A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar

By Robert Duncan 1919–1988 Robert Duncan
I

The light foot hears you and the brightness begins
god-step at the margins of thought,
      quick adulterous tread at the heart.   
Who is it that goes there?
      Where I see your quick face
notes of an old music pace the air,   
torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre.

In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Psyche   
have a hurt voluptuous grace
bruised by redemption. The copper light   
falling upon the brown boy’s slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing   
up from blind innocence, ensnared   
      by dimness
into the deprivations of desiring sight.

But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,
diffuse with rapture absorb the flame.
Their bodies yield out of strength.
      Waves of visual pleasure
wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience.

A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns   
      the tips of their bodies, lips,
ends of fingers, nipples. He is not wingd.   
His thighs are flesh, are clouds
      lit by the sun in its going down,
hot luminescence at the loins of the visible.

      But they are not in a landscape.   
      They exist in an obscurity.

The wind spreading the sail serves them.
The two jealous sisters eager for her ruin
      serve them.
That she is ignorant, ignorant of what Love will be,   

      serves them.
The dark serves them.
The oil scalding his shoulder serves them,
serves their story. Fate, spinning,
      knots the threads for Love.

Jealousy, ignorance, the hurt . . . serve them.


II

This is magic. It is passionate dispersion.   
What if they grow old? The gods
      would not allow it.
      Psyche is preserved.

In time we see a tragedy, a loss of beauty   
      the glittering youth
of the god retains—but from this threshold   
      it is age
that is beautiful. It is toward the old poets   
      we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering wrongness that has style,   
      their variable truth,
      the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plenitude of powers time stores.

A stroke.   These little strokes.   A chill.   
      The old man, feeble, does not recoil.   
Recall. A phase so minute,
      only a part of the word in- jerrd.

      The Thundermakers descend,

damerging a nuv. A nerb.
      The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?   
      Cloud. Invades the brain. What   
      if lilacs last in this dooryard bloomd?

Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—
where among these did the power reside
that moves the heart? What flower of the nation   
bride-sweet broke to the whole rapture?   
Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson
hear the factories of human misery turning out commodities.   
For whom are the holy matins of the heart ringing?
Noble men in the quiet of morning hear   
Indians singing the continent’s violent requiem.   
Harding, Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt,   
idiots fumbling at the bride’s door,
hear the cries of men in meaningless debt and war.
Where among these did the spirit reside   
that restores the land to productive order?   
McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur,
Garfield, Hayes, Grant, Johnson,
dwell in the roots of the heart’s rancor.
How sad “amid lanes and through old woods”   
   echoes Whitman’s love for Lincoln!

There is no continuity then. Only a few
      posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
      where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
                              It is across great scars of wrong   
      I reach toward the song of kindred men   
      and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from. Glorious mistake!   
      that cried:

      “The theme is creative and has vista.”   
      “He is the president of regulation.”

      I see always the under side turning,   
fumes that injure the tender landscape.   
      From which up break
lilac blossoms of courage in daily act   
      striving to meet a natural measure.


III      (for Charles Olson)

                                              Psyche’s tasks—the sorting of seeds   
wheat      barley      oats      poppy      coriander
anise      beans      lentils      peas      —every grain
                                  in its right place
                                                               before nightfall;

gathering the gold wool from the cannibal sheep   
(for the soul must weep
       and come near upon death);

harrowing Hell for a casket Proserpina keeps
                                                            that must not
      be opend . . . containing beauty?   
no!      Melancholy coild like a serpent
                                                          that is deadly sleep
      we are not permitted
                                     to succumb to.

      These are the old tasks.   
      You’ve heard them before.

      They must be impossible. Psyche
must despair, be brought to her
                                                insect instructor;   
must obey the counsels of the green reed;
saved from suicide by a tower speaking,
      must follow to the letter
      freakish instructions.

In the story the ants help. The old man at Pisa   
      mixd in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
            as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by an insect, was
      upheld by a lizard

                      (to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
                      defines a nation of the wind—

      father of many notions,
                                        Who?
let the light into the dark? began   
the many movements of the passion?

                                                      West
from east   men push.
                              The islands are blessd   
(cursed)   that swim below the sun,

   man upon whom the sun has gone down!

There is the hero who struggles east   
widdershins to free the dawn   and must
                                             woo Night’s daughter,
sorcery, black passionate rage, covetous queens,   
so that the fleecy sun go   back from Troy,
      Colchis, India . . . all the blazing armies
spent, he must struggle alone toward the pyres of Day.

                                             The light that is Love   
rushes on toward passion. It verges upon dark.   
      Roses and blood flood the clouds.
      Solitary first riders advance into legend.

   This land, where I stand, was all legend   
in my grandfathers’ time: cattle raiders,   
   animal tribes, priests, gold.
It was the West. Its vistas painters saw
   in diffuse light, in melancholy,
in abysses left by glaciers as if they had been the sun
   primordial carving empty enormities
                                 out of the rock.

                                 Snakes lurkd
guarding secrets.         Those first ones   
                                 survived solitude.

      Scientia
holding the lamp, driven by doubt;   
Eros naked in foreknowledge   
smiling in his sleep;    and the light   
spilld, burning his shoulder—the outrage
      that conquers legend—
passion, dismay, longing, search   
      flooding up where
the Beloved is lost. Psyche travels   
life after life, my life, station
      after station,
to be tried

      without break, without
news, knowing only—but what did she know?   
      The oracle at Miletus had spoken
truth surely: that he was Serpent-Desire   
      that flies thru the air,
a monster-husband. But she saw him fair

whom Apollo’s mouthpiece said spread   
      pain
beyond cure    to those
      wounded by his arrows.

Rilke torn by a rose thorn
blackend toward Eros.          Cupidinous Death!   
      that will not take no for an answer.


IV      

       Oh yes!      Bless the footfall where
step by step      the boundary walker
(in Maverick Road      the snow
thud by thud      from the roof   
circling the house—another tread)

   that foot      informd
by the weight of all things
      that can be elusive
no more than a nearness to the mind   
      of a single image

            Oh yes!      this
most dear
      the catalyst force that renders clear
the days of a life from the surrounding medium!

            Yes, beautiful rare wilderness!
wildness that verifies strength of my tame mind,   
      clearing held against indians,
health that prepared to meet death,
      the stubborn hymns going up
into the ramifications of the hostile air

      that, decaptive, gives way.
Who is there?   O, light the light!
      The Indians give way, the clearing falls.   
Great Death gives way   and unprepares us.
      Lust gives way.    The Moon gives way.   
Night gives way.   Minutely,   the Day gains.

She saw the body of her beloved
      dismemberd in waking . . . or was it
in sight? Finders Keepers we sang
      when we were children      or were taught to sing
before our histories began      and we began
      who were beloved      our animal life
toward the Beloved,      sworn to be Keepers.

      On the hill before the wind came   
the grass moved toward the one sea,   
      blade after blade dancing in waves.

There the children turn the ring to the left.   
There the children turn the ring to the right.   
      Dancing . . . Dancing . . .

And the lonely psyche goes up thru the boy to the king   
      that in the caves of history dreams.
Round and round the children turn.
      London Bridge that is a kingdom falls.

We have come so far that all the old stories
whisper once more.
Mount Segur, Mount Victoire, Mount Tamalpais . . .   
      rise to adore the mystery of Love!

(An ode? Pindar’s art, the editors tell us, was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor. But if he was archaic, not classic, a survival of obsolete mode, there may have been old voices in the survival that directed the heart. So, a line from a hymn came in a novel I was reading to help me. Psyche, poised to leap—and Pindar too, the editors write, goes too far, topples over—listend to a tower that said, Listen to Me! The oracle had said, Despair! The Gods themselves abhor his power. And then the virgin flower of the dark falls back flesh of our flesh from which everywhere . . .

      the information flows
         that is yearning. A line of Pindar   
      moves from the area of my lamp   
         toward morning.

      In the dawn that is nowhere
         I have seen the willful children

      clockwise and counter-clockwise turning.

Robert Duncan, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” from The Opening of the Field. Copyright © 1960 by Robert Duncan. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1993)

 Robert  Duncan

Biography

Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. A distinctive voice in American poetry, Duncan’s idiosyncratic poetics drew on myth, occultism, . . .

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