In the middle of the city
Stands the house of song and story
Built of stone, its rooms are many,
And the rooms are all six-sided,
Large the lower, small the upper,
Ranged around a central courtyard
Where a single fountain plashes;
And the fountain has ten basins:
From the highest flow the waters,
Now divided, now uniting,
To the lowest and the largest
On whose brim the poets often
Sit and scan, their eyes half marking
How the ripples in their motion
Touch the brim and seek the center,
Then spread outward once again.
Underneath the ground is hollowed
To one room, a mighty kiva,
Where, amid those pillars chiseled
In the likeness of great tree-trunks,
All the poets of the city
Stand at equinox and solstice
To hear read the formulation
Of each season's task and tidings
And give counsel where they can.
From the front the house is entered
Through a porch with seven columns
Carved with leaf and vine defining
Panels where you see depicted
Figures from the ancient legends
On the origins of song
And the lives of bards and prophets,
Seers, shamans of all nations,
With their own works interwoven:
Shakespeare holds the Globe, and Dante
Works his way through Hell and Heaven,
Black Elk makes his solemn offering
Of the pipe with four bright feathers,
While White Buffalo Woman watches.
But upon the central column
There appear no human faces,
Only living things and textures
Of the planets: jungle, tundra,
Wood and honeycomb and crystal,
And an oval-shaped medallion,
Framed by rosemary and poppy,
Blank, except for the inscription
For the nameless. Overhead,
On the architrave is written
Vita est legenda -- that is,
"Life is legend," or, more deeply,
"Life is to be read." You enter,
And a spacious room receives you,
Lined with many books; at tables
Several persons are discovered,
Men and women, dressed in garments
Long and flowing, of one fashion
But of varying hues, matched subtly
To each person's type and aura,
Almost plain on younger persons,
Richly figured on the eldest,
With most various sign and symbol
Beaded, feathered and embroidered.
In the walls beside the entry
There are windows; in the facing
Wall, a door with one glass panel
Through which you can see the courtyard
As the porter, who sits reading
By the doorway, asks your errand,
You observe a staircase leading
To a gallery, book-lined also,
And more galleries receding
With diminishing six-sided
Figures ring the central cavern
Toward the crystal-pointed skylight
And the changing sky above.
As the porter will inform you,
On the ground floor are the oldest
Works of literature, the newest
Occupy the highest level;
If you want something specific
You may find it in a card-file,
For they do not use computers
(Though this poem is written on one).
Having mentioned this, the porter
At a glance surveys the readers,
Then with quiet steps approaches
One of middle years, and asks them
If their studies leave them leisure
To conduct an honored traveller
From the Time of Near Extinction
On a short tour of the building.
And this bard, gladly agreeing,
Opens first the right-hand doorway
To a hall with chairs and tables,
Like a coffeehouse. Large windows
On three sides there let the light in;
On the walls between them, cithar,
Harp and lyre, guitar and dulcimer
And whatever bards may play on
To accompany their recitals,
Are hung up for the convenience
Of the poets there conversing.
On the fourth, a serving-counter
Has been cut through to the kitchen,
And a bard with robe embroidered
Only just around the collar
Rises from their book behind it
As your guide requests two coffees.
Sipping yours, you note the frescoes
On the back wall and the side wall
Where you entered, showing gatherings
In all different times and places
Among such as share the word:
On the moors within stone circles,
Under trees, in hall and wigwam,
Round the council-fire of men
And the council-fire of women.
Here you see the harp or peace pipe
Or the speaking-stick being handed
By one speaker to another;
Here, intent upon their Talmud,
Two yeshiva students argue;
There are scenes of women talking
As they sit and weave together
Or beside the well, their pitchers
Resting while they speak their minds.
But the panel round which all these
Are arranged, depicts a woman
And a man, dressed in the costume
Of the century you have quitted,
Sitting at a sidewalk-table
With the city in the background;
From the faces' concentration
It appears as though a silence
Momentarily has fallen.
Should you ask your guide, "Who are they?",
You will hear, in brief, the legend
Of the poet and the poetess
Who took counsel with each other
In the Time of Near Extinction
To renew the Way of Bardcraft,
And begin the Great Reweaving.
When you've drunk your cup of coffee
(Or perhaps some other liquid
Better suited to this system)
At a sign from your conductor
You go back the way you entered,
Through the library and into
The next room, left of the entry,
Lined with shelves filled up with volumes
Similar in size and binding.
Here and there, as in the first room,
Several bards sit reading, writing,
And the one who seems in charge here,
After fitting introduction,
Tells you that this is the Archive
Of Life-Stories. Every bard here,
When they reach the age of fifty,
Has a customary duty
To record their life's experience,
Observations, and new learnings,
And each person in the city
Who desires to leave a record
May do likewise: for a twelvemonth
They are freed of obligations
Save the task of this recording.
As the archivist will tell you,
In this time there are no graveyards:
"It is fitting that the ashes
Of the body should be scattered
To the air and earth and water
From whose substance they were taken,
But the life-tale should be treasured."
Thence you pass into the adjoining
Room, whose shelves are filled with binders;
These the bard in charge will tell you,
Are the journals and the poems
Which the living of the city
Write and bring here for safekeeping,
And here several bards are busy
Poring over the latest pages
To discern the signs and portents
Which through dream and inspiration
Bring the message of the Spheres.
Hence the Highest Bards consult them
When they weave the equinoctial
Songs that speak to all the city.
In the last room on this level
All the walls are lined with portraits
From the wainscoting and upward,
While below, large horizontal
Files are filled, as the curator
Of this room will gladly show you,
With more portraits, in the order
Of the years when they were painted:
Men and women, youths and children,
Cast of feature and complexion
Varying, yet every likeness
Vivid and profound. Displaying
Leaf by leaf, the proud curator
Says, "These are the illustrations
To the great Book of the City";
And you feel that you could stand there
All your life just gazing into
Every pair of eyes depicted.
Seeing this, the wise curator
Calls attention to a curtain
That conceals what you had taken
For the opening of a doorway:
"Underneath," they say, "waits hidden,
Unexpressed, the single likeness
Every citizen must see here
After solemn preparation.
Hence I will not move the curtain
For you now; your intuition
Must divine what would appear."
From this room your guide conducts you
Through a door which you had noticed
On your right hand as you entered
Out into the central courtyard.
"Sit a moment by the fountain,"
Says your guide, "and I will tell you,
Now that you have seen the archives,
Something of the general layout.
As you see, the upper levels
Are made smaller than the lower,
So the central space diminishes
And each floor is cantilevered
Slightly over that beneath it;
In addition, all the chambers
Of each level are connected
By a gallery that encroaches
Further on the empty center.
As the first floor is devoted
To the city's past and present,
So the second is dedicated
To its coming generation.
When a child is born, the parents
Bring it to the Room of Naming,
Where before two bards, a woman
And a man, they tell their stories
And the stories of their parents,
And the bards observe the movements
Of the child, draw up a star-chart,
Lay the cards and sort the yarrow,
Till a name is found befitting
This new being and its heritage
And the hour of its birth.
After seven days the parents
Bring the child back for the naming
If the name still seems the right one:
Often later inspiration
Brings another name, whose rightness
All the parties recognize.
As the child grows up, the parents
Bring its drawings and its sayings
And its poems to the keepers
Of the Rooms of Children's Wisdom.
Every child born in the city
Has a box there, and the poets
Sift its contents to discover
What particular gifts and questions
This new person brings among us
As a message from the Spheres.
On the third floor are the classrooms
Where all children in the city
Who show promise of good bardcraft
Come to learn what every poet
Needs to know: the tales and poems
Which describe the world we live in
With its elements and creatures,
And the nature of our species,
And the Law it needs to follow
Lest the sheltering sky should crumble
As it almost did in your time;
Next, the rules of rhyme and meter,
Every form, and its best uses:
Melodies that lull and strengthen
And awaken intuition;
Then the ways of divination,
Dream- and text-interpretation,
And above all" -- they say, pointing
To the inscription round the basin
Of the pool, one word: "Attention"--
"In which word the sacred science
Of our bardcraft is contained."
Your attention caught by one thing
That now tugs it for the third time,
You inquire, "Do you believe, then,
That you can divine the future?"
"Not entirely," says your mentor,
"But the casts of divination,
Like the images in poems,
Are projections of a knowledge
Deeper than our understanding
Can descend, which only orders
What the diver Intuition
Fishes up; but at the same time
Intuition has no meaning
Save what Understanding gives it
In the context of connections
Which comprise our general knowledge.
If you grasp this, you are ready
To receive the signs that Heaven
And Earth send you, for your guidance.
In this spirit, too, the omens,
With all other ways of knowledge,
Are consulted on the fourth floor,
In the Rooms of Healing. Likewise
In the Rooms of Mediation
On the fifth floor, where the people
Come when quarrels fall among them,
Or when anyone is troubled
By the action of a neighbor
Tales are heard, and yarrow counted,
And two bards, a man and woman,
Meditate on the occurrence
Till in common constellation
They perceive the shape of justice.
Not by written laws we go here,
For no rule contains the future.
Know: the Law as we perceive it
Is more like the rules that govern
Terza rima and sestina
Than your statutes; 'tis a pattern
For the flow of love and knowledge,
Like the basins of this fountain.
It prescribes workday and Sabbath
And the seasonal assemblies
That attune us, through observance,
To the ways of earth and Heaven,
And the various other customs
Of which I have briefly told you.
But when wrong befalls, we meet it
As we can, and all our striving
Is to keep it from engraving
Its bad mark on our tradition.
So we do not speak of precedent,
But the ancient stories help us
To discern what may be fitting,
And the tale of every quarrel
With the judgment that was rendered
And the later consequences
For the parties and the city
Is recorded, for the most part
In the form of pithy fable,
Up there, in a special archive.
Of these tales the mediators
Read as much as they can stomach.
When a quarrel is presented
They consult their recollections
From such readings, as they ponder
What the best course here may be.
And the topmost ring, whose jutting
Over that beneath, you see here,
Is the Tier of Highest Council.
There the Highest Bards foregather
On the night of every Sabbath,
Eighteen men and eighteen women
In six groups of six divided,
To exchange their observations
And divine what new directions
Are intended by the Spheres."
Having given these explanations,
Your conductor now arises
From the fountain-side. Together
You ascend the staircase leading
To the building's upper stories.
But to tell of all the inscriptions,
All the carvings, all the frescoes
Suited to each chamber's purpose,
All the curious collections
Of bright stone and shell and feather
(To accompany the teaching
Of the Names, the teachers tell you),
All the methods of instruction,
Ceremonies and discussions
Which you witness on each level,
Would require a lens of higher
Resolution than the vision
Of this poet now possesses.
And you also may be thinking
That an elevator's needed,
And may wonder how to fit it
To the plan, without disturbing
Either symmetry or function--
To such questions I've no answer.
Someone else would have to draw it
With more skill in architecture.
So the House of Song and Story
Must remain, for now, unfinished,
But may many hands complete it,
May the people find the way there
Very soon; and say Amen.
First published in Bellowing