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Who, if I cried, would hear me, of the angelic
orders? or even supposing that one should
carry me to his heart – I should perish under
of his stronger nature. For beauty is only a
removed from a burning terror we barely
and we worship it for the graceful sublimity
with which it disdains to consume us. Each
And so I hold back, and swallow down the
the dark call heard in the cave of the heart.
who then can serve our need? Not angels, not
beings; and even the sly beasts begin to
that we do not feel too much at home
in our interpreted world. Perhaps we can call
a tree we noticed on a slope somewhere
and passed in our daily walk – the streets
of a city we knew, or a habit’s dumb
a habit that liked our space, and so it stayed.
Oh, and the night, the night – when the wind
full of emptiness
feeds on our features – how should she not be
– the long desired, mild disenchantress,
sure disappointer of the labouring heart.
Is she kinder to lovers perhaps? No, they hide
seeking security in an embrace.
Haven’t you grasped it yet? Throw from your arms the nothing
lies between them
into the space that we breathe as an atmosphere
to enable the birds, perhaps, in new zest of
to hurl their flight through the expanded air.
Yes, the springtimes needed you. Stars now and
craved your attention. A wave rose
in the remembered past; or as you came by the
a violin was singing its soul out. All this
was a given task. But were you capacious
enough to receive it? Weren’t you always
distracted with expectation, imagining
these hints the heralds of a human love? (Where
will you keep her,
the loved one – you with your vast strange
always coming and going, and taking up too much
If you feel longing, though, sing of the
lovers, the great ones;
who has adequately immortalized
their alchemy of the heart? The unrequited -
you envied them almost, finding them so much more
loving than the physically satisfied. Begin, then,
the praise of what can never be praised enough.
Consider: the hero maintains an identity,
even his last stand merely a last occasion
for self-assertion – a kind of ultimate birth.
But lovers Nature takes to herself again
as if she lacked resources
to do it a second time: exhausted and fulfilled.
Have you pondered enough on Gaspara Stampa – that any girl
whose lover jilts her can take that life as a model
and think: I could be like her?
Shouldn’t at last these ancient familiar sorrows
bear feeling fruit in our lives? Isn’t it time
to free ourselves from the loved one, and bear the tension
as the arrow endures the tensed string – to gather its forces
and spring to a state of being that is more
than it could ever be? It is death to stand still.
Voices; voices, and echoes. Listen, my heart, as only
saints listened of old, till the giant summons
lifted them from the ground – but they went on kneeling,
impossibly, and stopped the ears of the heart.
That was their way. Don’t think, though, that you could endure
God’s voice – far from it. But listen for the whisper,
the wind that breathes out of silence continuing news.
Those who died young: their fate a picture
you saw on speaking tablets at Rome or Naples
or in Santa Maria Formosa, where a few bare words
What do they want of me? That I should gently
undo the apparent injustice of their deaths:
that last hindrance to their spirits’ progress.
Strange it is, to inhabit the earth no longer,
to have no more use for habits hardly acquired –
roses, and other things of singular promise,
no longer to see them in terms of a human future;
to be no more all that we nurtured and carried
in endlessly anxious hands, and to leave by the roadside
one’s own name even, like a child’s broken doll.
Strange, not to have wishes any more.
To see, where things were related, only a looseness
fluttering in space. And its hard, being dead,
and takes much difficult recapitulation
to glimpse the tiniest hint of eternity.
The living, though, are too ready to posit a border
between two states of being: a human mistake.
Angels, it’s said, are often uncertain
whether they traverse the living or the dead. The eternal current
pours through both worlds, bearing all ages with it,
and overpowers their voices with their song.
They finally need us no longer, the early departed:
they grow beyond earthly things, as a child mildly
outgrows the mother’s breast. But we, left standing
before closed doors – we from whose living sorrow
blessedest growth can spring – where should we be
Think again of the story
how at Linus’ departing a boldly tentative music
pierced, for the first time, the soul’s blank grief;
and in that startled vacuum from which an almost godlike
boy exited for ever, the air fell
into that intermittent pure vibration
which for us mortals is rapture, and comfort, and help.
O trees of life, when is your winter season?
We are divided. Lack the knowledge of
migrating birds. Belated and outstripped,
we hurl ourselves suddenly on the wind
to tumble on a pond of misconceptions.
Both growth and withering present to our minds.
And somewhere lions wander in their glory,
and know in all their days no dearth of power.
We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.
Who has not sat expectant
before the curtain of the heart’s theatre?
And up it went. A scenery of farewells.
Easy to picture. The remembered garden,
the backdrop faintly stirred. Then came the dancer.
Not him. I’ve had enough. For all his footwork,
he is a fraud, a bourgeois in disguise,
and passes through the kitchen to his dwelling.
I cannot take these half-invested masks.
Better the puppet. That is full, and honest.
Out with pretence. I can accept the wires,
the stuffing and integuments, that face
of mere appearance. On with the show. I’m here.
If all the lights go dim, even if they tell me
the play is over, and only emptiness
drifts from the stage on the sickening grey air,
if none of my mute ancestors remain
to sit with me, no woman that I loved,
and even the squinting brown-eyed boy is gone
who died so young, I’ll stay here just the same.
Am I not right? My father, you whose life
tasted so bitter where it mixed with mine
as I grew on, the cloudy fermentation
that was my destiny teasing your palate
with a suggestion of strange futures – searching
my eyes upturned to yours opaquely, troubled
by what you saw and what you did not see –
you who, now dead, are present to my soul
and fearfully share my hope, surrendering
serenity such as the dead must have,
all that serene kingdom surrendering
to share my little life, am I not right?
And you, am I not right, you who once loved me
for the poor bud of love you saw in me
and thought was yours, which I outgrew, because
the space I saw and worshipped in your faces
opened on cosmic distances where you
were visible no longer – am I not right,
to sit just now and then, to watch the show? No –
to gaze rather with such strange constancy
that in the end, to compensate my gazing,
an angel must descend to tread the boards,
snatching the puppets into his hands.
Angel and puppet: that’s something like a play.
Then comes together all that we put apart
by our existence, and our seasons grow
to complete fullness in the round of time.
Above us then we sense the angel playing.
Look, surely the dying must suspect
how full of sham are all our ventures here.
Nothing can ever be itself. Oh, hours of childhood,
when behind the presented figure more
than just the past was, and no future either.
We grew, of course, and sometimes tried so hard
to grow up quickly, half in will to please
those who in adulthood had nothing else.
And yet were happy in our solitude
with the experience of pure duration,
stood in a space between the world and our toys,
upon a spot established from the beginning
to be the locus of a real event.
Who will depict a child just as it stands? – place it
within its constellation, give it the measure of distance
into its hand? who make the death of children
out of grey bread, which hardens like a stone,
or place it in the cherry mouth as it were the core
of a shiny apple? Murderers are
easy to fathom. Only this: to take on death
completely, before even life begins,
contain it lightly and without complaining,
That I may one day, leaving the vision of terror,
sing praise and glory again to assenting angels.
That of the heart’s clearly smitten hammers
none may fall weakly on flat, doubtful
or unsettled strings. That my streaming countenance
make me shine. That my hidden weeping flower.
How dear you will be to me then, nights of affliction.
Could I have taken you to me, comfortless sisters,
more kneelingly – could I have lost myself more
wholly in your loosened hair. We, the wasters of sorrows.
How we look out on their sad prolongation, wondering
if they will ever end. And yet they are
our lasting winter foliage, our dark evergreen of the senses,
one of the seasons of the inward year – nor just a
season merely, but bedrock, settlement, home, and dwelling.
Strange, though, are the streets of the City of Pain,
where in the false silence of mere noise
bursting out of the moulds of vacuity
the gilded monument boasts its tinsel glories.
Oh, how an angel would trample to nothing this mart of distraction,
which skirts their church – a developer’s property,
clean and closed as a shopping centre on Sunday.
Beyond it a whirl, the fair’s fringes. Dippers
of freedom! Tumblers and jugglers! – all on the make.
And the shooting gallery’s pretty incentives, where
the target twitches and offers a tinny sound
when the lucky man hits. Lauded, applauded, and wholly
fortuitous, he staggers on, for booths
that pander to every taste solicit his custom
with a roll of drums. Then, for adults only,
there’s a quite special show, and it isn’t just entertainment:
the mating of money, for anatomical viewing,
the sexual parts, the whole process made plain.
You too can learn to breed... An instructive display.
Beyond that, behind the last hoarding, plastered with posters
that advertise their so-called “Deathless” beer
(a bitter beer that tastes sweet so long as the drinker
keeps chewing the pellets of ever novel amusements) –
right there, behind the hoarding, is the real thing.
Children are playing, and thoughtful lovers embrace
on the pitiful grass, some distance apart, and dogs
do as their nature instructs them. Perhaps the boy
wants to go further. Perhaps he has fallen in love
with a young Sorrow. He follows her into the fields. She says –
Far. Far away. Out there is the place where we live.
And he follows. Something has stirred him. Her neck,
her shoulder –
she comes of high lineage, surely. But he leaves her,
turns, waves – what’s the good? She’s only a Sorrow.
Only the young dead, in the first condition
of timeless serenity, the time of weaning,
love her and follow her willingly. Maidens
she waits for and befriends. Softly shows them
what she is wearing: pearls of pain, and the fine
veils of patience. Youths she accompanies
silently as they go.
Out there, where they live, in the valley, one of the ancient
Sorrows answers the youth when he asks her – We
were once a great race, we Sorrows. Our ancestors
worked the big mines up on the mountain. You find
sometimes a piece of primitive polished pain
or the frozen magma of ancient rages even
in your world. Yes,
that’s where it came from. We used to be rich.
And she leads him gently through Sorrow’s wide domain –
shows him the temple columns, and the ruins
of mighty castles, where once the Lords of Sorrow
wisely governed the land. Shows him the lofty
trees of weeping and meadows of blossoming heartache,
shows him the beasts of sadness where they graze – and sometimes
a bird takes fright, and, skywards skimming their upturned gaze,
the visible image of its desolate cry.
At evening she brings him to the ancestral graves
of Sorrow, where the Sybils lie, and the Lords of Warning.
Night comes on, they wander further, and suddenly
rises moonlike before them that ancient form
that watches over the dead.
Brother to that on the Nile, the lofty Sphinx:
that blind face of hidden chambers.
And they marvel at the crowned head, which has set for ever
the human face on the balance of the stars.
His sight fails, and cannot grasp it, fainting
in the first state of death. But their gaze startles
the owl from behind the royal circlet, who traces
a curve in her flight along the slope of the cheek
where it shows ripest and fullest –
softly inscribes on the dead boy’s inner hearing
as over an open double page
the indescribable outline.
And higher, above them, the stars. New ones. The stars
of the Land of Pain. Slowly she names them. – Here,
look: this is the Rider, this the Staff, and that fuller
constellation they call the Fruited Garland.
Then, towards the pole, the Cradle, the Path, the Window,
the Burning Book, the Doll; and in the southern sky
shining as if on a hand upheld in blessing
the clear shape of an “M”, that stands for the Mothers...
But the boy must go on. In silence the ancient Sorrow
brings him to the ravine,
where a whiteness gleams in the moonlight: the Source of Joy.
she gives it its name. – In the human world, she says,
it is a stream that bears you.
They stand at the mountain’s foot.
And she embraces him, weeping.
Alone he climbs, till lost to sight, in the mountains.
Out of the blankness of fate his steps return no sound.
But if they wished to waken a likeness in us, the endlessly dead,
perhaps they would point to the hazel’s empty catkins
that hang in the dry wind; or else the rain
that moistens earth’s dark soil in the early year.
And we, who think of happiness ascending,
would with consternation
know the rapture that almost overwhelms us,
when happiness falls.
Waterfield. © John Waterfield 1999.
The complete translation was published by Edwin Mellen Press, New York, in 2000.
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