A Monster to Fight Monsters
The dragon lies quenched in the sea, I lie in state on my pyre
and the people sing.
Of the world’s kings, Beowulf had been
The tenderest-hearted, the gentlest in spirit,
Truest of loyalty, thirstiest for glory.
A funny thing to say about a king
in elegy, but that’s my story:
Lof-geornost was I, yearningest for love,
most eager to earn it – gentle monster.
I was a monster on the humans’ side.
They say he has the strength of thirty in his fist’s grip.
The words they used for monsters fit me too:
giant, freak, and wonder.
Yet the tale is of our two-way love affair.
Nor only at home. When I went to the Spear Danes
I spoke my beot before Hrothgar
in Heorot hall, where humans sat to feast by day,
an ogre in the night.
The chief of Scyld’s children sat downcast
As his strong heart strove under his heavy grief.
– Not after me.
I presented my boast, as requisite:
how I had swum with water-snakes and harpy fishes,
dragged to where they banquet at the bottom of the sea;
I throttled them and threw them on the shore.
(I am an innocent monster, on your side. I can help.)
Happy were the stranger Danes to believe in me,
in my advent against Grendel’s visitation.
All celebrated me,
his goblin arm nailed to the gables, torn by mine.
Heorot rose up, arched gables
Like a hart’s gilt horns – not yet, not for years, but to be
Burnt in the blaze ignited from the ashes
Of old hate, old shames among the oath-sworn.
Heorot since has blazed away, and by no dragon’s fire.
I have slain you, dragon, and you me,
because that is what we monsters can.
Then there is what we can’t.
Grendel’s terror campaign was simple, though atrocious;
the unfightable isn’t from the outside but within.
I watched them try to peace-weave, spider’s webbing on a wound;
plug grievances the way they stanched a beer keg,
but the harp has a line about feud:
Chests lost grip on the uproar of hearts.
Give me ogres, give me dragons,
let me not participate in human argument.
One time I performed a stunt in battle –
staved in Dayraven with my naked embrace
(as if I were wrestling monsters)
but my fame wasn’t won in ranks of war.
In spite of that, my people thrust me on the Geatish throne
for faithful service to the royal family, self-wiped-out;
and because I had no human strings to snarl the knot of feud.
Never a wife, nor children, and no knowledge.
Not even a fine king saved his house.
I drove ogres from Heorot and left it to its own.
Now feuds wind home to the Geats.
Mismanaged foreign marriages, cut reconciliations.
So the societies of humans
makes themselves extinct through their self-contradictions,
as they have before. We, too, walked in ruins
of an architecture we ascribed to giants.
I did what I am expert in.
The Weather Geats only had Beowulf to send,
old to the bone, against the ancient drake.
For firefighters such as Beowulf and Siegfried
arrive, rare birds, out of nowhere, nobody knows why.
A few of us go wild.
But I remained tame until my end:
ogre-big, obediently sitting at the feast;
as if they strapped a dragon to make a flying milk-cart;
and they idolised me in proportion to my size
because I might have been a Grendel, and was not.
You were outraged, dragon – you and the others I killed
felt cheated, when you felt me: this isn’t a man!
You and Grendel both, of course,
infatuated with their things, as much as I with them:
you on your hoard of wrought utensils,
he fascinated by the music.
As the War Swedes sweep over the Weather Geats
bury my bones not far from human voices,
even if unknown. Like Grendel once,
I want to hear them sing.
Down from the Spear-Danes’ early days,
That grandest age under the clans’ kings,
We hear of heroes, the tales of how they triumphed.
In his heyday Scyld Scefing sailed
To seize fortresses and free the sea.
The panic of war bands he became, who had been
Once a baby abandoned to the weather.
He found ease from those times, his fortunes rose,
His honour climbed up under the clouds of the sky
Until throughout the whales’ streets, in a wheel about him,
Cities submitted and sent him tribute. He was a true king.
My subject is Death, or am I His?
Thomas Lovell Beddoes in his hospital bed. Basel, 1849.
Drafting epitaphs I lie.
‘Playwright. Anatomist. Revolutionary.’
‘Author of Death’s Jest-Book – unfinished.’
‘A Scientist, Gone to the Great Experiment.’
Botcher of poems, anatomist unable
To scalpel open a thigh artery,
I am my own joke,
who called Death my butt and target in a play.
I vowed to exhibit to a superstitious crowd
my instruments’ contempt
and my hands’ pity
as I dissected Death, fascia from muscle, vein from heart,
in the theatre/the lecture hall/the playhouse.
I lessoned them: I transposed
fear with safety, and wrote my ghosts
innocent and gentle, quiet as light,
while my living did the evil,
dangerous to each other and themselves.
The dead harm nobody.
Ah, but my excesses of familiarity
displeased my friends, and we didn’t publish.
I had failed to make death poetical, they said.
My scientifical-symbolical-tragical-farcical play,
my quarter-century haunt.
The clowns of the piece? Those poets with their daffodils
and mountainscapes, and ego,
who self-project and sing of the communion:
now my mages, now my alchemists,
my rattlers of bottles and mumblers of tosh.
Still, I must self-accuse of fancy.
I have instead your sad cadavers, pauper corpses,
waiting for the revolution.
‘The Last Trump? Do you hark?’
My ancient ex-human lifts his ragged head.
‘Awake, awake, arise!
At last ’tis time to sew our loosened matter’s stitches
and dress us like the living in fine garment.
Out from under their heels, ye downtrodden, ye forgotten.
We are the Great Majority.
The landscape is our habitat; consists of our bones, our tatters;
half the mass of earth is us.
I am an I, and I loved – ’
But he has misheard, as ever,
and sinks again to his sea-grave,
far from the daffodils’ roots whereon to scratch
his love-notes, that the living might decipher in the petals.
Meet my tragedies. Meet my anatomies.
Poet me, ventriloquist for ones who never speak,
Futility Personified – my person.
My person on a peg-leg,
hopping to the poison shop.
'A Monster to Fight Monsters' is about Beowulf, and translations from Old English are my own. 'My Subject is Death, or am I His?' is in the voice of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, late Romantic poet and scientist.
Bryn Hammond lives in a coastal town in Australia, where she likes to write while walking in the sea. She grew up on ancient and medieval epics, the Arthur cycle early and late, nineteenth-century novelists, particularly Russian and French, and out-of-fashion poets, namely Algernon Swinburne. Always a writer -- to the neglect of other paths in life that might have been more sensible -- she found the perfect story in The Secret History of the Mongols, a thirteenth-century prose and verse account of Chinggis Khan. Her Amgalant series follows this original: Against Walls and Imaginary Kings out now. Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe is her craft essay. Website amgalant.com. Tweets @Jakujin
These are great!ReplyDelete