Smoke from This Altar (1990) (2 page)

BOOK: Smoke from This Altar (1990)
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What dim ancestral heritage is mine That now awakens in my blood regret?

What destiny is this, what strange design, That I must seek a haunting silhouette In unremembered lands my dreams divine,

But cannot quite recall nor quite forget?

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>WITHOUT THIS LAND

These tawny hills cannot be mine, for here Am I a stranger too, an alien thing Swept up by some uncertain tide, or blown By casual winds; these stubbled fields that lie So impotent beneath the autumn sun Gathering strength before the quickening urge Of spring will swell the soil with some

New birth, and green will grow the cotton then, And corn-lands sun themselves to life anew Beneath familiar skies, but fields I know The moment only, then no more, for I Shall pass and sink no roots within this soil.

The pasture here cannot be mine to feel Nor yet these dwarfish trees that twist above Whining their anguish to the winter wind. Not here am I to lean against a tree, Feeling the furrowed bark beneath my hand And knowing it and I were rooted deep In this same loam; not here am I to feel The soil is one with me, with this my flesh, This heart, this brain; not here am I at home Nor yet upon the sea where long slate swells And slowly heaves and rolls and flings itself Against the bulwarked rocks, to roll again And yet again with long repeated blows.

Not here am I at home, for this quick flesh

Is born of many seas and many roads
Is one with dust and wind-blown spume, and leaves That fall and feed themselves to earth
again.

These things I know but as the passerby With many other things before, beyond This land, these hills, those ships and seas are all A part of me, my flesh is of that dust, That rain, that brine, that song is in my blood; The dust of many roads is now my flesh, And dust to dust returns, so this must strive Ever returning to the roads again, And I am rooted neither there nor here But am a stranger to this soil, this hearth.

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>LIFE

I dream, and my dreams are all broken; I love and my loving is vain . . .

I speak, and the words are all spoken, I look and see nothing but pain.

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>BIOGRAPHY IN STONE

It still was dark when he paused at the desert's edge Above, the ridges lay like a sleeping beast

Against a sky where late stars hung like lamps Suspended from a canopy of shade.

Standing alone, he watched the morning begin, A bigger man than most, and marked by life

With lines of pain, with moulded power and strength. In the east the pale bacillus of the sun

Faded the darkness with a misted glow
The shadows, too reluctantly at bay, Yielded before the slow advance of dawn, And a crimson arrow hurled a flame across The clouds to sear the sable from the sky Except where dying darkness dripped a blood Of shadows in the lee of shattered cliffs.

Already a massive head was taking form, Growing from the granite into brows and nose A sombre etching against the dawning light; Hands upon hips he stared upward, watching The morning paint a blush upon the cliff,

A thousand feet of sheer, unbroken rock Thrusting itself up boldly from the sand.

From twenty miles away it could be seen, The highest point in all that rocky range; Crossing the valley's floor it gripped the eye,

A monument in stone where years had left

No blemish more than did the shadows of cloud Floating so lazily across the sun.

Slowly his sculptor's eye took in the line Of that gigantic head, feeling its way Across those heavy brows and where the eyes Were soon to be. It was too great a task Too much for any man in one short life.

Out of that stolid stone his mind had thought To create something grand that would remain, A silent symbol of the strength of men,

To last through many years-a guardian

Of the sands whose tranquil brow was evidence

That here Man dreamed, and dreaming dealt with stone, Carving the greatness and the majesty of Man

Into this timeless form to leave behind A mute protest against futility.

Turning away, he took the mountain trail Winding upward across the precipice, A narrow path that was a slender thread Suspended there between achievement and death; A rolling rock beneath his careless

foot

Might be the fitting end to such a dream,

And check with one swift plunge his carving hands. Thinking of it, he smiled, and looked back down

The dizzy height, quite unafraid of falling. At last he reached the top and stood alone. Darkly, against the amber light of dawn He watched the evanescent sun rays climb, Then turned to sort his gear before the day Of work began, yet pausing time to time To deeply breath and watch an eagle soar Above the cliff; sometimes it dropped so low

It seemed to sweep his head with slanting wing. "Look out, old bird, you're coming close!" he said, "But we've a lot in common-did you guess?" Below, a rattling car disgorged three men,

Who saw his figure etched against the sky.

"He's a man, that one!" the older man remarked. "It's all a dream, but what a splendid dream! Ours would be a better world if more

Could dream like that. But it's too big for us." "He's a fool, Casey. Why spend his gold like that? I'd never do the like as long as beer And women last. He worked too hard, then sold His claim, and puts the money into this.

But what a job! I like it, too, but I

Don't have to pay the bills. Let's go aloft." Silently mounting across a golden cliff, And joining Morgan above the lofty brow They lowered staging down the precipice Descending to their work.

Day after day

Their muscles shaped the cliff, the stone took form As though a Titan stepped from living rock;

The shoulders, hands and feet half-shaped by wind And rain and sun before the work began.

"See, Casey," Morgan said. "It's not so hard. I used to wonder no one saw the lines Before I came along-it all was here.

A rounding here and there, a needed touch, And just like that the figure takes its form. The face alone remains, and that's the job." "Ay, a job is right. How long did this

This man of yours stand waiting for an eye? How many million years will men go by And wonder at the hand that carved this stone?" "They'll wonder then, for all of me. My name

Is only a symbol for a certain thing,

A certain face and hands, and certain thoughts; The face and hands will go-this job will last
The bundled dreams and lies, the doubt and hope, The things that make up Me, they will be gone; My flesh and blood will turn to grass perhaps, To feed the cows that feed the young of fools. So why the name? I like the job itself, It's something for a man with guts to do,

The job is big enough and grand enough, but small At that; I used to work my claim and dream

Of this, or in the mines, a thousand feet Below, I'd curse the heat and change my steel, Thinking of this, and how some day I'd shape A figure here the sun would strike each dawn
How passing men would mark this splendid thing, And moving on, might dream great dreams themselves." He paused, and turned to face the old man.

"But now, my Irish friend, there's more to say. You boys had better go-I'm running short, And there's an even chance you'll not he paid If you stay on. I've liked you all, and wish There were some other way, but after all It's up to me, I'll finish here alone."

The days crept by like cogs upon a wheel Leaving their mark upon that brooding face, Where single-jack and chisel shaped each line, Lifting the features from the stone as though Only the form were being chipped away,

And behind that rocky mask the face had lived Waiting in silence for the artist's hand.

McLain, an engineer from Frisco, stopped

His car and climbed the trail to watch the work,

Almost completed now. He saw the man Descend the cliff, then turned his eyes to note The skill with which the art had shaped the stone, Suggesting lines like wraiths beneath the rock

As though the spirit of the mountain stirred, Awakening at last to life and strength.

"Morgan! I might have known you were the one.

But even you . . . why, Man, I've never seen such work! Does it have a name? Is it Hercules or Thor?"

He looked again upon that sombre face, Bathed now in sunset rays, aloft, alone; There was grandeur there, and solitude and strength, And some nobility not quite beyond

The grasp of men, some beauty there, and calm. But nothing there of gods, but only M
en
And sympathy no god could understand.

"No thunder-hurling god could have a face Like that," Morgan replied. "He's just a man,

I would not have him more. A man and a dream, For all the things that man has built are dreams; A man conceives, a man creates, he builds And then destroys that he may build again. I think that it would be a splendid thing If men were big enough, like that-" he waved A hand up toward the face; compassionate, All-seeing strength revealed in every line.

"They could forget their little jealousies, Their petty hates and greeds, the futile lines They draw of race and creed-they could be free. For Man is less than nothing in himself

His works reveal him best; there's grandeur there, And beauty, power, and the glory of his dreams. In a thousand lands a thousand altars lift Their incense to the sky-to the gods, perhaps? More likely to Man's better self, his dreams, Ideals and hopes. But I've a job to do, And that's enough."

Low-flying dusk caressed The hills, the fingered pinnacles grew tall, And in the canyons, narrow-mouthed, the dark Flowered against the walls, and gaunt white fangs Of cacti gnawed the sky. High overhead

The stone man faced the night, a resting hand Upon a granite knob. A motor whined Across the valley floor, a distant sound Returning McLain to work and tomorrow. And Morgan waited the sound away, then took The downward path to the 'dobe beside the walls. He hesitated, staring down the road

Toward Coyote Pass and the people and cities beyond. "I wonder if they'll ever come this way?

And mass along these desert floors, to build

his red rock? Or will they pass And leave the desert here alone with me?

I may be here. That rocky shape contains Too much of me to leave, too much of cold And hunger's written there in that still face,

Too much of loneliness and suffering, too.

I wanted a job that was big enough for a man
Being mid-wife to a mountain's big enough.

I've hammered there, and carved until I know Each curve and crack, each notch upon the stone. The biography of man is written there

In every line of that great granite face, The biography of man, and all his dreams.

Someday I'll shake the dust from off my shoes An

d leave it all behind, the whole damned thing."

A wind from down the ranges touched the sand And whispered there among the cactus spines, His memory stirred, and he recalled the road, But shrugged and turned away to take the path. In the still night desert air a coyote called,

And a burro bell in the moonlight sounded clear. Dark silence filled the hollow of the hills
Somewhere a pebble rattled down the rocks And the stone man stared into the years before Where centuries gathered their dust and confusion.

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>AN EMBER IN THE DARK

Faintly, along the shadowed shores of night I saw a wilderness of stars that flamed And fluttered as they climbed or sank, and shamed The crouching dark with shyly twinkling light;

I saw them there, odd fragments quaintly bright, And wondered at their presence there unclaimed,

Then thought, perhaps, that they were dreams unnamed, That faded slow, like hope's arrested flight.

Or vanished suddenly, like futile fears

And some were old and worn like precious things That youth preserves against encroaching Y
ears
Some disappeared like songs that no man sings, But one remained-an ember in the dark
!
crouched alone, and blew upon the spark.

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>NOCTURNE

The stars unveil As clouds regale Themselves with flight, The moon, a moth Whom loves betroth To summer night.

The trees a fringe That darkly cringe

Along the sky; And I, alone, Regret I've known

That love can die.

The hours sound deep, I cannot sleep

For love is gone; No stars remain To mourn my pain

Or greet the dawn.

*

Smoke From This Altar (1990)<br/>WINGS OVER WAVES

They lightly tread on dancing feet With elfin steps to lilting heat Upon the level sand;

Where wind and wave contrive to meet They race along, then stop, and go To dodge the sea's returning flow
They sail a b out on wings of snow A b ove the silent strand.

BOOK: Smoke from This Altar (1990)
2.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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