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by Conrad Aiken |

Chance Meetings

In the mazes of loitering people, the watchful and furtive, 
The shadows of tree-trunks and shadows of leaves, 
In the drowse of the sunlight, among the low voices, 
I suddenly face you, 
Your dark eyes return for a space from her who is with you, 
They shine into mine with a sunlit desire, 
They say an 'I love you, what star do you live on?' 
They smile and then darken, 
And silent, I answer 'You too--I have known you,--I love you!--' 
And the shadows of tree-trunks and shadows of leaves 
Interlace with low voices and footsteps and sunlight 
To divide us forever. 

by Conrad Aiken |


Here on the pale beach, in the darkness; 
With the full moon just to rise; 
They sit alone, and look over the sea, 
Or into each other's eyes. . . 
She pokes her parasol into the sleepy sand, 
Or sifts the lazy whiteness through her hand. 
'A lovely night,' he says, 'the moon, 
Comes up for you and me. 
Just like a blind old spotlight there, 
Fizzing across the sea!' 
She pays no heed, nor even turns her head: 
He slides his arm around her waist instead. 
'Why don't we do a sketch together-- 
Those songs you sing are swell. 
Where did you get them, anyway? 
They suit you awfully well.' 
She will not turn to him--will not resist. 
Impassive, she submits to being kissed. 
'My husband wrote all four of them. 
You know,--my husband drowned. 
He was always sickly, soon depressed. . .' 
But still she hears the sound 
Of a stateroom door shut hard, and footsteps going 
Swiftly and steadily, and the dark sea flowing. 
She hears the dark sea flowing, and sees his eyes 
Hollow with disenchantment, sick surprise,-- 
And hate of her whom he had loved too well. . . 
She lowers her eyes, demurely prods a shell. 
'Yes. We might do an act together. 
That would be very nice.' 
He kisses her passionately, and thinks 
She's carnal, but cold as ice. 

by Conrad Aiken |

The Window

 She looks out in the blue morning
and sees a whole wonderful world
she looks out in the morning
and sees a whole world

she leans out of the window
and this is what she sees
a wet rose singing to the sun
with a chorus of red bees

she leans out of the window
and laughs for the window is high
she is in it like a bird on a perch
and they scoop the blue sky

she and the window scooping
the morning as if it were air
scooping a green wave of leaves
above a stone stair

and an urn hung with leaden garlands
and girls holding hands in a ring
and raindrops on an iron railing
shining like a harp string

an old man draws with his ferrule
in wet sand a map of Spain
the marble soldier on his pedestal
draws a stiff diagram of pain

but the walls around her tremble
with the speed of the earth the floor
curves to the terrestrial center
and behind her the door

opens darkly down to the beginning
far down to the first simple cry
and the animal waking in water
and the opening of the eye

she looks out in the blue morning
and sees a whole wonderful world
she looks out in the morning
and sees a whole world.

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 04: 04: Counterpoint: Two Rooms

 He, in the room above, grown old and tired,
She, in the room below—his floor her ceiling—
Pursue their separate dreams. He turns his light,
And throws himself on the bed, face down, in laughter. . . .
She, by the window, smiles at a starlight night,

His watch—the same he has heard these cycles of ages—
Wearily chimes at seconds beneath his pillow.
The clock, upon her mantelpiece, strikes nine.
The night wears on. She hears dull steps above her.
The world whirs on. . . .New stars come up to shine.

His youth—far off—he sees it brightly walking
In a golden cloud. . . .Wings flashing about it. . . . Darkness
Walls it around with dripping enormous walls.
Old age—far off—her death—what do they matter?
Down the smooth purple night a streaked star falls.

She hears slow steps in the street—they chime like music;
They climb to her heart, they break and flower in beauty,
Along her veins they glisten and ring and burn. . . .
He hears his own slow steps tread down to silence.
Far off they pass. He knows they will never return.

Far off—on a smooth dark road—he hears them faintly.
The road, like a sombre river, quietly flowing,
Moves among murmurous walls. A deeper breath
Swells them to sound: he hears his steps more clearly.
And death seems nearer to him: or he to death.

What's death?—She smiles. The cool stone hurts her elbows.
The last of the rain-drops gather and fall from elm-boughs,
She sees them glisten and break. The arc-lamp sings,
The new leaves dip in the warm wet air and fragrance.
A sparrow whirs to the eaves, and shakes his wings.

What's death—what's death? The spring returns like music,
The trees are like dark lovers who dream in starlight,
The soft grey clouds go over the stars like dreams.
The cool stone wounds her arms to pain, to pleasure.
Under the lamp a circle of wet street gleams. . . .
And death seems far away, a thing of roses,
A golden portal, where golden music closes,
Death seems far away:
And spring returns, the countless singing of lovers,
And spring returns to stay. . . .

He, in the room above, grown old and tired,
Flings himself on the bed, face down, in laughter,
And clenches his hands, and remembers, and desires to die.
And she, by the window, smiles at a night of starlight.
. . . The soft grey clouds go slowly across the sky.

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 04: 03: Palimpsest: A Deceitful Portrait

 Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. . . Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
And there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful sweetness. . . .Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends. . . .
We hear a sudden music, see a playing
Of ordered thoughts—and all again is silence.
The music, we suppose, (as in ourselves)
Goes on forever there, behind shut doors,—
As it continues after our departure,
So, we divine, it played before we came . . .
What do you know of me, or I of you? . . .
Little enough. . . .We set these doors ajar
Only for chosen movements of the music:
This passage, (so I think—yet this is guesswork)
Will please him,—it is in a strain he fancies,—
More brilliant, though, than his; and while he likes it
He will be piqued . . . He looks at me bewildered
And thinks (to judge from self—this too is guesswork)

The music strangely subtle, deep in meaning,
Perplexed with implications; he suspects me
Of hidden riches, unexpected wisdom. . . .
Or else I let him hear a lyric passage,—
Simple and clear; and all the while he listens
I make pretence to think my doors are closed.
This too bewilders him. He eyes me sidelong
Wondering 'Is he such a fool as this?
Or only mocking?'—There I let it end. . . .
Sometimes, of course, and when we least suspect it—
When we pursue our thoughts with too much passion,
Talking with too great zeal—our doors fly open
Without intention; and the hungry watcher
Stares at the feast, carries away our secrets,
And laughs. . . .but this, for many counts, is seldom.
And for the most part we vouchsafe our friends,
Our lovers too, only such few clear notes
As we shall deem them likely to admire:
'Praise me for this' we say, or 'laugh at this,'
Or 'marvel at my candor'. . . .all the while
Withholding what's most precious to ourselves,—
Some sinister depth of lust or fear or hatred,
The sombre note that gives the chord its power;
Or a white loveliness—if such we know—
Too much like fire to speak of without shame.

Well, this being so, and we who know it being
So curious about those well-locked houses,
The minds of those we know,—to enter softly,
And steal from floor to floor up shadowy stairways,
From room to quiet room, from wall to wall,
Breathing deliberately the very air,
Pressing our hands and nerves against warm darkness
To learn what ghosts are there,—
Suppose for once I set my doors wide open
And bid you in. . . .Suppose I try to tell you
The secrets of this house, and how I live here;
Suppose I tell you who I am, in fact. . . .
Deceiving you—as far as I may know it—
Only so much as I deceive myself.

If you are clever you already see me
As one who moves forever in a cloud
Of warm bright vanity: a luminous cloud
Which falls on all things with a quivering magic,
Changing such outlines as a light may change,
Brightening what lies dark to me, concealing
Those things that will not change . . . I walk sustained
In a world of things that flatter me: a sky
Just as I would have had it; trees and grass
Just as I would have shaped and colored them;
Pigeons and clouds and sun and whirling shadows,
And stars that brightening climb through mist at nightfall,—
In some deep way I am aware these praise me:
Where they are beautiful, or hint of beauty,
They point, somehow, to me. . . .This water says,—
Shimmering at the sky, or undulating
In broken gleaming parodies of clouds,
Rippled in blue, or sending from cool depths
To meet the falling leaf the leaf's clear image,—
This water says, there is some secret in you
Akin to my clear beauty, silently responsive
To all that circles you. This bare tree says,—
Austere and stark and leafless, split with frost,
Resonant in the wind, with rigid branches
Flung out against the sky,—this tall tree says,
There is some cold austerity in you,
A frozen strength, with long roots gnarled on rocks,
Fertile and deep; you bide your time, are patient,
Serene in silence, bare to outward seeming,
Concealing what reserves of power and beauty!
What teeming Aprils!—chorus of leaves on leaves!
These houses say, such walls in walls as ours,
Such streets of walls, solid and smooth of surface,
Such hills and cities of walls, walls upon walls;
Motionless in the sun, or dark with rain;
Walls pierced with windows, where the light may enter;
Walls windowless where darkness is desired;
Towers and labyrinths and domes and chambers,—
Amazing deep recesses, dark on dark,—
All these are like the walls which shape your spirit:
You move, are warm, within them, laugh within them,
Proud of their depth and strength; or sally from them,
When you are bold, to blow great horns at the world. .
This deep cool room, with shadowed walls and ceiling,
Tranquil and cloistral, fragrant of my mind,
This cool room says,—just such a room have you,
It waits you always at the tops of stairways,
Withdrawn, remote, familiar to your uses,
Where you may cease pretence and be yourself. . . .
And this embroidery, hanging on this wall,
Hung there forever,—these so soundless glidings
Of dragons golden-scaled, sheer birds of azure,
Coilings of leaves in pale vermilion, griffins
Drawing their rainbow wings through involutions
Of mauve chrysanthemums and lotus flowers,—
This goblin wood where someone cries enchantment,—
This says, just such an involuted beauty
Of thought and coiling thought, dream linked with dream,
Image to image gliding, wreathing fires,
Soundlessly cries enchantment in your mind:
You need but sit and close your eyes a moment
To see these deep designs unfold themselves.

And so, all things discern me, name me, praise me—
I walk in a world of silent voices, praising;
And in this world you see me like a wraith
Blown softly here and there, on silent winds.
'Praise me'—I say; and look, not in a glass,
But in your eyes, to see my image there—
Or in your mind; you smile, I am contented;
You look at me, with interest unfeigned,
And listen—I am pleased; or else, alone,
I watch thin bubbles veering brightly upward
From unknown depths,—my silver thoughts ascending;
Saying now this, now that, hinting of all things,—
Dreams, and desires, velleities, regrets,
Faint ghosts of memory, strange recognitions,—
But all with one deep meaning: this is I,
This is the glistening secret holy I,
This silver-winged wonder, insubstantial,
This singing ghost. . . .And hearing, I am warmed.

 * * * * *

You see me moving, then, as one who moves
Forever at the centre of his circle:
A circle filled with light. And into it
Come bulging shapes from darkness, loom gigantic,
Or huddle in dark again. . . .A clock ticks clearly,
A gas-jet steadily whirs, light streams across me;
Two church bells, with alternate beat, strike nine;
And through these things my pencil pushes softly
To weave grey webs of lines on this clear page.
Snow falls and melts; the eaves make liquid music;
Black wheel-tracks line the snow-touched street; I turn
And look one instant at the half-dark gardens,
Where skeleton elm-trees reach with frozen gesture
Above unsteady lamps,—with black boughs flung
Against a luminous snow-filled grey-gold sky.
'Beauty!' I cry. . . .My feet move on, and take me
Between dark walls, with orange squares for windows.
Beauty; beheld like someone half-forgotten,
Remembered, with slow pang, as one neglected . . .
Well, I am frustrate; life has beaten me,
The thing I strongly seized has turned to darkness,
And darkness rides my heart. . . .These skeleton elm-trees—
Leaning against that grey-gold snow filled sky—
Beauty! they say, and at the edge of darkness
Extend vain arms in a frozen gesture of protest . . .
A clock ticks softly; a gas-jet steadily whirs:
The pencil meets its shadow upon clear paper,
Voices are raised, a door is slammed. The lovers,
Murmuring in an adjacent room, grow silent,
The eaves make liquid music. . . .Hours have passed,
And nothing changes, and everything is changed.
Exultation is dead, Beauty is harlot,—
And walks the streets. The thing I strongly seized
Has turned to darkness, and darkness rides my heart.

If you could solve this darkness you would have me.
This causeless melancholy that comes with rain,
Or on such days as this when large wet snowflakes
Drop heavily, with rain . . . whence rises this?
Well, so-and-so, this morning when I saw him,
Seemed much preoccupied, and would not smile;
And you, I saw too much; and you, too little;
And the word I chose for you, the golden word,
The word that should have struck so deep in purpose,
And set so many doors of wish wide open,
You let it fall, and would not stoop for it,
And smiled at me, and would not let me guess
Whether you saw it fall. . . These things, together,
With other things, still slighter, wove to music,
And this in time drew up dark memories;
And there I stand. This music breaks and bleeds me,
Turning all frustrate dreams to chords and discords,
Faces and griefs, and words, and sunlit evenings,
And chains self-forged that will not break nor lengthen,
And cries that none can answer, few will hear.
Have these things meaning? Or would you see more clearly
If I should say 'My second wife grows tedious,
Or, like gay tulip, keeps no perfumed secret'?

Or 'one day dies eventless as another,
Leaving the seeker still unsatisfied,
And more convinced life yields no satisfaction'?
Or 'seek too hard, the sight at length grows callous,
And beauty shines in vain'?—

 These things you ask for,
These you shall have. . . So, talking with my first wife,
At the dark end of evening, when she leaned
And smiled at me, with blue eyes weaving webs
Of finest fire, revolving me in scarlet,—
Calling to mind remote and small successions
Of countless other evenings ending so,—
I smiled, and met her kiss, and wished her dead;
Dead of a sudden sickness, or by my hands
Savagely killed; I saw her in her coffin,
I saw her coffin borne downstairs with trouble,
I saw myself alone there, palely watching,
Wearing a masque of grief so deeply acted
That grief itself possessed me. Time would pass,
And I should meet this girl,—my second wife—
And drop the masque of grief for one of passion.
Forward we move to meet, half hesitating,
We drown in each others' eyes, we laugh, we talk,
Looking now here, now there, faintly pretending
We do not hear the powerful pulsing prelude
Roaring beneath our words . . . The time approaches.
We lean unbalanced. The mute last glance between us,
Profoundly searching, opening, asking, yielding,
Is steadily met: our two lives draw together . . .
. . . .'What are you thinking of?'. . . .My first wife's voice
Scattered these ghosts. 'Oh nothing—nothing much—
Just wondering where we'd be two years from now,
And what we might be doing . . . ' And then remorse
Turned sharply in my mind to sudden pity,
And pity to echoed love. And one more evening
Drew to the usual end of sleep and silence.

And, as it is with this, so too with all things.
The pages of our lives are blurred palimpsest:
New lines are wreathed on old lines half-erased,
And those on older still; and so forever.
The old shines through the new, and colors it.
What's new? What's old? All things have double meanings,—
All things return. I write a line with passion
(Or touch a woman's hand, or plumb a doctrine)
Only to find the same thing, done before,—
Only to know the same thing comes to-morrow. . . .
This curious riddled dream I dreamed last night,—
Six years ago I dreamed it just as now;
The same man stooped to me; we rose from darkness,
And broke the accustomed order of our days,
And struck for the morning world, and warmth, and freedom. . . .
What does it mean? Why is this hint repeated?
What darkness does it spring from, seek to end?

You see me, then, pass up and down these stairways,
Now through a beam of light, and now through shadow,—
Pursuing silent ends. No rest there is,—
No more for me than you. I move here always,
From quiet room to room, from wall to wall,
Searching and plotting, weaving a web of days.
This is my house, and now, perhaps, you know me. . .
Yet I confess, for all my best intentions,
Once more I have deceived you. . . .I withhold
The one thing precious, the one dark thing that guides me;
And I have spread two snares for you, of lies.

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 04: 02: Death: And A Derisive Chorus

 The door is shut. She leaves the curtained office,
And down the grey-walled stairs comes trembling slowly
Towards the dazzling street.
Her withered hand clings tightly to the railing.
The long stairs rise and fall beneath her feet.

Here in the brilliant sun we jostle, waiting
To tear her secret out . . . We laugh, we hurry,
We go our way, revolving, sinister, slow.
She blinks in the sun, and then steps faintly downward.
We whirl her away, we shout, we spin, we flow.

Where have you been, old lady? We know your secret!—
Voices jangle about her, jeers, and laughter. . . .
She trembles, tries to hurry, averts her eyes.
Tell us the truth, old lady! where have you been?
She turns and turns, her brain grows dark with cries.

Look at the old fool tremble! She's been paying,—
Paying good money, too,—to talk to spirits. . . .
She thinks she's heard a message from one dead!
What did he tell you? Is he well and happy?
Don't lie to us—we all know what he said.

He said the one he murdered once still loves him;
He said the wheels in wheels of time are broken;
And dust and storm forgotten; and all forgiven. . . .
But what you asked he wouldn't tell you, though,—
Ha ha! there's one thing you will never know!
That's what you get for meddling so with heaven!

Where have you been, old lady? Where are you going?
We know, we know! She's been to gab with spirits.
Look at the old fool! getting ready to cry!
What have you got in an envelope, old lady?
A lock of hair? An eyelash from his eye?

How do you know the medium didn't fool you?
Perhaps he had no spirit—perhaps he killed it.
Here she comes! the old fool's lost her son.
What did he have—blue eyes and golden hair?
We know your secret! what's done is done.

Look out, you'll fall—and fall, if you're not careful,
Right into an open grave. . . .but what's the hurry?
You don't think you will find him when you're dead?
Cry! Cry! Look at her mouth all twisted,—
Look at her eyes all red!

We know you—know your name and all about you,
All you remember and think, and all you scheme for.
We tear your secret out, we leave you, go
Laughingly down the street. . . .Die, if you want to!
Die, then, if you're in such a hurry to know!—

. . . .She falls. We lift her head. The wasted body
Weighs nothing in our hands. Does no one know her?
Was no one with her when she fell? . . .
We eddy about her, move away in silence.
We hear slow tollings of a bell.

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 04: 01: Clairvoyant

 'This envelope you say has something in it
Which once belonged to your dead son—or something
He knew, was fond of? Something he remembers?—
The soul flies far, and we can only call it
By things like these . . . a photograph, a letter,
Ribbon, or charm, or watch . . . '

. . . Wind flows softly, the long slow even wind,
Over the low roofs white with snow;
Wind blows, bearing cold clouds over the ocean,
One by one they melt and flow,—

Streaming one by one over trees and towers,
Coiling and gleaming in shafts of sun;
Wind flows, bearing clouds; the hurrying shadows
Flow under them one by one . . .

' . . . A spirit darkens before me . . . it is the spirit
Which in the flesh you called your son . . . A spirit
Young and strong and beautiful . . .

He says that he is happy, is much honored;
Forgives and is forgiven . . . rain and wind
Do not perplex him . . . storm and dust forgotten . .
The glittering wheels in wheels of time are broken
And laid aside . . . '

'Ask him why he did the thing he did!'

'He is unhappy. This thing, he says, transcends you:
Dust cannot hold what shines beyond the dust . . .
What seems calamity is less than a sigh;
What seems disgrace is nothing.'

'Ask him if the one he hurt is there,
And if she loves him still!'

'He tells you she is there, and loves him still,—
Not as she did, but as all spirits love . . .
A cloud of spirits has gathered about him.
They praise him and call him, they do him honor;
He is more beautiful, he shines upon them.'

. . . Wind flows softly, the long deep tremulous wind,
Over the low roofs white with snow . . .
Wind flows, bearing dreams; they gather and vanish,
One by one they sing and flow;

Over the outstretched lands of days remembered,
Over remembered tower and wall,
One by one they gather and talk in the darkness,
Rise and glimmer and fall . . .

'Ask him why he did the thing he did!
He knows I will understand!'

 'It is too late:
He will not hear me: I have lost my power.'

'Three times I've asked him! He will never tell me.
God have mercy upon him. I will ask no more.'

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 03: 13: The half-shut doors through which we heard that music

 The half-shut doors through which we heard that music
Are softly closed. Horns mutter down to silence.
The stars whirl out, the night grows deep.
Darkness settles upon us. A vague refrain
Drowsily teases at the drowsy brain.
In numberless rooms we stretch ourselves and sleep.

Where have we been? What savage chaos of music
Whirls in our dreams?—We suddenly rise in darkness,
Open our eyes, cry out, and sleep once more.
We dream we are numberless sea-waves languidly foaming
A warm white moonlit shore;

Or clouds blown windily over a sky at midnight,
Or chords of music scattered in hurrying darkness,
Or a singing sound of rain . . .
We open our eyes and stare at the coiling darkness,
And enter our dreams again.

by Conrad Aiken |

The House Of Dust: Part 02: 03: Interlude

 The warm sun dreams in the dust, the warm sun falls
On bright red roofs and walls;
The trees in the park exhale a ghost of rain;
We go from door to door in the streets again,
Talking, laughing, dreaming, turning our faces,
Recalling other times and places . . .
We crowd, not knowing why, around a gate,
We crowd together and wait,
A stretcher is carried out, voices are stilled,
The ambulance drives away.
We watch its roof flash by, hear someone say
'A man fell off the building and was killed—
Fell right into a barrel . . .' We turn again
Among the frightened eyes of white-faced men,
And go our separate ways, each bearing with him
A thing he tries, but vainly, to forget,—
A sickened crowd, a stretcher red and wet.

A hurdy-gurdy sings in the crowded street,
The golden notes skip over the sunlit stones,
Wings are upon our feet.
The sun seems warmer, the winding street more bright,
Sparrows come whirring down in a cloud of light.
We bear our dreams among us, bear them all,
Like hurdy-gurdy music they rise and fall,
Climb to beauty and die.
The wandering lover dreams of his lover's mouth,
And smiles at the hostile sky.
The broker smokes his pipe, and sees a fortune.
The murderer hears a cry.

by Conrad Aiken |

Senlin: His Dark Origins


Senlin sits before us, and we see him. 
He smokes his pipe before us, and we hear him. 
Is he small, with reddish hair, 
Does he light his pipe with meditative stare, 
And a pointed flame reflected in both eyes? 
Is he sad and happy and foolish and wise? 
Did no one see him enter the doors of the city, 
Looking above him at the roofs and trees and skies? 
'I stepped from a cloud', he says, 'as evening fell; 
I walked on the sound of a bell; 
I ran with winged heels along a gust; 
Or is it true that I laughed and sprang from dust? . . . 
Has no one, in a great autumnal forest, 
When the wind bares the trees, 
Heard the sad horn of Senlin slowly blown? 
Has no one, on a mountain in the spring, 
Heard Senlin sing? 
Perhaps I came alone on a snow-white horse,—
Riding alone from the deep-starred night. 
Perhaps I came on a ship whose sails were music,—
Sailing from moon or sun on a river of light.'

He lights his pipe with a pointed flame. 
'Yet, there were many autumns before I came, 
And many springs. And more will come, long after 
There is no horn for me, or song, or laughter.

The city dissolves about us, and its walls 
Become an ancient forest. There is no sound 
Except where an old twig tires and falls; 
Or a lizard among the dead leaves crawls; 
Or a flutter is heard in darkness along the ground.

Has Senlin become a forest? Do we walk in Senlin? 
Is Senlin the wood we walk in, —ourselves,—the world? 
Senlin! we cry . . . Senlin! again . . . No answer, 
Only soft broken echoes backward whirled . . .

Yet we would say: this is no wood at all, 
But a small white room with a lamp upon the wall; 
And Senlin, before us, pale, with reddish hair, 
Lights his pipe with a meditative stare.


Senlin, walking beside us, swings his arms 
And turns his head to look at walls and trees. 
The wind comes whistling from shrill stars of winter, 
The lights are jewels, black roots freeze. 
'Did I, then, stretch from the bitter earth like these, 
Reaching upward with slow and rigid pain 
To seek, in another air, myself again?'

(Immense and solitary in a desert of rocks 
Behold a bewildered oak 
With white clouds screaming through its leafy brain.) 
'Or was I the single ant, or tinier thing, 
That crept from the rocks of buried time 
And dedicated its holy life to climb 
From atom to beetling atom, jagged grain to grain, 
Patiently out of the darkness we call sleep 
Into a hollow gigantic world of light 
Thinking the sky to be its destined shell, 
Hoping to fit it well!—'

The city dissolves about us, and its walls 
Are mountains of rock cruelly carved by wind. 
Sand streams down their wasting sides, sand 
Mounts upward slowly about them: foot and hand 
We crawl and bleed among them! Is this Senlin?

In the desert of Senlin must we live and die? 
We hear the decay of rocks, the crash of boulders, 
Snarling of sand on sand. 'Senlin!' we cry. 
'Senlin!' again . . . Our shadows revolve in silence 
Under the soulless brilliance of blue sky.

Yet we would say: there are no rocks at all, 
Nor desert of sand . . . here by a city wall 
White lights jewell the evening, black roots freeze, 
And Senlin turns his head to look at trees.


It is evening, Senlin says, and in the evening, 
By a silent shore, by a far distant sea, 
White unicorns come gravely down to the water. 
In the lilac dusk they come, they are white and stately, 
Stars hang over the purple waveless sea; 
A sea on which no sail was ever lifted, 
Where a human voice was never heard. 
The shadows of vague hills are dark on the water, 
The silent stars seem silently to sing. 
And gravely come white unicorns down to the water, 
One by one they come and drink their fill; 
And daisies burn like stars on the darkened hill.

It is evening Senlin says, and in the evening 
The leaves on the trees, abandoned by the light, 
Look to the earth, and whisper, and are still. 
The bat with horned wings, tumbling through the darkness, 
Breaks the web, and the spider falls to the ground. 
The starry dewdrop gathers upon the oakleaf, 
Clings to the edge, and falls without a sound. 
Do maidens spread their white palms to the starlight 
And walk three steps to the east and clearly sing? 
Do dewdrops fall like a shower of stars from willows? 
Has the small moon a ghostly ring? . . . 
White skeletons dance on the moonlit grass, 
Singing maidens are buried in deep graves, 
The stars hang over a sea like polished glass . . . 
And solemnly one by one in the darkness there 
Neighing far off on the haunted air 
White unicorns come gravely down to the water.

No silver bells are heard. The westering moon 
Lights the pale floors of caverns by the sea. 
Wet weed hangs on the rock. In shimmering pools 
Left on the rocks by the receding sea 
Starfish slowly turn their white and brown 
Or writhe on the naked rocks and drown. 
Do sea-girls haunt these caves—do we hear faint singing? 
Do we hear from under the sea a faint bell ringing? 
Was that a white hand lifted among the bubbles 
And fallen softly back? 
No, these shores and caverns are all silent, 
Dead in the moonlight; only, far above, 
On the smooth contours of these headlands, 
White amid the eternal black, 
One by one in the moonlight there 
Neighing far off on the haunted air 
The unicorns come down to the sea.


Senlin, walking before us in the sunlight, 
Bending his small legs in a peculiar way, 
Goes to his work with thoughts of the universe. 
His hands are in his pockets, he smokes his pipe, 
He is happily conscious of roofs and skies; 
And, without turning his head, he turns his eyes 
To regard white horses drawing a small white hearse. 
The sky is brilliant between the roofs, 
The windows flash in the yellow sun, 
On the hard pavement ring the hoofs, 
The light wheels softly run. 
Bright particles of sunlight fall, 
Quiver and flash, gyrate and burn, 
Honey-like heat flows down the wall, 
The white spokes dazzle and turn.

Senlin, walking before us in the sunlight, 
Regards the hearse with an introspective eye. 
'Is it my childhood there,' he asks, 
'Sealed in a hearse and hurrying by?' 
He taps his trowel against a stone; 
The trowel sings with a silver tone.

'Nevertheless I know this well. 
Bury it deep and toll a bell, 
Bury it under land or sea, 
You cannot bury it save in me.'

It is as if his soul had become a city, 
With noisily peopled streets, and through these streets 
Senlin himself comes driving a small white hearse . . . 
'Senlin!' we cry. He does not turn his head. 
But is that Senlin?—Or is this city Senlin,—
Quietly watching the burial of the dead? 
Dumbly observing the cortège of its dead? 
Yet we would say that all this is but madness: 
Around a distant corner trots the hearse. 
And Senlin walks before us in the sunlight 
Happily conscious of his universe.


In the hot noon, in an old and savage garden, 
The peach-tree grows. Its cruel and ugly roots 
Rend and rifle the silent earth for moisture. 
Above, in the blue, hang warm and golden fruits. 
Look, how the cancerous roots crack mould and stone! 
Earth, if she had a voice, would wail her pain. 
Is she the victim, or is the tree the victim? 
Delicate blossoms opened in the rain, 
Black bees flew among them in the sunlight, 
And sacked them ruthlessly; and no a bird 
Hangs, sharp-eyed, in the leaves, and pecks the fruit; 
And the peach-tree dreams, and does not say a word. 
. . . Senlin, tapping his trowel against a stone, 
Observes this tree he planted: it is his own.

'You will think it strange,' says Senlin, 'but this tree 
Utters profound things in this garden; 
And in its silence speaks to me. 
I have sensations, when I stand beneath it, 
As if its leaves looked at me, and could see; 
And those thin leaves, even in windless air, 
Seem to be whispering me a choral music, 
Insubstantial but debonair.

"Regard," they seem to say, 
"Our idiot root, which going its brutal way 
Has cracked your garden wall! 
Ugly, is it not? 
A desecration of this place . . . 
And yet, without it, could we exist at all?" 
Thus, rustling with importance, they seem to me 
To make their apology; 
Yet, while they apologize, 
Ask me a wary question with their eyes. 
Yes, it is true their origin is low—
Brutish and dull and cruel . . . and it is true 
Their roots have cracked the wall. But do we know 
The leaves less cruel—the root less beautiful? 
Sometimes it seems as if there grew 
In the dull garden of my mind 
A tree like this, which, singing with delicate leaves, 
Yet cracks the wall with cruel roots and blind. 
Sometimes, indeed, it appears to me 
That I myself am such a tree . . .'

. . . And as we hear from Senlin these strange words 
So, slowly, in the sunlight, he becomes this tree: 
And among the pleasant leaves hang sharp-eyed birds 
While cruel roots dig downward secretly.


Rustling among his odds and ends of knowledge 
Suddenly, to his wonder, Senlin finds 
How Cleopatra and Senebtisi 
Were dug by many hands from ancient tombs. 
Cloth after scented cloth the sage unwinds: 
Delicious to see our futile modern sunlight 
Dance like a harlot among these Dogs and Dooms!

First, the huge pyramid, with rock on rock 
Bloodily piled to heaven; and under this 
A gilded cavern, bat festooned; 
And here in rows on rows, with gods about them, 
Cloudily lustrous, dim, the sacred coffins, 
Silver starred and crimson mooned.

What holy secret shall we now uncover? 
Inside the outer coffin is a second; 
Inside the second, smaller, lies a third. 
This one is carved, and like a human body; 
And painted over with fish and bull and bird. 
Here are men walking stiffly in procession, 
Blowing horns or lifting spears. 
Where do they march to? Where do they come from? 
Soft whine of horns is in our ears.

Inside, the third, a fourth . . . and this the artist,—
A priest, perhaps—did most to make resemble 
The flesh of her who lies within. 
The brown eyes widely stare at the bat-hung ceiling. 
The hair is black, The mouth is thin. 
Princess! Secret of life! We come to praise you! 
The torch is lowered, this coffin too we open, 
And the dark air is drunk with musk and myrrh. 
Here are the thousand white and scented wrappings, 
The gilded mask, and jeweled eyes, of her.

And now the body itself, brown, gaunt, and ugly, 
And the hollow scull, in which the brains are withered, 
Lie bare before us. Princess, is this all? 
Something there was we asked that is not answered. 
Soft bats, in rows, hang on the lustered wall.

And all we hear is a whisper sound of music, 
Of brass horns dustily raised and briefly blown, 
And a cry of grief; and men in a stiff procession 
Marching away and softly gone.


'And am I then a pyramid?' says Senlin, 
'In which are caves and coffins, where lies hidden 
Some old and mocking hieroglyph of flesh? 
Or am I rather the moonlight, spreading subtly 
Above those stones and times? 
Or the green blade of grass that bravely grows 
Between to massive boulders of black basalt 
Year after year, and fades and blows?

Senlin, sitting before us in the lamplight, 
Laughs, and lights his pipe. The yellow flame 
Minutely flares in his eyes, minutely dwindles. 
Does a blade of grass have Senlin for a name? 
Yet we would say that we have seen him somewhere, 
A tiny spear of green beneath the blue, 
Playing his destiny in a sun-warmed crevice 
With the gigantic fates of frost and dew.

Does a spider come and spin his gossamer ladder 
Rung by silver rung, 
Chaining it fast to Senlin? Its faint shadow 
Flung, waveringly, where his is flung? 
Does a raindrop dazzle starlike down his length 
Trying his futile strength? 
A snowflake startle him? The stars defeat him? 
Through aeons of dusk have birds above him sung? 
Time is a wind, says Senlin; time, like music, 
Blows over us its mournful beauty, passes, 
And leaves behind a shadowy reflection,—
A helpless gesture of mist above the grasses.


In cold blue lucid dusk before the sunrise, 
One yellow star sings over a peak of snow, 
And melts and vanishes in a light like roses. 
Through slanting mist, black rocks appear and glow.

The clouds flow downward, slowly as grey glaciers, 
Or up to a pale rose-azure pass. 
Blue streams tinkle down from snow to boulders, 
From boulders to white grass.

Icicles on the pine tree melt 
And softly flash in the sun: 
In long straight lines the star-drops fall 
One by one.

Is a voice heard while the shadows still are long, 
Borne slowly down on the sparkling air? 
Is a thin bell heard from the peak of silence? 
Is someone among the high snows there?

Where the blue stream flows coldly among the meadows 
And mist still clings to rock and tree 
Senlin walks alone; and from that twilight 
Looks darkly up, to see

The calm unmoving peak of snow-white silence, 
The rocks aflame with ice, the rose-blue sky . . . 
Ghost-like, a cloud descends from twinkling ledges, 
To nod before the dwindling sun and die.

'Something there is,' says Senlin, 'in that mountain, 
Something forgotten now, that once I knew . . .' 
We walk before a sun-tipped peak in silence, 
Our shadows descend before us, long and blue.