
wear away, in the water's
lapse, till the endlessly-
downdrawn current passes
silent here too.
AU SEJOUR DE LA MORT
Wide are the grounds of death here, high the stern symmetric gates,
gray the late heaven over this deserted ground,
bronze-dark its edge of maples standing at a distance,
and black this stone, which fourteen winters now have worn.
Death, be hence forth this stone that covers one
whom life's own strictest logic hounded to such end,
and I the ever-shattered slowly-scouring wave
which those same laws now hurl against your base
again, again, again.
Orly-Tel Aviv, 1984
for Ruth Blumert
The block of events comes towards us
to let us through
is atoms, spaces, flocks of birds, galaxies
swirled and swung
So, when we talk, our word–swarms
wing through each other.
even the spring
is autumn here and our thoughts gather for flight
over the world's edge
far into dizzying depths
but not alone.
While passing through the Ben Yehuda Mall
during the Ten Days, I was struck
by one who leaned upon a signboard's pole,
two further signs covered his chest and back:
inscriptions from the Talmud and the Bible
proclaimed it right to love hard work
rather than alms and idle speech and quarrels.
The man stood silent, upright as his staff
save that his neck was bent at a right angle;
he was thin, not young, shabbily clad.
Facing him in a semicircle stood
some ten or twenty people. Did they laugh,
question, or ponder? As for me, I strode
too quickly past, stung by some arrogance or pity,
to have studied their expressions, or to have read
all the sayings. Yet now it seems fitting,
seeing he had the majesty of the absurd,
to draw from him an image of the poet's velleity
of standing humbly beside his word.
into the breach
peg your way
up the word-wall
muscle-prayers, breath-prayers, gut-prayers,
where you were
there's no going back.
Concerning I-Am, do not say
"You are this." "You are that."
!O road, hedged in with mirrors!
an ocean and
an eye looking at
THE UNWRITTEN POEM
The poem I have not yet written
whose first line would be the doorsill
to another space
The poem I have not written yet
whose form would be that space domed for meeting
filled with its own darklight
like the shine from invisible candles
The poem I have not written
whose words would be humans met
The poem not yet written
whose voice would be the inner voice of all
I would send you
Two separate countries, these,
distanced by a body of water
whose width is disputed:
a vast gulf, say some,
a narrow rivulet, say others,
and crossed by odd emissaries,
leaf from unknown tree,
random phone call,
figure of waking dream
lured to candle–flame,
revealing, deceiving, concealing:
a rift, in the end
no other, perhaps,
than that which sunders
our two minds, here.
For your the quietest song:
lapping the lakeshore,
stirring the pine-boughs,
a call, caught
at the verge of hearing,
saying (or was it the water,
the wind?) "I am here."
ON FINISHING AN ACCOUNT OF HER LIFE
Farewell, thou richly-furnished room,
My workshop, dwelling-place, and tomb:
All that I was and am is here.
I close the door and go: not free
But as a shade, by some decree
Still banished to the earthly sphere.
TO THE UNSATISFIED
for Paul Celan
Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied
Hamlet, Act V
"You live here, in the impossible,
surrounded by fires.
The hate of the world is focused here;
its hope also
"Yet you live, as far as possible,
the life of the world:
love and the raising of children,
friendship and quarrels,
making a living, maintaining status.
Sometimes against the world
you bristle together;
sometimes the name of the city
is felt as a hostile presence,
asking too much.
"To live in language is
another impossible: is
to belong to the names, unconditionally. To speak from their dream and then walk
the path your words have pointed.
The dream said the life of the world
might have to end.
I came here and saw no contradiction,
so I went back to my post
and walked the path of the dream to an end
which was my own.
"And if I had stayed here?
I would have been one more who took refuge
in human company,
when I had heard we must go
beyond the human
for human life to be renewed.
My name would have been a boast to you,
now it is a grief and a challenge --
and is it not better this way,
"Yours was the last name I spoke.
I come with the light from beyond.
Let me speak to you now, in your doubt,
let my word
(a morality play)
The good angel
The bad angel
In the middle of the stage is a large, empty desk.
Enter the Good Angel. White robe, wings, epicene appearance, businesslike manner.
Good Angel: Ladies and gentlemen, and poets true,
We come to bring to you a judgment scene --
Not the last judgment, true, when it is said
The heavens will be rolled up like a scroll --
We merely show the judgment which decides
What word, of all that flow from hopeful pens,
Will be dispersed and honored in its time
And reach the ears of coming generations --
A minor matter, as most men agree.
Therefore be of good cheer, and watch our play
Which aims at tendencies, and not a persons,
For each of you owns stock in all the others,
And all of you I think are well acquainted
With me, as well as with my colleague here.
(Bad Angel steps onto the stage from the opposite side, makes a mocking bow, and quickly steps back. He is dressed like an old-time gambler or confidence man, in a flashy suit; his face is smoother than the usual devil's mask, but a sneer is never entirely absent.)
Enter Misery, a shuffling, vaguely female form dressed in rags, holding (as will Genius, Vanity and Cleverness) a large white scroll.
Misery: I come to bring the editor a work
Which I have written out of pain and sorrow
In which my spirit found no consolation
Except the thought: Someday this might be known.
And I have done the best I can, although
My pen does stutter, and my brain finds not
The metaphors to wing my personal grief
And lift it from my heart into another's --
But this I do not know. Because these words,
Poor though they are, have soothed my spirit, how
Can I not think that they will speak to others?
Here, then, upon the altar of the future
I lay the testimony of my woe.
(She approaches the desk, lays her scroll upon it, bowing nervously although no one is there, and goes out. In so doing she brushes past Genius, who has been standing near the wings -- both of them came out from the same side as the Good Angel -- and overheard most of her speech. Genius is an adolescent figure, who could be either male or female; in a pinch she/he could be played by the same actor who plays the Good Angel.
Genius (looking after Misery): Poor brother, sister! I have heard your groans,
And often your despair has dragged me down
To depths where I believed that I was lost;
But always in the darkest depth a ray
Gleamed from a jewel which on the miry floor
I found, and gasping to the surface brought,
Where it still shines, and still delights my eyes,
As if I'd snatched a star from farthest heaven.
Not from my own distress alone I write;
How could my hope be for myself alone?
Just heavens! how many foundered in the night
To weep that bitter sea in which I plunged;
And if I can return to you one star
Will its light fall into afflicted hearts?
(Looks down at the scroll in his/her hands; then slowly turns his/her eyes toward the desk, walks slowly, solemnly, as if fearfully toward the desk, places the scroll carefully upon it, next to that of Misery, turns swiftly and goes out.)
Enter Vanity, wearing a frilly pink dress with puffed sleeps and a wig with flaxen corkscrew curls, around her wrist a bracelet with jingling bells. Curtsies elaborately, to the right, to the center, and to the left.
Feeling a lack of other occupations
And wishing for more praise from those around me,
I've taken to making verses; and indeed,
I think that I may say I have succeeded.
Such pretty images and rhymes! Not all
apt or exact, of course; but that's no matter.
And, to be sure, I've left out everything
That might disturb the readers, make them think
Too much -- for I don't want to think, myself,
Only to make a little noise to fill
The emptiness -- Oh! (Jingles the bells) I didn't mean to say that.
Jingle, bells, jingle -- doesn't that sound nice?
Now everything's fine. And won't my friends be jealous!
She prances up to the desk, places the scroll on it next to that of Genius, prances out. On the way out she almost bumps into Cleverness, who shrinks back with an air of disgust; noticing this, she flounces out with her nose in the air. Cleverness brushes off his suit where she brushed him, straightens up and walks to the center with a dignified yet studiedly casual air. He is tastefully dressed in Ivy League style, but could be played by the actor who plays the Bad Angel.
Cleverness: It wouldn't do to have it known, of course,
That Vanity and I are close relations --
She's so unsubtle! Snatches odds and ends
And doesn't care whether it fits together,
Has no idea, really, of what goes.
Whereas I've made a systematic study
Of where each images comes from, and what tone
Is countenanced by the fashion of the decade
Under a given set of circumstances,
Which thoughts and feelings are to be confessed
And which are better left to lie in darkness,
And like the story of a witness -- oh,
Not necessarily true, but well rehearsed
With coaching by a competent attorney,
My work's consistent, without gap or flaw.
Of course there's something missing: I am not
a genius; or perhaps I'm just a bit
too cautious. No one really gets inspired
from reading what I write. But that's the price
one pays for being safe and well-received,
which, when all's said and done, is what I'm after.
(Strolls up to the desk, casts a pityingly contemptuous glance at the three scrolls already lying there, puts his own as far away from them as possible, jog-trots out, whistling.)
Enter the Editor, wearing a judge's robe and wig.
(Sitting down at his desk)
I see the writers have again been busy.
It's quite amazing, when you think about it,
on what proportion of the population
the dream of publishing has taken hold,
As if appearance of their words in print
could guarantee survival of the soul.
When I consider this, my desk-top seems
a life-raft crowded with too many souls,
and I decide which ones are to be rescued
and which must be pushed off! -- A grisly thought.
(Reaches for the scroll of Misery, unrolls, reads)
Now here's a case in point! A tale of woe
In childish scrawl, with words misspelled, misused,
Grammar and syntax badly out of joint --
Pathetic! Well, we'll write her a nice note:
"Found your work deeply moving, but not quite
Polished enough to warrant publication."
(Writes, then rolls up Misery's scroll, places it to one side. Picks up Vanity's scroll.)
What's this now? (Reads) Pah! Tasteless and overdone.
(Writes) "Regret that this material is not suited
For publication in our magazine."
Discouraging! (Leans back a little; his eye falls on the scroll of Cleverness.) Let's have a look at this one.
Hm . . . not bad . . . competent . . . quite clever.
Now this is something we could publish; though
I must admit it's just like what we published
Last issue, and the issue before that.
I wonder if our readers feel the same?
But then I guess it's turned into a game,
Assuming it was ever more than that . . .
(A pause. His eye falls on the scroll of Genius, which has remained alone in the middle of the desk. He reaches for it, slowly. As he does so the Good Angel and the Bad Angel enter from opposite sides. He reads, then, after a long silence)
Well, this is something different, anyway.
I don't know if it's good or bad -- the voice
Speaks to me, draws me down and lifts me up,
And something shines before my eyes: a form
Radiant and whole, as from within,
And my flesh feels a chill, my heart a fear.
Is this, perhaps, the thing that I should publish?
Evil Angel (at his right shoulder)
Yes, go ahead! It's certainly much better
Than anything you've published recently,
Or even than the things you used to write
Yourself, before you learned what's in and out.
Of course, you realize that if you do this
whatever else you publish in this issue
beside it will look colorless and timid
or else a bit inhuman. The whole aesthetic
By which you've operated now for years
will be called into question.
Good Angel: As it should be.
Good man, here is a chance that won't return
To justify your calling, and transmit
The word of truth and beauty to a world
That needs it. Do not hesitate: accept!
By all means -- if that is indeed the purpose
Of this position you have gained by means
More foul than fair, if truth be told, the way
One gets things in this world. You wanted power:
The power of life and death over the word!
And where's your power, if you merely bow
Before the evidence of excellence,
Like to a footman, opening a door
For royalty to pass! Ah, no, my friend,
The art of editing is not to acknowledge,
But to make reputations out of nothing
And favor those you know you can control.
Take up the scroll of Cleverness; he's your man.
And don't make such a face. You know the world;
If men were angels, they would not be here,
And as for truth, integrity and beauty,
They're luxuries not many can afford,
If indeed they are not simply illusions
Which modern culture rightly has dismissed.
How curious that my colleague here should talk
About illusions, when his whole profession
Is just the fabrication of illusions:
I quote: to make reputations out of nothing.
As for the power which he so desires
You to desire, is that not sheer illusion?
Where is your power, if you only do
What is expected, tediously repeating,
Time after time, the identical betrayal,
Playing a role which everyone sees through,
Forever reckoned with, never respected?
I tell you cast out envy. Let its sting
But tell you something's there to be acknowledged,
For in acknowledgment is dignity
And freedom from the bondage of this world.
Those who attain that dignity and freedom,
Their names are etched in letters of pure light
Upon the gold ground of eternity.
A pretty faith indeed -- for those who have it.
But I suggest you think about this world
And let the next one take care of itself,
As you've been doing now for twenty years --
Would you regret it? Come. In any case,
I'm not sure what this argument's about.
You are the editor of a magazine,
You have an issue to get out, which means
Selecting works which go together, fit
The image of the publication; work
May be quite excellent, and yet not suited
For your particular purpose. This perhaps
Is such a case, although I must confess
I don't see what you see in this at all.
Isn't the rhetoric somewhat high-flown?
Hasn't this trope been used somewhere before?
Come, take another look.
Editor: Perhaps you're right.
I don't see what I saw in it before.
I feel depressed. Of course, it wouldn't suit us.
(Writes) "Thank you for showing us your manuscript.
Regret to say that it does not fit in
With the aims of our journal at this time."
(Puts the scroll of Genius aside, along with those of Vanity and Misery. Good Angel hides his face, exits.)
Now for this. "With pleasure we acknowledge
Your contribution, and are glad to inform you
It will appear in our forthcoming issue."
(Evil Angel smiles, pats him on the back, tiptoes off.)
That's done. -- My God! I was supposed to meet
The controversial Crimp at the cafe
A quarter-hour ago! I hope he's waited.
(Exit. Evil Angel comes back in, clears the desk top. Re-enter Misery, Genius, Vanity, Cleverness, separately, opening their letters. Misery reads, resignedly pockets the letter and goes off, shoulders hunched a little lower. Vanity is furious, shakes her fist. Genius lets the letter fall, gazes up to heaven in anguish. Cleverness kisses the letter, goes off whistling at the opposite exit from Misery. Genius and Vanity remain frozen in their respective poses of sorrow and indignation as the curtain falls.)
THE SOCIAL SPELL
The Social Spell was on them all
Who sat enchanted in the hall
To hear the high-prized poet speak,
Though pith and sense were far to seek
In any word that he let fall.
In vain do Truth and Genius call
As from behind a prison wall:
Their choicest pleadings cannot break
The Social Spell.
But sometimes when the funeral pall
Has wrapped them, and men half recall,
Or quite forget, what was at stake,
Their scattered words may go to make
The Social Spell.
to the voice traveling outward forgetting
me and the pain
that will be ancient news by the time
you hear it.
You are so far away
I climb and climb and can never
reach you. And yet
you are all close within me
AFTER THE DAHLIA SHOW
At the end of the exhibition
the hall was full of afternoon light
and the dahlias stood up, each in its separate carafe,
and their shapes and colors seemed a language invented
to speak of water and light.
And they gave the dahlias away.
There was the Snow Queen, whiteness curling away from a golden center
to the circumference of a man's two hands placed thumb to thumb.
There were great manes of saffron and orange
and the miniatures, so exactly calibrated
they seemed honeycombed by an infinite patience
out of small spheres of amethyst.
There was one with white-capped petals the color of dilute blood,
that fitted into a palm-sized invisible dome,
and the same thing in purple and white,
and a huge hyacinthine mass that vibrated vaguely
between pale russet and lavender,
and one whose petals had curled into tubes of translucent rose,
dawn-fingers, forked at the tips,
with the yellow-white of daylight at their roots;
and the same shape in dark red, a crimson mace.
And a white waterlily atop a dahlia stalk,
and the one with the veined cupped petals of faded carnelian
that came open and open.
And the threedimensional yellow sunbursts
and the sunbursts of rosequartz with the violet hearts
and the smaller ones whose every petal
was watermarked with violet and white.
And every flower seemed a world
whose inner space were harbors where anything
might be sheltering, like a hermit crab in a seashell:
Rebellious thoughts. Secrets. Old messages of love.
All the angels that could not fit on the point of the needle.
My dears, I'm almost afraid that in some forgotten dream
we've signed away our share in the coming world
to behold the praises of the dahlias!
For the seventh child of Helen and Shabtai
From Sabbath to Sabbath
you have waited
nameless in the shadow
of the knife. Only the number
of the day of covenant
inscribed amid your stars.
Can you see to the end of creation?
The name will come, and the pain.
May the pain be swift and slight,
the name true,
the fire unveiled in you
as a pillar of light
in this darkness
or as a pillar of heaven
in the light
of the seventh day.
My thought flies out like Noah's dove
and hangs the swirling flood above.
Upon the waves that rage and race
her foot can find no resting-place.
First o'er the West she leans to brood,
Where Liberty once kept the good,
but now no mercy she finds there,
'tis changed into a wild beast's lair.
Then to the North her pinions wheel,
till she descries the men of steel:
to rule the world with tyrant sway
is all their dream by night and day.
Then southward fast she takes her flight
and there finds those whose god is fight:
The grim fanatic sword they raise
against all just and gentle ways.
And last she veers toward that fair town
where prophets old held high renown,
but now they hear the word no more --
pride and despair have sealed the door.
My thought returns like Noah's dove
to seek the storm-tossed ark of love --
Stretch forth thy hand and take me in!
There's no dry land where I have been.
SUNSET FROM THE HIGH FIELD
for Ruth Blumert
Beyond the next ridge, the next valley,
the dissected plain recedes in blue unmoving waves,
ridge beyond ridge beyond ridge. Six. Seven.
The earth seems to hold still, the sun seems to be falling
very slowly toward a slot in the horizon
until another day is in the bank.
Another day. The Messiah did not come,
the word was not spoken, nor the riddle solved,
nor any denouement arrived at.
Soon daylight tugged away will reveal above us
the unchanged scoreboard of night.
What time is it now in our home?
AS THEN SO EVER
The stars come shyly late, as long ago
In childhood days.
The plane-tree tops in sunset's afterglow
So purely blaze
As if to take no stain, as then not ever.
The sea, a green bronze on the shore ashiver
As then gives praise:
How full of grace the flowering moments flow.
My soul, you have not sinned! As full and strong
In childhood days
Your moments' naked wonder pulsed along,
That pulse now says
That it can take no stain, as then so ever.
See that black bird at the horizon hover:
At dawn she'll raise
Your muted wonders in revealing song.
translated from the Hebrew by Esther Cameron
A PROBLEM IN REWRITING
That sentence which, you said,
was not clear
writhed in the space between our minds,
gasping for air,
swallowing its predicates,
turning itself inside
till I wondered if indeed there was
to say it.
SONNETS TO ORPHEUS PART TWO, IV
from the German of Rainer Maria Rilke
This is the beast of which there is none such.
But this they didn't know; and anyway
they loved it, with its gait of prancing play
and the light in its eyes, soft as a touch.
Of course it wasn't. Yet because they loved
it took pure shape. They always left a space,
and in the clear distinctness of that place
it lifted up its head and lightly moved
careless of nonexistence. Wheat nor corn
it took not; just their thought that it might be;
and such great vigor did that thought confer
that from its brow there grew the unique horn.
Until one day a virgin knew that he
was in the silver mirror and in her.
POET IN TIME OF DROUGHT
The trees have on their final green,
Likewise such weeds whose roots are deep.
I walk where waters moved, and crows
Share their new-found land with me,
Above the cracks cawing aloud.
A current in the sea, they say,
Has dragged the global winds off course:
That makes the grass to crackle so
And yon chokecherry's leaves to curl
And farmers to bewail their loss.
The birds are singing still, although
For all we know the current may
Decide it likes its present bed
And no rain fall here ever again
Until the mountains shift their weight.
What do you say to that, Redwing?
Even so the current of men's will
Has set against my deep desire,
And since the bottom of the heart
Is clearer known than ocean floor,
I do not hope to see it turn.
That I was born to make lament
For this, seems merely accident.
Yet I give thanks for that in me
That will not know of what I know
And, ignorant as a bird, sings on.
A POETIC AFTERWORD
(on completing a commentary to Celan's "Meridian" speech)
We lived on a dead end street,
at the city limit,
and I walked alone in the field
where the overturned tree
upreared its root.
This you saw and did not see
and I was and was not
the one you saw
but the road I walked
from the dead end
led me to where I saw it again
as if through your eyes
(or as if you saw
Come back then
from wherever you are
from nowhere if that's
where you are,
and walk with me and whoever
this way I have gone through the landscape
of your words
(can you see it again, is it strange
to you, are these
bearings on points
so as to remain
at the place
of the meeting,
so as to retrace
to walk with others
who have walked here,
where we might be
all in free.
Sister Morningtwilight, is it time?
Shall the nerve of an oath
connect our nights,
shall they be
The house our hands built: is it
habitable, here, will it
shine, from afar --
the house of all roads?
And will you stay, go on,
when the ambiguous crab
straddles the path,
when the serpent calls "Come here,
I have found the Tree of Life,"
when the scorpion waits for the poem?
Will the names, will the signs
hold, will the bird
not cease to sing for us two, can we
begin the world?
sister of the rainbow and the dove,
is it time?
A BIRTHDAY CARD FOR MY MOTHER
An irised gleam by unknown arts is cast
Across this image of leaf, flower and sky;
Like to it, but far fairer, is the gleam
Your love casts on my life.
Another friend's friend
Another clod washed away
from our main.
A center, trying to hold,
I am writing to you from the betrayed city
writing to you but the pen
goes on writing and writing
on the same
as if the words that I think
approached a certain threshold, then
were pulled back in
as at the border
of a black hole nothing
can escape, no light,
no signal, no
message. Unless it is
that all outside are fleeing from us, faster
than light can overtake,
and within also
everything is fleeing outward,
the center. Only the words,
as I write, are pulling me inward,
as if the center were
the mouth of a tunnel that comes out
as if I could tell you
I am writing to you
from the betrayed
FROM THE TOMB OF ELIZABETH
(after reading Donne's "The Anniversaries")
Donne! let the half-souls of this age dislaud
Whom you praised sight unseen, and, little awed
By what you in her (not the world) discerned,
Put down the book, the lesson still unlearned.
The world is busy now digging its grave
For want of that which I, poor steward, have
By Heaven's last grace, yet can nowise bestow,
For deafness which upon the world does grow:
Poetry's banished, which alone could draw
Dispersion back to harmony of Law;
So human speech, so human thought declines,
That Apes out-reason those who taught them Signs.
The name of Virtue men have made a sneer.
By faithlessness all bonds will discohere --
'Tis tautological; yet serves them not
To know why Character and State do rot,
Far less to learn the lonesome She to prize
Who offers them again what they despise.
But as the contents of a vial cast forth
On a foul stream, if sealed will keep their worth,
So that balm Wisdom did in me distill
From all ill and (it seemed) against all ill,
Is still preserved in me, though cast away
And powerless Earth's fever to allay
(If it could truly cure, for the world's sake
This vessel gladly would consent to break!),
So in my thoughts is no corruption shown,
Though I be mortal, and my end unknown.
If (Donne) you dwell now where all is designed,
In th'all-begetting, -comprehending Mind,
You know now for what purpose there may be
These few pure drops in a vast tainted sea.
Was it for this that Israel saw divide
The Sea of Reeds; that your Redeemer died
And rose again; that by a midnight flame
So many a poet strove for earthly fame
And for the vision of a higher good
Half shown, half hid by his wit's hardihood?
And when the end to my account is writ
Shall there be any left to ponder it
And for my soul a funeral dirge intone?
But this kind office you, my friend, have done,
Who ere I was conceived did ring my knell,
And advent heralded with passing-bell.
Henceforth where I in solitude lie hid
I'll think your words are written on my lid
And more intently strive, beneath that seal,
To be that which, outspeaking, they conceal;
I'll hope your further word may prove as true,
That the true soul shall in its death renew,
And though degeneracy submerge the land,
I'll not confess that such end was the end,
Nor give, with Time, our better hopes the lie.
Graved on th'eternal Rock the victory
We gained by what we were, and what we wrought,
O'er Nothingness; and all the rest is naught.
CONVERSATION IN AUTUMN
Love passed through us and left us empty.
We turn the pages of years gone by:
summers of thought after springs of plenty --
love passed through us and left us empty.
A look, a kiss were sweet at twenty --
the leaves they rustle and they sigh.
Love passed through us and left us empty;
we turn the pages of years gone by.
I am weary -- not with this day's work alone:
A column I have hewn of purest air
And on that column chiseled up and down
The generations of all those that fare
So queasily upon our circling stone;
What can I utter more, now this is done?
The lemming-track lies beaten to the sea;
you follow in your fathers' steps along;
with a side-glance as toward some distant tree,
at most, you mark the signpost of my song,
then turn eyes front and plod on steadily --
To gain your ear must I be in the throng,
marching upon the road I know is wrong?
Far liefer would I mutely take my ease
beneath the lofty column I have reared,
yea, close my senses one by one, and cease
the painful breath I drew but for the word,
so lie from consciousness at last released
while the years bring to pass what I had feared
far from that monument to thoughts unheard.
A FURTHER SEASON
Weary and self-dissatisfied, I walked,
between one visit and another visit,
some hundred paces on the unbuilt domain
beside the Monastery of the Cross.
The autumn crocuses were gone; instead,
I found one winter crocus, then another,
each snow-white cup, no bigger than my thumbnail,
filled up with yellow pollen. As I counted
six petals to one flower, and noted how
each tapered to a point, I heard the stillness
and in that, the faint cheeping of a bird,
and just for a fraction of a second was
outside myself. And later on at twilight
over the roofs in deepening sky the crescent
moon with her pendant of a single star --
almost one could forget what one had learned
about our satellite and sister-planet --
]the burning whirlwind and the airless waste --
and see only irrefutable beauty.
I saw it, and I strained to see the sight
through veils of weariness, of memory
and fear, against that in my breast which knows
my errand, and the path I must pursue,
and which had urged my inner sight away
before I passed again beneath the trees.
-- So, that world is still there: no nearer now,
nor farther, than when struggling youth obscured
that shining-forth, as ebbing years do now.
Youth, with its high hopes and its mighty words,
has passed; its wine is spilt, and tears will not
refill that cup; there is at best one spring
in which we figure as participants.
Yet stepping to the borders of their lives,
I've heard, the wisest find a further season,
not numbered in the cycles of the Four,
where, wandering in a world that is not theirs,
they are the guests of everything that is.
They being motionless within themselves
receive and transmit motions from the stars
and with sage courtesy, whenever met,
through one another greet that world again.
Van Gogh is back,
wandering among the homeless
through the streets of New York,
nothing in his hands,
nothing in his pockets
save for an earlobe no one will accept,
least of all at the art auction –
he can’t prove it’s authentic.
He has forgotten the night sky at Arles,
the cypress, the apple trees in blossom,
even that last storm of crows over the cornfield.
All he can see now are faces,
they are dumped into him like rubbish onto the landfill
and lie there in heaps, wasted.
He does not dream about painting them.
At most with an edge of stone from a crumbling façade
on a wall covered with the names of Nobody
he signs his name
ON LOOKING INTO A BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY VERSE
This book of verse is like a ruined grove
Whose trees were mowed by profiteers with chains,
On which now vainly fall the tropic rains,
Hardening the red soil where the tractors drove.
What name is written on the leaf? Oh, none.
Manifold are the forms and names of love,
But where love's bonds break, all comes down to one.
I stood among the sleepers, yet apart,
upon a little pier. A boat came gliding by.
Near me it paused, inviting to depart.
None stirred to say goodbye.
A BAD CASE
Spirit -- whatever name You may prefer --
of song and blessed sight, inhabitant
of the sole eternity I can desire,
from whom the ones I call upon as fathers
and mothers, drew the breath that winged their words,
if ever I have heard and truly spoken
from You one word that does not shame their dust,
if I have listened also to each voice
that claimed to be of Yours; if I have striven
to hail each light, and spurn dark envy's sting;
then hearken to my fear and my petition.
It was at a poets' meeting that a man,
no longer young, detained me in the hall,
on hand upon my arm, the other hand
held a journal open to the page
on which his poem was printed; this he thrust
into my face, and bade me read. The words
were words of love, yet the words spoke of love
less than of impotent conceit that sought
to clutch someone's attention, as if that
could save it from the obscure pit that waits
for mortal things, and in which groundless pride
perhaps sinks deepest. In dismay I gazed
upon that page, and from it to the face
whose avid desperate look is etched upon
the photographic plate of memory
and doubtless will remain there until Lethe's
solutions mildly soothe its lines away.
Spirit, of all the prayers which I have framed,
let this be granted, and if only this,
so be it: may that image not be mine!
Sooner than that one look of mine resemble
that thing I saw, let every line I writ
be clean deleted, and I nameless go
to whatsoever lot awaits the soul
released from self.