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This poem is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.Five Poems
DELPHI, THE SECOND DAY
Here the unquiet voice agrees to love
Flagstones time enslaves, delivers,
The olive tree whose strength tastes of dry stone.
The footstep in its true place. The unquiet
Voice happy beneath the rocks of silence,
And the infinite, the undefined response
Of death, shore, cattle bells. Your bright abyss
Inspired no awe, Delphi on the second day.
THAT DISCOVERED COUNTRY
Star on the threshold. Wind,
Held in motionless hands.
Speech and wind fought on and on,
And then the sudden silence of the wind.
That discovered country: all grey stone.
Far off, deep down, a no river's light shone.
But the rains of night on the surprised earth
Have awakened the ardour you name time.
AND SO THE LAMP WAS BURNING LOW
And so the lamp was burning low,
Was bending its grey face towards you,
Was trembling, in the space of the trees,
Like a wounded bird laden with death.
Will the oil breaking in the ports of
The ashen sea grow crimson one last day,
Will the ship which wants foam first then shore
Appear at last beneath the star of day?
There's only stone here, its soul enormous, grey
And you, you walked, and day time did not come.
from THE CLOUDS
One with the others, ships arriving
In musical intervals. It seems to me, at times,
That necessity is metamorphosed
As at the end of the Winter's Tale
When they all recognize each other, when you see
From level to level in the light
That those who have been cast by pride and doubt
From place to place in their idle talk
Find and know themselves. Their silence in that moment
Speaks; and their few words are silence
Whether from joy or sorrow who can say
'But in the extremity of the one it must needs be.'
They looked, the witness also said,
Grown thoughtful, on his way
Away, 'as they had heard of a world
Ransomed, or one destroyed.'
And two of them crimson, a father, a daughter,
And, closer, a third, the statue of a woman,
Mother of beauty, mother of meaning,
Who you see, though she has been motionless
A long time, her voice stifled
From age to age, denied, animated
Only by the magic of sculpture,
Is coming to life, and will speak. Lightning
Her eyes opening in the abyss of clear sandstone,
But lightning that smiles as if, condemned
To follow the sterile flow of a dream
But finding gold in the virgin sand,
She had taken thought and consented.
Then the man approaches, his harrowed
Face softening at so much joy.
He climbs the steps of the hour that flees,
In bursts, for the sky changes, night is coming,
And wavers where she awaits him, starry night
Opening wide, music. He straightens up,
He turns towards the universe. Its features glitter
With the phosphorescence of the absolute,
And day recovers for them and for us,
Like a vein filling with blood again - a summit
Of trees crevassed by lightning, rivers,
Castles peaceful on the far shore. Yes,
An earth upheld on its columns of cloud.
And what matter if the man, under the turning sky,
Wavers a second time, says to the woman
Who is already half swept-away, a black cloud,
Some words no one hears and then turns,
Draws back from her as she begins to vanish,
And leans to her
And hides his weeping face in her pure hands
Since from the West, which is still light,
A flat-bottomed ship, its prow a figure
Of fire, of smoke, comes into view,
A re-opened book, a red cloud, at the crest
Of the swelling wave. It approaches,
Tacks about slowly, you cannot see
Its decks, its masts, cannot hear the shouts
Of its crew, cannot guess
The chimeras, the hopes of the men
Crowded at the bow, wide-eyed,
Nor what new horizons they glimpse,
What shore perhaps, nor do you know
What burning city they are fleeing from,
What unattainable Troy; but you feel
All of summer's heat, our anguish, beating
In that bare arm . . . Have faith, redeemed earth,
A sense may grow in your words, as transparency
Grows in the grapes of aging summer.
When you speak or sing, child,
Immediately I dream that the whole earthly arbor
Is shining; and that this weight
Of stars huddled in the cold, of stones
Dense as unrevealed tongues, of peaks
Still wrapped in our night, of cries of despair
And cries of joy, of lives parted
In the enigma, of mistakes, breakdowns, solitudes,
But of dawns, too, of premonitions,
Of waters unraveling in the distance, of reunions,
Of children playing brightly on passing bows,
Of fires in the open house, of calls
At evening, from door to door in the stillness,
That this truth, this place, this almost good,
Long a green cluster, is ripening now.
It is all so coherent, isn't it, so ready
Though, of course, still sealed? The morning sun
And the evening sun, the illuminated, two
Blind oxen, indeed pull the plough
Of universal, unattained gold,
And, true, a chain of stars clinks on their foreheads,
Indifferent stars: yet they keep on
As water evaporates, as a salt settles out
And is it not you there, mother with bright eyes,
Earth, who drive them,
Your red dress torn, no, parted slightly,
Under the arch of the first-born star?
But always and distinctly I also see
The black stain in the image, I hear
The cry that pierces the music, and know
In myself the poverty of meaning. No,
Our place, in its darkness, can have no pretense
To transfigurations. I speak of hope,
Its joy, even its fire, like a full cluster
Of grapes, when the lightning each night strikes
The window, when things would gather in the flash
As in the place of origin, and the paths would shine
In the gardens of lightning, and beauty turn
Her wandering step there . . . I speak of the dream,
But only so that wounded words may rest.
And I can even speak, and am sometimes tempted
To speak to you, feverish signs,
Crying out, of great painted halls,
Shaded inner courtyards, summer's fullness
On the cool flagstones, the murmur
As of absent water, the breast
That is like water, one, infinite,
Swollen with red clay. To give you
A ring of palm-tree skies, but also
This heavy ring at the heel, that a warm
And indifferent hand slips over the arch
Of a lean foot, even though
The half-opened mouth seeks only
The memory of another. 'Look at me,'
The voice that is nothing would say through mine,
'I lie, infinitely, yet I please you,
I am not, yet I shut my eyes,
If you wish I will bend my dark neck,
I will sing, if you wish, weary spirit,
Or feign sleep . . .'. At dusk
The wasp is crowned with light, she reigns
Absolute over the cluster of grapes
In her moment of groping ascension.
No, we're not cured of the garden, any more
Than the dream's outpouring, swollen with black
Water, ceases when we open our eyes.
In the half-light of the glittering
Rush from below, we shall still load
Our flat-bottomed boat with fruit, with flowers
Like a red fire, whose smoke
Will scatter its acrid images along
The hours and shores. And what childish hopes
Under the branches! What a journey
Among consenting words! Though night, even there,
Brushes us with an unnoticed wing
And dips its beak, even there, in the quick water.
from Dans le leurre du seuil (1975); this translation has previously appeared in The Paris Review.
THE DIALOGUE OF ANGUISH AND DESIRE
Often I imagine a sacrificial face
Above me, its rays like a field
Of ploughed earth. Lips and eyes smiling,
Brow downcast, a low and tedious
Sound of the sea. I say: Be my strength,
And its light burns brighter, it looks down
On a land of war at dawn and the length
Of a flooded river whose meanders reassure
This taken, fertilized earth.
And then I'm surprised that it needed
Such time, such effort. For the fruit
Was already the glory of the trees. And the sun
Already shone on the evening land.
I look at the high plateaus where I can live,
This hand that holds another stony hand,
This breathing of absence that stirs up
The masses of an unfinished autumn ploughing.
And I think of Kore the absent; who took
In her hands the dark, glittering heart of the flowers
And fell, drinking blackness, unrevealed,
On the meadow of light - and shade. I understand
This sin, death. Asphodels and jasmine
Grow in our country. There the banks
Of a clear, green, shallow water make the shadow
Of the world's heart shiver . . . Yes, take the flower.
The sin of cutting it is forgiven us,
The whole soul bends over a simple saying,
The grey wash is lost in the ripened fruit.
The iron of warring words subsides
In the happy stream of matter.
Yes, that's it.
A flash in the old words.
All the steps
Of our life rising in the distance like a blessed
Sea, lit by a blade of live water.
We no longer need
Harrowing images in order to love.
That tree over there is enough for us, loosed
From itself by light, knowing nothing
But the almost uttered name of an almost incarnate god.
And this high land burnt by the One in its nearness,
And this white-washed wall that simple time
Touches with its hands that know no sadness
And have made their measure.
And this is my pride,
O less in half-light, o more beloved,
No longer strange to me. I know, we grew up
In the same dark gardens. We have drunk
The same uneasy water under the trees.
The same stern angel has threatened you.
And our steps are the same, untangling themselves
From the thorns of forgettable childhood, from the same
Imagine that the light
Lingered on the earth one evening,
Opening the storm and bounty of its hand,
Whose palm is our place of anguish and hope.
Imagine light a victim
For the saving of a mortal place, under a dark,
Indeed, and distant god. The afternoon
Was crimson, a single stroke. Imaginings
Tore themselves in the mirror, turning towards us
The bright silver of their smiling faces.
And we've grown a little older. And happiness
Has ripened its bright fruit in absent branches.
Is that a nearer country, my pure water?
Do these paths you take among thankless words
Lead along a shore now forever your home,
To music 'over there', to peace 'at night'?
O with your wing of earth and darkness wake us,
Angel wide as the earth, and bring us
Here, to the same spot on the mortal earth,
For a beginning. Let the ancient fruit
Appease our hunger and thirst at last.
Let the fire be our fire. And our waiting change
Into this destiny, this hour, this place.
Iron, absolute wheat,
Having sprouted in the fallow ground of our gestures,
Of our hands, cursed but pure,
And fallen in grains that have received the gold
Of an hour, like the circle of these nearer stars,
Benevolent and void,
Here, where we are going,
Where we have learned the universal tongue,
Open, speak to us, burst,
Burnt crown, bright pulse,
Amber of a solar heart.
From Pierre Ecrite (1965).
Poems copyright © Poèmes, Mercure de France, 1978; Editions Gallimard (paper-back), 1982.
This poem is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.