An African Elegy

By Robert Duncan 1919–1988 Robert Duncan
In the groves of Africa from their natural wonder   
the wildebeest, zebra, the okapi, the elephant,   
have enterd the marvelous. No greater marvelous   
know I than the mind’s
natural jungle. The wives of the Congo   
distil there their red and the husbands
hunt lion with spear and paint Death-spore
on their shields, wear his teeth, claws and hair   
on ordinary occasions. There the Swahili   
open his doors, let loose thru the trees   
the tides of Death’s sound and distil
from their leaves the terrible red. He
is the consort of dreams I have seen, heard   
in the orchestral dark
like the barking of dogs.

Death is the dog-headed man zebra striped
and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion,   
who is black. It was his voice crying come back,   
that Virginia Woolf heard, turnd
her fine skull, hounded and haunted, stopt,   
pointed into the scent where
I see her in willows, in fog, at the river of sound   
in the trees. I see her prepare there
to enter Death’s mountains
like a white Afghan hound pass into the forest,   
closed after, let loose in the leaves
with more grace than a hound and more wonder there   
even with flowers wound in her hair, allowing herself   
like Ophelia a last
pastoral gesture of love toward the world.   
          And I see
all our tortures absolved in the fog,
dispersed in Death’s forests, forgotten. I see   
all this gentleness like a hound in the water
float upward and outward beyond my dark hand.

I am waiting this winter for the more complete black-out,   
for the negro armies in the eucalyptus, for the cities   
laid open and the cold in the love-light, for hounds   
women and birds to go back to their forests and leave us   
our solitude.
.   .   .

Negroes, negroes, all those princes,
holding cups of rhinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana   
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gathered
and devourd her burning hands and feet, O Moonbar   
thee and Clarinet! those talismans
that quickened in their sheltering leaves like thieves,   
those Negroes, all those princes
holding to their mouths like Death
the cups of rhino bone,
were there to burn my hands and feet,
divine the limit of the bone and with their magic   
tie and twist me like a rope. I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this   
dark continent of my breast.

         And when we are deserted there,
when the rustling electric has passt thru the air,   
once more we begin in the blind and blood throat   
the African catches; and Desdemona, Desdemona   
like a demon wails within our bodies, warns   
against this towering Moor of self and then   
laments her passing from him.

And I cry, Hear!
Hear in the coild and secretive ear
the drums that I hear beat. The Negroes, all those princes   
holding cups of bone and horn, are there in halls   
of blood that I call forests, in the dark   
and shining caverns where
beats heart and pulses brain, in
jungles of my body, there
Othello moves, striped black and white,   
the dog-faced fear. Moves I, I, I,
whom I have seen as black as Orpheus,
pursued deliriously his sound and drownd   
in hunger’s tone, the deepest wilderness.

Then it was I, Death singing,
who bewildered the forest. I thot him
my lover like a hound of great purity
disturbing the shadow and flesh of the jungle.   
This was the beginning of the ending year.
From all of the empty the tortured appear,
and the bird-faced children crawl out of their fathers   
and into that never filld pocket,
the no longer asking but silent, seeing nowhere   
the final sleep.

The halls of Africa we seek in dreams
as barriers of dream against the deep, and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.   
There is no end. And how sad then   
is even the Congo. How the tired sirens
come up from the water, not to be toucht   
but to lie on the rocks of the thunder.   
How sad then is even the marvelous!

Robert Duncan, “An African Elegy” from The Years as Catches: First Poems 1939-1946 (Berkeley: Oyez, 1966). Used with the permission of The Estate of Robert Duncan.

Source: The Years as Catches: First Poems 1939-1946 (1966)

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Poet Robert Duncan 1919–1988


SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Subjects Living, Social Commentaries, Landscapes & Pastorals, Race & Ethnicity, Nature, Death, Animals

Holidays Kwanzaa

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy

 Robert  Duncan


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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SUBJECT Living, Social Commentaries, Landscapes & Pastorals, Race & Ethnicity, Nature, Death, Animals


SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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