- The Descent
Daedalus in Knossos once contrived
A dancing-floor for fair-haired Ariadne.
She danced a winding dance
her bare white feet
weaving the pattern of a coiling tune
— design of serpentine or marble pebbles
set in the floor of any wayside shrine.
Then was the ancient story just a game
the villagers call Troy-town?
What of the passages, the ways,
the branching and dividing and rejoining maze?
She rode the spiral down.
She rode the escalator down,
the polished platform disappeared from view.
Old destinations echoed — Rome, Berlin,
Bremen, New York — a thin chant threading
the snailshell cochlea. The air
bore scents of phosphor and of iodine.
She reached ground zero, groped
among the rags, the rubble, the charred leaves
of torn papyrus lettered with old lyrics,
the scattered tesserae and iridescent shards
— there was a door
it opened on a stairwell going down.
- Civitas Dei
The princess is rolling a crystal ball,
the princess is spinning a silver top,
is playing hopscotch on the cobbles
beneath the spires and oriels, the gates and crenelations
of her city. Dresden? Berlin? Alexandria
of the Magician, little Innsbruck, Tyre?
It is the city of the god
whatever its name. Where she dwells with her mother
in a spacious apartment in the inner city,
rosy with the gleam of old Bohemian glass.
They sit at the darkly polished table,
the scarred and cracked but shining refectory table
and eat black bread and imitation honey
while the baby plays
while the siren shrieks
while the walls tremble
in the deep booming of the bombardment,
the rat-tat-tat of anti-aircraft fire.
(Surely by this time they are in the basement?)
The linden trees are hung with giant veils
for camouflage. The houses fall and fall
until no camouflage is needed.
In little gardens
cabbages swell and rot beside the dahlias.
The god withdraws.
The princess in disguise flees with her mama,
is taken to live with a pastor's family
beside the village church. (Whose windows tremble
whose dog hides under the bed
when they are flattening the distant city.)
Her crystal ball
rolls down a deep well of forgetting.
- The Goose-Girl and the Sea
Their clothes were rags.
What did they wear
as war wore on?
A sky-blue silk chemise
that once had been the queen's
is what the goose-girl wore
and loved to wear.
The children all went barefoot.
With tough and dirty feet
they trod upon the stubble, gleaning wheat.
But winter was coming.
They heard a rumor of a shoemaker
still plying his trade in a far town
beside the sea. The two friends begged
and begged to go.
They were given a loaf of bread,
a jug of buttermilk and their gaping shoes
packed in their rucksacks.
The boy and girl danced down the road,
she in her mama's slip
he in his missing father's trousers, cut down.
The road unwound
in unfamiliar swoops and curlicues
drawing them on. Never
had they been so far from home.
The soft dust of the road,
the roadside cornflowers as blue as eyes,
the little goose-blossoms, the dandelion suns,
a high hill, breathless climbing slope,
the crest —
before their dazzled eyes
a shimmering surprise
blue in the crystal distance where it flowed
to sky. An aquamarine plenitude, a flood
of wordless joy.
one of them breathed: the sea.
Whether they ever came down from that hill
and found the shoemaker
and stumbled home in darkness
she cannot later tell. But still she sees
— oh sudden prickle of tears behind closed eyes —
the blue, the pure blue of the living sea.
- The Retreat
Then Father Zeus proclaimed,
the word came from on high:
Abandon farms and goods and chattels.
Obedient, the matrons
packed up their lares and penates, hid
their rhytons and red-figured sewing machines.
The pastor's family
crammed pigs and geese and silverware
and great-grossmutter's Biedermeier clock
and all their feather beds onto an oxcart
and plodded west. Pious Aeneas
hoisted his aged father on his back.
The oxcarts creaked. The Polish chattels
stood in a silent line along the street
and watched them leave.
The Eastern Front was coming closer,
was bloodily visible and certainly audible,
a nightlong red Walpurgisnacht
against which black midwinter trees
wrung their naked branches
while the earth-shaker roared.
Oxcarts and tanks, the tortoise
and the elephant; and Mama sick
with a bloodpoisoned finger. Streaks of red
ran from the sky along her arm
as she sewed our long-expired American passports
into our sleeves. We begged her not to die.
She lived. We fled the pastor's family,
the household goods, the slow-meandering
doomed and sacrificial ox-procession
and clawed our way in through the windows
of the last train. Were jammed
among the shot and dying youths and striplings
of the Wehrmacht. Shared the stale
black bread from Mama's suitcase, passed
dark station platforms thronged with ghosts
who wailed and held their arms out to us
in vain. The train sped past. Oh fortunate,
who crossed into the country of the saved.
Your looking makes it visible.
Wild flares and gold striations
in the sun's eye.
My looking makes visible a silver airplane
turning and climbing in a bright blue sky.
A chromium toy shooting real bullets.
We are lying in a ditch.
The train stands on the tracks
with all its doors and windows open.
The locomotive burns.
(Across the stubble-field
a tiny farm house: but all of us
are lying in the ditch, not safe
in a farm house eating bread and milk.)
The silver plane turns and returns.
The locomotive burns.
We cover our heads with our arms
but still I saw and see the silver flash,
the blue and burning February sky.
Ten years went by.
I polished the glass in other people's houses.
I learned to live on stone soup.
My needle flashed.
I stitched a fallow field with nettles.
I said I will walk naked among them:
Downstairs the suitors are eating breakfast
and starting to quarrel.
I appliqued an anchor
Ten years and no letter.
His handwriting was beautiful in my eyes.
I embroidered a hair shirt with alpha and beta.
He told me once: make Roman capitals
not those Nazi Gothic letters.
Downstairs the suitors are toasting you,
tossing the glasses into the fireplace.
He sold the Bohemian glass
before the Party got their hands on it.
Others were shipwrecked, drowned, were shot or captured.
He slipped through the Eastern Front, elegant
even in a bullet-torn uniform, an amusing disguise.
War left him cold. But Aphrodite
waylaying him beside the icy Baltic —
Moonrise. Rip out
the nettles the letters A to Z capital and minuscule
the ship the dove-grey amber-bearing sea. Snip
the anchor chain. There.
Let's go see what the suitors are up to.
The ball of silk was unwinding as she spoke.
I followed where it led, the compass needle
flashed round and round.
She knotted the thread. They dragged the bull's head out.
Dragged the sea-bed
for the titanic anchor,
and all the youths and maidens
took up their backpacks
and took ship for Naxos.
She threaded the needle with wine-dark silk.
You were the heroine.
Yes, so I was and am.
Naxos — how beautiful in the blue gulf —
all sand and palest sandstone, wash of roses.
The roseate nesting terns that fluttered up
like Aphrodite's doves around us,
a little piney woods, and cantharelli
— gold goblets from the hand of earth.
I was exhausted — slept on Theseus's shoulder —
and when I woke —
The black sail dipping on the horizon.
Alone I abandoned myself to grief,
an abandoned woman. I writhed
upon the sand, I gnawed my hair.
I wept until grief turned to fury.
When the sun
began to set I saw that I had better
prepare for a long stay. They'd left me
three matches and a tarp. In time
I had a blazing driftwood fire,
and chanterelles and mussels sizzled
in a tin can I'd found.
I wrote it all down in my journal.
Tell about the god.
Coming toward me through an azure
sky? Clothed in light? With silver wings that beat
the halcyon-dazzled air?
She bit the thread.
where I lived with many others,
my separate selves.
Perhaps. There was one —
who watched me. Wanted
and desired me. I left. He
followed. I did flee, became
a reed, a flower, a tree.
He hunted me,
shut me up in an earthen room
whose walls kept shrinking. Waved
a budding oak branch over me.
I closed my eyes and saw
a tiny door?
I crept out through that door
to the underside of the world. A flat plain
before dawn, a wispy cloudland
trailing mist, where shrouded trees like storks
nodded and swayed together.
There was no other in this empty, pale
I started to walk home.
My heart began to pound —
I'd caught a glimpse —
— my back was turned —
tell what you saw.
The mist rolled back in patches.
A band of crones and sorcerers
wearing beaks and plumes and antlers
was stalking you.
Then — my pursuer?
Raised his bow.
The arrow flew.
The sad woman then spoke
lifting her face from her hands
so that her black hair tumbled down
(she was a madwoman in real
that is in former life — or so
I seemed in waking to remember)
and though I could not understand
the words of what she said, I knew she felt;
I felt her feelings. Oh! It was my former language
she fluently or trippingly did utter.
(The stuttering spokes of oxcart wheels
that rattled without tires over the cobbles
in what was formerly the fatherland
but before that Poland which it is
now formally, if briefly.) The sexton
is even now digging the former city
up with his spade because the trapped
survivors are calling from the cellar
buried in the black hold of — a freighter?
And of the anchor — speak, alter echo.
Hail, great bull's head.
The silver horns.
The bearded anchor chain.
But I rattle on. There were survivors.
Did they but all alone bewail their state?
They didn't. They took picks & mattocks
& sticks & all manner of tools
and hacked a tunnel through the bricks
beneath the Styx beneath their
former city's battlements that lay
in ruins — all, all in ruins.
Was nothing of them found?
Oh certainly — some runes that ran
about the place of execution
in strict formation, though the capitals
were not those Nazi ugly Gothics but
upstanding Roman letters. More anon.
Burn this — anonymous. A landscape by
Hieronymus the Boche was what
so baffled — no battered — the imagination
of this future dreamer.
Unwind the ball of thread.
What color have we come to?
Orange to red to blood-red went the sky.
It was the burning villages we saw,
the pillaged villages they set afire
whose names were stricken from our tongues
as from the map, too. Our one long
muddy street stippled with deep familiar prints
of oxen. Flights of pigeons from the belfry
that wicked boys did wring the necks and strip
for pigeon pies. Not wicked. Famished.
Grandmother on her feather bed
in the oxcart. The horizon blazed.
That noise is just machine guns,
still distant. But my coat, at least, was warm
especially with all those skirts and sweaters
under it. I wore my rucksack
and held my little brother's hand
and Mama held the suitcase
filled with bread. The gentle swaying
of the tumbrils. Tumblehome, a term
for a particular curve a ship can take.
The freighter took me home,
I tumbled into sleep. Or stumbled
into the New World. Ate
my first American candy bar
and learned to read in English,
the mother tongue. Some words
were the same: Brief, a letter. Also brief
as in a short letter.
He wrote no letter. I became
an innocent child. You, Selfsame One,
grew up to have dark hair (but I am blond
— grey now to tell the truth)
and speak in tongues.
And you no longer answer to my name.
- Ariadne: the Prophesy
That she would come to Delos.
That the sea
would foam around her sandals, harmlessly.
Of roses, crinkled, salt-stung, garlanding
a granite shore,
the driftwood-strewn, the dulse-embroidered strand.
And of the god
an altar-stone among the mossy roots.
Horns of a stag beside an altar-stone.
Herm of a god beside the boundary-stone.
The dance he taught
the dance she learned
and still is danced and still the song is heard.