The Last Elegy









To Gilles Mourier



We are now gingerly sailing toward autumn
(why are we gingerly sailing toward autumn;
why gingerly and not triumphantly? The sea
is a crimson whisper; God's favor falls on us
like the final glow of a glorious afternoon,
the one-before-last ray of a tree-filtered sun,
at the Georgian hour of an English landscape,
and we are served crumpets and do not have to clean
the plates from which we eat with a studied delight).
The sea has turned to crimson, the sky to pearl gray
and if our eyes are red, it is because last night
we tried to decipher a friend's fate in the stars
which accompanied us all the way from August
to present September. Since then, the friend has died —
friends often do — and, wrapped in a shroud of sailcloth
rougher than a rough sea, was thrown into the sea
in silence. Not one star knew of his destiny:
they gleamed, shivered, composed artful constellations
and thus made us believe in old mythologies
as we felt, under our palms, the salt-coated wood
of the vessel which brings us back home, as we felt
we were part of an eternal ceremony
the beauty of which did not need our attendance
(crimson sea, pearly sky, nocturnal expanses
and the thought that a moon would perhaps rise later,
though if it did not, the thought of it was enough) —
as we felt justified, or just accepted, just
allowed to think that there was more than just thinking.
But none of them told us he was about to die.
Silly stars. How would they know what will befall us
since they have never lived on the earth among us?
He died at dawn. He died simply. He said “Oh my!”
and was gone. Now we dispute among ourselves
whose friend he was. The captain's list yielded no clue
as to the identity of our companion.
But we loved him. Or he amused us. He knew tricks
learned, he said, in Java or some exotic place —
the kind of places one wishes one visited
when one was young, or when one still believed the world
to be a world: Batavia, Zanzibar, New York,
Colchis, Hyperborea... From Java he knew
(that was a favorite with us) a lullaby
for elephants: after the capture, the mahout
who will become this elephant's mahout, each night
comes to see his future mount and, with a soft voice,
sings to him, praising him: how great he was, and strong,
and beautiful — how the rain would sprinkle his back
during the monsoon — how his blare soared to the moon —
how tender were springtime bamboo shoots — and how he,
the mahout, is honored by the nascent friendship
he feels in the heart of his moaning companion.
Lullaby for elephants: isn't that something?
He knew lays fit for queens, the romance of his years,
hymns slaves would sing to moray-eels, and the ballad
of the ill-belovèd... One night, while a loud storm
was busy making us regret our dinner
(rack of lamb provençale, snow-peas and ears of corn
followed by a salad of edible pansies
and a blueberry pie à la mode, all things which
he had expertly prepared himself) he told us
he had had a good life — so good he was afraid
he might have not risen to such an occasion.
We laughed: it was so much like him, so diverting
to hear a man assert, and with such composure,
such preposterous claims. Yes, we liked him a lot,
though we never quite knew his name. Now, he is gone
and we just sail back home. On the deck, dusk descends
like a girl on the glittering stairs of a stage
in some Busby Berkeley-like Broadway musical.
Back to autumn, back to fall... The sea — how do you
describe the sea? It does not hold one's attention:
it just hypnotizes. So much water, and depth,
such obtuse mass: our friend languidly explores it
now; he whom the mere sight of a fish would sicken,
now graces fishes with his wan presence. We know
we are quite tiresome about our friend. We can't
help it: he keeps on coming back in all our thoughts,
time in, time out, as if he were a part of them,
their background, the way the sea is our background
and haunts our minds and bodies like a weird disease
or a remorse, or a hangover, or a pain.
Have you read — what was it, let me think, a queer book...
The Niger of the Narcissus — Joseph Conrad.
That's it. Have you read it? Well, you should. Quite bizarre:
unfathomable, yet cutting deep... Thalassa,
hey? At least you know that much. These Greeks... One wonders
how much the presence of the sea, how much its gleam
and the pulsing motions of its blue panther' pelt
influenced the Greek mind, all these philosophers
smelling of raw onion by the raw, blue-bruised sea.
Perhaps our friend was a philosopher of sorts,
one not quite satisfied with what is as it is,
but desirous to add to it a few trinkets
of ideas, the Venetian lanterns of concepts —
one who had finally made the jump, gone to sea
instead of just standing and talking by the shore...
Though a philosopher as seen by Hollywood,
a mumbler of short phrases deemed deep by half-wits
like us: “The thing that is is poem to the thing
which might have been.” Or: “Life is a meditation
about a higher life of high order and peace.”
Or: “The idea of god is not idea from God.
It is a construction at the end of the world
in the light of which to see the world as it is.”
Humbug, perhaps. Who cares? We thought we understood,
or could have understood, had we been more clever.
But as they were it seemed to us these aphorisms
shed some light or, at least, made us conceive a light
different than sun's or moon's or the captain's lantern's.
Our friend had a fair, pale complexion. Straw-like hair
(though some say jet dark, with bright, nasty blue-jay streaks).
And he was our friend — and that is all that matters.
To be able to say of a human being
that he is a friend is quite an accomplishment,
isn't it? He was our friend, in spite of the sea,
and the courses we read on its watery map,
and in spite, too, of the stars above. Silly stars.
He was the friend the way we are the travelers
or Phoenician merchants, or incognito gods
seeking a dwelling warmer than old Walhala.
But there he was — and still is, in spite of us all:
always clad in white clothes of wrinkled linen
(some say he was dressed in tattered and sooty rags)
unstably poised between two conflicting gestures,
looking both bewildered, confident and detached;
his head like a Chinese doll-deity, his eyes
bluer than we thought fit for eyes to be, mobile,
exceedingly; his hands like promises
never broken; his lips of the pinkest red, half
this and half that — maiden lips, cherry blossom slit
from which poured a wisdom even he thought was cheap.
Tall and bony. Though some say he was short and plump.
Etc., etc. How could we describe him,
since we're not good at words? That was his specialty:
words, sentences, still more words and more sentences
as if he had been trying to exhaust language
by way of language, as if silence lay after
speech, and not before it. A queer fellow indeed.
But this much we can say about him, this one word:
friend. To what end? We sail and know the maneuvers
which will bring us back home. How come he was allowed
among us? He never mentioned he was dying.
He might have not known it — blessèd soul. All the same:
death now travels with us, and looks like him. We brood.
So what? We also breathe, eat, sleep, and see dolphins
frolicking near the glistening flanks of the boat.
We see the sea as depth, and mystery, and fate...
Or as sea: gray body of quite boring water
by the shores of which walk gabby philosophers...
Our eyes are good. Our arms. Our wills. Our convictions.
The rest... well, we have wives to take care of the rest,
good women with large hearts and heavy breasts, faces
resembling Etruscan oil-lamps, preventively
clad in black, enemies of the sea — their sister —
whom we left behind us to take care of the selves
we could not care for, since we were going to sea,
and we think about them from time to time, ashamed
to see the frieze of their silhouettes on the jetty
of our lives, though we can't remember their features
or their names, or their scent, or the way they kissed us
or kneaded bread at dawn and sung heartrending tunes.
Then, all of a sudden, we see him, once again; and we hear
once again his soft voice, and his foreign accent,
and the things he used to say, with a conviction
even he could not adhere to (though some pretend
he cried sometimes). We would guffaw, and he with us.
We see him — and the sea behind his frail outline...
“Epi oinopa pontoon”, he was heard to say
under his breath, sometimes, when the sea turned crimson
and he wanted to impress us with his knowledge
of cultural trivia. Or he would start dancing
like a madman. Or imitate our foul language.
Or look sad and say he was Father Nostalgia.
God! Did he know tricks!
                                    Someone in the mast, screaming,
says we are now about to reach fair October.
October? Already? We rush aft and ponder
whether we are ready to disembark. He'd say:
“October is the month of all calamities.
Stay with me. I will show you how the soul functions,
how little is required to set it on fire
and then to say the fire was but a dream, and thus
put the soul in a quandary.” We had such fun
with him. He knew his words, and knew the complex games
words play with one another as if it were he
who set the changing rules of the game of talking.
He would had known whether October was our home.
He could have defended both point of views with ease:
that it was toward October we were sailing,
and that we had nothing to do with October.
We discern the outline of a coast, and we smell
apples, wet grass, muddy paths splattered with cow dung,
forgotten grapes rotting on blue, sulfated vines,
secret, spongy patches of earth by granite rocks
on which cautiously tread lithe-antennaed insects
and we hear rain-soaked leaves falling among branches
but softly, like a tear running down an old cheek.
We resent his passing very much: it robbed us
of our laziness, for now we have to look
in ourselves to find ourselves, since we got so used
to receive such knowledge from his speeches and quips
or to see it caught in the scene caught in his eyes,
the translucent surface of his reflective eyes.
Black turns to ambergris, and ambergris to...
He was our friend and should be remembered as such
now that he's gone, even by the sharks we become
frantically swimming in circles, driven mad
by the taste of a blood they don't see the source of.


We are now gingerly sailing toward autumn.
Before we used to sail happily to nowhere.
Sailing was the sole point and purpose. Sailing was
our entelechy (he taught us this long word).
We had been sailing for so long we thought we would
forever be sailors of this boat, the way stars
are always there — and in order not to disturb
this truth we were ready to kill even loved ones.
Who else could be killed, anyway? Whose death would fill
our sail with an auspicious sigh if not their death
and the subsequent remorse of our lightened hearts?
Remember Iphigenia, poor thing. For men to plow
their lives, one has to die — or many. Gods are gods
and they write contorted lines with our crooked pens.
Lovers, spouses, best friends, fiancés: just matter
to be burned (face averted) in the central hearth,
providing the one heat nothing else will give up
for the gale to be tamed, or the earth to accept
to bear fruit, or the sea to remember the boats
from which selfish souls may confront the empty sky...
Then came this friend. The last. And we were defeated.
So we sail toward home, for, perhaps, when we reach
home, we'll find there pieces of a life to be lived,
some forgotten fragments of a vague existence
fallen among yesteryear's ashes and debris,
or hidden in the folds of camphor-scented sheets
on the top shelf of the massive oak cabinet,
or mixed with other trivial things, like small pebbles
in a bag of lentils still waiting to be picked.


Friends, he said, when he boarded, my friends, at long last...
We were just hanging there, on the deck, since we had
spent all our stipends or allowance elsewhere —
before him, before we realized even men
like us could be befriended by such a creature —
and could not go ashore, go to the women, go
through the bazaar to buy some bauble, tobacco,
a new earring, a bottle of musky cologne
in the redolent smell of barrels of spices,
of heaps of dusty pelts, of rock-salt, of pickles,
hearing lepers wailing, rattle in hand, or bells
tolling the Viceroy's death or the Bishop's bypass.
There were palms in the air, and tiny yellow birds
looking like confetti or mimosa. Peasants
were riding back to the mountains on their donkeys,
followed by their shadows gliding on the white walls
fencing wealthy villas. Mangoes, and mandolins,
and armadillos, and puny monkeys begging —
their long, bald tails fastened to the lower branches
of municipal trees — for a fruit rind or pit...
He waved at us from the wharf. We waved back, surprised
and amused. He ran up the landing, came to us,
smiled and vigorously shook our hands, my dear friends,
his voice shaking with emotion, my dear, dear friends.
He tamed us, the wise guy... We ended up eating
in his extended hand, though we have to admit
we wanted it. Not he. He just wanted friendship
or a better knowledge of something, a knowledge
of that which he was not, or of that which is not
even if it implied his own disappearance.
He must have been a philosopher. Or a fool.
Or both. Or just like us: an unfinished being.
We never quite figured what he wanted (some say
he wanted to fuck us both metaphorically
and actually. Perhaps. It did not change a thing:
he was a newcomer in our little ensemble
and throughout his function remained such). There he was,
all the same. A bizarre bird born form the waiting
for a thing more bizarre than we were, each and all.
For we must have been waiting, since not one of us
disputed his sudden irruption among us.
We had embarked on the ship such a while ago
we did not remember it was not ours. We had
grown used to the idea the ship was metaphor
for our lives... The Nile, green, blue, white, Egyptian,
the Ganges, the Garonne, the Gulf of this and that,
this river, and that one: we had seen them all. Waves
clattering with ice, rolling fragments of a moon
from a mangrove to a jugular-like delta
throbbing with mosquitoes and white egrets, and waves
half brown, half green at the junction of two rivers
in a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, waves
woven with white sea-weeds by sleepless lighthouses,
waves playing leap-frog over more waves or foaming
like linen in a laundry-basket in winter,
waves sprinkled with a solar powder, resembling
a wrapping of tin foil for an oily sandwich...
So, one day, he joined us. We were guarded at first.
We were not used to the quaint sophistication
he displayed and expected from people around.
(Funny: this morning, even his shroud, as it slid
under the water and quickly sunk down, managed
to look elegant, like a geisha gracefully
stepping out of her kimono). But he won us
over with a mere flick of his wrist, with the way
he came to us and said: How do you do, and then
proceeded to crack some harsh jokes about himself,
about the way he looked, and talked, and moved around,
about his passion for parakeets, his hatred
of parakeets, and so on and so forth. It was
like getting filthy drunk, just to listen to him —
or like remembering a too intense feeling,
say of shame, or of love, of embarrassing lust.
No one ever before had dazzled us so much
with just words. Yes: just words. He was a magician
with words, a prestidigitator, pulling doves
and rabbits out of the top hat of his language —
and we were mere children in front of him, gaping,
almost ready to clap our hands, our spines tingling
with pleasure and the hope of more pleasure to come.
Is it going to rain? Our hearts feel so heavy
as is something remained to be said or be felt
we cannot remember, or fear to remember...
The sky above the masts moves ominously fast,
from black to ambergris to silvery darkness,
and the sea is teeming with rainbow-trout colors,
the sea is teeming with waves begetting more waves.
We look at one another, shiver, walk away
or pretend not to see our companions near us
themselves pretending to be so lost in their thoughts
they don't have to see us and confront our staring
at their eyes and faces. We all stand on the deck
oblivious of the rain which now falls heavily —
warm, insistent, noisy, sarcastic, salt-scented —
as if something at sea had caught our attention,
a glimmer on the horizon, a baroque cloud,
a voice. Whose voice? Sirens are dead and, anyway,
did not know lullabies for elephants. Our friend
walks among us, weeping over our destinies —
not over his: over the sense of solitude
which now encroaches us and will remain with us
till we too die. Life as joyful, eager foray:
that's gone; from now on we will live in memory.
Our friend walks among us and cries. We don't see him,
of course. But we suspect his presence. On the sea
the rain grows lotus-like celadon ocelli.
The air moves in masses of stringent salt and spray.
The air is greenish gray, swiftly bitter, furtive.
The air mutters something not meant for human ears:
another, swifter wave over ponderous waves.
Dusk will soon join us on the deck. It will be time
to light up the storm-lantern in the captain's den
and to reduce the world to what its hissing flame
tolerates within the circle of its flicker:
a table, a few worn-out books, a log, some maps,
our obtuse faces hanging in the darkness
like shepherds' round a crib, a copper-rimmed porthole
gleaming on the wall like a sardonic halo...
We do not know what to do anymore. We try
to draw an inventory of our possessions,
to gather the pieces, like archaeologists
digging heaps of old dust, breathing dust, eating dust,
in the hope of finding a sure explanation
as to the sudden demise of a lost kingdom.
We try to make a list, to use words to express
or shape that which we live and are and will soon be.
But we fail (and some say we enjoy this failure,
some say failing is sweeter than success, failure
is akin to remembrance, is like a palace
whose thousand rooms one can spend one's life exploring
to no other end than to see day follow night
from a different window or from a different floor,
as if it were enough, as if it meant something,
as if repetition were the final answer).
Dusk will join us. Then night. We will not move, but stay
on the deck, under the warm and indifferent rain.
We will not light the lamp and gather around it.
We will remain where we are, waiting for the stars
to twinkle above us and lie —
                                           though, since it rains,
we will not see the stars, save in our memory.


So we are gingerly sailing toward autumn
(Why are we gingerly sailing toward autumn?
Because summer is passed, because we forgot spring;
because life is over as life to be explored,
and solely remains as life to be recalled.
The choice we made a long time ago cannot be
revoked or appealed from: the stars will see to that.
Or our memories, if not the stars, or ourselves).
We cannot say we lost anything. We still know
the maneuvers which will bring us home, we still know
the ways of the ocean and the oceanic ways.
We never thought we would discover a New World,
or a new way to be in this old world of ours.
Well — we never thought much, to be frank and, for one,
our dead friend thought too much. Which of us, then, was right?
Pain is a form of thought, though. So we think, after all,
since we feel pain. Some say our friend was Death itself —
that we were visited by Death. Some others say
he was some sort of god, an angel, a demon.
He was what we made him probably, as we are
what we make of one another. But we agree:
he is as much with us dead as he was alive
and the world around us is not the one we knew
anymore but a variation on a theme
we used to know and have forgotten, forgetting
even that we had forgotten it, palimpsest
for blind librarians in a ravaged library,
amputated member, the legacy of which
is a limp and a spectral pain without object.
Soon, we will reach the shores of pallid November
and disembark, and walk — along the muddy path
bedecked with herring scales glittering like mica,
along the muddy path where last June's wild berries
are now just clumps of shriveled purpurine matter —
toward the first houses of the town. On our way
home, maybe we will stop in a bar, for a drink
or two, just to adjust our bodies to a ground
which does not rock or roll, to adjust our feelings
to a hill-confined land, where corpses remain still
instead of navigating with schools of fishes.
We will smoke a cigar or two and say the smoke
is what reddens our eyes. The bartender will be
an old friend of ours, from school, one who, when we resolved
that the sea would be the question for our answers,
decided that the land would be his, this same land
we will see asleep then, under mythologies
of stars in the window. He will say “How are you?
Long time no see, hey folks?” And perhaps he will add:
“God did I envy you when you boarded this ship.
I wanted to join you. Yet I dared not. I saw
the rising sun's glory engulf your proud vessel
as it boldly sailed forth toward faraway seas.
I walked back home and sat on my bed all day long
dreaming of mandolins, mangoes, armadillos,
dreaming of waves woven with waves of joy and awe —
and I wept.” And who knows? Maybe the drinks we'll have
will be on the house. Then we will mutter goodbye,
leave, and see the night swallow each other's silhouette
in the pungent odor of fish-nets and fresh brine,
in the alien bouquet of the things we forsook,
the earthy things fastened to the immobile ground
where corpses are nailed down to their fates with crosses.
At that moment our dead friend and we shall part ways.
He will not follow me rather than you, or him
rather than you. He will remain by the street lamp,
and sigh. He will look up at the sky and mumble:
“Silly stars.” Memory works backward and forward:
one can remember things that are yet to happen.
As we stand on the deck, cloaked in rain, steeped in doubt
as to what we have done, what it is we pursued,
we all know that such scene will take place, that the bar
will be there, and the stench of brined fish, and the night,
and the blurred masses of houses, where windows look
like yellow stamps glued to a black-lined envelope,
and the polite phantom under the street-lamp glare.
Choice. Act. Aftermath. Recollection. That is it.
That is the full circle of our existences.
Nothing to add, nothing to subtract or refuse.
First you accumulate, then you inventory.
What is is as what is and should, or might, have been.
So — the stars are correct after all, not our friend.
So nothing really changed, nothing really changes
no matter what we try. One of us softly says:
“Her name, what was her name? Mary? Elizabeth?
Thelma? I must remember the name...” Another
hisses: “He said he'd be with us.” His voice breaks off.
One sobs: “I do not know how to feel what I feel.”
One asks: “Giant turtles, larger than an island,
weeping long, sticky tears on a nocturnal beach;
and cormorants off Taipei, like ideograms
jotting in quick brush-strokes irregular haikai
down a scroll of white mist; and a girl who has pinned
a Gibraltar flower in her hair and mumbles
Yes Yes oh Yes — is life a suite of images
first caught in the light of desire, later carved out
in the cheap, flaky plaster of recalled remorse?”
Who was he? And whose friend? Some say we never had
the companion we remember so eagerly,
that there was only us, from beginning to end,
us and no other passenger or stowaway,
that we invented him to exculpate ourselves
from the grim, unavoidable necessity
of sailing toward autumn and ourselves as old men,
toward a place from which death will compose our home.
Whose friend was he? We chew endlessly on this word
as if it were some sort of exotic candy
the taste of which reminds us of a taste we knew,
a brittle, stale, though comforting, childhood flavor...
Whose friends are we? The rain has turned to sleet and snow,
and falls so gracefully our hearts ache in our chests,
falls so gently we feel both ashamed and redeemed.
The soft sky above us glows like a cupola
of pellucid matter, like a transparent dome
enclosing miniature landscapes of porcelain.
Whose friends are we? The flanks of the boat squeak and squawk.
All the sails are lowered and the anchor is dropped,
creating fantastic endpapers-like motifs
on the greasy water, while echoes of its splash
slowly dissolve away between the piers' pilings.
Then but silence prevails, the wet silence of snow
here and there cut through by the slapping of a yard
against a mast, a rope, a sail, a cloud, or by
the silvery tinkle of rows of icicles
dangling down roof-gutters in the muffled harbor
as we slowly disembark, one by one, crested
with the wreaths of our breaths, our shoulders shivering
and are, one by one, with a smile but not a word,
welcomed home, one by one, by our dead, gleeful friend.



Retour à la page Lettres


Commentaires? Suggestions? Cliquez ici