Monday, March 15, 2010

The Garden of Numa Pompilius

simulat sibi cum dea Egeria congressus nocturnus esse*
— Titus Livy, Ab Urba Condita, i. 9

From whom does the great king
gain his wisdom, the king
whose great laws pour
as from a river?
Some say a woman advises him,
but the king’s house
has neither woman nor woman-child:
no dainty foot has walked here
since the consort’s burial.

Some say, in his grief
he has gone Orphic-mad,
and now a boy inspires him.
It’s true that beardless youths
come freely, serving from silver
bowls and chalices. (Greek ways
and wiles — are they among us?)

This too is idle gossip —
for neither youth nor maiden
has seen the silent garden
of Numa Pompilius.
The summer’s short nights
he sleeps alone here.
Scribes come at dawn
to take his judgments,
hear the new laws.
His wisdom astonishes,
surpassing, surprising
his ever-contending counselors.

The source of his power is here,
a stone-cut spring, old as the Tiber,
that only kings may drink from,
in the grave-scent of yew trees,
the bitterness of laurel —
a still voice that thrills him,
pale arms that come
fro out of nowhere
to rest on his shoulders —
the voice above calumny,
conspiracy and faction.

Rome is Numa, and Numa, Rome.
His, the rites to Jupiter,
the incense rising, entrails read;
his Virgins at Vesta’s hearthside;
his, the temples of Mars and Janus,
the ordered calendar and the names of days —
his thoughts no sooner spoken than enacted.

Her thoughts. Those garden nights
he dare not look backward
to search her countenance —
madness or blindness
the nympholept’s punishment.
She might be crone, or eyeless,
or Gorgon-locked, or nothing more
than poplar leaves rustling.
Her name on his lips,
an Etruscan mystery,
is all he has, or knows.

She will not have a temple,
chooses her own altar and pontifex.
He comes to the spring font,
to the branches bowed
with night-wind,
calls thrice (their only ritual) —
Egeria! Egeria! Egeria!

* He himself pretended to be in nocturnal congress with the goddess Egeria. — Livy, History of Early Rome.

Water Music IV

To be is to have been with these waters; to be
is to have roots in bleeding earth,
from mud, that oozing formless mother squeezed,
is to have known the longest path downhill —
falling, fierce drops from the blistering clouds —
or to be born as dew in pre-dawn light
or to come as crystal. solemn in frost.
or to spring from the rocks’ deep airless streams,
chill child of the darkness, full of tumult.’

To be is to flow, formed and yet formless,
bubbling with atoms’ singing bravado,
proud of a charge, an affinite valence,
a molecule’s journey defying death,
reflecting yet fleeing the sun’s hot lamp,
alive yet buoying the leaves of decay,
carving trails everywhere, here mingling,
there feeding hungry roots, there wearing down
some arrogant hillside, toppling its trees —
to move with a certainty of purpose,
knowing the land is shaped by tireless ions.
To be, however small, yet know yourself
the sine qua non of spring and summer!

To leap, however deceived, to hot air
into the trap of a motionless pool
over the brink of a cataract, down
to the inky depths of an ocean trench, —
all are the same to you, no place an end,
at home alike in gill and gullet, one
with even the loneliness of glaciers —
To know your destiny, the truth of your being,
borne from the source by your own charge.
To know is to reach by any means
an end which no other essence compels;
to be, and to leave where you pass
your subtle fingerprint upon the hardest stone.

Note: The equinoctial storms engulfing the Notheast this weekend made me think of this poem.

Sarah Helen Whitman As Poet and Critic, Part 6 (Final)

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