Monday, August 25, 2008

The Mission

THE MISSION (Lawrence Helm)


We lit the sky with torches

Clustering on the deserted

Wall about the tower.

There should have been

An answer, some remnant

Of stability, but there

Were no signs of habitation.

We could not see

The ground beneath,

And the wall stretched

Interminably beyond.

There could be Hsiung-nu

At any break in our

Concentration, being but

A small force with no

Specific command, merely

Observers, to report anything

Untoward, but perhaps not

This eerie silence, or the lack

Of moon. We huddled there

Half way to madness until dawn.


Perhaps they are farmers

Far off farming, or they

Might be Hsiung-nu

Coming to see who walks

The wall. There should

Be soldiers here shoulder

To shoulder with great

Bows and myriads of shafts,

But as it is we stumble

On awed at the vast

Emptiness we patrol making

Our way toward another

Night above the plains.

Perhaps the moon tonight

Will glimmer upon us

Reassuringly. Hawks drift

Sullenly above . . . or are they

Vultures waiting for

A fate that can

Only be seen high up

And on the wing.


The hand eats too much.

The hen fluttered away

To the edge and then

Disappeared with receding

Sounds. No one could

Remember the day

Or when last we'd

Eaten meat. We were

No match for anything

We might encounter on

Our narrow journey.

Still, we persevered,

For that was our instruction,

And each day took us

Farther away from he

Who might rescind it.

We occasionally passed

Stairways down to the plain

But nothing could be gained

By their exploration.

Only the end would satisfy.


I am alone now, the others

Have stopped at the last

Site refusing to move.

I being the senior

Surviving officer must

Carry out the command

However long it takes.

There are breaks now

Signs of disrepair

As though no one has been

Here for a hundred years.

The birds have nested

Such that I must warily

Tread to avoid their eggs.

Some species rise and raucously

Challenge my temerity. Others

Sullenly watch my passage,

And I with head down continue.

They shall one day rationalize

Their return, for who shall

Be there to give them the lie?


Out here beyond bluster

There is no need to brandish

My spear -- no one to intimidate.

Great spears of geese

Darken the sky high up

And, unseeing, make

Melancholy my solitary journey.

This is the month

My wife may presume

Me dead and take a second

Husband. I had known

She never would, but that

Was long ago. I don't know

Her now, nor can I

Recall the face

That delighted my eyes.

Ducks too are on the move.

I doggedly struggle on,

Eating birds and eggs, striking

Knives to get a flame,

Not caring if the Hsiung-nu come.


Today some peasants fled

Upon seeing me. What

Have I become to send

Them screaming down

The stairs and across

The plains? Gray, of

Indeterminate age, shaggy,

With garments faded

And torn. Perhaps it was

My great bow and arrows;

Perhaps my sword. It must

Not be my eyes which

Have looked upon oblivion.

I have no mirror to see.

Could there have been word

Of me? Perhaps there is another

Truly deranged, that I resemble

Someone used to striking

Terror in their hearts.

My hand touches my sword.

My eyes smolder.


Is this the way of it,

Walking until one's beard

Grows long and one's eyes

Learn to stare at

Forever? I have learned

The cisterns where

Water lies and have climbed

Down briefly where

Forests loom for berries

And nuts. I shot a deer

And then spent half a day

Walking back beneath the wall

And found my arrow cleaned

Lying on a haunch . . .

All that remained.

They were fearful but

Hungry too, and a haunch

Was enough for me.

I am the Demon of the Wall,

The menacing soldier,

Guardian of ancient rites.


They leave me meals

Along the way, and wine

To appease my supposed

Wrath. How can one

Know what is expected

Save in the reflection

Of one's fellows? They fade

Away like smoke before

My gaze. I stand on

The railing and raise my

Glass to the emptiness.

What other is there to ask

Save at the end when God

Demands satisfaction.

"You shall have it. All

Is in the passage along

The wall." I have shed

My uniform for the more

Harmonious clothing

Beside the wine.

"I am your servant."


The Hsiung-nu wait arrayed

Beneath me on the plain.

I am here on the wall

Before them, their

Protector, their guide.

Solemnly they listen

Through words strange.

I know they hear me

In their souls. The wind

Catches my hair and robe.

They sigh as I seem

To sail out above them

And indeed they must

Learn the endlessness

And the ever rising

Intricacies of being.

This is, I gesture toward

The way I'd come, the

Rising way to lift them

Up into the ecstasy

Of being. I weep.


To each people comes

A prophet or a savior

And I am to

The Hsiung-nu.

Those I've schooled

Go out amongst

Them teaching

All I have told them

On the wall: a wisdom

I never knew welled

Up within me. The ravages

Of age have made me wise.

Who else has come like I

The entire distance?

They are as children.

Their up-turned faces

Wash me in glory. I

Give to them all that

I have, the beauty of seeing

The length and breadth

Of being, I bequeath them.


Others have come but

My Hsiung-nu keep me safe.

My long thin beard

Flows out upon my lap.

My hands turn up

As a sign of perpetual

Giving. I smile my delight

As they gather about

To hear whatever I have:

"Bend before the wind

And you will stand. The spear

Will reach its goal

If one holds the heart high.

Hone the sword with the mind

And I will be thy point

As on this wall I stand at the end.

Focus and thrust

Into the future

Wisdom comes with decay.

I turn to dust that you

Might turn to glory."

12 - MY LAST

Others have come and my

Hsiung-nu carry me away.

It isn't enough that

I teach them to focus

Power. The wall is

Garrisoned, and we are

Once again driven away.

Behold this dust that

Clogs the nostrils and numbs

The mind -- red as though

The blood of many

Has poured upon the

Land. I sketch upon it

What you must know

Showing you the bow

And the way of the warrior

That in the soft of night

Beckoning eternity

You might remember

And, when you smell

The dust, believe.

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