Conrad Aiken |
from Senlin: A Biography
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do.
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.
Vine leaves tap my window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chips in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.
It is morning.
I stand by the mirror
And tie my tie once more.
While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
Crash on a white sand shore.
I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
How small and white my face!—
The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
And bathes in a flame of space.
There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea.
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me.
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember God?
Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
To him alone, and for him I will comb my hair.
Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!
I will think of you as I descend the stair.
Vine leaves tap my window,
The snail-track shines on the stones,
Dew-drops flash from the chinaberry tree
Repeating two clear tones.
It is morning, I awake from a bed of silence,
Shining I rise from the starless waters of sleep.
The walls are about me still as in the evening,
I am the same, and the same name still I keep.
The earth revolves with me, yet makes no motion,
The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
Unconcerned, I tie my tie.
There are horses neighing on far-off hills
Tossing their long white manes,
And mountains flash in the rose-white dusk,
Their shoulders black with rains.
It is morning.
I stand by the mirror
And suprise my soul once more;
The blue air rushes above my ceiling,
There are suns beneath my floor.
It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,
My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go
Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
And humming a tune I know.
Vine-leaves tap at the window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.
Conrad Aiken |
The girl in the room beneath
Before going to bed
Strums on a mandolin
The three simple tunes she knows.
How inadequate they are to tell how her heart feels!
When she has finished them several times
She thrums the strings aimlessly with her finger-nails
And smiles, and thinks happily of many things.
I stood for a long while before the shop window
Looking at the blue butterflies embroidered on tawny silk.
The building was a tower before me,
Time was loud behind me,
Sun went over the housetops and dusty trees;
And there they were, glistening, brilliant, motionless,
Stitched in a golden sky
By yellow patient fingers long since turned to dust.
The first bell is silver,
And breathing darkness I think only of the long scythe of time.
The second bell is crimson,
And I think of a holiday night, with rockets
Furrowing the sky with red, and a soft shatter of stars.
The third bell is saffron and slow,
And I behold a long sunset over the sea
With wall on wall of castled cloud and glittering balustrades.
The fourth bell is color of bronze,
I walk by a frozen lake in the dun light of dusk:
Muffled crackings run in the ice,
Trees creak, birds fly.
The fifth bell is cold clear azure,
Delicately tinged with green:
One golden star hangs melting in it,
And towards this, sleepily, I go.
The sixth bell is as if a pebble
Had been dropped into a deep sea far above me .
Rings of sound ebb slowly into the silence.
On the day when my uncle and I drove to the cemetery,
Rain rattled on the roof of the carriage;
And talkng constrainedly of this and that
We refrained from looking at the child's coffin on the seat before us.
When we reached the cemetery
We found that the thin snow on the grass
Was already transparent with rain;
And boards had been laid upon it
That we might walk without wetting our feet.
When I was a boy, and saw bright rows of icicles
In many lengths along a wall
I was dissappointed to find
That I could not play music upon them:
I ran my hand lightly across them
And they fell, tinkling.
I tell you this, young man, so that your expectations of life
Will not be too great.
It is now two hours since I left you,
And the perfume of your hands is still on my hands.
And though since then
I have looked at the stars, walked in the cold blue streets,
And heard the dead leaves blowing over the ground
Under the trees,
I still remember the sound of your laughter.
How will it be, lady, when there is none left to remember you
Even as long as this?
Will the dust braid your hair?
The day opens with the brown light of snowfall
And past the window snowflakes fall and fall.
I sit in my chair all day and work and work
Measuring words against each other.
I open the piano and play a tune
But find it does not say what I feel,
I grow tired of measuring words against each other,
I grow tired of these four walls,
And I think of you, who write me that you have just had a daughter
And named her after your first sweetheart,
And you, who break your heart, far away,
In the confusion and savagery of a long war,
And you who, worn by the bitterness of winter,
Will soon go south.
The snowflakes fall almost straight in the brown light
Past my window,
And a sparrow finds refuge on my window-ledge.
This alone comes to me out of the world outside
As I measure word with word.
Many things perplex me and leave me troubled,
Many things are locked away in the white book of stars
Never to be opened by me.
The starr'd leaves are silently turned,
And the mooned leaves;
And as they are turned, fall the shadows of life and death.
Perplexed and troubled,
I light a small light in a small room,
The lighted walls come closer to me,
The familiar pictures are clear.
I sit in my favourite chair and turn in my mind
The tiny pages of my own life, whereon so little is written,
And hear at the eastern window the pressure of a long wind, coming
From I know not where.
How many times have I sat here,
How many times will I sit here again,
Thinking these same things over and over in solitude
As a child says over and over
The first word he has learned to say.
This girl gave her heart to me,
And this, and this.
This one looked at me as if she loved me,
And silently walked away.
This one I saw once and loved, and never saw her again.
Shall I count them for you upon my fingers?
Or like a priest solemnly sliding beads?
Or pretend they are roses, pale pink, yellow, and white,
And arrange them for you in a wide bowl
To be set in sunlight?
See how nicely it sounds as I count them for you—
'This girl gave her heart to me
And this, and this, .
And nevertheless, my heart breaks when I think of them,
When I think their names,
And how, like leaves, they have changed and blown
And will lie, at last, forgotten,
Under the snow.
It is night time, and cold, and snow is falling,
And no wind grieves the walls.
In the small world of light around the arc-lamp
A swarm of snowflakes falls and falls.
The street grows silent.
The last stranger passes.
The sound of his feet, in the snow, is indistinct.
What forgotten sadness is it, on a night like this,
Takes possession of my heart?
Why do I think of a camellia tree in a southern garden,
With pink blossoms among dark leaves,
Standing, surprised, in the snow?
Why do I think of spring?
The snowflakes, helplessly veering,,
Fall silently past my window;
They come from darkness and enter darkness.
What is it in my heart is surprised and bewildered
Like that camellia tree,
Beautiful still in its glittering anguish?
And spring so far away!
As I walked through the lamplit gardens,
On the thin white crust of snow,
So intensely was I thinking of my misfortune,
So clearly were my eyes fixed
On the face of this grief which has come to me,
That I did not notice the beautiful pale colouring
Of lamplight on the snow;
Nor the interlaced long blue shadows of trees;
And yet these things were there,
And the white lamps, and the orange lamps, and the lamps of lilac were there,
As I have seen them so often before;
As they will be so often again
Long after my grief is forgotten.
And still, though I know this, and say this, it cannot console me.
How many times have we been interrupted
Just as I was about to make up a story for you!
One time it was because we suddenly saw a firefly
Lighting his green lantern among the boughs of a fir-tree.
Marvellous! Marvellous! He is making for himself
A little tent of light in the darkness!
And one time it was because we saw a lilac lightning flash
Run wrinkling into the blue top of the mountain,—
We heard boulders of thunder rolling down upon us
And the plat-plat of drops on the window,
And we ran to watch the rain
Charging in wavering clouds across the long grass of the field!
Or at other times it was because we saw a star
Slipping easily out of the sky and falling, far off,
Among pine-dark hills;
Or because we found a crimson eft
Darting in the cold grass!
These things interrupted us and left us wondering;
And the stories, whatever they might have been,
Were never told.
A fairy, binding a daisy down and laughing?
A golden-haired princess caught in a cobweb?
A love-story of long ago?
Some day, just as we are beginning again,
Just as we blow the first sweet note,
Death itself will interrupt us.
My heart is an old house, and in that forlorn old house,
In the very centre, dark and forgotten,
Is a locked room where an enchanted princess
But sometimes, in that dark house,
As if almost from the stars, far away,
Sounds whisper in that secret room—
Faint voices, music, a dying trill of laughter?
And suddenly, from her long sleep,
The beautiful princess awakes and dances.
Who is she? I do not know.
Why does she dance? Do not ask me!—
Yet to-day, when I saw you,
When I saw your eyes troubled with the trouble of happiness,
And your mouth trembling into a smile,
And your fingers pull shyly forward,—
Softly, in that room,
The little princess arose
And as she danced the old house gravely trembled
With its vague and delicious secret.
Like an old tree uprooted by the wind
And flung down cruelly
With roots bared to the sun and stars
And limp leaves brought to earth—
Torn from its house—
So do I seem to myself
When you have left me.
The music of the morning is red and warm;
Snow lies against the walls;
And on the sloping roof in the yellow sunlight
Pigeons huddle against the wind.
The music of evening is attenuated and thin—
The moon seen through a wave by a mermaid;
The crying of a violin.
Far down there, far down where the river turns to the west,
The delicate lights begin to twinkle
On the dusky arches of the bridge:
In the green sky a long cloud,
A smouldering wave of smoky crimson,
Breaks in the freezing wind: and above it, unabashed,
Remote, untouched, fierly palpitant,
Sings the first star.
Conrad Aiken |
From time to time, lifting his eyes, he sees
The soft blue starlight through the one small window,
The moon above black trees, and clouds, and Venus,—
And turns to write .
The clock, behind ticks softly.
It is so long, indeed, since I have written,—
Two years, almost, your last is turning yellow,—
That these first words I write seem cold and strange.
Are you the man I knew, or have you altered?
Altered, of course—just as I too have altered—
And whether towards each other, or more apart,
We cannot say .
I've just re-read your letter—
Not through forgetfulness, but more for pleasure—
Pondering much on all you say in it
Of mystic consciousness—divine conversion—
The sense of oneness with the infinite,—
Faith in the world, its beauty, and its purpose .
Well, you believe one must have faith, in some sort,
If one's to talk through this dark world contented.
But is the world so dark? Or is it rather
Our own brute minds,—in which we hurry, trembling,
Through streets as yet unlighted? This, I think.
You have been always, let me say, "romantic,"—
Eager for color, for beauty, soon discontented
With a world of dust and stones and flesh too ailing:
Even before the question grew to problem
And drove you bickering into metaphysics,
You met on lower planes the same great dragon,
Seeking release, some fleeting satisfaction,
In strange aesthetics .
You tried, as I remember,
One after one, strange cults, and some, too, morbid,
The cruder first, more violent sensations,
Gorgeously carnal things, conceived and acted
With splendid animal thirst .
Then, by degrees,—
Savoring all more delicate gradations
In all that hue and tone may play on flesh,
Or thought on brain,—you passed, if I may say so,
From red and scarlet through morbid greens to mauve.
Let us regard ourselves, you used to say,
As instruments of music, whereon our lives
Will play as we desire: and let us yield
These subtle bodies and subtler brains and nerves
To all experience plays .
And so you went
From subtle tune to subtler, each heard once,
Twice or thrice at the most, tiring of each;
And closing one by one your doors, drew in
Slowly, through darkening labyrinths of feeling,
Towards the central chamber .
Which now you've reached.
What, then's, the secret of this ultimate chamber—
Or innermost, rather? If I see it clearly
It is the last, and cunningest, resort
Of one who has found this world of dust and flesh,—
This world of lamentations, death, injustice,
Sickness, humiliation, slow defeat,
Bareness, and ugliness, and iteration,—
Too meaningless; or, if it has a meaning,
Too tiresomely insistent on one meaning:
This world, I hear you saying,—
With lifted chin, and arm in outflung gesture,
Coldly imperious,—this transient world,
What has it then to give, if not containing
Deep hints of nobler worlds? We know its beauties,—
Momentary and trivial for the most part,
Perceived through flesh, passing like flesh away,—
And know how much outweighed they are by darkness.
We are like searchers in a house of darkness,
A house of dust; we creep with little lanterns,
Throwing our tremulous arcs of light at random,
Now here, now there, seeing a plane, an angle,
An edge, a curve, a wall, a broken stairway
Leading to who knows what; but never seeing
The whole at once .
We grope our way a little,
And then grow tired.
No matter what we touch,
Dust is the answer—dust: dust everywhere.
If this were all—what were the use, you ask?
But this is not: for why should we be seeking,
Why should we bring this need to seek for beauty,
To lift our minds, if there were only dust?
This is the central chamber you have come to:
Turning your back to the world, until you came
To this deep room, and looked through rose-stained windows,
And saw the hues of the world so sweetly changed.
Well, in a measure, so only do we all.
I am not sure that you can be refuted.
At the very last we all put faith in something,—
You in this ghost that animates your world,
This ethical ghost,—and I, you'll say, in reason,—
Or sensuous beauty,—or in my secret self .
Though as for that you put your faith in these,
As much as I do—and then, forsaking reason,—
Ascending, you would say, to intuition,—
You predicate this ghost of yours, as well.
Of course, you might have argued,—and you should have,—
That no such deep appearance of design
Could shape our world without entailing purpose:
For can design exist without a purpose?
Without conceiving mind? .
We are like children
Who find, upon the sands, beside a sea,
Strange patterns drawn,—circles, arcs, ellipses,
Moulded in sand .
Who put them there, we wonder?
Did someone draw them here before we came?
Or was it just the sea?—We pore upon them,
But find no answer—only suppositions.
And if these perfect shapes are evidence
Of immanent mind, it is but circumstantial:
We never come upon him at his work,
He never troubles us.
He stands aloof—
Well, if he stands at all: is not concerned
With what we are or do.
You, if you like,
May think he broods upon us, loves us, hates us,
Conceives some purpose of us.
In so doing
You see, without much reason, will in law.
I am content to say, 'this world is ordered,
Happily so for us, by accident:
We go our ways untroubled save by laws
Of natural things.
' Who makes the more assumption?
If we were wise—which God knows we are not—
(Notice I call on God!) we'd plumb this riddle
Not in the world we see, but in ourselves.
These brains of ours—these delicate spinal clusters—
Have limits: why not learn them, learn their cravings?
Which of the two minds, yours or mine, is sound?
Yours, which scorned the world that gave it freedom,
Until you managed to see that world as omen,—
Or mine, which likes the world, takes all for granted,
Sorrow as much as joy, and death as life?—
You lean on dreams, and take more credit for it.
I stand alone .
Well, I take credit, too.
You find your pleasure in being at one with all things—
Fusing in lambent dream, rising and falling
As all things rise and fall .
I do that too—
I find more varied pleasure
In understanding: and so find beauty even
In this strange dream of yours you call the truth.
Well, I have bored you.
And it's growing late.
For household news—what have you heard, I wonder?
You must have heard that Paul was dead, by this time—
Of spinal cancer.
Nothing could be done—
We found it out too late.
His death has changed me,
Deflected much of me that lived as he lived,
Saddened me, slowed me down.
Such things will happen,
Life is composed of them; and it seems wisdom
To see them clearly, meditate upon them,
And understand what things flow out of them.
Otherwise, all goes on here much as always.
Why won't you come and see us, in the spring,
And bring old times with you?—If you could see me
Sitting here by the window, watching Venus
Go down behind my neighbor's poplar branches,—
Just where you used to sit,—I'm sure you'd come.
This year, they say, the springtime will be early.
Conrad Aiken |
Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone.
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.
Conrad Aiken |
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.
Conrad Aiken |
Senlin sat before us and we heard him.
He smoked his pipe before us and we saw him.
Was he small, with reddish hair,
Did he light his pipe with a meditative stare
And a twinkling flame reflected in blue eyes?
'I am alone': said Senlin; 'in a forest of leaves
The single leaf that creeps and falls.
The single blade of grass in a desert of grass
That none foresaw and none recalls.
The single shell that a green wave shatters
In tiny specks of whiteness on brown sands .
How shall you understand me with your hearts,
Who cannot reach me with your hands? .
The city dissolves about us, and its walls
Are the sands beside a sea.
We plunge in a chaos of dunes, white waves before us
Crash on kelp tumultuously,
Gulls wheel over foam, the clouds blow tattered,
The sun is swallowed .
Has Senlin become a shore?
Is Senlin a grain of sand beneath our footsteps,
A speck of shell upon which waves will roar? .
Senlin! we cry .
Senlin! again .
Only the crash of sea on a shell-white shore.
Yet, we would say, this is no shore at all,
But a small bright room with lamplight on the wall;
And the familiar chair
Where Senlin sat, with lamplight on his hair.
Senlin, alone before us, played a music.
Was it himself he played? .
We sat and listened,
Perplexed and pleased and tired.
'Listen!' he said, 'and you will learn a secret--
Though it is not the secret you desired.
I have not found a meaning that will praise you!
Out of the heart of silence comes this music,
Quietly speaks and dies.
Look! there is one white star above black houses!
And a tiny man who climbs toward the skies!
Where does he walk to? What does he leave behind him?
What was his foolish name?
What did he stop to say, before he left you
As simply as he came?
"Death?" did it sound like, "love and god, and laughter,
Sunlight, and work, and pain .
No--it appears to me that these were symbols
Of simple truths he found no way to explain.
He spoke, but found you could not understand him--
You were alone, and he was alone.
"He sought to touch you, and found he could not reach you,--
He sought to understand you, and could not hear you.
And so this music, which I play before you,--
Does it mean only what it seems to mean?
Or is it a dance of foolish waves in sunlight
Above a desperate depth of things unseen?
Listen! Do you not hear the singing voices
Out of the darkness of this sea?
But no: you cannot hear them; for if you heard them
You would have heard and captured me.
Yet I am here, talking of laughter.
Laughter and love and work and god;
As I shall talk of these same things hereafter
In wave and sod.
Walk on a hill and call me: "Senlin! .
Will I not answer you as clearly as now?
Listen to rain, and you will hear me speaking.
Look for my heart in the breaking of a bough .
Senlin stood before us in the sunlight,
And laughed, and walked away.
Did no one see him leaving the doors of the city,
Looking behind him, as if he wished to stay?
Has no one, in the forests of the evening,
Heard the sad horn of Senlin slowly blown?
For somewhere, in the worlds-in-worlds about us,
He changes still, unfriended and alone.
Is he the star on which we walk at daybreak,
The light that blinds our eyes?
'Senlin!' we cry.
'Senlin!' again .
Only the soulless brilliance of blue skies.
Yet we would say, this was no man at all,
But a dream we dreamed, and vividly recall;
And we are mad to walk in wind and rain
Hoping to find, somewhere, that dream again.
Conrad Aiken |
Moonlight silvers the tops of trees,
Moonlight whitens the lilac shadowed wall
And through the evening fall,
Clearly, as if through enchanted seas,
Footsteps passing, an infinite distance away,
In another world and another day.
Moonlight turns the purple lilacs blue,
Moonlight leaves the fountain hoar and old,
And the boughs of elms grow green and cold,
Our footsteps echo on gleaming stones,
The leaves are stirred to a jargon of muted tones.
This is the night we have kept, you say:
This is the moonlit night that will never die.
Through the grey streets our memories retain
Let us go back again.
Mist goes up from the river to dim the stars,
The river is black and cold; so let us dance
To flare of horns, and clang of cymbals and drums;
And strew the glimmering floor with roses,
And remember, while the rich music yawns and closes,
With a luxury of pain, how silence comes.
Yes, we loved each other, long ago;
We moved like wind to a music's ebb and flow.
At a phrase from violins you closed your eyes,
And smiled, and let me lead you how young we were!
Your hair, upon that music, seemed to stir.
Let us return there, let us return, you and I;
Through changeless streets our memories retain
Let us go back again.
Mist goes up from the rain steeped earth, and clings
Ghostly with lamplight among drenched maple trees.
We walk in silence and see how the lamplight flings
Fans of shadow upon it the music's mournful pleas
Die out behind us, the door is closed at last,
A net of silver silence is softly cast
Over our thought slowly we walk,
Quietly with delicious pause, we talk,
Of foolish trivial things; of life and death,
Time, and forgetfulness, and dust and truth;
Lilacs and youth.
You laugh, I hear the after taken breath,
You darken your eyes and turn away your head
At something I have said
Some intuition that flew too deep,
And struck a plageant chord.
Tonight, tonight you will remember it as you fall asleep,
Your dream will suddenly blossom with sharp delight,
Goodnight! You say.
The leaves of the lilac dip and sway;
The purple spikes of bloom
Nod their sweetness upon us, lift again,
Your white face turns, I am cought with pain
And silence descends, and dripping of dew from eaves,
And jeweled points of leaves.
I walk in a pleasure of sorrow along the street
And try to remember you; slow drops patter;
Water upon the lilacs has made them sweet;
I brush them with my sleeve, the cool drops scatter;
And suddenly I laugh and stand and listen
As if another had laughed a gust
Rustles the leaves, the wet spikes glisten;
And it seems as though it were you who had shaken the bough,
And spilled the fragrance I pursue your face again,
It grows more vague and lovely, it eludes me now.
I remember that you are gone, and drown in pain.
Something there was I said to you I recall,
Something just as the music seemed to fall
That made you laugh, and burns me still with pleasure.
What were those words the words like dripping fire?
I remember them now, and in sweet leisure
Rehearse the scene, more exquisite than before,
And you more beautiful, and I more wise.
Lilacs and spring, and night, and your clear eyes,
And you, in white, by the darkness of a door:
These things, like voices weaving to richest music,
Flow and fall in the cool night of my mind,
I pursue your ghost among green leaves that are ghostly,
I pursue you, but cannot find.
And suddenly, with a pang that is sweetest of all,
I become aware that I cannot remember you;
The ghost I knew
Has silently plunged in shadows, shadows that stream and fall.
Let us go in and dance once more
On the dream's glimmering floor,
Beneath the balcony festooned with roses.
Let us go in and dance once more.
The door behind us closes
Against an evening purple with stars and mist.
Let us go in and keep our tryst
With music and white roses, and spin around
In swirls of sound.
Do you forsee me, married and grown old?
And you, who smile about you at this room,
Is it foretold
That you must step from tumult into gloom,
Forget me, love another?
No, you are Cleopatra, fiercely young,
Laughing upon the topmost stair of night;
Roses upon the desert must be flung;
Above us, light by light,
Weaves the delirious darkness, petal fall,
And music breaks in waves on the pillared wall;
And you are Cleopatra, and do not care.
And so, in memory, you will always be
Young and foolish, a thing of dream and mist;
And so, perhaps when all is disillusioned,
And eternal spring returns once more,
Bringing a ghost of lovelier springs remembered,
You will remember me.
Yet when we meet we seem in silence to say,
Pretending serene forgetfulness of our youth,
"Do you remember but then why should you remember!
Do you remember a certain day,
Or evening rather, spring evening long ago,
We talked of death, and love, and time, and truth,
And said such wise things, things that amused us so
How foolish we were, who thought ourselves so wise!"
And then we laugh, with shadows in our eyes.
Conrad Aiken |
(Bread and Music)
Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.
Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.
For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.
My heart has become as hard as a city street,
The horses trample upon it, it sings like iron,
All day long and all night long they beat,
They ring like the hooves of time.
My heart has become as drab as a city park,
The grass is worn with the feet of shameless lovers,
A match is struck, there is kissing in the dark,
The moon comes, pale with sleep.
My heart is torn with the sound of raucous voices,
They shout from the slums, from the streets, from the crowded places,
And tunes from the hurdy-gurdy that coldly rejoices
Shoot arrows into my heart.
Dead Cleopatra lies in a crystal casket,
Wrapped and spiced by the cunningest of hands.
Around her neck they have put a golden necklace,
Her tatbebs, it is said, are worn with sands.
Dead Cleopatra was once revered in Egypt,
Warm-eyed she was, this princess of the South.
Now she is old and dry and faded,
With black bitumen they have sealed up her mouth.
O sweet clean earth, from whom the green blade cometh!
When we are dead, my best belovèd and I,
Close well above us, that we may rest forever,
Sending up grass and blossoms to the sky.
In the noisy street,
Where the sifted sunlight yellows the pallid faces,
Sudden I close my eyes, and on my eyelids
Feel from the far-off sea a cool faint spray,—
A breath on my cheek,
From the tumbling breakers and foam, the hard sand shattered,
Gulls in the high wind whistling, flashing waters,
Smoke from the flashing waters blown on rocks;
—And I know once more,
O dearly belovèd! that all these seas are between us,
Tumult and madness, desolate save for the sea-gulls,
You on the farther shore, and I in this street.
Conrad Aiken |
Of what she said to me that night—no matter.
The strange thing came next day.
My brain was full of music—something she played me—;
I couldn't remember it all, but phrases of it
Wreathed and wreathed among faint memories,
Seeking for something, trying to tell me something,
Urging to restlessness: verging on grief.
I tried to play the tune, from memory,—
But memory failed: the chords and discords climbed
And found no resolution—only hung there,
And left me morbid .
Where, then, had I heard it? .
What secret dusty chamber was it hinting?
'Dust', it said, 'dust .
and dust .
and sunlight .
A cold clear April evening .
Rain-worn snow, dappling the hideous grass .
And someone walking alone; and someone saying
That all must end, for the time had come to go .
These were the phrases .
but behind, beneath them
A greater shadow moved: and in this shadow
I stood and guessed .
Was it the blue-eyed lady?
The one who always danced in golden slippers—
And had I danced with her,—upon this music?
Or was it further back—the unplumbed twilight
Of childhood?—No—much recenter than that.
You know, without my telling you, how sometimes
A word or name eludes you, and you seek it
Through running ghosts of shadow,—leaping at it,
Lying in wait for it to spring upon it,
Spreading faint snares for it of sense or sound:
Until, of a sudden, as if in a phantom forest,
You hear it, see it flash among the branches,
And scarcely knowing how, suddenly have it—
Well, it was so I followed down this music,
Glimpsing a face in darkness, hearing a cry,
Remembering days forgotten, moods exhausted,
Corners in sunlight, puddles reflecting stars—;
Until, of a sudden, and least of all suspected,
The thing resolved itself: and I remembered
An April afternoon, eight years ago—
Or was it nine?—no matter—call it nine—
A room in which the last of sunlight faded;
A vase of violets, fragrance in white curtains;
And, she who played the same thing later, playing.
She played this tune.
And in the middle of it
Abruptly broke it off, letting her hands
Fall in her lap.
She sat there so a moment,
With shoulders drooped, then lifted up a rose,
One great white rose, wide opened like a lotos,
And pressed it to her cheek, and closed her eyes.
'You know—we've got to end this—Miriam loves you .
If she should ever know, or even guess it,—
What would she do?—Listen!—I'm not absurd .
I'm sure of it.
If you had eyes, for women—
To understand them—which you've never had—
You'd know it too .
' So went this colloquy,
Half humorous, with undertones of pathos,
Half grave, half flippant .
while her fingers, softly,
Felt for this tune, played it and let it fall,
Now note by singing note, now chord by chord,
Repeating phrases with a kind of pleasure .
Was it symbolic of the woman's weakness
That she could neither break it—nor conclude?
It paused .
and wandered .
paused again; while she,
Perplexed and tired, half told me I must go,—
Half asked me if I thought I ought to go .
Well, April passed with many other evenings,
Evenings like this, with later suns and warmer,
With violets always there, and fragrant curtains .
And she was right: and Miriam found it out .
And after that, when eight deep years had passed—
Or nine—we met once more,—by accident .
But was it just by accident, I wonder,
She played this tune?—Or what, then, was intended? .
Conrad Aiken |
All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that's now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.
Fine ladies soon are all forgotten,
And goldenrod is dust when dead,
The sweetest flesh and flowers are rotten
And cobwebs tent the brightest head.
Come back, true love! Sweet youth, return!—
But time goes on, and will, unheeding,
Though hands will reach, and eyes will yearn,
And the wild days set true hearts bleeding.
Come back, true love! Sweet youth, remain!—
But goldenrod and daisies wither,
And over them blows autumn rain,
They pass, they pass, and know not whither.