by Hervey Allen
The Earth must breathe by hours!
In lungs of marshes she inhales the tide,
Alive, and deeply breathing in her sleep
Long draughts of heavy water from the sea,
Her arching chest fills slowly with the flood
Till spear-tops of flat grasses lie awash;
Shoals drown to shallow glimmers where the wind
Ripples like small rain-patches in a shower.
Islands and bays brim level,
And white houses stand
Inland upon the islands, low,
As if the water's crest
Rose higher than the banks.
Then comes a while of shimmering calm,
Earth's water-glutted dream,
A hot siesta , full of half-mirage
That lifts white dunes above the warping beach.
Long green reflections blend with yellow lights
Among reflected pines,
Black waters blister underneath the sun,
And far straight channels of the flooded marsh,
Like old canals of silted cities
Lined with palm trees, stretch
Bright avenues of molten lead
To the horizon's end, where water banks
Like oval liquid on a full cup's brim.
The Tide is coming in.
On such a rising tide in deep July
We lie a-fishing, in an awninged boat.
The sun is clanging on the molten bay
Like giant hammers on half-liquid metal,
Till the gas-blue vault above
Quivers and rings with heat.
Not for a second dare you catch his eye,
A dazzling furnace door
That opens on a fiery place
Behind the tile-wall of the light.
The white-hot tears run down the cheeks of day.
Fat Earth lies with her face up to the Sun,
Filling her lungs to the last water-breath,
While small waves trace on highest sand
A spiritual lace of broken kelp.
Time comes to rest,
And for a space — inflated — with her bosom arched,
And still as swollen death,
The huge world breathes no more.
It is high tide.
Now, while the world of insects hums
Against the faint despairing pipe of birds,
We set our lines.
The negro pilot sprawls along the thwart,
Eyes covered with a rag, brow-sweating from the sun.
The boys plunge in to swim, quick,
Darting like young seals —
And then slip out to drip
Like little Adams in the tangent heat
That thuds hot hands upon the cracking roof.
Inland we watch a funeral
Which crawls along the roads.
The dark heads slide like beads
Along the top of hedges to a whitewashed church
Whose five thin pillars lie,
Caught on the tin-white mirror of a cove,
In widened lines upon a flooded shoal,
Like quivering strings upon the bridge
Of drum-flat wire-strung instrument.
Look, in the churchyard wilderness beyond,
Where gray-white head-boards stray
Like sheep without a dog,
There yawns a yellow pit
That is the long procession's goal,
For there they gather in black patches
On the spattered sand,
As if the ants had found a thing to eat.
It is slack tide.
Just as the sullen water moils in flux,
Hanging between the in-come and the ebb,
Surges a voice in prayer
That strives to sweep the land and sea away.
We can not hear the words,
But rocking cadences intone
Across the wrinkled water,
Sinking to withered bass-chants of despair.
Then — like a letter filled with news of death
That comes as unexpected on a peaceful night
As winter thunder to these island homes —
The yapping keening cries of mourners fall,
" Oh God! Oh! Jee- sus! "
With a low sound of spades and thunder,
Marl on thudding wood, and nothing under —
Rolls the intolerable prayer —
Screams, barks, and singing pitched in high despair —
A long stillness follows, hot and sick. . . .
The tide has turned.
The Earth begins to breathe again.
And all the level floor of water slides
Backward and backward to the daylight moon,
With sighs from marshes, clucks from birds,
A cupping sound from hollow banks,
Where muddy bubbles plop their scummy lips,
And the unholy fiddlers sit in cavern doors
To brandish fists, whetting their claws for corpses
With Satanic glee, as if they knew
All living things are food, and all must die.
" Oh God! Oh! Jee- sus! "
Growing fainter now down swampy lanes —
The boys look at each other with uneasy smiles;
The pilot strips the rag-shade from his eyes
To see the cheerfulness of light.
The incantation of the prayer has ceased and yet —
" Oh! Jee- sus! "
Cry out for me you poor black mouths!
For we are brothers
On a spinning den of beasts.
I had a dream of beauty and the Earth,
But it is ebbing with the clutching tide.
This cockle-boat points toward the ocean now,
Out to the unplumbed ravin of the sea.
No! No! The Earth is not alive!
She does not breathe!
This water floor is pulled by sun
Or moon — as all of us are drawn,
Clutched in a nerveless, old untiring hand.
See what the boys catch on their ugly hooks!
Strange croaking fishes with utilitarian mouths,
Poor things Earth breeds behind mantillas of her beauty.
The marshes crawl with headless things,
Dragons to break through priestly dreams
Like cries of fire at night.
And there one lad stands, laughing,
Poised like young Victory upon the prow
One instant — plunges in — and then is gone,
Dark waters over him — and bubbles. ...
Is that all?
The tide is going out.
Let us return:
There will be comfort in the meal tonight,
In candle light,
And in the unsuspecting faces
'Round the tables at the childish games,
Checkers, and little colored disks
That move in blessed worlds of man-made certainties;
Peace, when the children's faces fall in sleep
Into prophetic masks of time-to-come,
When, like the night,
The silent answer of the darkness comes.
Come, let us weigh the anchor and go home.
Last updated September 05, 2017