White Bear

Polar Bear

White Bear

polar-bearThis is an excerpt of the first five sections of W.S. Merwin’s “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a much longer poem that is inspiring a future work of mine.

“Say the year is the year of the phoenix.
Ordinary sun and common moon,
Turn as they may, are too mysterious
Unless such as are neither sun nor moon
Assume their masks and orbits and evolve
Neither a solar nor a lunar story
But a tale that might be human. What is a man
That a man may recognize, unless the inhuman
Sun and moon, wearing the masks of a man,
Weave before him such a tale as he
–Finding his own face in the strange story–
Mistakes by metaphor and calls his own,
Smiling, as on a familiar mystery?

The moon was thin as a poor man’s daughter
At the end of autumn. A white bear came walking
On a Thursday evening at the end of autumn,
Knocked at a poor man’s door in a deep wood,
And, “Charity,” when the man came he said,
“And the thin hand of a girl have brought me here.
Winter will come and the vixen wind,” he said,
“And what have you but too many mouths to feed,
Oh what have you but a coat like zither-strings
To ward that fury from your family?
But I though wintry shall be bountiful
Of furs and banquets, coins like summer days,
Grant me but the hand of your youngest daughter.”

“By a swooning candle, in my porchless door,
While all I wedded or sired huddle behind me,
The night unceremonious with my hair,
I know I cut a poor figure,” the man said;
“And I admit that your cajolery
(For opulence was once my setting-on)
Finds me not deaf; but I must ask my daughter.
And no, she says. But come again on Thursday:
She is more beautiful than the story goes,
And a girl who wants a week for her persuading
Merits that slow extravagance,” he said.
Further in autumn by a week’s persuading
The youngest girl on a white bear went riding.

The moon played in a painted elder tree;
He said, when they had gone a while, “We walk
In a night so white and black, how can you tell
My shoulder from a moon-struck hill, my shadow
From the towering darkness; are you not afraid?”
And, “You are thin and colorful who ride
Alone on a white and monstrous thing; suppose
I rose up savage in a desolate  place;
Are you not afraid?” And, “What if I were to wander
Down a black ladder, in a trope of death,
Through seven doors all of black ice, and come
On a land of hyperbole, stiff with extremes;
Would it not make the hair rise on your head?”

The wind with moonlit teeth rippled and sulked
In the paper trees, but three times “No,” she said.
“Oh then hold fast by the hair of my shoulders,”
He said; “hold fast my hair, my savage hair;
And let your shadow as we go hold fast
The hair of my shadow, and all will be well.”
Later than owls, all night, a winter night,
They traveled then, until the screaming wind
Fell behind or dead, till no stars glittered
In the headlong dark; and each step dark and long
as falling in the bailey of the blind;
Yet all the while she felt her yellow hair
Hang loose at her shoulders, as though she stood still.”