As Alexander rose upon a hill,
somewhere east of King Darius’s dust,
at once a pure, serene and awful still
undoes the man. For conquer all he must,
but what is next? What if the field be lost?
—What if the field be lost!? What though the field
be won? The end that he had only glossed
along, that smells of flesh and grass revealed,
was that his triumphs only made him heir
to new decay. He shed the wild surmise
with tears, and turned aside, and fixed his hair,
then spun and gave out reassuring lies
and orders, as commanders always give,
to valleys of dry bones that shall not live.

 

 

Daniel Kemper is a systems engineer living in California.


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5 Responses

  1. Monty

    A little ‘tense’ query, Dan.
    Given that “rose” in L1 is in the past tense, then the “undoes” in L4 should also be in the past tense of ‘undone’. If you wanna stick with the present tense of “undoes”, then “rose” should also be in the present tense of ‘rises’.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Yes, Monty, you are correct. There were other, more subtle, problems I’d rather not get into. “Undoes” comes from the verb “undo.” “Undone” is the participle, and the past tense is “undid.,” which would be much better here.

      Reply
      • Monty

        You’re right, CB . . ‘undone’ may or may not be acceptable, but ‘undid’ is the nailed-on correct word in this context.
        I also wonder if Dan might explain his intention, in L3, of describing something as both “serene” and “awful” in the same breath? Those two words are not exactly natural bedfellows: but maybe the contrast is intentional by the author, to convey something that I can’t grasp. (I realise that ‘awful’ doesn’t only mean ‘bad’, but can also mean ‘to fill one with awe’.)

  2. C.B. Anderson

    Monty,

    Once again you are right. I think the problem here is that we have a poet who is more familiar with technical subjects than with the niceties of good English diction. Decision and control are much different in high-tech than they are in poetry composition. Has any computer ever written good poetry?

    Reply
  3. Daniel Kemper

    Sorry so very, very late to the chase. Work-life balance bad for a while.

    Thanks for the tip on the grammatical nit. I’ll change to undid. I am aware of some subtle things that strain the verse, so I hope you’ll find time to elaborate.

    Pure serene and awful is exactly the series of words I want: In the stillness, so pure and serene, he is confronting mortality despite having conquered everything he knows to conquer. It’s also awful, both horrible in the powerlessness he feels and incredible in the vastness over which he looks.

    Since my literary chops were, to a certain degree stereotyped as lacking, I feel the need to unpack the poem a little.

    I had expected the subtle references to Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” to be noticed. Or at least commented on, if in fact they were. “Pure serene” and “shed the wild surmise”. Alexander is in the same position as Keats’s Cortes in that poem. Gratuitous, perhaps, was my theft of words from Milton’s Satan’s mouth, “What if the field be lost”, who is in a similar condition also– overlooking all he had tried with his own hand to secure, in total futility. The “Valley of Dry Bones” with which the poem closes should call to mind both T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, but if the Christian poetry is too far removed from the modern idiom, it should still be recognized as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. No religiosity required, the Bible is still of course, the most read, translated, distributed, and referenced book like ever, so… Anyway, the commonality, no mortal power cures mortality, should still be obvious without further ado.

    For all my snippiness– I am really sorry about that– I am aware that there are internal strains that could use some polishing. I hope you don’t hold back on those.

    Reply

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