It’s been a long, long time since I read a poem that made a real difference to me.
Now this may be an odd thing to be confessing on a blog that purports to be about poetry. And it could as easily be a function of the fact that in your forties, many things lose their flavour; even novelty’s a bit passé. (Maybe that’s what a mid-life crisis is — the realization that one’s familiar with so much in one’s life that that little rush that used to come with new things is gone. Champagne’s just fizzy wine, caviar’s just fish eggs, and sex is that thing you do to create a new generation.)
Or maybe it’s a function of the fact that it’s rare to find an earth-shattering poem any more.
I like to think it’s the latter. That isn’t to say there aren’t good poets floating around. I like Heaney, and I like Walcott (I must like Walcott, he’s Caribbean). Some of what they write is wonderful. I’ve tried Graham and Hudgins and approved of their writing, but. I haven’t yet found anything that moves me like this:
E. K. Brathwaite
But my island is a pebble.
If you crack an egg,
watching its black jagged grin,
a glue of life exudes
a sticky death.
You cannot crack a pebble,
death. Seeds will not
take root on its cool sur-
face. It is a duck’s back
of water. A knife will not snap
it open. It will slay
but never bear children.
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying
Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.
Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
Except maybe this:
Safe, we thought.
The flood waters nestled
the arc of their udders, but no higher,
dewlaps, flanks, even the tips of the briskets,
dry. All day they stood
in the sea-scape meadow,
their square heads turned from the wind.
By evening they were dead.
Chill, we learned, not drowning,
killed them — the milk vein
thick on the floor of the chest
filling with cold, stunning the heart.
We had entered the house, where silt-water
sketched on the walls and doorways
a single age-ringing. When we looked back
they had fallen, only the crests of their bodies
breaking the waterline. I remember
the wind and a passive light,
then the jabber of black grackles
riding each shoulder’s upturned blade.