Vowel Movements

By Daryl Hine 1936–2012 Daryl Hine
Take a statement, the same as yesterday’s dictation:
         Lately pain has been there waiting when I awake.   
Creative despair and failure have made their patient.
         Anyway, I’m afraid I have nothing to say.
Those crazy phrases I desecrated the paper
         With against the grain ... Taste has turned away her face   
Temporarily, like a hasty, ill-paid waitress
         At table, barely capable but very vague.
Mistaken praise and blame degrade profane and sacred
         Places so strange you may not even know their names.   
Vacant the gymnasium where words once played naked
         Amazing games that always used to end in mate.

Better, then, the effort than preterite perfection,   
         I guess. Indeed, I envy the eminent dead   
The special effects I am ready to inherit
         Less than their sentiments and impenitent sense   
Of aesthetic gesture. Unpleasant and pretentious,
         The Western hemisphere has plenty to forget.
The mess men might yet make of themselves, given present
         Events! Are many content to accept the best?   
Precious as sex is, flesh, perenially wretched,
         Begs the bread of heaven, blessing nevertheless   
The unexpected sender’s address on a letter.
         Every breathless sentence says not yet to death.

The past cannot matter except as an abstraction,
         A flattering caricature of happy lands   
Wherein many a grand, imaginary castle
         In fact turns out to be a tourist trap at last,   
A vast palace that adrastic phantoms inhabit.
         Maps of madness, characteristically blank,   
Ask vatic questions, exact a magic answer:
         The family photograph album at a glance,
Granny, Dad, Aunt Sally, that dissatisfied madame
         Who manages passion’s incalculable acts,   
Paris, everyman’s romantic trash and tarry—
         Abracadabra, and the vanished cast comes back!

If civilization isn’t a silly gimmick,
         Is it the wit to wish, the will to make it stick?   
The mathematical vision which built this system
         Figures the width of a minute within an inch.   
Primitive physics, a sophisticated fiction,
         Insists that in principle everything is fixed.   
Visitors picnic amid pretty Chichèn Itzá
         With its sacrificial pit, artificial hills
And cricket pitch wherein the winner is the victim.   
         To think an instinct like iniquity exists!   
Hidden riches fill big individual middens;
         In the Wizard’s Pyramid little lizards live.

Specious sweets we reach for eagerly with Eve’s evil
         Greed recede like the fleeting details of a dream.   
It seems that we have been a brief season in Eden:
         Chic unreal estates where immediately green   
Trees repeated in completely meaningless series
         Briefly yield to the weaker tyranny of weeds   
Even as we seek relief in a secret clearing.
         Prehistory can be too recent; need we read
These steles’ queried speech? Here undefeated peoples
         Experienced deceit; here scenes of deepest grief   
Teach us to weep the cheap and easy tears of reason;
         Here the sea of being sleeps, a period peace.

Frustration, fuss, and lust are love’s unlucky colours.
         Thunderstruck, the muscular monuments look dumb.   
Judged by the numbers that once flourished in the jungle
         In hundreds of miles of dull undercover scrub,   
Unless somebody was insufferably ugly
         Mistrust of one another must be in the blood.   
Unsuccess in a dozen tough struggles instructs us   
         Justice is a mother-fucker. Suffering’s fun
For a month, but in a millenium no wonder
         One becomes somewhat disgusted. Unsubtle skull,   
The mysteries of dust are nothing to live up to.   
         Insulted by a touch, one mutters, “Summer sucks.”

Undone by the siesta and by sudden showers,
         Is it uncomfortable in the hungry South?   
Now cowed by Kulkulkan’s geometrical scowl,
         Now wowed by the classic brown faces in a crowd,   
You falter at mounds memorial to a thousand
         Bleeding hearts in a single holiday cut out,   
Submitted to the sun, insatiable flesh-flower
         Of the universe, all-devouring powerhouse,
Confounded by our sound of pronounceable vowels.
         Myths, as the guidebook says, are handed down by mouth.   
Though mood and voice and person, gender, tense, and number
         Predicate a verb, its cases explain a noun:

Proper noun or pronoun, indubitably human,
         Whose beautiful excuse is usually youth   
Doomed to the brutal usufructu of the future,
         Consumed by the illusions of jejune amours.
You used to choose the rules with superfluous humour,
         Tuned to the influential movements of the moon
Whose smooth, translucent route through roofless rooms illumines
         From dewy moonrise unto lunar afternoon   
Tulum and its improvements, tumulus and ruins,
         Poorly reproduced, a too crudely stupid view.
Who knew nude truth from rumour, amusement from music
         Soon would prove a fool. Beauty, useless, is a wound.

On and off; the impossible is honour’s motto,
         Monotony the awful drawback of my song.
What was lost was often all we had got in common,
         Our quasi-comic quandary depended on   
Qu’en dirai-je? chronic, colossal hypochondry,
         Neurotic complication or hypnotic calm.
Gods begotten of loss, not bronze nor terra cotta,
         Haunt the province of law, of cause and conscious wrong.   
Following the Long Count a lot has been forgotten:
         Positive nonsense, fraud, false plots and hollow talk,   
Soporific concepts toppled by fall or conquest,
         The cosmos as a model watch that wants to stop.

At any moment the doors of the soul may open
         And those reproachful ghosts invoked from the remote   
Coasts of tomorrow begin to impose the order
         Of bone and trophy, home and the odour of smoke.   
O mornings that broke on the slopes of cold volcanos,
         Almost frozen, golden and old-rose, like a scroll   
Slowly unfolded, or a brocade robe thrown over
         The throne of the mountains, cloaking their cones in snow!   
Hope, an emotion swollen by every omen,
         No psychotrope, only a semiprecious stone,   
Topaz or opal, adorns the close of the strophe.
         Woe wrote these notes in a code also known as prose.

Ode: this leafy, streamless land where coy waters loiter
         Under the embroidered soil, subterfluous coin   
Of another culture destroyed by lack of moisture,
         Spoiled by the unavoidable poison of choice.   
Archaeological lawyers exploit the foibles
         Of a royalty that in time joined hoi polloi:
History’s unemployed, geography’s anointed,
         Unlike the orchids of the forests, spin and toil.   
Imperfectly convinced of final disappointment,   
         Persuaded of the possibility of joy,
Pen poised for the pointless impressions of those voices   
         That boil up like bubbles on the face of the void,

Finally I try to define why divine silence
         Underlies the tidy designs of paradise.
Priceless as the insights of the inspired psyche,
         Blind, violent as a geyser, right as a rhyme,   
Fine ideas likely to undermine the idle
         Mind divided between the types of fire and ice,   
“Highly stylized” politely describes the bright eyesores
         Shining like diamonds or rhinestones in the night sky,   
Lifelike, provided life survives its vital cycle
         And the tireless indictment of time’s diatribe,
While mankind, sightless, frightened, like a child in twilight,
         Dies of the devices it was enlightened by.

         Amazing games that always used to end in mate!   
Precious as sex is, flesh, perennially wretched,
         In fact turns out to be a tourist trap at last.   
The mathematical vision which built this system
         Of the universe, all-devouring powerhouse,   
(The mysteries of dust are nothing to live up to!)
         Briefly yields to the weaker tyranny of weeds.
You used to choose the rules with superfluous humour:
         Monotony, the awful drawback of my song,   
Slowly unfolded, like a brocade robe thrown over.
         Persuaded of the possibility of joy,
Finally I tried to define why divine silence ...

Daryl Hine, “Vowel Movements” from Resident Alien (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975). Copyright © 1975 by Daryl Hine. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Poetry (February 1974).

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This poem originally appeared in the February 1974 issue of Poetry magazine

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February 1974
 Daryl  Hine

Biography

Poet, editor, and translator Daryl Hine was born in 1936 in British Columbia and grew up in New Westminster. His mother’s death while he was still a teenager had a profound influence on him. He studied Classics and philosophy at McGill University, and he earned his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. The editor of Poetry from 1968-78, Hine was also a highly regarded translator of Classical writers such . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Time & Brevity, Living, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION Canada

Poetic Terms Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, Mixed

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