No 168 - 2002
Great was the chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning
Czeslaw Milosz, Winter
Actaeon’s fingers are spring leaves
in a light breeze on the lyre-strings,
the outward echo of how a surgeon touches
the heart’s web of arteries and veins.
The lord and lady, warriors, dogs, servants,
the roar of flames in the hall still
as he noses a spoor of song to the story’s lair
where a man half animal waits,
or heroes clash sword to shield,
or a woman and her lover thrash
where her angry mate enmeshes them.
None stir: what loss triumph shame
defines a life that echoes their own?
He leaves them late,
the flare of truth replaced
by twined flesh and lovecries.
Black streets, a simple room, old maidservant,
bread and water, payment tossed aside -
he wants another gold.
His pupils come at first light, slight boys
to teens whose shoulders thicken
who chafe to be men, lethal and heroic,
bulls with girls.
But Actaeon leads them like wild horses
around and around a corral
with a rope of fables.
This world he says is a story
waiting to have its meaning laid bare.
Listen - and listen: look and look until
the breeze becomes words, the shudder
of leaves, flesh, the river murmur,
dialogue, stone a Yea! or Nay!
They leave aroused, the commonplace
given a mysterious sheen.
On impulse he calls his old hound,
back bent like a bow,
and walks under the noon blaze
the same white as the streets
where so many hide behind their walls, wise
to avoid being caught in some moment
life writes in red,
to be instead the audience stories feed.
He reaches the forest where even shade is hot.
The hound laps water from the stream
like a machine.
Actaeon edges along the bank as though
tracking some scent to its source.
When the waters grow wide and calm
a small stream courses off.
Something as light as spring leaves
in a light breeze
touches his neck and makes his hair rise:
he whirls - no one - someone -
he senses that does not act
but watches without pity or cruelty,
amused, sad, willess.
The hound’s hair ridges down his back.
he commands, choosing the unknown way.
The beast follows,
back straightened, a snarl gleaming in his eyes.
Then Actaeon finds himself hurrying until
branch whipped, thorn torn,
his breath a curlew’s whistle,
his heart a roar of waves, he falls
against the hard Noof the earth
and jams moss muskily into his mouth.
When he looks up, the grotto.
A small rivulet arches over a cliff,
the movement of sun on water spring leaves
in a light breeze.
She is there,
He gapes, and stands carelessly, staring.
Their eyes meet and he understands
She is a young girl on her bridal bed,
the shy husband,
their tremble, penetration, joy:
and She is a sword raised high,
its perfect edge,
a stream of blood blurring its sheen,
a head rolling on the ground;
boys who give grace its meaning
as they arch and ache against one another
in the gymnasium;
the smoke of incense, of crematoria,
bitter flesh driven unwilling to the fire,
the choking dust across the battlefield,
the blind men, thrusts, wounds,
the flowers around their graves,
the spring leaves, the light breeze;
the newborn’s howl,
its mother’s smile,
the birth blood wiped from a new face;
the whitecaps on the sea, the sea,
the wave that swallows men in their boats,
the swallowed men,
the fish that gnaw them bone white,
and the grieving heart that begins again,
that risks love to find love -
and love’s betrayal.
She lets all wounds be forgotten
and tirelessly gnaws the heart’s red bone,
bringing all to perfection,
kind or cruel, Her beauty
the only mold,
the truth at the end and beginning
of every story.
Actaeon does not reflect
A man must do what he can,
and beyond that be content
- no, he has found what he wants
and screams, and runs
runs as though horns grow from his head
and an animal bellow pours from his throat,
as though hounds leap to the chase,
as though he is the hounds and the hunted,
the teeth, the torn flesh,
the terror, bright blood
and the final heartful, heart-rending
horror, and delight.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Traditionally, Actaeon was a young nobleman out hunting with his dogs when he came across Diana (Artemis to the Greeks), the Virgin Huntress/Goddess (one of the aspects of the mother goddess) bathing naked with her nymphs. He looked, and was seen to be looking: in punishment for this trespass the goddess changed him into a stag and set his own hounds on him. In this version Actaeon is seen as a mature poet and teacher who is destroyed by the truth he sought.
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