"The House of Dust:  A Symphony" by Conrad Aiken

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XI. Conversation:  Undertones

What shall we talk of?  Li Po?  Hokusai?
You narrow your long dark eyes to fascinate me;
You smile a little. . . .  Outside, the night goes by.
I walk alone in a forest of ghostly trees . . .
Your pale hands rest palm downwards on your knees.

'These lines--converging, they suggest such distance!
The soul is drawn away, beyond horizons.
Lured out to what?  One dares not think.
Sometimes, I glimpse these infinite perspectives
In intimate talk (with such as you) and shrink . . .

'One feels so petty!--One feels such--emptiness!--'
You mimic horror, let fall your lifted hand,
And smile at me; with brooding tenderness . . .
Alone on darkened waters I fall and rise;
Slow waves above me break, faint waves of cries.

'And then these colors . . . but who would dare describe them?
This faint rose-coral pink . . this green--pistachio?--
So insubstantial!  Like the dim ghostly things
Two lovers find in love's still-twilight chambers . . .
Old peacock-fans, and fragrant silks, and rings . . .

'Rings, let us say, drawn from the hapless fingers
Of some great lady, many centuries nameless,--
Or is that too sepulchral?--dulled with dust;
And necklaces that crumble if you touch them;
And gold brocades that, breathed on, fall to rust.

'No--I am wrong . . . it is not these I sought for--!
Why did they come to mind?  You understand me--
You know these strange vagaries of the brain!--'
--I walk alone in a forest of ghostly trees;
Your pale hands rest palm downwards on your knees;
These strange vagaries of yours are all too plain.

'But why perplex ourselves with tedious problems
Of art or . . . such things? . . . while we sit here, living,
With all that's in our secret hearts to say!--'
Hearts?--Your pale hand softly strokes the satin.
You play deep music--know well what you play.
You stroke the satin with thrilling of finger-tips,
You smile, with faintly perfumed lips,
You loose your thoughts like birds,
Brushing our dreams with soft and shadowy words . . .
We know your words are foolish, yet sit here bound
In tremulous webs of sound.

'How beautiful is intimate talk like this!--
It is as if we dissolved grey walls between us,
Stepped through the solid portals, become but shadows,
To hear a hidden music . . . Our own vast shadows
Lean to a giant size on the windy walls,
Or dwindle away; we hear our soft footfalls
Echo forever behind us, ghostly clear,
Music sings far off, flows suddenly near,
And dies away like rain . . .
We walk through subterranean caves again,--
Vaguely above us feeling
A shadowy weight of frescos on the ceiling,
Strange half-lit things,
Soundless grotesques with writhing claws and wings . . .
And here a beautiful face looks down upon us;
And someone hurries before, unseen, and sings . . .
Have we seen all, I wonder, in these chambers--
Or is there yet some gorgeous vault, arched low,
Where sleeps an amazing beauty we do not know? . . '

The question falls: we walk in silence together,
Thinking of that deep vault and of its secret . . .
This lamp, these books, this fire
Are suddenly blown away in a whistling darkness.
Deep walls crash down in the whirlwind of desire.

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