Margaret Atwood: Quattrocento



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Margaret Atwood: Quattrocento


The snake enters your dreams through paintings:

this one, of a formal garden

in which there are always three:

the thin man with the green-white skin

that marks him vegetarian

and the woman with a swayback and hard breasts

that look stuck on

and the snake, vertical and with a head

that’s face-coloured and haired like a woman’s.

Everyone looks unhappy,

even the few zoo animals, stippled with sun,

even the angel who’s like a slab

of flaming laundry, hovering

up there with his sword of fire,

unable as yet to strike.

There’s no love here.

Maybe it’s the boredom.

And that’s no apple but a heart

torn out of someone

in this myth gone suddenly Aztec.

This is the possibility of death

the snake is offering:

death upon death squeezed together,

a blood snowball.

To devour it is to fall out

of the still unending noon

to a hard ground with a straight horizon

and you are no longer the

idea of a body but a body,

you slide down into your body as into hot mud.

You feel the membranes of disease

close over your head, and history

occurs to you and space enfolds

you in its armies, in its nights, and you

must learn to see in darkness.

Here you can praise the light,

having so little of it:

it’s the death you carry in you

red and captured, that makes the world

shine for you

as it never did before.

This is how you learn prayer.

Love is choosing, the snake said.

The kingdom of god is within you

because you ate it.MARGARET ATWOOD: THE SAINTS

between being with other people and being

alone: another good reason for becoming one.

They live in trees and eat air.

Staring past or through us, they see

things which we would call not there.

We on the contrary see them.

They smell of old fur coats

stored for a long time in the attic.

When they move they ripple.

Two of them passed here yesterday,

filled and vacated and filled

by the wind, like drained pillows

blowing across a derelict lot,

their twisted and scorched feet

not touching the ground,

their feathers catching in thistles.

What they touched emptied of colour.

Whether they are dead or not

is a moot point.

Shreds of they litter history,

a hand here, a bone there:

is it suffering or goodness

that makes them holy,

or can anyone tell the difference?

Though they pray, they do not pray

for us. Prayers peel off them

like burned skin healing.

Once they tried to save something,

others or their own souls.

Now they seem to have no use,

like the colours on blind fish.

Nevertheless they are sacred.

They drift through the atmosphere,

their blue eyes sucked dry

by the ordeal of seeing,

exuding gaps in the landscape as water

exudes mist. They blink

and reality shivers.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS:

Sailing to Byzantium


I

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,



A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

III


O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take



My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

W. H. Auden: The Shield of Achilles


She looked over his shoulder

For vines and olive trees,

Marble well-governed cities

And ships upon untamed seas,

But there on the shining metal

His hands had put instead

An artificial wilderness

And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,

No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,

Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,

Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood

An unintelligible multitude,

A million eyes, a million boots in line,

Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face

Proved by statistics that some cause was just

In tones as dry and level as the place:

No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;

Column by column in a cloud of dust

They marched away enduring a belief

Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder

For ritual pieties,

White flower-garlanded heifers,

Libation and sacrifice,

But there on the shining metal

Where the altar should have been,

She saw by his flickering forge-light

Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot

Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)

And sentries sweated for the day was hot:

A crowd of ordinary decent folk

Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke

As three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all

That carries weight and always weighs the same

Lay in the hands of others; they were small

And could not hope for help and no help came:

What their foes like to do was done, their shame

Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride

And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder

For athletes at their games,

Men and women in a dance

Moving their sweet limbs

Quick, quick, to music,

But there on the shining shield

His hands had set no dancing-floor

But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

Loitered about that vacancy; a bird

Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,

Hephaestos, hobbled away,

Thetis of the shining breasts

Cried out in dismay

At what the god had wrought

To please her son, the strong

Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles



Who would not live long.

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