The Everlasting Return

It is dark . . . so dark, 
I remember the sun on Chios . . .
It is still . . . so still,
I hear the beat of our paddles on the Aegean. . . .

Ten times we had watched the moon
Rise like a thin white virgin out of the waters
And round into a full maternity.
For thrice ten times we had touched no flesh
Save the man flesh on either hand
That was black and bitter and salt
And scaled by the sea.
The Athenian boy sat on my left.
His hair was yellow as corn steeped in wine.
On my right was Phildar, the Carthaginian,
Grinning Phildar
With his mouth pulled taut as by reins from his black gapped teeth.
Many a whip had coiled about him
And his shoulders were rutted deep as wet ground under chariot wheels
And his skin was red and tough as a bull’s hide cured in the sun. 

He did not sing like the other slaves,
But when a big wind came up he screamed with it.
And always he looked out to sea,
Save when he tore at his fish ends
Or spat across me at the Greek boy whose mouth was red and apart like an opened fruit. 

We had rowed from dawn
And the green valley hard at our stern.
(She was green and squat and skulked close to the sea.)
All day the tish of their paddles had tickled our ears,
And when night came on
And little naked stars paddled in the water
And half the crouching moon
Slid over the silver belly of the sea, thick-scaled with light,
We heard them singing at their oars—
We who had no breath for song. 

There was no sound in our boat
Save the clingle of wrist chains
And the sobbing of the young Greek.
I cursed him that his hair blew in my mouth, tasting salt of the sea. . . .
I Cursed him that his oar kept ill time . . .
When he looked at me I cursed him again—
That his eyes were soft like a woman’s. 

How long
Since their last shell gouged our batteries?
How long
Since we rose at aim with a sleuth moon astern?
. . It was the damned green moon that nosed us out.
The moon flushed our periscope till it shone like a silver flame. . . .

They loosed each man’s right hand
As the galley spent on our decks. . . .
Amazed and bloodied we reared half up
And fought askew with the left hand shackled.
But a zigzag fire leapt in our sockets
And knotted our thews like string. . . .
Our thews were stiff as a crooked spine that would not straighten. . . . 

How long 
Since our gages fell
And the sea shoved us under?
It is dark, so dark—
Darkness presses hairy-hot
Where three make crowded company—
And the rank steel smells.
It is still, so still. . . .
I seem to hear the wind
On the dimpled face of the water fathoms above. . . . 

    It was still, so still. . . .
We three that were left alive
Stared in each other’s faces. . . .
(Three make bitter company at one man’s bread. . . .)
And one grinned with his mouth awry from the long gapped teeth,
And one shivered and whined like a gull as the waves pawed him over. . . .
But one struck with his hate in his hand. . . .
His hate grown sharp and bright as the moon’s edge in the water. 

After that I remember
Only the dead men’s oars that flapped in the sea. . . .
The dead men’s oars that rattled and clicked like idiots’ tongues. . . . 

It is still, so still, 
With the jargon of engine’s quiet.
We three awaiting the crunch of the sea
Reach our hands in the dark
And touch each other’s faces. . . .
We three, sheathing hate in our hearts. . . .
But when hate shall have made its circuit,
Our bones will be loving company
Here in the sea’s den. . . . 

One whimpers and cries on his God
And one sits sullenly,
But both draw away from me. . . .
I am the pyre their memories burn on. . . .
Like black flames leaping
Our fiery gestures light the walled-in darkness of the sea. . . .
The sea that kneels above us
And makes no sign. . . .