from Elegies



               He courts love, expects death

With her eyes she caught me like an animal,
     one who had never known the touch of eyes.
And I, who had set my sights in the world's hands,
     felt the world set feet upon my head, and pull.
Now no woman whom I cannot touch
     means anything, and I can yield no reasons.
It is a year today—the madness keeps—
     and still the gods, gone silent, turn away.

There have been martyrs to the cross of Love:
     wayfarers without way or boots to tread it,
knights-at-arms who have parted willingly
     with compass, shelter, destination, mind,
bedded with beasts and worn their fur, absorbed
     lashings of sleet and whip and human speech
only to stand at a rock-face in the hills
     and watch the stone at the cave-mouth roll away.
For faithful service Love has that in store:
     say your prayers; keep up with her flying feet.
But my heart, slowed to stopping, can call forth
     no path—nor memory, no image of a path.

Sorceress, who claims to magnetize
     the moon, whose chants can keep an altar clean,
change my lady to a lover kind,
     make her face sweat, slacken, pine with desire,
and I will vouch for your divinity—
     your poetry's power over any star.

But you, my childhood friends, know next to nothing:
     the heart is not a well you may pull me from.
It is a grave—and you do surgery.
     Keep your anesthetic. Let me scream.

Last will and testament: While I still breathe,
     send me by trackless ocean toward utmost rings
of latitude: let no woman follow,
     nor you, my executors, but stay where you are,
where what you pray for you receive, where love
     gives you her ear, her smile, and says yes.

For me never, not one night, will she quit
     looming, an empty case, crueler than dreams.

My epitaph: Lovers, take care, I warn you,
     find a room with walls and curtains, press her close.
But if you read these words, you are too late—
     you have my words instead of her, and pain.


          He comes to her in sleep

Like Ariadne sleeping on the shore,
     or a female Crusoe left to pine away;
like Andromeda, freed from her rock, splayed out
     on mattresses befitting a true princess;
or like a dance-mad maenad of Dionysus,
     exhausted into dream by the rite of spring;
like, most of all, Eurydice, your face
     a pebble skimming between death and life—
in and out, in and out, you breathed,
     your head pillowed on hands half giving way.
Sick-drunk, exalted, tottering, I entered.
     Through gallons of wine, through distorting eyes, I saw you.
Behind me, beyond the open doorway, torches shivered:
     slave-boys, like mourners, processing down midnight streets.

Of the few faculties left me, one was stealth.
     I crept on hands and kneees to where you lay,
a hare in your form, and couched there with you.
     In double vision, urged by a double voice,
—Desire, Liquor—each a masterful god—
     extended one hand, lightly, lightly, as if
to touch, to take a kiss, but could not do it,
     dared not shatter your rest or risk your anger.
With eyes and eyes only I took hold, drank deep,
     as a beast enchanted guards an enchanted beauty.

And now I undo the leaves they have crowned me with,
     and wreathe your temples; now I almost weep
to straighten your hair that's fallen; now I put
     ripe apples, lightly, into your hollow hands,
and lavish your sleep with gifts, though it will not thank me,
     bowing here over your body like a ghost.
Now and again your breath catches, you spasm
     in dream: I freeze, as if an ominous wing
threw me in sudden shadow, as if you too
     felt some unusual fear, an unwelcome guest.

At last, to break, the moon came in a window,
     a guardian moon, late lingering lightless light,
and opened, lightly, the seal of hypnotized eyes.
     You saw me, raised yourself on an elbow, said:
"At last, someone had sense to throw you out.
     Some door slammed your behind back here to bed.
The night belongs to me! Where did you spend
     these hours? Ours? The stars are bleached from the sky,
And you're a rag-doll, dead to the world and me.
     I hope one day you know a night like this,
sewing to keep awake, pretending the voice
     across the way is Orpheus, and your exhaustion
only his great enchantments. You left me here,
     (I put new words to his song) And I will swear
(I cried myself to sleep in singing them)
     You linger in some other arms elsewhere."

translated from the Latin by Henry Walters