Cuween Chambered Cairn
I should go on my hands and knees to you,
you farmers from five thousand years ago.
Even though your skulls are no longer here
or the small skulls of your two dozen dogs,
in retrospect I realize how wise
I was, dipping in and out of your dark
—the familiar main chamber and three rooms—
to never pause in all my picture-taking
to never stop and extinguish the light
to have found you at the end of the day,
so that we were tired and a bit rushed.
Something like the terror at what went on here
would have overwhelmed me in the moment,
the seriousness of generations
which I only became aware of later:
like an ancient fireplace still smudged with smoke,
our shoulders were soiled from the gloom on your hands.
Horses on Orkney
Horses curled in the flaming spiral of sleep,
the huge immensity of their bodies
belied by the blankets they wear, or the
tight scroll they twist themselves into on the ground,
an enormity suddenly made small
or at least passive, compact, the coiled braid
of body closer to tree or landscape,
the tilted, chiseled head nearer to stone
or steel or something pulled from the fire,
some monument to just how this place works
that you do not escape the wind, but dream in it.
Dedalus & Icarus
The old craftsman came to Cumae after
a long life of art and flight, love and theft,
came alone to the Sibyl’s Italian shore
wasted with age and reputation
to the one who knew every alphabet,
the seeress who saw the future in driven leaves.
And warped with the same old age as him,
she asked that he carve her sanctuary.
His bent wrinkled body covered in dust,
he hammers and carves and polishes away
all of the horrors let loose from his hands:
his dead nephew; the bull-impregnated
woman and its awful issue; the youths
brought from Mycenae for its food; the slave
girl’s love that bore him a son, and the love
he took pity on that imprisoned them both—
he strikes them away and leaves them on the wall,
all of them and so much more envy and
revenge and awe at his talents, hammered
forgotten. But not his son. Twice he’s tried
to let him go, as the sky did before
the sea took him; twice he’s tried to fashion
his face or his descent or his youthful limbs
or just his eyes, and twice he’s stopped in tears.
Follow the alley of flagstones
to a slab door of wood or rock,
locked with a shaped bar of whalebone.
Inside, opposite the door, a
dresser stacked with pottery, wool,
beads of bone and shell, or pendants
of whale’s teeth or the ivory tusks
of walrus or boar. The hearth is
central, the hearth is heat and light
and the cooking of all that’s caught:
mutton and venison, gannet
and golden plover and lobster,
eel and salmon and mussel, cod
and crab and pork, gull and scallop.
Wild berries fill the belly too,
wild cherries, hazelnut, honey,
some form of fermented plant for beer,
or the richness of cows and goats.
Near the hearth, a tank for fish bait,
while beds and shelves curl around,
around the fire fueled by seaweed,
and beneath the rafters of whale ribs.
There’s one building with no bedding,
but still a hearth, always a hearth,
no metal yet and only stone,
only wood and bone: blades, mattocks,
whistles, fine points or polishers,
all undertaken so near the sea
(but not so near as the sea is now),
generations of food-waste, ash,
dung, bones, broken pottery, shells,
or rope of crowberries—centuries
of families, layers of houses
stacked like rock atop each other,
farmers farming, hunters hunting,
a nameless North Sea and a still
nameless wind giving sound and flavor
to the landscape and the prized lives
that prompted those circles of stone,
that made an occasion of a
hill or loch, coast or height or isthmus.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
we found the village and the bay
another excuse for green and blue,
five thousand years to our first world,
having flown far to propitiate
those who may have sailed from the south
to this true north, treeless and edged like a blade.
Now I come to write in light and fire,
in a language of power we all know,
beyond every letter and poetry
and all the dithering of philosophy,
all the prevarication of politics.
The physicists have known sin, it’s true,
but also the brilliance of a burden
overcome in the brittle mountains,
a foul display that was beyond awesome,
beyond my conscience but still atop it:
in less than a second tens of thousands
turned to piles of boiled organs and black char,
the burnt but still living running for the
cisterns or the boiled, dead-crowded rivers.
News of a flood or an earthquake makes me
think of myself, since the questions usually
given to heaven are now tendered to me,
and its silence is something like my own:
any remorse is just ridiculous
and any warning is usefully late,
since I’ve already handled God’s fuel.
I cannot keep from swagger, or from mourning:
this knowledge a weight you will never know,
and with it a satisfaction, a pride:
numbers and elements resolved into
a thing that worked, but never should again.
“Cuween Chambered Cairn” and other poems are © Tim Miller