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PN Review 276
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This poem is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

Orpheus and Eurydice Iain Crichton Smith

Among the minerals the god sat,
among the lead the silver and the gold,
among the cropped acres of the dead
as in a phantom theatre.
                        There was a cold

and icy atmosphere, but he played
as freshly as he could. The faces paled
in front of him. It was an audience made
of all the dead. His music almost failed

as now it often failed since she had died.
The god was a looming presence, a grey fog
which swirled and swayed, ungraciously denied,
It was not dialogue but monologue

within a shapeless mist. O where's my bride?
What's happened to my art, my brilliant lyre?
And yet there's order here among the dead.
Just when I want them will these strings expire?

As these mouths and eyes hunger for my song?
O god of mercy, forgive me all my hate,
rancours, misdeeds, crookedness and wrong,
and let my music be inviolate,

this music sweet and old and melancholy,
nostalgic echoes of the days we strayed
about our April landscape, when the chilly
air gave place to warmth, and the lambs played

among the emerald fields. O please forgive,
swart god of minerals, my early days
of rashness and of hubris. How can I live
in pictures of the past, a screen of shadows

which shows my obstinacies, viciousness?
Lean forward to me, with individual face.
Forgive, dark god, my double-coloured dress.
I wished to meet you with an elegant grace

among the iron and uranium,
and all these barren minerals. Your throne
towers in front of me, and you are grim,
a changing manifold presence in a gown

it seems of mobile metal. Let me pray
to be a pure musician, who has lost
irrelevant feeling. I was once outré
and brash and colourful. But now my past

rises in front of me on a vast screen.
I was a sickly courtier, a loud
being of bravado, and disdain,
I did not know the humble, I was proud

I have betrayed so many for my art.
Pluto, I beg you listen to my song,
let me engrave the issues of my heart.
I, the daring hero, am not strong

in this dark place among the asphodels,
the hisses of the dead, their snakelike gaze,
this silent haziness of silent bells.
Their days, their days, how do they spend their days?

Forgive me, I was happy once or twice.
But now such secrets open like a bomb
whenever I step out, iniquitous.
My lyre won't sing in this uranium,

in this tremendous theatre. They don't clap,
and, if they clap, I cannot rightly hear.
I see this place as an extinguished map
of smoke and soot. I walk in love and fear

about this stage, all made of fog and mist.
I am hardly here myself, I am a wraith.
I am a phantom lost among the lost
in this gaunt chest. Where is my real path?

I need to be soldered back again to bone,
to confidence and greatness. I can see
the hungry terrible faces. Who has shown
these deathly shapeless presences to me.

a television of the infinite,
opera of the infinite, who cry
silently to be free from this loose night.
See, someone gnaws his arms. There is an eye

glares viciously and hatefully, a head
is patched with nervous rash, a cheek is torn.
Someone is shaking in that dolorous lead
as a breeze might wave lazily among corn.

Prodigious theatre! Prodigious lacks!
Prodigious longings for the world above -
to move, just once again, in shirts and slacks,
in skirts and lax conspicuousness of love

in a free and easy brilliance with wit,
auspicious humour and the slant of luck.
To wash one's car the jewel of one's heart!
or sail one's yacht around the jutting rock.

in blue and white.
Their outstretched necks lean out
like cockerels at dawning, when the clouds
are coppery or amber or distraught.
Such is the hunger of these thrusting heads.

To live again those nights of gins and moons
or walk their panting dogs among the moors
of sheep and walls and daffodils and stones.
To throw open in the morning their wide doors

or bend among the roses, snip a twig,
and open with a spade the rainswept turf,
set in its place another block or brick,
or mend the slates along an angular roof,

or sitting comfortably read a paper
with coffee by their side in the morning sun,
or light a candle for a private supper
when the two of you are once again alone

their mouths are hungering. O those endless days
among this haze how shall they endure?
The blur of thoughts and second-hand ideas,
memories of life and literature,

quotations, theses, and the prize days when
they climbed the platform among fresh bouquets
and they were praised by bald and red-cheeked men
and saw ahead of them quite simple stairs.

In this great theatre they're not wholly dead.
Who is this visitor, what is his name?
Is it true he can leave again this ghastly lead?
Is it true he can compose a fresh poem?

We hate him, how we hate him. If we could
we'd kill him here and now. We'd strangle him.
We'd smash his instrument of real wood.
We'd tear his flesh apart: set it aflame.

How does he dare engage us in this pain,
exquisite voyages, experiences,
which he strings easily like a daisy chain.
Does he not know these sudden brilliances

pierce us like death once more?
His magic lyre
provokes old presences (and failures too).
They raise in us many an old desire
our spirits don't have energy to pursue,

such vague enraging precious memories.
Schoolbags on our backs we climb steep braes
or stand transfixed by deep and desolate quarries
or sway and dribble on clear vernal days

among the shadows of an emerald field.
O what is age to children made of fire?
Surely these young bones will never yield
to elegies that are made on a sweet lyre,

as they set out on freshly-thought exploits,
adventures among rivers, among woods,
among the hills and valleys and quiet roads,
gigantic trees, romantic solitudes,

with frogs and eels, rabbits and toads and stoats,
crocuses, foxgloves, daisies and deep fern,
great shadowy aeroplanes, and kites, and boats,
the country of the seagull and the heron.

What is left of these, adept musician,
but marble heads and arms seen among leaves,
a glimpse of bluish sky, an intermission
of sapphire-coloured and mysterious caves?

How can we bear your lyre, your piercing songs?
They rake our nerves which tremble like your wires.
They grate among our pale anonymous throngs
like pop songs blaring from a speeding hearse.

And what is worse than that, the incomplete
lives we left behind us Such a stroke
fell as if from heaven and our great
timetables and schemes, set by the clock

and diaries on our desks suddenly shattered
and fell in fragments as a dear vase might.
Faxes, processors, computers cluttered
uselessly a room in which we sought

meaning and profundity. Young poet,
what do you tell us in your precious song,
though isn't it too late for us to know it?
Why should she be saved? Do we not belong

as much as she does to the upper air,
its motorways and theatres and stores,
its garages and cinemas and rare
emporia with glassy sliding doors.

We miss our shopping bags and dialogues,
stray conversations in the morning light.
We miss our costumes, dresses, and our brogues,
for all that we see here is stalactite

and stalagmite hung icily from roofs,
carved icy forms of subterranean chess,
carved faces of aristocrats, aloof
cold and disdainful in their loneliness

and vanity and arrogance. We hear
descending from the upper world the din
of cars and horns and motorcycles, gear
of factories and markets. We begin

in thought to walk along spring avenues,
between tall leafy trees, and in the shade
we see the fallen acorns. Who would refuse
to return again in youth to where we strayed

in our loose jackets, blouses, by a stream
or watched the buzzing wasps and flies and bees,
or lay in parks as in an emerald dream
reading perhaps the Odyssey in such peace

as now does not return. The time so long,
the time so meaningless, biting at our heart.
And now you bring to us your daytime song
and all the subtle motions of your art

but you will soon be gone and then again
the silence will descend and we're once more
an audience of nothing but our pain.
Ask Pluto why he keeps this shadowy corps

without delineation of intent.
Our work was hard and now our idleness
is just as hard. O could he once relent
and send us home again in daily dress

to cook our meals and drink our beer and wine.
We have such angry thoughts. What did it mean,
that journey from the cradle to the pine
or oaken coffin? What did this machine

of nerves and veins and bones and sovereign brain
signify. We ask you. Tell us why
the frosty stars were brilliant on the plain
and diamonded idea of the sky?

And there are dusty books about the place,
theologies, astrologies and tomes
of logic and philosophy. These address
- in prose and theorems and didactic poems -

the issues of our lives while Pluto lies
among the silver and the gold and lead,
saturnine, sardonic, while precise
scales are sometimes shared among the dead,

but Pluto never speaks, in this grey light,
smoky, perfidious, where the spirits breathe
slowly in and out. Where is the bright
greenery of spring, freshness of heath,

only this gaseous atmosphere of sleep,
eternal drowsiness, mixed with a quick rage,
If we could point a magic telescope
through an open window and see engaged

with clouds and sunlight eagles on the wing,
hovering buzzards, linnets, swifts and larks,
and swallows speeding in a brilliant ring
around a village where no danger lurks…

But Pluto has consented! She can go.
O less than audience the god was touched
by Orpheus's sighing tremolo.
She could prepare to follow him, only hedged

by one provision, he must not look back
as he climbed his road of harmony and air
towards the height of his glad zodiac,
the daring trembling visual atmosphere.

Yes, she could follow. The spirits enraged
listened to the verdict and a hiss
seethed angrily among them, like the snake
that had found Eurydice outside the house

one day in spring, with washing on the line,
a gallery as if of paintings there.
Everything was pure and crystalline
and it was then the fangs struck sharp and bare

at that dear moment when her whole life
seemed perfect in its essence, and no cloud
hovered about the young devoted wife.
Just at that moment the gang of gods allowed

the snake to strike exactly like a clock.
For often it so happens that the right
and excellent moment will attract a stroke
lethal and rapid, flashed through day or night -

so the snake struck, a quick flicker of tongue,
with instantaneous venom and she fell
out of the towering familiar morning.
It was as if a black inviolate bell,

predestined, punctual, had slowly tolled.
The snake had heard it and Eurydice too.
It might have been of silver or of gold,
However, it tolled out among that blue,

and though he brought first water and then wine
to touch her lips, she whispered she was cold.
He shouted to the gods, But she is mine.
And noone listened as the ambulance rolled

on to the road and then accelerant,
blue light on top, spinning in deep blue,
raced with disciplined energy while her gaunt
face was thinning on the white pillow.

Nothing could save her, not the frantic nurses
running with their trolleys through the ward,
nothing could prevent the polished hearse's
sedate procession with its bouquets stored

while she lay quiet and wholly dignified.
A Roman gravity refined her face.
O she is no longer his beloved bride.
This is her final adamantine dress.

And after that I could not play my lyre.
Restlessly I roamed the hills and slopes
where I was watched by the wild questioning deer
in dew or dryness. O there was no hope

of resurrection in that quietness.
The birds still sang, and the lively rabbits played,
but I was cased in silence and remoteness.
The clouds above were clouds inside my head,

such tangled thoughts I had. And when I wasn't
roving the meadows I would sit and drink
among the dishevelled shambles of my present.
I couldn't cure me of my sweaty stink.

How was it that the world so soon became
a wilderness. a death? Where was my companion
who gave a certain witness to my name?
In marriage there is safety, in that union

safety against madness. For the landscape moved
in a deadly shimmer of insanity.
The chairs would change their shapes, the lyre I loved,
became a plasticine of vanity.

The tables shifted. O, I could not tell
the terror of those moments, how the bed
elongated and shortened in my hell
of dissolution. And I could not read.

My books became miniature tombstones
I held up gravely without concentration
and I who had once moved the very stones
was stone myself.
Music's sweet condition

became a barren landscape without song.
O how can one express a random death.
The refrigerator hummed, the doors went wrong.
The radio whispered. I would watch a moth

fall ring by ring towards the rustling bulb.
O everything shall die, even my lyre.
All shall inherit a chaotic hubbub.
Nothing ever again will be sharp and clear

with detail as in paintings, my Vermeer
with all its mathematical pure light
(the milkmaid pouring milk into her ewer,
the soldier and the girl in their delight

of lyric laughter). What could art narrate
against this meaningless and sore decor?
What could I see in landscape or in portrait?
What even in great music could I hear?

I thought of Dante feeding limbs like worms
into his three-barred fire. I thought of you
whose music was too sweet for Roman arms,
I thought of Venice in its candid blue,

but nothing healed me. And my head was thick
with drink and negligence and conscience.
O surely I was tempted by old Nick
to my own death and final senselessness.

And still the birds were singing every dawn
and still the adder made its sinuous ring.
And still I saw the scholarly gaunt heron
in immense patience with its folded wings

hunch by the water. And still the sheep
cropped the cheap grass and still the reddish fox
loped easily across the brown landscape
(interrupted now and then by blazing rocks).

And still I lay in death among my bottles
and mounds of cigarettes and littered scores,
remains of coffee and of fractured victuals,
dirty saucers, dirty plates and floors.

My bearded sickly face peered from the mirror,
wild eyes in shrubbery. I was like a wild
convict or madman, unreleased from horror.
My eyes blue eggs in a dishevelled field.

My future was now coiled about itself.
I could not see a road extend ahead.
I could have howled implacably like a wolf
at the yellow moon to which it raised its head.

I would not speak to anyone. I'd hide
in my untidy bedroom of piled sheets.
I hoarded pills and thought of suicide.
I'd smell her perfumes, or her gloves, her sweet

and tiny linen Irish handkerchiefs.
I'd touch her purse, her mirrors. I became
a connoisseur of hauntedness and griefs.
I wove such lovely legends round her name.

And then I searched for misty Hades to
plead with Pluto for my wife's return
up to the upper air and the sky's blue
from that black waste of gloomy lead and iron.

And I saw much on that compulsive road,
the body of a lamb and many birds
that had been struck by windscreens on the head,
a yellow dog a crow was flying towards.

Death, I have seen you on an April day
with your sparkling scythe and brilliant debonair
behaviour, not at all outré.
The stoat eels slyly towards the big-eared hare.

The deer peers questioningly towards the gun,
the grouse falls awkwardly on broken wing,
the eagle bullets fiercely from the sun
and there's a vague and useless fluttering.

The owl sits wisely on a leafy tree
before descending on the rustling mouse.
And the cat loiters in the shrubbery
for a rabbit or a vole. Anonymous

is that small, trivial and pain-filled death
among the bracken and the greenery
the marsh or field or moor or plain or heath
far from the azure acres of the sky.

So many deaths, so many trembling deaths.
And Death himself is springy in his tread
sparkling in this country without wreaths
or colourful memorial to the dead.

So stylish and so vigorous in his walk
as a great landowner will often be
among the deferent and ignorant folk
far from his gallery and jewellery.

He pokes his stick and then a pheasant dies
or a little linnet falls from the bright air.
For such as him this land's a paradise
(though according to the Book he was never there).

I sought for Hades many nights and days
and found it at the end like a hidden well
that spiralled downwards by grey foggy stairs
till I found the god in his imperial

station in the centre of the maze.
I played for her dear life. He let her go.
I climbed again among these vague ideas
and heard them screaming their eternal No.

She must not leave. We'll drag her back again.
They bit with phantom teeth and phantom claws
(I remembered the grey buzzard and the wren
the darting mouse retrieved by the cat's claws)
and then I thought, Such deaths are natural.
My music must know this or it decays
among the misty and the sentimental.

This has been shown on many a classic vase.

Disorder of the universe cannot be
other than destructive, said a voice.
And Pluto should not bend his marble sway
in a moment generous and tremulous.

The law is like a belt around the waist.
It is a circlet, an eternal ring.
It illuminates the worlds of which we're guest
and in the jewelled night you hear it sing

its accurate brilliant eternal song
when stars are shining and the moon is white.
It is to be found among that infinite throng,
inveterate, unyielding, and complete,

and will remain while birds fall from the clouds
and rabbits tremble in the face of stoats
and tigers stalk the easy gleaming herds
and lions will set out in stylish coats.

That she should die twice, my dearest one, I thought.
And so I turned and looked and she was gone.
The audience sighed as if an actor wrought
some curious device.
                    And I walked on.

That look we gave each other then, I thought,
Who could deserve it. O no painter could
no matter how much used he was to portrait,

noone could freeze it in its similitude.

It lasted for a second, less than that,
And yet I think it was a thousand years
of feeling and of knowledge and of thought.

It crossed like Einstein's light the universe
in micro micro seconds. You will find
that painters trying to fix it always fail,
it is not a simple ray of simple mind
and I should hesitate to call it 'soul'

It is a longing that gives longing up.
It is a passion that for passion's sake
will turn away from the enticing cup.
It is a sacrifice, it is an ache.

It is my lyre demanding its true art.
How could it live if we should all return?
Or sing for a particular élite
which never dies among the lead and iron?

My lyre knew what was right. And so it played
more freshly when I rose into the breeze.
It briskly noticed the long motorcade,
new painted garage, flimsy enterprise,

freshly-dug earth and yellow helmeted crews,
windscreens flashing in the random sun,
newsvendors shouting the day's news,
and most amazingly an upright nun

driving a Porsche through that intense traffic.
A tinker going up to council doors
with baskets she had made.
And then the graphic
ads above the marvellous superstores,

and boys on bicycles and girls at mirrors
and bankrupt Heartbreak in his limousine
and cold Indifference clattering out its morse
and ignorant Deference in its local sin,

and all that sparkling great emporium
of lies and truths and griefs and loves and joys,
this that the seasons make into our home
what we delineate in verse and prose

as if we should take Mars into our house.

Great Abstractions fill its every room.
And it at times seems good and precious,
at other times a commonplace of doom,

but nevertheless our home, as my lyre says,
though Eurydice be gone with her own sense.
And I of these processions and ideas
construct a country and a lucid fence

and sing. In spite of everything it's good,
the res we suffer and we glorify

This globe, these phantoms, and this plenitude,
this universe in which, of which, we die,

these bold bright crayons and our stricter mood,
and that proud art our hearts must verify.

This poem is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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