Sir Thomas Browne
He would have every milestone back of him,
The seas explored, clouds, winds, and stars encompassed,
All separate moods unwrapped, made clear—
Tapping of brains, inquisitive tasting of hearts,
Provisioning of various appetite.
Midnights have heard the wine's philosophy
Spill from glass he holds, defiant tomorrows
His credo threads
Doubt with belief, questions the ultimate grace
That shall explain, atoning.
A candle drips beside the nocturnal score—
Dawns move along the city's line reflecting,
Stare through his rented casement.
Earth, earth with consuming breast,
Across its ruined waste, its tortuous acre
Draws out his complex fires, drives on his feet
Behind imperious rain, and multiplies
The urges, questions in the wilderness.
All roads that circle back—he shall tread these
And know the mirage in the desert's eyes
The desert's voices wait.
This clouded fool,
This poet-fool must halt in every tavern
Observing the crusty wrecks of aftermath,
Plied by his dual mood—uneasy, still—
Devouring fever of bone transfused to brain,
In that exact alembic burned away,
Made rare, perpetual.
In a clear vernal month
Outside the window sighing in a lane,
With trysts by appletrees—
Moths drift in the room,
Measure with running feet the book he reads.
The month is golden to all ripening seeds;
Long dawns, suspended twilight by a sea
Of slow transition, halting at full ebb;
Midnight, aurora, daytime, all in one key—
The whispering hour before a storm, the treacherous hour
So wake, wind's fever, branches delirious
Against a riven sky.
All houses are too small now,
A thought outgrows a brain—
Open the doors, the skeleton must pass
Into the night.
In rags and dust, haunted, irresolute,
Its passion cuts new furrows athwart the years.
Sorrow, my sister—yet who accepts
At once her tragic hand?
From pitiless explorations
Come the unwarrantable deeds,
The over-proved frustrations.
O vulgar lures of a curl!
Tricks, catches, nimble-fingered ruffian adolescence
Whose beauty pulls
The will to fragments—
Young beauty in raffish mood,
Love to be sold,
Lily and pleasant rose,
Street lily, alley rose,
For all Love-to-be-sold, who will not buy?
Rose, gold—and flush of peach
(Never by sun formed,)
Bloom-dust off gala moon
Cupid of crimson lamps—
Streams through the coy reiterative tune
Oh come, this barbed rosette
(Or perhaps spangle
Drops off once out the exit-door—
Or how many thousand prodigal francs
From serious patriarchal banks
Must build the card-house for this 'Grand Amour'?
Sour grapes of reason's vine
Perfecting, hang on that symbolic house,
And passion is a copious mine
No matter how stripped it's always full—carouse
Then, cytherean, with the cursory false love
That has his bed
Gold-lined, and robs you, host that are too fond—
Mind's acid gales arouse the sated old
Fool that was gulled by love and paid his bond—
Young love is dead.
'I that am seed, root and kernel-stone
Buried in the present, I that exact fulfillment from every hour
Now tell you:
Accept all things, accept—if only to be aware.
Understand, no choice is granted,
Nor the prudent craving, nor the ultimate romance—
But the unalterable deed, the mystic and positive
Stands, monumental against the astonished sky
Of an inquisitive world.
Now fierce, now cold,
Time beats in the hours, threatens from smoky ruins—
And yet to whom the loss
If one be made the sempiternal fool
Muddied with temporary growth of love's importunate weeds?
'In the penumbra
Of the wilderness,
On the rim of the tide along Commercial street
You meet one like you for an hour or two—
But eventual sameness creeps to repossess
All eyes, supplicant, offering unusable fidelities;
Eyes of defiance sulking into assent,
Acute with repetition, aged by a stale demand . . .
Though I did mark the turn of every hand
In the beginning, tendered my respect
To ante-rooms, while the sand ran from the hours.
'Think now how friends grow old—
Their diverse brains, hearts, faces, modify;
Each candle wasting at both ends, the sly
Disguise of its treacherous flame . . .
Am I the same?
Or a vagrant, of other breed, gone further, lost—
I am most surely at the beginning yet.
If so, contemporaries, what have you done?
We chose a different game—
But all have touched the same desires
Receded now to oblivion—as a once-lustrous chain
Hangs in the window of the antiquary,
Dry bric-à-brac, time-dulled,
That the eventual customer must buy . .
Rings in the street. An old figure
Grins (why notice the old,
The scabrous old that creep from night to night
Bringing their poor drama of blenched faces and fearful hands
Two old women drinking on a cellar floor
Huddled, with a beerish look at the scavenging rat—
A fur-collared decrepitude peers
From tattered eyelids
That shrivel malignant before an answering stare—
Old men in the civic chariots
Parade with muffled protestations,
Derelicts spit on the young.
Oh symbol, symbol,
Indecorous age and cadence of christian bell.
This thin edge of December
Wears out meagrely in the
Cold muds, rains, intolerable nauseas of the street.
Closed doors, where are your keys?
Closed hearts, does your embitteredness endure forever?
Afternoon settles on the town, each hour long as a street—
In the rooms
A sombre carpet broods, stagnates beneath deliberate steps:
Here drag a foot, there a foot, drop sighs, look round for nothing, shiver.
Sunday creeps in silence
Under suspended smoke,
And curdles defiant in unreal sleep.
The gas-fire puffs, consumes, ticks out its minor chords—
And at the door
I guess the arrested knuckles of the one-time friend,
One foot on the stair delaying, that turns again.
youth and heart-break
Growing from ashes.
The war's dirges
Now far away, sea-echoed, now in the sense,
Taste, mind, uneasy quest of what I am—
London, the hideous wall, the jail of what I am,
With fear nudging and pinching
Keeping each side of me
Down one street and another, lost—
Returned to search through adolescent years
For key, for mark of what was done and said.
Do ghosts alone possess the outworn decade?
Souls fled, bones scattered—
And still the vigilant past
Crowds, climbs, insinuates its whimpering vampire-song:
(No more, oh never, never . . . )
Are the living ghosts to the dead, or do the dead disclaim
This clutch of hands, the tears cast out to them?
Must one be courteous, halve defunct regrets,
Present oneself as host to 'Yester-year'?
By the Embankment I counted the grey gulls
Nailed to the wind above a distorted tide.
On discreet waters
In Battersea I drifted, acquiescent.
And on the frosted paths of suburbs
At Wimbledon, where the wind veers from the new ice,
In Gravesend rusty funnels rise on the winter noon
From the iron-crane forests, with the tide away from the rank mud.
Kew in chestnut-time, September in Oxford Street
Through the stale hot dust—
And up across the murk to Fitzroy Square
With a lemon blind at one end, and the halfway spire
Attesting God on the right hand of the street—
Dry bones turfed over by reiterant seasons,
Dry graves filled in, stifled, built upon with new customs.
The south, and its enormous days;
Light consuming the sea, and sun-dust on the mountain,
Churn of the harbour, the toiling and loading, unloading
By tideless seas
In a classic land, timeless and hot.
Bowed to the immemorial Mistral
The evergreens, the pines,
Open their fans—
O vast, brown, terrible,
Silent and calcinated.
Moonstruck, dewless . . .
I know a land . . . red earth, ripe vines and plane-trees,
A gulf of mournful islands, best from afar.
The sunset's huge surrender
Ripens the dead-sea fruit in decaying saltmarsh.
Then brain sings out to the night in muffled thirds,
Resumes the uneasy counting and the planning—
What wings beat in my ears
The old tattoo of journeys?
Why dreamer, this is the dream,
The question's answer. And yet, and yet,
The foot's impatient ( . . . where?)
the eye is not convinced,
Compares, decides what's gone was better,
Murmurs about 'lost days' . . .
Sit then, look in the deep wells of the sky,
Compose the past—
Dry moss, grey stone,
Hill ruins, grass in ruins
Without water, and multitudinous
Tintinnabulation in poplar leaves;
A spendrift dust from desiccated pools,
Spider in draughty husks, snail on the leaf—
Provence, the solstice.
And the days after,
By the showman's travelling houses, the land caravels
Under the poplar—the proud grapes and the burst grape-skins.
Arles in the plain, Miramas after sunset-time
In a ring of lights,
And a pale sky with a sickle-moon.
Thin winds undress the branch, it is October.
And in Les Baux
An old life slips out, patriarch of eleven inhabitants—
'Fatigué' she said, a terse beldam by the latch,
'Il est fatigué, depuis douze ans toujours dans le même coin.'
In Aix, what's remembered of Cézanne?
A house to let (with studio) in a garden,
(Meanwhile, 'help yourself to these ripe figs, profitez . . .
And if it doesn't suit, we, Agence Sextus, will find you another just as good.')
The years are sewn together with the thread of the same story;
Beauty picked in a field, shaped, re-created,
Sold and dispatched to distant Municipality—
But in the Master's town
Merely an old waiter, crossly,
'Of course I knew him, he was a dull silent fellow,
And Beauty walked alone here,
Defiant, of single mind,
And took no rest, and has no epitaph.
What hand shall hold the absolute,
Silent, the echo points to the ladderless mind
Tumbled with meanings, creeping in fœtus thoughts . . .
(Out, out, clear words!)
Genius is grace, is beauty—shall I be less deceived
Life-long, because of beauty's printed word?
And yet—what's beauty, where?
Perhaps in eyes, those paths,
Quick funnels to the complicated pool
Of the mind. But the thinking eye
Is blank—cold water-veils
Proceed above what sunken curious shells,
What stones, what weed?
The thinker's eye a blank—with flowering words
Back of it waiting, whereas other eyes
Attend to books, bills, schemes, and how-do-you-do's,
Entrench their independence, liberty . . .
(O liberty that must be so exactly organised!)
Of conscious passion
Absolution, sweet abnegation
Of choice—a palm-grove's transmigration
On soft hawaiian strings
Softly, to languid ballrooms—
(God grant us appetite for all illusions,
God grant us ever, as now, the sweet delusions.)
Spring flushes the gardens.
In season of return bloom the forgotten days
Thinly; an empty house
Waits, that has once been mine.
Spring flushes the gardens—
Here a road, there a flowering tree,
And the lonely house,
The lost house, the house bereft,
Spider-filled, with the hearth ash-laden from the last fire—
But he that delays here, now an anonymous traveller,
Stares at the evening silence, and without gesture
The sand is scored with print of unknown feet
Where seas are hollow, tenanted by sound;
The air is empty save where two wings beat
In timeless journeying—deep underground
Brood the eternal things, but in the street
No whisper comes of these, no word is found.
See now these berries dark along the hedge
Hard as black withered blood drawn long ago
Whose sap is frozen dry; a windy sedge
Hides field from ashen field, pale lapwings go
Whining above the heath, and floods are out
Over the meadows clasped in frigid lace
Of wintry avenues, ringed and fenced about—
His life is a place like this, just such a place.
For him no house, but only empty halls
To fill with strangers' voices and short grace
Of passing laughter, while the shadows' lace
Creeps from the fire along dismantled walls,
Uncertain tapestry of altering moods—
Only the sunset's hour, the solitudes
Of sea and sky, the rain come with the spring;
Dark winds that gnarl the olive trees, and moan
Against the shuttered brain that thrills alone
Each night more racked by its adventuring.
The sirens then, beyond the ocean's brim,
Call, and make ready on their ultimate shore,
And singing raise their arms, and wait for him,
Nepenthe rises at the prison door . . .
But in what hour, what age
Are siren voices heard across the water?
Only bread and rain
Are on the waters—
And in the flooded orient
Unwinds from the edge of a gale,
Between two hours the dawn runs very surely
Into a morning March.
Wild-fowl from the sedge, thrushes are in the dew
On distant lawns, so you remember . . .
Is it the end or the beginning,
Caesura, knot in the time-thread?
Rolls up the monstrous carpet of its nights,
Picks back the specks and forms—
O individual, disparate,
Where now from the river bank?
From the Seine, up the Quarter, homeward at last to sleep.
—Clothes, old clothes—
early is it, or noon,
By this alarm-clock?
The rag-man turns the corner—
For him, past one; just today here in bed.
So—one begins again?
so soon preoccupied . . .
Who's ill, tired, contumacious, sour, forswearing
After last night?
With wine alone one is allowed to think
Less cumbrously, and if one may recall
Little, there's always tomorrow—when a something sore
Gropes in the brain—and one shall not condone
The shame, the doubt of this, the automaton?
With no particular heartache,
Only subsiding chords,
Echoes of transience.
In adolescence creep the first bitter roots
To a full rich world—
The rich bitter fulness, where the play stands
Without prompter for the love-scene or the anger-scene.
And . . . You and I,
Propelled, controlled by need only,
Forced by dark appetites;
Lovers, friends, rivals for a time, thinking to choose,
And having chosen, losing.
. . . 'How long shall we last each other . . .
Perhaps a year . . .
Omens I do not see . . . '
But now we are three together—
How is it when we three are together
No rancour comes, but only the tired
Acceptance, the heart-ache in each heart-beat?
Full acceptance, beaten out to the very end—
Life blooms against disaster,
pressing its new immortal shoots against disaster.
And one of us questions, and smiles—
And one of us, smiling, answers with a gesture only—
And one:—'Ah no—
the new cannot put out the old—
Though I clutch on the new I shall not shuffle off the old,
Wrapped, folded together
The new burns, ripens in the known,
Folded, growing together—
Yes—(even to paradox)
Have I not loved you better, loving again?'
Up, down a little world—
Pale north, dark-hedged; two cities grow and rot there
War's over, and with it, spring
That opening blinds let in no more.
Only the grey
Habit of days,
The yawning visits, the forced revisitations.
Oh very much the same, these faces and places,
These meals and conversations,
Custom of being alive, averting of the death-thought.
But in the charnel-cloister Dupuytren,
Down a side-street, there's a full century's matter
The death-before-life, the atom in the womb
Preparing—snarled embryos, pinched
By once-roseate poisons.
Pre-natal dust, what life is it you missed?)
The skeletons swing on a line,
Dark-waxed, patined, defective-boned—
O commemorable fusion of science with disease . . .
(That was a new contemplation, the death-museum.)
Up and down
On a little track,
With a lighthouse to end the chapter.
The sea is glass—slip briefly into France;
Brown-gold Rhône, slip with me to the other sea
Where the mimosa flowers
Ecstatically for moribunds,
Immensely, in thundering rains.
Time rings in the weakening pulse, aggressive high—
Do you remember:
A cliff had hidden the wind—
The fishes came, and the gold-eyed plaintive mongrel
To snap at cast-off scraps;
We were talking of mutability—
(Your eyes dark
As a sky when the winter sun wearies of it
Drawing into a cloud.)
'Now at least
We are forgotten of time, this hour escapes him—
Where he sits
In the work-shops
Tying his knots, unravelling,
Spoiling the work of others—
He who dramatises the nights
Of lovers, and tears fierce words from their insurgent hearts—
He who sits
In the taverns, lusty, aloof,
Condemning, experienced, jealous . . .
And the seas turn mutable foam, in fear transfusing
Themselves to the watcher—
they have nor wish nor choosing,
But turn, tossing fragments, spars,
Fill these still classic shores with unaccountable voice,
And in the weeded stones
The carapace life creeps singly, unafraid.
"—Then I was in a train
in pale clear country—
By Genoa at night,
Where the old palatial banks
Rise out of vanquished swamps
And in San Gimignano's
Towers, where Dante once . . .
And in the plains, with the mountain's veil
Before me and the waterless rivers of stones—
Siena-brown, with Christ's head on gold,
Pinturicchio's trees on the hill
In the nostalgic damps, when the maremma's underworld
Creeps through at evening.
Defunct Arezzo, Pisa the forgotten—
And in Florence
With his embroidered princely cavalcades;
And Signorelli, the austere passion.
Look—Christ hangs on a sombre mound,
Proclaims the tortured god; the rest have gone
To a far hill. Very dark it is, soon it will thunder
From that last rim of amarinthine sky.
Life broods at the cross's foot,
Lizard, and campion, star-weeds like Parnassus grass,
And plaited strawberry leaves;
The lizard inspects a skull,
You can foretell the worm between the bones.
(I am alone. Read from this letter
That I have left you and do not intend to return.)
. . . Then I was walking in the mountains,
And drunk in Cortona, furiously,
With the black wine rough and sour
from a Tuscan hill;
Drunk and silent between the dwarfs and the cripples
And the military in their intricate capes
Signed with the Italian star.
Eleven shuddered in a fly-blown clock.
O frustrations, discrepancies,
I had you to myself then!
To count and examine,
Carve, trim, pare—and skewer you with words.
Words . . . like the stony rivers
Anguished and dry.
Words clouding, spoiling, getting between one and the mark,
Falsely perpetuating—'Why he was thus,
Self-painted, a very personal testimony
Of half-expression'—and oh the hypocrisy
Of the surrender in the written word . . .
(Yet taken from this
The discerning estimate of 'what you've been'—)
What now can be remembered that was seen
Long ago? (always long ago.)
The empty seas, the unpeopled landscape,
and the sullen acre
Trodden out in revolt—
Called in unmerited resurrection
Of what's accomplished, dead—
These, and the chasing of the immortal Question,
The hunted absolute.
In the shade of the bitter vine
I sit, instructed fool and phœenix-growth,
Ash-from-my-ash that made me, that I made
Myself in the folded curve of Origin—
Heredities disclaim, will not explain
All prior mischiefs in the bone, the brain—
Only a ponderous mirror holds
The eyes that look deep and see but the eyes again.
One for another
I have changed my prisons;
Held fast, as the flame stands, locked in the prism—
And at one end I see
Beauty of other times, mirage of old beauty
Down a long road, clear of the strands and patches of associations,
Keen, resurrected, very clear—
—And at one side
The symbol of the vacant crossroads,
Then the veiled figure waiting at the crossroads
Leaning against the wind,
urging, delaying . . .
(I have come for you, Peer!)
—And behind me
The candles of thoughtful nights,
And the green months, solitary,
Across dividing seas—
And again behind me, the cities
Rising on the inexpressible meaning of their streets,
Unaltering—and the eyes lifting over a wine-glass,
Holding the inexpressible,
playing terror against acceptance—
Eyes, and siren voices lost at dawn . . .
Only the empty dawn
Comes, over the harbour; with the getting-back to day,
The resumed love-songs and the rhythms of illusion.
—And around me
Legend of other times on dry gold background,
Pitted with slow insinuations
Probings of now defunct animalculæ . .
Worm, mighty and dead, established in the paint and in the tapestries,
Having ended your statements.
Only the statement, the unalterable deed only
Stands, and is no more than a halt on the track—
—And at last, before me
In fierce rise and fall of impetuous seasons,
The articulate skeleton
In clothes grown one with the frame,
At the finger-post waiting,
aureoled with lamentations.
'Hail partner, that went as I
In towns, in wastes—I, shadow,
Meet with you—I that have walked with recording eyes
Through a rich bitter world, and seen
The heart close with the brain, the brain crossed by the heart—
I that have made, seeing all,
Nothing, and nothing kept, nor understood
Of the empty hands, the hands impotent through time that lift and fall
Along a question—
Nor of passing and re-passing
By the twin affirmations of never and for-ever,
In doubt, in shame, in silence.'"
Above, the front cover of Parallax. Below, the back. A dedication in the first edition reads, "I desire here to pay my thanks, and state my admiration for the two drawings by Eugene McCown that form the covers of this volume. N. C."