Earth Poems, Chapter One: Nature

 

Yes to the Earth

So radiant in certain mornings’ light

With its roses and its cypress trees

Is Earth, or with its grain and olives;

 

So suddenly it is radiant on the soul,

Which stands then alone and forgetful

Though just a moment earlier the soul

Wept bloody tears or dwelt in bitterness;

 

So radiant in certain mornings’ light

Is Earth, and in its silence so expressive,

This wondrous lump that’s rolling in its skies;

Beautiful, tragic in solitude, yet smiling,

 

That the soul, unasked, replies

“Yes” replies, “Yes” to the Earth,

To the indifferent Earth, “Yes!”

 

Even though next instant skies

Should darken, roses too, and cypresses,

Or the effort of life grow heavier still,

The act of breathing even more heroic,

 

“Yes” replies the battered soul to Earth,

So radiant in the light of certain mornings

Beautiful above all things, and human hope.

 

(Sibilla Aleramo, Italian, 1876-1960, tr. I.M.)

 

[Nature is our name for everything minus ourselves and our contrivances. As the look of the world is more and more shaped by human interference, the word nature is being replaced by the word environment – as if the rest of creation only exists for us to live in.

The impoverishment of nature is not to our long-term advantage.   The deserts of the world were created by human over-use of nature. The Sahara itself was once green and fertile, its wooded hills and valleys sustaining a large human population. Now, its depleted environment is a permanent home only to creatures tougher and less ambitious than homo sapiens.

While nature was still healthy, human beings both wondered and cursed at its beautiful tyranny. We lived within its framework, and sooner or later it punished our mistakes. Its uncounted species competed with us for resources with which to prosper. Providing sustenance and wonder, causing us to suffer, watching with indifference while we die; nature was a hard taskmaster.]

 

When I die I don’t care how God

Treats the earth; let it parch, let it flood.

 

The earth doesn’t know what it consumes:

Skeletons of sheep, carcases of lion.

 

(Al-Ma’arri, Syrian, 973-1057, tr. Wightman and al-Udhari.)

 

[But there was pleasure, too, to be had. The joy of being part of nature is evident in the next five poems, where nature and poet are one in a simple fellowship of co-existence.]

 

Winter

Here’s my story; the stag cries,

Winter snarls as summer dies.

 

The wind bullies the low sun

In poor light; the seas moan.

 

Shapeless bracken is turning red,

The wildgoose raises its desperate head.

Bird’s wings freeze where fields are hoary.

The world is ice. That’s my story.

 

(Anon., Irish, 9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)

 

The Moon (1)

At dead of night,

The darkness seems to have deepened.

To the call of geese

The sky is listening; across it

Appears the passing moon.

 

(Hitomaro, Japanese, 7th c., tr. I.M.)

 

The Moon (2)

 

In the sea of heaven,

Waves of cloud arise.

The moon’s boat

In a forest of stars

Rows hidden; this I see.

 

(Hitomaro, Japanese, 7th C., tr. I. M.)

 

The Blackbird’s Song

 

The little bird is whistling now

From the tip of its yellow beak;

The blackbird on the yellow bough

Is calling over the lake.

 

(Anon., Irish, 8-9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)

 

 

Song of Caribou, Musk Oxen, Women and Men who Would be Manly

 

Glorious it is to see

The caribou flocking down from the forests

And beginning

Their wandering to the north.

Timidly they watch

For the pitfalls of man.

Glorious it is to see

The great herds from the forests

Spreading out over plains of white,

Glorious to see.

Yayai, ya, yiya.

 

Glorious it is to see

Early summer’s short-haired caribou

Beginning to wander.

Glorious to see them trot

To and fro

Across the promontories,

Seeking a crossing place.

Yayai, ya, yiya.

 

Glorious it is

To see the great musk oxen

Gathering in herds.

The little dogs they watch for

When they gather in herds.

Glorious to see.

Yayai, ya, yiya.

 

Glorious it is

To see young women

Gathering in little groups

And paying visits in the houses –

Then all at once the men

Do so want to be manly,

While the girls simply

Think of some little lie.

Yayai, ya, yiya.

 

Glorious it is

To see long-haired winter caribou

Returning to the forests.

Fearfully they watch for the little people.

While the herd follows the ebb-mark of the sea

With a storm of clattering hooves.

Glorious it is

When wandering time is come.

Yayai, ya, yiya.

 

(Anon., Eskimo, tr. (1921-4) Radmussen and Calvert.)

 

 

[Writing is young compared to spoken language; five thousand years compared to perhaps five hundred thousand. A poem written down two thousand years ago is a spring chicken in terms of the spoken tradition, and we have no way of knowing what the earliest poems were like. But historians of language speculate that poetry is as old as language itself, which may have originated as chants cajoling nature into providing for human wants.]

 

The Rain Man Praises Himself

 

No house is ever too thick-built

To keep me, the rain, from getting in.

I am well-known to huts and roofs,

A grandson of Never-Been-There,

I am mother of the finest grasses,

Father of green fields everywhere.

My arrows do not miss their aim,

They strike the owners of huts.

I am a terror to clay walls and the architecture of termites,

Fear-inspiring above and below.

When I pour in in the morning, people say:

“He has cut off our lips and stopped our mouths,*       *ie

He is giving us juicy fruits.                         made us

He has rained and brought us mushrooms,          fall silent

White as ivory.”

 

(Oral tradition, Aandonga, southern Africa; written down 1920’s; tr. Pettinen, Trask.)

 

 

[The word `poet’ comes from the Greek for `maker’ or `creator’. In the poem that follows, the presence of the poet is as important as the imagery of nature.]

 

You know the place: then

Leave Crete and come to us

waiting where the grove is

pleasantest, by precincts

 

sacred to you; incense

smokes on the altar, cold

streams murmur through the

 

apple branches, a young

rose thicket shades the ground

and quivering leaves pour

 

down deep sleep; in meadows

where horses have grown sleek

among spring flowers, dill

 

scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!

Fill our gold cups with love

stirred into clear nectar

 

(Sappho, Greek, 6th C. B.C., tr. Mary Barnard.)

 

 

[Natural imagery can mirror the mood of the poet or it can provide the most extreme contrast, as in the next poem. Sweeney, a pagan prince of ancient Ireland, was driven mad by the curses of priests and the horrors of war.]

 

The Cliff of Alteran

 

As Sweeney ranged over Connaught

He came to a lonely glen

Where a stream poured over a cliff

And many holy men

 

Were gathered. Trees, heavy with fruit,

Grew there by the score.

There were sheltering ivy bowers

And apple trees galore.

 

Deer, hares and swine were there.

On the warm cliff fat seals slept.

Sweeney watched while through his heart

The raving madness swept.

 

(Anon., Irish, 12th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)

 

 

[In the three-line `haiku’ poems of Basho, natural imagery and the poet’s observation create a mood so short it’s like a flash, a moment seized for contemplation. Six of his most famous haiku:]

 

By the road,

In the hedgerow, a rose –

My horse ate it.

 

 

(written while looking at the ruins of a great

castle)

 

Summer grasses –

All that remain

Of warriors’ dreams.

 

 

Withered branch

A crow settles on it –

Autumn dusk.

 

 

Red, red,

The sun is unrelenting –

Autumn wind.

 

 

(written on a journey)

 

Fleas, lice;

My horse pisses, right

By my pillow.

 

 

(the most famous of all haiku)

 

Old pond –

Frog jumps in,

Sound of the water.

 

(Basho, Japanese, 1644-94, tr. I.M.)

 

[It’s frequently observed, by scientists as well as poets, that we humans seem to combine the characteristics of many other animals. We can be fierce like tigers, sadistic like cats, gentle and playful like lambs; or stolid and peaceful like sheep. We can be co-operative like the social insects, rapacious like great black-back gulls, or busy inhabitants of filth like the dung-beetle. We see our characteristics mirrored in nature all around us, some literally, others metaphorically, and this is the source of poetic imagery.

A single natural image – the washing of waves back and forth on the sea shore – pervades the next poem, giving it a sense of the relentless and desolate indifference of time.]

 

The Old Woman of Beare

 

The sea crawls from the shore

Leaving there

The despicable weed,

A corpse’s hair.

In me,

The desolate withdrawing sea.

 

The Old Woman of Beare am I

Who once was beautiful.

Now all I know is how to die.

I’ll do it well.

Look at my skin

Stretched tight on the bone.

Where kings have pressed their lips,

The pain, the pain.

 

I don’t hate the men

Who swore truth was in their lies.

One thing alone I hate –

Women’s eyes.

 

The young sun

Gives its youth to everyone,

Touching green with gold.

In me, the cold.

The cold. Yet still a seed

Burns there.

Women love only money now.

But when

I loved, I loved

Young men.

 

Young men whose horses galloped

On many an open plain

Beating lightning from the ground.

I loved such men.

And still the sea

Rears and plunges into me,

Shoving, rolling through my head

Images of the drifting dead.

A soldier cries

Pitifully about his plight;

A king fades

Into the shivering night.

 

Does not every season prove

That the acorn hits the ground?

Have I not known enough of love

To know it’s lost as soon as found?

 

I drank my fill of wine with kings,

Their eyes fixed on my hair.

Now among the stinking hags

I chew the cud of prayer.

 

Time was the sea

Brought kings as slaves to me.

Now I near the face of God

And the crab crawls through my blood.

I loved the wine

That thrilled me to my fingertips;

Now the spinster wind

Stitches salt into my lips.

 

The coward sea

Slouches away from me.

Fear brings back the tide

That made me stretch at the side

Of him who’d take me briefly for his bride.

The sea grows smaller, smaller now.

Farther, farther it goes

Leaving me here where the foam dries

On the deserted land,

Dry as my shrunken thighs,

As the tongue that presses my lips,

As the veins that break through my hands.

 

(Anon., Irish, 9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)

 

[Another poem follows where natural imagery, events and feelings are interdependant. It was customary in sixth century Japan to add short poems to the end of a longer one.]

 

On Seeing a Dead Man lying among Rocks on Samine

Island, Sanuki Province

 

Jewel sea-plants grow

in the province of Sanuki;

is it the nature of the land

that I can gaze on it tirelessly,

is it being the land of the gods

that makes it so beautiful?

With heaven and earth,

sun and moon, together

may it prosper.

The face of a god,

so we are told,

lies on the port of Naka, where

we launched our boat.

Rowing out,

a tidal wind

blew out of the clouds;

as I looked out to sea

waves stood threatening,

as I looked towards the shore

white waves were seething.

The great fish-holding

sea was awesome; so

we pulled our oars to breaking-point.

Here and there,

the islands were many; but

on famous

Samine Island’s

wild beach-face

we built a hut for shelter. Then I saw,

amidst the sound of waves,

the beach that served

as a rough-cloth pillow

pillowing you

who on this desolate bed

lay stretched alone.

If I knew your house

I would go and tell them;

if your wife knew

she would come and tend you. But,

although straight as a spear

there is a road, she does not know it;

anxious, longing,

she will be waiting for you,

your precious wife…

 

Two short poems on the above;

 

  1. If your wife were here

she would pick wild herbs for you to eat;

but on Mount Sami

even the meadow chickweed

has long since disappeared.

 

  1. Deep sea-waves

approaching, the shore is

a rough-cloth

pillow, pillowing

you who sleep.

 

(Hitomaro, Japanese, 6th C., tr. I.M.)

 

 

[In the next poem, nature is the setting for love, peace, happiness, rest and magic.]

 

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows

Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;

There sleeps Titania some time of the night,

Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;

And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,

Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

 

(Shakespeare, 1564-1616, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.249)

 

[The comforts of civilisation insulate us from the natural world and allow city-dwellers to more or less ignore it. Eighteenth-century Europeans were so infatuated with the achievments of humanity that untamed nature barely featured in their poetry. The Romantic movement reacted against this human-centredness. Poets pointed out that humanity is part of Nature, not its master, and that there is pleasure to be had in feeling a small part of a large whole. Goethe wrote:

`The reason I prefer the society of nature is that nature is always right and the error, if any, can only be on my side. But if I hold converse with men, they will err, and I will err, and so on forever, and we will never get to see matters clearly.’

Wordsworth, like many Romantics, was painfully conscious of humanity’s failings. He found an ecstasy in being alone in nature, and a sense of relief that humanity was a small part of nature, not its end-product.]

 

From `The Prelude’

 

One evening (surely I was led by her*)       *Nature

I went alone into a shepherd’s boat,

A skiff that to a willow tree was tied

Within a rocky cave, its usual home.

No sooner had I sight of this small skiff,

Discovered thus by unexpected chance,

Than I unloosed her tether and embarked.

The moon was up, the lake was shining clear

Among the hoary mountains; from the shore

I pushed, and struck the oars and struck again

In cadence, and my little boat mov’d on

Even like a man who walks with stately step

Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure; not without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on,

Leaving behind her still on either side

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. A rocky steep uprose

Above the cavern of the willow tree

And now, as suited one who proudly row’d

With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view

Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,

The bound of the horizon, for behind

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water, like a swan;

When from behind that craggy steep, till then

The bound of the horizon, a huge cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature, the huge cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,

With measured motion, like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the cavern of the willow tree.

There, in her mooring-place, I left my bark,

And through the meadows homeward went, with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts

There was a darkness, call it solitude,

Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms that do not live

Like living men moved slowly through the mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!

That giv’st to forms and images a breath

And everlasting motion! not in vain,

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul,

Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,

But with high objects, with enduring things,

With life and nature, purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying, by such discipline,

Both pain and fear, until we recognise

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

 

(William Wordsworth, English, 1770-1850.)

 

[Holderlin, a German Romantic, set himself the heroic task of fusing German `rationality’ with the `holy fire’ of ancient Greece, and went mad trying to fulfil it. The poem which follows was written during his years of madness, which explains the signature and date appended. In it, he seems to have thrown off the trappings of intellectual life.]

 

Summer

 

Still the time of year is here to see, and fields

Of summer stand in lovely glow and mildness.

The green of fields is gloriously laid out,

To where the brook glides down with little waves.

So strolls the day outside through hills and valleys

Unstoppable, and with its fiery beams,

And clouds stroll peacefully in high-up spaces;

The year seems self-restraining in its glory.

 

9 March 1940                   Your humble servant,

Scardanelli.

 

(Holderlin, 1770-1843, German, tr. I.M.)

 

 

[In his madness Holderlin wrote simple poems. His sense of himself hopped from one living thing to another.]

 

And little knowledge but much pleasure

Is given to mortal men.

 

Why dost thou not suffice me O lovely sun

On this May day?

Thou flower of my flowers, what have I more than thee?

 

Would that I were as children are!

I should be like the nightingale, were I to sing

All my delight in one enraptured song!

 

(Holderlin, German, 1770-1843, tr. David Gascoyne.)

 

[Wang Wei, who was a painter as well as a poet, hears human talk as one of the natural sounds of the forest.]

 

Empty mountains, no one to be seen.

Only the sound of voices, people talking.

Returning shadows penetrate the forest,

Bouncing off the coloured moss above.

 

(Wang Wei, 699-761, Chinese, version I.M.)

 

[Leopardi was an Italian Romantic poet. He was born into a stiflingly claustrophobic family, minor aristocracy fallen on hard times. He was deformed; not for him Keats’ declaration `Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Tormented by his deformity, often stretched on the rack of unrequited love, longing for the company of like minds but finding himself easily hurt, his poems are triumphs of love over despair.

`The Broom’, title of the next poem, refers to yellow-flowering broom that grows in dry, infertile soil. It becomes an image of many parts; beauty in desolation; the fragility of life; the struggle to flourish in the face of assured destruction. Leopardi uses natural imagery to build up and express his vision of the world, of the significance of life, and of human arrogance which seemed dangerous to him then (and how much more to us now!).

Here is no idealised picture of nature. Leopardi calls nature the enemy, in that like all creatures we must struggle against the rest for space and sustenance. But he finds in nature a salutory lesson for humankind, an acceptance of our common fate, and not the arrogance which `would raise the state of mortal man above the stars’. His love of nature survives contemplation of its most awful face. The poem is a plea for human beings to cooperate, and to forsake the arrogant stupidity which leads to ruin.]

 

The Broom

 

Upon the arid shoulder

Of this most terrible mountain,

Vesuvius the destroyer,

Graced by no other tree or flowering plant,

You scatter here your solitary shrubs,

O fragrant-blossoming broom,

Contented with the deserts. So have I seen

Your shoots make beautiful that lonely land

Which girds about the city

Who, once mistress of the world,

Now speaks to travellers of empires lost

With grave and ever-silent face.

I meet you here once more, O you the lover

Of all sad places and deserted worlds,

The constant comrade of afflicted fortune.

Among these fields (now sown

With barren cinders only, covered up

By lava turned to stone

That rings beneath the passing traveller’s feet;

Where the snake nestles, coiled in the hot sun,

Or under the south wind

The rabbit seeks again his hollow den)

Were farmsteads and tilled glebe,

And whitening crops of grain, and here the sound

Of lowing herds of cattle,

Gardens and palaces,

Grateful retreats for leisure

Of mighty lords, and here were famous cities

Which the great mountain, from its fiery mouth

Pouring forth streams of flame, did overwhelm

With those that dwelt in them. Now all around,

One single ruin spreads,

Wherein you take your root, O courteous flower,

As if in pity of the doom of others,

And cast a pleasant fragrance to the skies,

Making the desert glad. Now let him come

And view these slopes, whose want it is to flatter

Our mortal state; here he may gaze and see

How loving Nature cares

For our poor human race, and learn to value

At a just estimate the strength of Man,

Whom the harsh Nurse, even when he fears it least

With a slight motion does in part destroy,

And may, with one no less

Slight than the last, even now, and with no warning

Wholly annihilate.

Graven upon these cliffs

Is that `magnificent,

           Progressive destiny of Humankind’.

Here gaze, and see your image,

O proud and foolish Century,

You who have gone astray

And left the path of re-awakened thought

Marked out for you till now, and turning back,

Even of your regress boast,

Proclaiming it advance.

All those fine wits, whose evil fate

Made you their father, with flattery receive

Your childish words, though

Deep in their hearts at times

They scorn at you. But I

Would not go to the grave bearing such shame;

Rather would I reveal the deep contempt

That lies locked in my breast,

And show it openly, while still I may;

Although I know oblivion

Lies heavy on whom displeases his own age.

But I have learned to laugh

At that bad fate we both will share together.

You dream of liberty, the while you forge

New bonds for thought – through which

Alone Man rose, in part,

From barbarism, whence only civil life

Has grown, and we may guide the common-wealth

To better things. And thus

The truth displeased you, telling

Of that low station and harsh destiny

Nature has given us. So, like a coward,

You turned your back upon the light, which showed

This truth to you, and fleeing it, called base

Those who still followed it; and he

Alone was `great of soul’ who, knave or madman,

Could fool himself or others, and would raise

The state of mortal man above the stars.

 

A man of poor estate, and weak in body,

Being of a high nobility of soul,

Supposes not, nor claims

That he is rich or handsome,

Nor makes himself a laughing-stock for men

By show of splendid living,

Or valour in his person;

But without shame allows it to appear

In strength and wealth he is a beggar still,

Speaks openly of this, rates his condition

According to the truth.

Nor do I think that creature

Of a high mind, but foolish,

Who, born to perish, and reared up in pain,

Says “I was made for joy,”

And with his festering pride

Covers whole pages, promising on earth

High destinies and new felicity

Which Heaven knows nothing of, much less this earth,

To a people whom one wave

From a troubled sea, one breath

Of poisoned air, one tremor underground

Might utterly destroy

That scarce the memory remained of them.

But noble in soul is he

Who dares to lift his mortal eyes

Against the common doom,

And with free tongue, not docking any truth,

Admits the weak, low state,

The evil lot assigned to us by fate;

He who in suffering

Shows himself great and strong,

And will not add fraternal wrath and hatred –

The worst of all ills – to all

His other miseries

By blaming Man for his unhappiness,

But lays the fault on her who is indeed

The guilty one, the Power who is our mother

In that she brought us forth, step-mother in will.

He calls her enemy, and thus, believing –

As is indeed the truth –

The human race was from the first conjoined

And ranked against the foe,

He takes all men as his confederates,

Embraces all men with a general love

Which is sincere; he offers,

And looks for prompt and valiant aid from them

Amid the anguish and recurring dangers

Of this their common war. But against man

To take up arms, or seek to lay a snare

To cause his neighbour stumble,

Seems mad to him, as if one in a camp

Hemmed in by enemies, beneath the threat

Of their most keen assault,

Forgot the foe, and stirred up bitter strife

Among the allied ranks,

And scattered flight and tumult with his sword

Through his own warriors.

When thoughts like these again

Shall be, as once, generally known;

And when that horror – which at first

Bound men in fellowship,

Linked together against a cruel Nature –

Shall be in part restored

By knowledge of the truth; then honesty and honour

In civil intercourse,

Justice and piety, shall find a different root

To that of those proud follies, upon which rest

The morals of the mob,

As solid in their standing

As all things else with error for foundation.

 

By these deserted banks,

On which the hardened flood

Casts a dark cloak of waves that still seem surging,

Often I sit by night and mark on high

In heaven’s purest blue

The stars burning above this mournful plain,

And where the far-off sea

Becomes their mirror, and the whole world ablaze

With glittering sparks circling the empty sky.

And when I fix my eyes upon those lights,

Which seem to me mere points

Yet are so vast that all

The earth and sea compared to them are truly

Only a point; to which

Not only Man, but this whole

Globe, wherein Man is nothing,

Is utterly unknown; and when I see –

Beyond them infinitely more remote –

Those clustering knots of stars

Which look to us like clouds, and where

Not only Man and Earth, but all our stars,

So infinite in number and in mass,

The golden sun among the rest,

Are unknown (or seem even as they appear

To us on earth – a point

Of nebulous light); then, to my questing thought,

What is it you appear,

O son of man? Remembering

Your state down here, of which the soil I tread

Bears witness; and yet that you

Think lordship and a purpose

Assigned you by the Whole; and how often

You are often pleased to say, on this obscure

Grainlet of sand, which bears the name of Earth,

The authors of the universal cause

Came down, on your account, often conversing

At pleasure with your race; and how this age,

Which seems in knowledge and in civil arts

The most advanced, heaps insult on the wise,

Renewing once again

These long-derided dreams; what feeling then,

Unhappy children of mortality,

What thought of you at last my heart assails?

I cannot say if pity or scorn prevails.

As a small apple falling from the tree,

Which late in autumn-time

Its ripeness and no other force casts down,

Crushes the loved homes of a tribe of ants,

Tunnelled in the soft loam

With infinite toil, their works,

And all their wealth, which, jealously collecting,

That busy race had garnered with long care

And patient forethought through the summer season –

Burying and laying waste,

All in a moment; so rained from on high,

Out of that thundering womb

Hurled to the height of heaven,

A cloud of cinders, pumice-stone, and rocks,

Darkness and ruin, mingled

With boiling streams of lava;

Or down the mountain side,

Raging across the fields,

All in a molten mass

Of red-hot sand and metals mixed together,

A mighty flood swept down,

And overwhelmed, destroyed, and covered up

Those cities which the sea

Washed on the further shore,

In a few moments; where above them now

Browses the goat, new towns

Rise in their stead, whose seat is still upon

The sepulchers of those, while the steep mountain

Seems spurning with its foot their prostrate walls.

Nature has no more care

Or value for Man’s seed

Than for the ant’s; and if disaster falls

More rarely on the former

No other cause can be

Than when he breeds, Man’s less fertility.

 

Full eighteen hundred years

Have passed away, since vanished, overwhelmed

By force of fire, these peopled seats of men:

And the poor husbandman

Tending his vines, whom scarce the scorched, dead soil

Upon these plains affords a livelihood,

Lifts yet suspicious glances

Towards the fatal summit,

Which, now become no milder than before,

Still full of terror stands, still threatening

Disaster for himself, his sons, and their

Impoverished fields. And often

The wretch, upon the roof

Of his poor cottage, lying

Sleepless all night beneath the wandering air,

Time upon time starts up, to mark the flow

Of that dread simmering, which still pours out

From the unexhausted womb

Over the sandy ridge, and shines upon

The shores about Capri,

And Mergellina, and the Bay of Naples.

And if he sees it coming near, or deep

In his domestic well he hears the water

Gurgling and boiling, he awakes his children,

In haste awakes his wife, and snatching up

Whatever they can seize, they go, and fleeing,

See, far behind, their home,

Their little field, which was

The sole protection they possessed from famine,

Prey to the burning flood,

Which hissing, overtakes it, then unappeased,

Spreads ever-during over all they had.

Now light of day

(Which old oblivion had quenched for her)

Returns to Pompeii,

A skeleton, dragged from the grave by greed or piety;

From her deserted forum,

Upright among the ranks

Of broken colonnades, the traveller

May gaze long on the forked peak of the mountain

And on its smoking crest

Which threatens still the ruins scattered round.

And in the horror of the secret night,

Through the deserted theatres,

Through disfigured temples and shattered

Dwelling-houses where bats conceal their young,

Like an ill-omened torch

Darkly flickering through deserted halls

The glimmer of the deadly lava runs,

Which far-off through the shadows

Glows red, and tinges everything around.

Even so, knowing naught of Man, or of the ages

Which he calls ancient, or the long succession

Of various generations,

Nature stays ever fresh, or rather she

Travels so long a course,

That still she seems to stay. While empires fall,

While tongues and peoples pass; nothing she sees;

And Man presumes to boast eternity.

And you, O gentle broom,

Who with your fragrant thickets

Make beautiful this spoiled and wasted land,

You too must shortly fall beneath the cruel

Force of the subterranean fire, returning

To this, its wonted place,

Which soon shall stretch its greedy fringe above

Your tender shrubs. You then

Will bend your harmless head, not obstinate

Beneath the rod of fate;

Nor yet till then in vain and cowardly fashion

Bow down to the oppressor yet to come;

Nor upright in mad pride against the stars;

Amid the desert, where

You find your home and birthplace,

Allotted you by fortune, not your will;

But wiser still, and less

Infirm in this than Man, you do not think

Your feeble stock immortal,

Made so by destiny or by yourself.

 

(Giacomo Leopardi, Italian, 1798-1837, tr. J. Heath-Stubbs.)

 

[Since the last poem was written, humanity has given up on its presumption to eternal life. In its place it has enshrined the ambition to satisfy every appetite. To satisfy this ambition we force nature to be more and more productive. The world sickens under this exploitation. In hope of future prosperity, we put blind faith in science to come up with new tricks. Machines and technology will, we trust, take the place of care and respect for the earth. Nature’s relegation to the status of `environment’ indicates the depth of joyless self-preoccupation to which we have fallen.

Cutting down trees has provided people with room to make fields and put up houses, with fuel to keep warm and with wood for use. But when few trees are left, when the landscape is impoverished, when the wind holds sway over all, then an intelligent human realises it has gone too far.

Unfortunately, dollars – or even sheer pigheadedness – often hold precedence over intelligence.]

 

Letter from the Bird Community to the Mayor.

 

Lord Mayor

we the bird community called a meeting

one fine clear morning

on the roof of the deserted Parliament building.

All sent their intellectuals to represent them,

all but the crows, for they were too busy

mourning their loved ones, shot dead

and drifting down the River Klang.

Special guests came as observers,

a delegation of butterflies,

involved in the issue.

 

Lord Mayor,

though we had no hand in electing you

since franchise is not for the feathered,

still we honoured you for your promise

of a Green City.

 

Alas, they have desecrated the Green of nature

to worship the Green of dollars.

Since Kuala Lumpur’s mud turned to concrete

we birds have been the silent sufferers;

the late Woodpecker was crushed under a felled tree,

Turtle-dove was given a fancy name

while he and his kind were cooped up in cages.

 

The Sparrow delegation are protesting

against the insult in your proverb

`deaf sparrows feed in the rain’;

Sparrow and Wood-dove both feel

it’s most improper of you to call

certain parts of your anatomy

by their names, when you well know

your `pecker’ and your `tit’ can’t fly

(you have deflated our egos

in the process of inflating yours).

 

Lord Mayor,

this letter requests that in your wisdom

you will protect each branch, each root,

each leaf, each petal, each bower,

for these have been our homes through the centuries,

and it would also be for the good of man,

his health and happiness, his peace of mind,

to let nature and its myriad beauties bloom

in the brilliant sun.

 

(Usman Awang, Malay, b. 1929. Tr. Adibah Amin.)

 

[The welfare of people must obviously be the prime concern of people. But how can people thrive in a world depleted of beauty and diversity? Besides joyless living, an `intensive monoculture’ of human beings makes us vulnerable in other ways – for instance to disease.

The next poem mourns destruction in Russia during the years under Stalin. Many in the West fondly imagined that technological ineptitude was preserving communist countries from the kind of destruction we’ve seen in the West. However, this hope turned out to be grievously wrong; what communist rulers lacked in technology they more than made up for in carelessness.

The following poem was written before 1934. The poet was a religious mystic, and he was troubled by violence against the land while other poets were understandably more preoccupied with violence aagainst humans. He was shot by firing squad in October 1937. This poem was discovered among the notes of the secret police, appended as evidence of his crime.]

 

The news received was bitter:

the rippling waves of the Aral sea in dead ooze,

the storks rare in the Ukraine,

the feather grass drooping in Mozdok,

and in the bright Sarov desert

the wheels of machines squealing underground.

Black clouds brought us further news;

the blue Volga is getting shallow,

evil men in Kerzhents are burning

the green pine fortresses,

the Suzhdal wheat fields bring forth

lichen and stubble.

The cranes call to us

as they’re forced to fly in for remains.

The nesting finches’ feathers fall out

and they’re plagued by ravening aphids,

the furry bees have only

the big veteran mushrooms to buzz at.

The news was black:

that there was no home land left,

as if there were no cherries in October,

when the darkness outside

decides the heart is an axe

that will heat the shivering house,

but the logs don’t obey the axe

and howl at the moon.

It’s painful when the heart sinks,

but your grey-haired mother is a friend.

How terrifying, to crucify a poem!

The news burned into our souls,

there is no home land left,

the rippling waves of the Aral sea in dead ooze,

Gritsko is silent in the Ukraine,

and the North, that frozen swan,

has flowed out onto the shelterless waves,

notifying the ships

that there is no home land left.

 

(Nikolai Kluyev, Russian, 1887-1937. Tr. Richard McKane.)

 

[As the world is more and more affected by what we do, we can no longer know whether storms, droughts, floods, plagues and other natural disasters are acts of God or acts of man.]

 

The Sun Parrots are Late This Year

(for Chico Mendez, murdered Brazilian environmentalist)

 

The great forests of the world are burning down,

Far away in Amazon they burn,

Far beyond our eyes the trees are cut

And cleared and heaped and fired:

Ashes fill the rivers for miles and miles,

The rivers are stained with blood of mighty trees.

Great rivers are brothers of great forests

And immense clouds shadowing the rose-lit waters

Are cousins of this tribe of the earth-gods

Under the ancient watch of the stars:

All should be secure and beautiful forever,

Dwarfing man generation after generation,

Inspiring man, feeding him with dreams and strength.

But over there it is not so; man is giant

And the forest dwindles; it will soon be nothing,

Shrubs sprouting untidily in scorched black earth.

The sun will burn the earth, before now shadowed

For a hundred thousand years, dark and dripping,

Hiding jewelled insects and thick-veined plants,

Blue-black orchids and white hearts, red macaws,

The green lace of ferns, gold butterflies, opal snakes.

Everything shrivels and dust begins to blow:

It is as if acid was poured on the silken land.

 

It is far from here now, but it is coming nearer,

Those who love forests are also cut down.

This month, this year, we may not suffer:

The brutal way things are, it will come.

Already the cloud patterns are different each year,

The winds blow from new directions,

The rain comes earlier, beats down harder,

Or it is dry when the pastures thirst.

In this dark, over-arching Essequibo forest

I walk near the shining river in the green paths

Cool and green as melons laid in running streams.

I cannot imagine all the forests going down,

The great black hogs not snouting for the pulp of fruit,

All this beauty and power and shining life gone.

But in far, once emerald Amazon the forest dies

By fire, fiercer than bright axes.

The roar of the wind in trees is sweet,

Reassuring, the heavens stretch far and bright

Above the loneliness of mist-shrouded forest trails,

And there is such a feel of softness in the evening air.

Can it be that all of this will go, leaving the clean-boned land?

I wonder if my children, come this way,

Will see the great forest spread green and tall and far

As it spreads now far and green for me.

Is it my imagination that the days are furnace-hot,

The sun-parrots late or not come at all this year?

 

(Ian McDonald, b. Trinidad 1933.)

 

[Can we really live without loving the land, the sky, the trees? It seems so, but for how long? We have nature in our power now, just as a peasant has his donkey, but a wise peasant loves his donkey and looks after it. Dead donkeys do no more work. It’s an old story, that those with power must learn restraint in using it.

In the next poem, a busy Roman official looks with envy on an old man who, he imagines, has had a life of carefree toil.]

 

The Old Man of Verona

 

This man has lived his life in his own fields.

The house that saw him as a little lad

Sees him an old man: leaning on his staff,

On the same earth he crawled on, he will tell you

The centuries that one low roof has seen.

Fate has not dragged him through the brawling crowds,

Nor ever, as a restless traveller

Has he drunk at unknown springs; no greed of gain

Kept him a-quaking on the perilous seas.

No trumpet sounded for him the attack,

No lawsuit brought him to the raucous courts.

In politics unskilled, knowing naught of the neighbouring town,

His eye takes pleasure in a wider sky.

The years he’ll reckon by alternate crops

And not by Parliaments: spring has her flowers,

Autumn her apples: so the year goes by.

The same wide field that hides the setting sun

Sees him return again;

His light the measure of this plain man’s day.

That massive oak he remembers a sapling once,

Yon grove of trees grew old along with him.

Verona further seems than India,

Lake Garda is remote as the Red Sea.

Yet, strength indomitable and sinews firm,

The old man stands, a rock among his grandsons.

Let you go gadding, gape at furthest Spain:

You’ll have seen life; but this old man has lived.

 

(Claudian, Roman, c. 370-405, tr. Helen Waddell.)

 

[Nature’s laws do not favour humanity over other species. We make our own laws to do that, and we need new man-made laws to protect us from destroying nature.

In Chinese poetry, nature is a place of retreat from the disappointments of living with one’s fellow human beings. Han Shan took to the mountains as a recluse when his efforts to conform with family expectations failed. His poems were said to have been collected from scribbles on rocks and trees by an admiring local bureaucrat. Han Shan means cold mountain; he called himself after the place where he chose to live.]

 

Life on Cold Mountain

 

My house is at the foot of the green cliff,

My garden, a jumble of weeds I no longer bother to mow.

New vines dangle in twisted strands

Over old rocks rising steep and high.

Monkeys make off with the mountain fruits,

The white heron crams his bill with fish from the pond,

While I, with a book or two of the immortals,

Read under the trees – mumble, mumble.

 

(Han Shan, Chinese, 8th-9th C., tr. Burton Watson.)

 

[Li Po was so venerated during his life that the emperor would personally season his soup. But he too needed the company of nature, and he spent most of his life wandering. If poetry is wine, his poems are distilled spirit.]

 

Summer in the mountains

Too lazy to shift my white feather fan

I lie naked in the green woods.

Hanging my hat on a rock,

I bare my head to the breeze in the pines.

 

Silent Night

 

Moonlight floods the end of my bed.

I wonder, has frost fallen?

Sitting up, I look at the moon.

Lying back, I think of home.

 

 

Talk in the Mountains

 

You ask me, `Why dwell among green mountains?’

I laugh in silence; my soul is quiet.

Peach blossom follows the moving water;

Here is a heaven and earth, beyond the world of men.

 

(Li Po, Chinese, 701-762, versions I.M.)

 

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