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Conrad Aiken - Improvisations: Light And Snow

I

The girl in the room beneath 
Before going to bed 
Strums on a mandolin 
The three simple tunes she knows. 
How inadequate they are to tell how her heart feels! 
When she has finished them several times 
She thrums the strings aimlessly with her finger-nails 
And smiles, and thinks happily of many things.

II

I stood for a long while before the shop window 
Looking at the blue butterflies embroidered on tawny silk. 
The building was a tower before me, 
Time was loud behind me, 
Sun went over the housetops and dusty trees; 
And there they were, glistening, brilliant, motionless, 
Stitched in a golden sky 
By yellow patient fingers long since turned to dust.

III

The first bell is silver, 
And breathing darkness I think only of the long scythe of time. 
The second bell is crimson, 
And I think of a holiday night, with rockets 
Furrowing the sky with red, and a soft shatter of stars. 
The third bell is saffron and slow, 
And I behold a long sunset over the sea 
With wall on wall of castled cloud and glittering balustrades. 
The fourth bell is color of bronze, 
I walk by a frozen lake in the dun light of dusk: 
Muffled crackings run in the ice, 
Trees creak, birds fly. 
The fifth bell is cold clear azure, 
Delicately tinged with green: 
One golden star hangs melting in it, 
And towards this, sleepily, I go. 
The sixth bell is as if a pebble 
Had been dropped into a deep sea far above me . . . 
Rings of sound ebb slowly into the silence.

IV

On the day when my uncle and I drove to the cemetery, 
Rain rattled on the roof of the carriage; 
And talkng constrainedly of this and that 
We refrained from looking at the child's coffin on the seat before us. 
When we reached the cemetery 
We found that the thin snow on the grass 
Was already transparent with rain; 
And boards had been laid upon it 
That we might walk without wetting our feet.

V

When I was a boy, and saw bright rows of icicles 
In many lengths along a wall 
I was dissappointed to find 
That I could not play music upon them: 
I ran my hand lightly across them 
And they fell, tinkling. 
I tell you this, young man, so that your expectations of life 
Will not be too great.

VI

It is now two hours since I left you, 
And the perfume of your hands is still on my hands. 
And though since then 
I have looked at the stars, walked in the cold blue streets, 
And heard the dead leaves blowing over the ground 
Under the trees, 
I still remember the sound of your laughter. 
How will it be, lady, when there is none left to remember you 
Even as long as this? 
Will the dust braid your hair?

VII

The day opens with the brown light of snowfall 
And past the window snowflakes fall and fall. 
I sit in my chair all day and work and work 
Measuring words against each other. 
I open the piano and play a tune 
But find it does not say what I feel, 
I grow tired of measuring words against each other, 
I grow tired of these four walls, 
And I think of you, who write me that you have just had a daughter 
And named her after your first sweetheart, 
And you, who break your heart, far away, 
In the confusion and savagery of a long war, 
And you who, worn by the bitterness of winter, 
Will soon go south. 
The snowflakes fall almost straight in the brown light 
Past my window, 
And a sparrow finds refuge on my window-ledge. 
This alone comes to me out of the world outside 
As I measure word with word.

VIII

Many things perplex me and leave me troubled, 
Many things are locked away in the white book of stars 
Never to be opened by me. 
The starr'd leaves are silently turned, 
And the mooned leaves; 
And as they are turned, fall the shadows of life and death. 
Perplexed and troubled, 
I light a small light in a small room, 
The lighted walls come closer to me, 
The familiar pictures are clear. 
I sit in my favourite chair and turn in my mind 
The tiny pages of my own life, whereon so little is written, 
And hear at the eastern window the pressure of a long wind, coming 
From I know not where.

How many times have I sat here, 
How many times will I sit here again, 
Thinking these same things over and over in solitude 
As a child says over and over 
The first word he has learned to say.

IX

This girl gave her heart to me, 
And this, and this. 
This one looked at me as if she loved me, 
And silently walked away. 
This one I saw once and loved, and never saw her again.

Shall I count them for you upon my fingers? 
Or like a priest solemnly sliding beads? 
Or pretend they are roses, pale pink, yellow, and white, 
And arrange them for you in a wide bowl 
To be set in sunlight? 
See how nicely it sounds as I count them for you—
'This girl gave her heart to me 
And this, and this, . . . ! 
And nevertheless, my heart breaks when I think of them, 
When I think their names, 
And how, like leaves, they have changed and blown 
And will lie, at last, forgotten, 
Under the snow. 

X

It is night time, and cold, and snow is falling, 
And no wind grieves the walls. 
In the small world of light around the arc-lamp 
A swarm of snowflakes falls and falls. 
The street grows silent. The last stranger passes. 
The sound of his feet, in the snow, is indistinct.

What forgotten sadness is it, on a night like this, 
Takes possession of my heart? 
Why do I think of a camellia tree in a southern garden, 
With pink blossoms among dark leaves, 
Standing, surprised, in the snow? 
Why do I think of spring?

The snowflakes, helplessly veering,, 
Fall silently past my window; 
They come from darkness and enter darkness. 
What is it in my heart is surprised and bewildered 
Like that camellia tree, 
Beautiful still in its glittering anguish? 
And spring so far away!

XI

As I walked through the lamplit gardens, 
On the thin white crust of snow, 
So intensely was I thinking of my misfortune, 
So clearly were my eyes fixed 
On the face of this grief which has come to me, 
That I did not notice the beautiful pale colouring 
Of lamplight on the snow; 
Nor the interlaced long blue shadows of trees;

And yet these things were there, 
And the white lamps, and the orange lamps, and the lamps of lilac were there, 
As I have seen them so often before; 
As they will be so often again 
Long after my grief is forgotten.

And still, though I know this, and say this, it cannot console me.

XII

How many times have we been interrupted 
Just as I was about to make up a story for you! 
One time it was because we suddenly saw a firefly 
Lighting his green lantern among the boughs of a fir-tree. 
Marvellous! Marvellous! He is making for himself 
A little tent of light in the darkness! 
And one time it was because we saw a lilac lightning flash 
Run wrinkling into the blue top of the mountain,—
We heard boulders of thunder rolling down upon us 
And the plat-plat of drops on the window, 
And we ran to watch the rain 
Charging in wavering clouds across the long grass of the field! 
Or at other times it was because we saw a star 
Slipping easily out of the sky and falling, far off, 
Among pine-dark hills; 
Or because we found a crimson eft 
Darting in the cold grass!

These things interrupted us and left us wondering; 
And the stories, whatever they might have been, 
Were never told. 
A fairy, binding a daisy down and laughing? 
A golden-haired princess caught in a cobweb? 
A love-story of long ago? 
Some day, just as we are beginning again, 
Just as we blow the first sweet note, 
Death itself will interrupt us.

XIII

My heart is an old house, and in that forlorn old house, 
In the very centre, dark and forgotten, 
Is a locked room where an enchanted princess 
Lies sleeping. 
But sometimes, in that dark house, 
As if almost from the stars, far away, 
Sounds whisper in that secret room—
Faint voices, music, a dying trill of laughter? 
And suddenly, from her long sleep, 
The beautiful princess awakes and dances.

Who is she? I do not know. 
Why does she dance? Do not ask me!—
Yet to-day, when I saw you, 
When I saw your eyes troubled with the trouble of happiness, 
And your mouth trembling into a smile, 
And your fingers pull shyly forward,—
Softly, in that room, 
The little princess arose 
And danced; 
And as she danced the old house gravely trembled 
With its vague and delicious secret.

XIV

Like an old tree uprooted by the wind 
And flung down cruelly 
With roots bared to the sun and stars 
And limp leaves brought to earth—
Torn from its house—
So do I seem to myself 
When you have left me.

XV

The music of the morning is red and warm; 
Snow lies against the walls; 
And on the sloping roof in the yellow sunlight 
Pigeons huddle against the wind. 
The music of evening is attenuated and thin—
The moon seen through a wave by a mermaid; 
The crying of a violin. 
Far down there, far down where the river turns to the west, 
The delicate lights begin to twinkle 
On the dusky arches of the bridge: 
In the green sky a long cloud, 
A smouldering wave of smoky crimson, 
Breaks in the freezing wind: and above it, unabashed, 
Remote, untouched, fierly palpitant, 
Sings the first star.

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Poet: Conrad Aiken
Poem: Improvisations: Light And Snow
Poem of the Day: Jun 2 2011
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