For with Poseidon’s high-surging hate
Odysseus’ valour wrestled long, till he
swam through a crevice in the wall of sea –
a god had kindly smoothed its heaving spate
of glassy wildness – and, from peril freed,
could wade through buoyant waves and climb ashore,
bend down in creaking reeds and kiss once more
the holy earth, giver of wholesome seed:
and in a storm of churned up memory
sharp stabs of wave-top pain are hurled at me;
I sense a resin smell, and safely glide
back to my farthest past, both old and tired;
and feel as if I kiss you, heath-clad land
and stroke you gratefully with pious hand.
Still did wide-ranging falcons with rare cry
rip through your stillness, Veluwe, homeland!
Your silence, full of deep past close at hand,
no city drivellers’ din had yet defiled;
deer flickered still among your greenery;
no candle lupins, row on row, yet drove
their flaring mirth into your tragic mauve,
with jagged woods as far as one could see;
no greasy scraps of newspaper yet lay
flapping beside the flattened hillside moss,
with cast-off orange peel already smirched:
your gently roaming paths had not yet lost
their quiet where game could just as safely play
as on rough hillsides, plumed with slender birch.
And don’t I smell there, coming from your heath,
air that is sharp and strong, is warm and tingles,
when cloudless August heat at noonday mingles
with white-poised birch and glistening sand beneath?
I see how, spark on spark, the eager search
of bees is focused on new-flowering heather;
hear the point d’orgue the wind, light as a feather,
brings from the fir-tree wood, brown-columned church.
The distance shimmers. Closing my eyes tight,
I feel my body stand, unreally light,
blissfully lost now in infinity;
a scent of resin, sun, and heath, and wood
make up a wonderland, where piously
my resurrected childhood flowers and thrives.
I then think of the rabbit that I spied
near Christmas as a child behind the glass
of an expensive toy shop. Oh! it was
so lovely a small creature, grey and white;
lay snugly in its grass-lined basket; when
I paused on my way home from school each day
to look, I feared it would be gone. Dismay
I felt when this in fact had happened. Then
I knew I’d hoped, deep down at any rate
to have it as a gift. I didn’t talk
of this at home, but I refused to walk
on that side of the street, for then I’d cry.
Now such a rabbit I could simply buy,
but I grow grey myself. Things come too late.
Speak, Swiftfoot Wolf, brother with light-blond hair,
did your keen eye see pale men, sly in manner,
come stealing through the billowing savannah,
to take us while we still were unaware?
Your red friend, Mighty Eagle, knows no art
to banish from his soul his anxious fear;
it’s plotting for your scalp they all draw near;
my spirit’s cheerless, heavy is my heart.
You seek their hatred, cunning, shot and knife;
their spite will not forgive a noble friend
whose courage saved me from a certain end
when with the panther I fought for my life.
They seek through treachery to seal your fate:
they venture little, but their guile is great.
I hear our quagmire swish – we called it that,
I and my friend – with anxious-rustling rushes,
a glimpse of swaying birds they call reed thrushes;
around it woods, then heathland, wide and flat.
We lit small fires, quite safe: no one will spot
the bluish smoke. Above us, strange and rude,
ominous caws glide through the solitude.
He’s still alive? – A resin smell – Hope not.
I often hurt, offended him, I knew;
for I was fond of – no – in love with him.
No, more: my model of what’s good and true.
Now I am old. My world is gone, now lies
in Brahman – I’ve become a grey brahmin –
but he had sleek black hair and deep-blue eyes.
The ugly duckling tale I then re-read:
he blithely swam at first on green-lit water,
but was chased off by cackling without quarter;
a young lad threw a pebble at his head;
he splashed round in a pool one night although
one leg was frozen stiff, and later met
at the old crone’s shack that stately, wise tom cat
and Chickie Shortlegs with its scalded toe!
And bit by bit the little duckling thrived;
and flew off to a lake. Three swans swam on
to welcome him. ‘Peck me to death!’ he cried,
and bowed down to the lake – and saw a swan.
And when I read that tale I always had
the strange sense I too was a swan like that.
Yes, I’ve been slow to grasp that I’m a swan:
from quagmire of life’s pain and misery
a dawning sense of God has lifted me,
earthly attachments are all long since gone;
my wings are white once more and fit to beat
in Brahman’s light; for any clinging mud
I have with blissful tears from them now rubbed
I may, dare, can, and must direct my feet –
I who, from fear of earth, would gasping flee
and seek release in storm and star-strewn dark,
in nature’s painlessness that’s so entire –
to where, Brahman-drunk with eternity,
ecstasy sees, a cloud of ash and sparks,
the Cosmos fly out from its own World-Fire.
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