Silence; Lapis Lazuli

In speaking with Brian and Laura this evening, I decided I should post two of my favorite poems. I linked to them some time ago in a long-winded post with no discernible thesis, but they are good enough to be posted on their own. I started to write something up about each one, but I think it’s better just to let the poems speak for themselves:


I HAVE known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities—
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
“How did you lose your leg?”
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of a deep peace of mind,
And the silence of an embittered friendship,
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
And the silence of the gods who understand each other without speech,
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
Saying amid the flames, “Blessèd Jesus”—
Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

Lapis Lazuli

(For Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like a stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.


2 responses to “Silence; Lapis Lazuli”

  1. I am reading the Iliad again right now and the Silence poem made me want to look for silent moments in that story. Certainly there is the climactic moment of Achilles and Priam together, weeping into silence at the very end. More than this, though, I found myself thinking of the similes…

    Agamemnon is surveying the armies of the various kings as they prepare to engage in the fighting. Each ‘batallion’ is noisily arranging itself under the orders of the king who leads them.

    On his way through the thronging men he came to the Aiantes.
    These were armed, and about them went a cloud of foot-soldiers.
    As from his watching place a goatherd watches a cloud move
    on its way over the sea before the drive of the west wind;
    far away though he be he watches it, blacker than pitch is,
    moving across the sea and piling the storm before it,
    and as he sees it he shivers and drives his flocks to a cavern;
    so about the two Aiantes moved the battalions,
    close-compacted of strong and god-supported young fighters,
    black, and jagged with spear and shield, to the terror of battle.

  2. […] But here, it is the noise that causes the problem and gives rise to the hatred. One might well wonder if he would have succeeded in reading his thoughts in her eyes, had she simply remained silent. One can, afterall, read almost anything in a pair of beautiful, bizarrely gentle green eyes, particularly if it is a pleasant thing to read. And what could be more pleasant than to find one’s own thoughts mirrored in the eyes of one’s love? The silences that Masters describes, the silences of the inexpressible, the silences that signal that of which we cannot speak, are not always signalled by auditory negative space, or an absence of sound. They declaim an unwillingness to speak, or an inability to articulate a feeling too pregnant for language, or a failure of words; accordingly, they may often be filled with noise, chatter, or distractions of any sort to divert attention from the inadequacy. The soldier tells the boy a bear took his leg, just as the poet might tell his love a stomach ache caused his grimace, even as he signals to the waiter to ask him to send the peasants away. […]

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