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The Way Down
By John Burt
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE
The Funeral Day
(Suffield, Connecticut, 1952)
Later, we folded our hands in his tidy room.
Patience taught us nothing: we sat for hours
While the brass clock mumbled to itself like a nun.
The shadows in the eaves began
To knot up all the air. And then outside
This bird just sang and sang and sang.
What was it to him? Where did he get the right?
I got up to close the window
And there I saw the tobacco-fields
Moving their shrouds in the dusk.
The wind came thoughtlessly over the wide cloth
And lifted the white undersides of leaves.
I didn't close the window. When I sat back down,
I didn't say what I had seen.
Three Songs from Paintings
by J. E. Millais
I. THE BLIND GIRL
The thrush was quiet, and the buzz of insects
Ceased to stumble in my ear. I said:
Sister, it is about to rain.
But she tugged my hand
And led me through the cool of day.
In the rattle of the leaves, the distant thunder
Hid its breath. Is there a tree,
I said, to shelter us awhile?
She pulled me on and did not say a word.
But you will be afraid, I thought,
When the storm comes striding on the plain;
And we will cower by the highway's side,
And you will cling to me, amid the shattered air
As if I were your dream.
I will hear the storm departing
Long before it ends for you,
And my heart will leap to meet the rainbow
You will only see.
II. THE BRIDESMAID
As you look at nothing, turning a ring in your hand,
Your lips part.
What reflection surfaces behind your eyes?
For half an hour you are silent
In the eddies of your hair.
If the perfume, and the smell of oranges
Were to unfold, if the sullen moon
Were to crease the coverts, as once it did
When wind went heaving through the dark—
You start. The candle on the table sways.
Somewhere a diver claws the soundless water
And then is still.
Quietly inhaling, you touch the flowers at your breast
And rise as slowly from the mirror as a star.
III. MARIANA IN THE MOATED GRANGE
Long shadows glide to the ground.
Among plane trees, the wind moves
Like the memory of wind.
Yellow leaves, shifting on the windowsill,
Fall like light.
The poison flower painted on the glass
Is a bending angel, an angel in disgrace.
In the recesses of the room,
Among September's purple disarray,
An unseen candle burns.
But it is no vision that moves among the leaves
Scattered on the floor, no dream that slants
Across the casement like the shadow of a man.
By the windowsill, where the sun of afternoon
Condensed upon the air, she had been weaving,
Singing to herself a song ten summers old.
But when the words ran out
And the dust bloomed in the light, she stood
And stretched amid the quiet of the room
Her eyes as empty as the wind.
Songs of Innocence
It is not narcissism, nor vanity,
But the blithe and gaudy irony of play
That paints the mouth a burning bud, arches
Tense the bow on brow, and sets the hectic
Spot on laughing cheek. Look mommy!
She cries, until she does.
She smiles hastily, discovering there
Not herself undone in wicked blazon,
Not the portent of hunger, sign of sorrow
Declared but not imagined, inevitable
But not realized. It is young bravery
Repeating the brave things she only later
Learns to mean, sure to stray, but sure
In straying, bound for shade, yet stopping here
To play with shades she later will assume.
It suits him fine to loiter in the late
Slant of winter light: the blind buildings
Keep their distance, and the air's austerity
Pleases him, and teaches him not to want.
It is not the weather that betrays.
Lesson's over: the girls' voices wake him,
And the glass door opens noiselessly. The room
Is warm, too warm, he tells himself, looking
At his feet. The linoleum is pink.
And so also the walls: pink cinder-block.
Their voices flutter in their inner room
Where they have been reaching, turning, bending,
In fierce red light streaming from high slats
Through dense shadows, tropical. "And you are?"
Startled, he tells her. She stands there smiling.
"A darling girl," she says, "She'll be right out."
She looks at him, smiling a bit too long,
Setting an old ache loose. But the girl comes,
Taking his hand, clearing the air with talk,
And leads him back into the cold, at last.
The water burns on the sand. Here
Is an arch. There a pillar.
Everywhere the sun.
In my father's house there are so many rooms
That I have lost myself for hours at a time.
Unspeaking slaves with jars of oil
Drown my footsteps in their own.
From every light well the same
Uncomprehending blue eye looks down. So
I have come to the edge of the sea.
Black sail, black keel, black wave,
What man is brother to me? Will he
Become a thing of corridors?
Will he become as shameful in his sight
As I am in my own?
Let this be a city which never knew a king,
A city without statues,
Built by no hand.
If a name is on the wall,
A guilty child scratched it there.
And let those who cross the ocean
Find among its avenues
No casks of wine, Phoenician gold,
Or shadows to be buried in.
The ocean's blue is the blue of the sky.
The sound of waves collapsing on the harbor bar
Cannot be parted from the wind.
The marble arches wither in the sun.
Paolo and Francesca
It only seemed a tempest. On the warm
Whirling of the wind we slid, and gave
Ourselves into its fullness. Sweet and grave,
The sorrow of her face composed the storm
Till we forgot our fear, and beating higher,
Our hearts grew keen and awful as the sun.
Dreams wound us in, and we became as one
Who looks into the mirror of desire.
Her mouth was clay, and on my lips the chill
Stole inward with a less than mortal sting
Whose promise and enthrallment were the same.
O you, who make a kingdom of the will,
In angel hunger for a human thing,
Your recompense is having what you claim.
Waiting for Birds
It wasn't half so strange to wake alone
As she had feared, she told herself, awake,
Waiting for birds, when night had cleared for her.
How proud of her he'd be, to see her now,
Who learned her bravery by heart from him.
The air was still as sorrow, and as cool.
If death were like this hour, yes, if death
Were breathing in the purple dark and calm,
Why then, it must be lucky and delicious,
And easy, easy and rich to let it take.
Is this the way? She lay so still, so ready,
She felt the little plates in every vein
Turn into gems. The nerves, unknotted, rayed
Their silver wire. And all of her was perfect,
All forgotten. This is how they lay
Forever in the sure repose of loss:
Outside, the stone sarcophagus, the charms
Against all suffering, against all hope;
Then ritual gold and lapis lazuli,
The body wrought by grief beyond decay;
Then, wrapped in linen, fragrant herbs, and balm,
A few charred random flakes of flesh.
But all at once an urgency of birds
Broke in her ear, glass ground on glass
Till up she leapt, raging and revived.
Birds, what can she tell you but never to rest?
Who doesn't eat his heart must let it rot.
On the Will to Believe
Who is awake? The wind is awake.
But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.
Will you walk with her in the darkness?
Here is the star she stole for you alone.
She will show to you a tree of thorns,
Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
You will read in the book of faces
But you will not find your own.
And you will remember then to stop, to lie
Down still, to say that if there were a mark
It would be there, and there would demonstrate
The love, the will, the calm necessity.
The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
The idiot moon will watch in the cold.
Learning the Table
What we cannot grasp
We get by heart,
Until it's ours
If any is:
Our hot, unmeaning
That seem and seem
But cannot be
Till they rehearse
And master us
And make us new.
Then we desire
What we must do
And choose again
What we cannot grasp
We get by heart.
I know thee not, nor ever saw
Sight more detestable than him or thee.
From the Greek teras, monster:
A heterogeneous tumor.
Immortal and confused,
It walks the twisted stair of self,
An embryo god, pluripotent,
Looking for what will last.
Here is a shard of bone.
Was it mine in eternity?
It shall be mine again.
Where there should be marrow it places hair.
This tangled net of nerve, is it also mine?
What I recognize I shall retain.
Nothing will be lost to me.
It folds a tooth in the midst of its flesh.
I shall not die. Sinew, cartilage, and seed
I use, but am not bound by them.
I have descended out of order and mortality.
Forever it will wonder at itself,
A lonely solipsist, lost in the genes,
Heaping shape on shape, untiring,
Trying to remember where it first went wrong,
Forgetting that death is not the price of sin
But mercy's tender innovation.
The Homecoming of Bran
So we bore the body of Bran beyond the gates
And placed him at the table's head.
We drank with him, and he did not decay.
We slept in shadows, and he did not close his eyes.
And for twenty months we heard the songs
Which the birds of Rhiannon sing for the weary and the dead.
And we saw no man other than ourselves.
And we poured our laughter on the ground.
And the sun laughed in his strength
Until Heilyn said,
"Where are the fields of this country?"
And we opened the east gate
And found nor fields nor pastures
Nor any cultivated land.
And Heilyn said,
"Where are the towns of this country?"
We opened the south gate
And found nor house nor hut
Nor wall of any kind.
And Heilyn said,
"Where are the men of this country?"
We opened the north gate
And saw the speechless shape
Of a man in fur, climbing the rocks far away.
And then we opened the west gate
And all our lands were there, and we remembered
Every blow we took beyond the sea,
And remembered our wives, that wailed us as widows,
And remembered the death of Prince Bran:
Whose body we burnt to ashes.
When we returned to our halls,
Strange men sat on all our thrones.
King Mark's Dream
It was the fumes of wine, that's all,
And sleeping all alone in that big hot bed.
He stood awhile at the sill: the stubble-rows
Were muffled up in snow. An empty tree shook,
And from the forest came the cries of distant wolves.
It was a dream. She was not flesh and blood.
And I am old to be so hot. I will pray
For an easy death before I lose myself.
But it was not death he woke to, not death
Who sat beside him, stilled his heart,
And loosened all the knots that held his breath,
But the child he found weeping at his door,
Who over again would count the names of woe,
Whom he had christened "love" and taught to whisper "mine."
From the Diary of Willard Gibbs
I wanted to write about "The Mind and Nature,"
One abstraction searching out another.
But the mind is never just itself.
We love Theory as poets love pale women,
For its perfection and its lack of pity.
And our love is just as happy.
Who can say which killed Galois:
The dancing girl for whose sake
He had his brains blown out in a duel;
Or her, less sensuous but no less coy,
His Theory, its freedom and pure promise,
What he fought his teachers for,
Wrote theorems out that no one read
(Or read as his calm mistress
Read his verses), until he lived apart
And sought unhappy company?
He saw too much perfection, and it unmanned him.
His letter to Gauss, that last night, is that
The Mind alone with Nature?
—Tear-stained and garbled, thick with his fear,
But willing his one clarity
To one he scarce believed would read it through?
Enough: I have myself preferred to compromise,
To teach mechanics to backward children
My treatise on gears, they said, had more geometry
Than iron in it, and the engine-governor
I built showed some new things about control.
I taught my classes and was free of them.
But in a cold house, on quiet nights
I traced my limits clearly as I could,
And found in them a Theory of my own.
I learned that every order runs to rot,
That every motion must in time be spent.
There must be loveliness in that unlovely law.
I gave it homage; I could not give it love.
I have, at least, survived my theories,
But did I master them by knowing them,
Or have I just lived too long?
The mind, I know. Nature casts me out.
Photograph from Luzon, 1899
He is fifteen in the picture, fighting in the Philippines,
Wearing a medic's uniform too large for him.
Some naked children, forgetting their game,
Look up at him but do not speak.
In a second they will run away,
And he, not seeing them, will still be standing straight,
Hands on hips, like one disdaining trial.
He did not have it taken for his parents—who were they?—
Nor for the aunt who, knowing, pitying,
Forgave him till she justified his contempt.
He had it taken for history's sake, having none,
His taunt to those who knew but would not tell
The unremembered grievance he fostered like a twin.
Those he bandaged, who cried out
Jesus when he pulled the dressings tight,
Saw that it was not the enemy alone he hated.
His captain said it was the strain of war,
Of fighting an enemy who crept
Between the pickets in the dark
And set the tents afire.
Was it the not knowing, or what he did not know?
The night before, a Filipino woman
Had surprised him, had touched his arm
In mute offer and entreaty. Later,
Having beaten her till she ran, he dreamed
Of women, pale and long-haired women
Who took him in their arms, saying
Sleep, sleep, it is enough,
And woke up reaching, wondering.
And then, lost in an unmastered past,
He fixed time's center here, glaring
At the glib photographer whose name he never learned,
Saying to himself, Hold on to this,
You who search my giddiness and pain.
This is what I was.
See now if you can master me.
His Kind-Hearted Woman
When RobertJohnson sang alone in hell
A tree sprang up, its branches phosphorescent
In the still gloom, its gleaming bark all silver
And all its leaves transparent, amethyst.
He touched a limb, and leaf on leaf onsliding
Shook out the timid sound of wakened bells.
He found in every secrecy of leaves
A fruit: he watched it rolling in his palm
Then put it cautiously into his mouth,
Its taste electric, bitter, passing quickly
Into nothing. At last they stained his hands,
As he was pulling from that ringing tree
Again and again, and the glittering storm of leaves
Shook over him their wakeful quavering.
And men and women came to him in hell
Awakened by the tree he'd set to cry,
Each eye insistent, each tongue full of blame,
Its candor loud and horrible and right,
How they'd been wronged, how they were not the first
To lose their way in love, how strange it was.
But every heart a hard uncertainty
Clutched tightly to itself as if in hope
That they might yet be wrong, that love itself
Were more than tangling, though it tangled them,
That he might ravel out their love and rage.
They heard themselves, then stood there dumb, ashamed,
And saw they'd do again what they had done,
Who'd never love until they gave up hope.
She'd had a dream before she poisoned him:
While she lay sleeping, he stood at her door
And longing gripped her till she held her breath
And opened to him; but he wasn't there,
And she went walking in the night alone
Through barren streets and barren alleyways
All strange to her, inhuman, like no place,
And brutal strangers laid their hands on her
And tore her gown. She woke aghast and knew
How knowingly he'd wink, and drink it down,
As if it were as sweet to him as love,
How even in convulsions, on all fours,
Slipping in his blood, a beast enraged,
Still he would shout: I'm not afraid. I'm not.
He was so grateful they were nice to him
He almost put from sight the irony
They didn't know they felt, much less betrayed.
He didn't know what to allow himself.
That he had failed her he was well aware
Although he knew she'd never noticed it
Not having given him the chance to fail.
The words he might have used for what she'd done
"Deceit," "betrayal," "infidelity,"
Seemed grandiose and false. If that were grief
It ought to be a purer thing than what
He had these days been stalking in his mind,
Half doubting it was there, afraid at once
It might, or else might not, be stalking him.
He was her husband. He had a right to guilt,
To angry incredulity, to grief.
But what he felt was blank and at a loss.
He'd have to get his bearings from his friends,
Whose very kindness stopped him in his tracks.
He didn't doubt that they meant well by him,
For if he did, where would he find himself?
Not hell, for sure, he was already there,
Nor limbo, where he saw he'd been before.
Then paradise, for doubting them he'd hate,
And hating, burn to purity again.
He'd known, almost at once, how it would be:
They wouldn't fear to see themselves in him
(As he, God knows, would not have seen himself
Had it all happened to somebody else)
Because they thought him far too dull to blame.
They'd swaddle him in kindness like a child
Who mustn't learn what he can't bear to learn
And so learns nothing, except to crave and fear
That worst surmise he makes despite it all:
He'd never wronged her, for he'd never mattered.
But even Doctor Mandelet, who took
His elbow as he wobbled off the train
Into a crowd whose tongue had slipped his mind,
Parting the wave (How people put their hands
All over you in a crowd—are you unreal
To them?—as if that hidden little push
From nobody, that hot breath in the ear,
Were not more intimate than you can be
With anyone you love!), who had the only
Fully-formed intention in that stifling
Sweetness and love-languor of the air,
Was not so wise as to conceal his tact.
Excerpted from The Way Down by John Burt. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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