The Everlasting Return
It is dark… so dark, I remember the sun on Chios…
It is still… so still, I hear the beat of our paddles on the Aegean…
Ten times we had watched the moon
Rise like a thin white virgin out of the waters
And round into a full maternity…
For thrice ten moons we had touched no flesh
Save the man flesh on either hand
That was black and bitter and salt and scaled by the sea.
The Athenian boy sat on my left…
His hair was yellow as corn steeped in wine…
And on my right was Phildar the Carthaginian,
With his mouth pulled taut as by reins from his black gapped teeth.
Many a whip had coiled about him
And his shoulders were rutted deep as wet ground under chariot wheels,
And his skin was red and tough as a bull's hide cured in the sun.
He did not sing like the other slaves,
But when a big wind came up he screamed with it.
And always he looked out to sea,
Save when he tore at his fish ends
Or spat across me at the Greek boy, whose mouth was red and apart
like an opened fruit.
We had rowed from dawn and the green galley hard at our stern.
She was green and squat and skulked close to the sea.
All day the tish of their paddles had tickled our ears,
And when night came on
And little naked stars dabbled in the water
And half the crouching moon
Slid over the silver belly of the sea thick-scaled with light,
We heard them singing at their oars…
We who had no breath for song.
There was no sound in our boat
Save the clingle of wrist chains
And the sobbing of the young Greek.
I cursed him that his hair blew in my mouth, tasting salt of the sea…
I cursed him that his oar kept ill time…
When he looked at me I cursed him again,
That his eyes were soft as a woman's.
How long… since their last shell gouged our batteries?
How long… since we rose at aim with a sleuth moon astern?
(It was the damned green moon that nosed us out…
The moon that flushed our periscope till it shone like a silver flame…)
They loosed each man's right hand
As the galley spent on our decks…
And amazed and bloodied we reared half up
And fought askew with the left hand shackled…
But a zigzag fire leapt in our sockets
And knotted our thews like string…
Our thews grown stiff as a crooked spine that would not straighten…
How long… since our gauges fell
And the sea shoved us under?
It is dark… so dark…
Darkness presses hairy-hot
Where three make crowded company…
And the rank steel smells….
It is still… so still…
I seem to hear the wind
On the dimpled face of the water fathoms above…
It was still… so still… we three that were left alive
Stared in each other's faces…
But three make bitter company at one man's bread…
And our hate grew sharp and bright as the moon's edge in the water.
One grinned with his mouth awry from the long gapped teeth…
And one shivered and whined like a gull as the waves pawed us over…
But one struck with his hate in his hand…
After that I remember
Only the dead men's oars that flapped in the sea…
The dead men's oars that rattled and clicked like idiots' tongues.
It is still… so still, with the jargon of engines quiet.
We three awaiting the crunch of the sea
Reach our hands in the dark and touch each other's faces…
We three sheathing hate in our hearts…
But when hate shall have made its circuit,
Our bones will be loving company
Here in the sea's den…
And one whimpers and cries on his God
And one sits sullenly
But both draw away from me…
For I am the pyre their memories burn on…
Like black flames leaping
Our fiery gestures light the walled-in darkness of the sea…
The sea that kneels above us…
And makes no sign.
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(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)
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