November 2, 2023

The Swan: an imitation

                                    –after Baudelaire

                                                       for Victor Hugo


War widow of Troy! Your river’s the Simoïs,
that liar, that poor, sad mirror. When
the huge dignity of your tears, your loss,
swells its slow flowing, it seems to run

into my thoughts that brim with pain
as I cross the new Carrousel. What hurts
me is--Paris.  Alas! Our cities change
more rapidly than the human heart.

Memory brings back the tents and sheds,
the poles and pegs, the cages and shacks,
the dirty puddles clogged with weeds,
the wasted, piled-up, shining bric-a-brac

of the circus, where, on a cold, clear day
as the workmen were putting on their blue
and the traffic beginning to make its way
like a dark, slow hurricane down the avenue

I came upon a swan escaped from her cage.
She dragged her white wings in the oil slick,
found a dry rivulet, dipped her pure plumage
nervously into the dust, and, opening her beak,

cried aloud, beating the earth with her feet,
her heart so full of the sweet lakes of home:
Where are you, God? Answer me! Speak!
When will you come, in thunder and in rain?

I see that miserable, strange and fatal bird
aloft sometimes in our cruelly cold blue sky
stretching her neck, lifting her hungry head
toward God, crying aloud and asking Why?


Paris is changing. But I still feel the same:
depressed. Slick new mansions gaze ahead
out of old neighborhoods. What does it mean?
My memories weigh heavier than lead.

Even facing the Louvre I don’t look around.
I keep thinking of that swan with lifted wings:
her crazy gestures, helpless and profound.
Her exile. Her desire.  The way she sings.

I think of you, Andromache, your husband dead
and you a captive, possessed by a brutal man.
Where’s Hector’s grave? How stroke his head?
You--Hector’s wife!--now enslaved and foreign.

I think of that woman, thin, tubercular, black,
stumbling in the gutter where horses pissed.
Her half-blind eyes search for palm trees, back
in Africa, waving grandly above a wall of mist.

I think of all those losers who won’t again,
ever, find what they’ve lost. Of all of those
trying to find some comfort in their pain.
Of thin orphans, each one a withered rose.

In this wasteland where I wander all alone
a long-lost memory rings at my heart’s core.
I think of sailors shipwrecked far from home…
of prisoners… the defeated…of so many more!

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