new zealand electronic poetry centre


A.R.D. Fairburn

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Odysseus, the old wanderer,
came home at last from the long voyagings,
and those world-shaking wars, and reigned once more
a King in Ithaca.

And so the years slid by,
lapping his soul about with quietness:
until in the end, they say,
he fell to weariness and discontent,
grew tired of gentle living . . . could not sleep
for thinking, always thinking . . .

In the midst of merriment and song
he would fall silent, sit with clouded eyes
dreaming of war and pillage, of what had been
and might not come again . . .
hearing the clash of steel . . . the tempest’s roar . . .
the wind that breathed in Circe’s shadowed grove . . .
the voice of old Tiresias . . . the swift
crackling rush of foam under the prows,
and the screaming gulls, and the high song of the waves . . .
and ever again, deep in his troubled heart,
that song the Sirens sang, that wild sweet song
that would not let him be,
calling him to the world’s far ends . . .

* * *

It’s only a fool who lets his dreams come true . . .
Who’d think the dream of twenty lonely years
(such a great, glowing dream
of love, and peace, and rest for the tired heart)
would swell in beauty like a golden bubble . . .
and then touch life, and break, and shine no more?
This narrow island sleeping in summer seas,
for all its calm,
its peace and loveliness beyond desiring,
left much to be desired . . . much indeed . . .
and he was tired . . . so tired . . .
too much droning of bees in summer grass . . .
too many mumbling women about the castle . . .
even Penelope . . .
and a tinkle of pipes from the barn, that made him drowsy . . .
The tall blade flaked with rust,
and the string of the great bow,
that sang shrill death of old, dribbled slack
as a loose sandal-thong . . .
This brooding peace, this heavy idleness
rotted the spirit, all but quenched the fire
that smouldered in his breast . . .
Better the dark clutch of the ravenous sea –
to lie in the cool depths, and far above,
a white agony of broken water . . .
better the hand of death
than this soft-dreaming ease under unclouded skies . . .
And if not death . . . then life . . .
out there in the cold and darkness
dreams never came true . . . were always dreams
lovely and inviolable . . .

* * *

And so (the story goes) one day he rises,
and shakes himself like a great dog roused from the hearth,
and bellows to the henchmen, bids them bring
fresh meat, and bales of corn, fat sheep and kine,
and skins of wine and water;
then calls to the young men with restless hearts,
gathers a hundred, bids them launch the ships
and lade them for a voyage,
for a long voyage, and there’s no knowing where
it will all lead to, or what the end will be . . .
and then he gives them ‘glory or the grave,’
and sets his prows
into the golden west, and sails away
to seek the Happy Isles or come what will . . .

* * *

And thus Odysseus, Lord of Ithaca,
he of the strong heart and the wily hand,
the ravager of cities, the feared of men,
passed to the shadows . . .
                                     . . . and there the legend fails,
and no man knows, nor ever shall know,
whither he journeyed,
what strange seas he crossed . . . or did not cross . . .
whether he died in battle,
or reached the Happy Isles, and ruled once more
a prince among men . . .

But I have sometimes mused,
in the dark hour between the sun and moon,
upon this tale . . .
have played with fancy, led the wandering ships
through storm and sunlight, over desperate seas,
and brought them to this land
whose hills and streams and meadow-paths I know
better than the dark paths of my own heart . . .
And I have seen Odysseus and his men
(some morning in the yellow summertime)
swing shoreward with slack sails and weary oars,
ride the long wave, and beach the golden ships,
and stretch their limbs, and dance upon the sands
like happy children . . . I have seen them lie
taking their ease beneath the gnarled black boughs
of giant pohutukawas, bursting red
for joy and honour . . . I have seen them bind
the red blooms in their hair, and walk like gods,
laughing, upon this shore . . .
And I have seen them, after many days,
when the sea called once more,
clamber aboard and hoist the storm-torn sails,
swing from the land, and melt upon the brink
of sea and sky, to roam and ever roam
upon their endless quest . . .

Whether this tale be true or false I know not.
Nor do I care at all. The old blind poet
never heard it . . . or hearing it, forgot . . .
or kept it to himself . . .
or maybe it fell out some other way . . .
nobody knows . . . But I have dreamed it so
in the dark hour between the sun and moon,
when all tales are true
so far as they are strange and beautiful.


© A.R.D. Fairburn

Last updated 26 June, 2002