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Morning Song of Senlin -- Conrad Aiken

Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #525) Morning Song of Senlin
 It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
 When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
 I arise, I face the sunrise,
 And do the things my father learned to do.
 Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
 Pale in the saffron mist and seem to die
 And I myself upon a swiftly tilting planet
 Stand before a glass and tie my tie,

 Vine leaves tap my window,
 Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
 The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
 Repeating three clear tones.

 It is morning. I stand by the mirror
 And tie my tie once more.
 While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
 Crash on a white sand shore.
 I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
 How small and white my face! -
 The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
 And bathes in a flame of space.
 There are houses hanging above the stars
 And stars hung under a sea...
 And a sun far off in a shell of silence
 Dapples my walls for me...

 It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
 Should I not pause in the light to remember god?
 Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
 He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
 I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
 To him alone, for him I will comb my hair.
 Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!
 I will think of you as I descend the star.

 Vine leaves tap my window,
 The snail track shines on the stones.
 Dew-drops flash from the chinaberry tree
 Repeating two clear tones.

 It is morning, I awake from a cloud of silence,
 Shining I rise from the starless waters of sleep.
 The walls are about me still as in the evening,
 I am the same, and the same name still I keep.

 The earth revolves around with me, yet makes no motion,
 The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
 In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
 Unconcerned, and tie my tie.

 There are horses neighing on far-off hills
 Tossing their long white manes,
 And mountains flash in the rose-white dusk,
 Their shoulders black with the rains...
 It is morning. I stand by the mirror
 And surprise my soul once more;
 The blue air rushes above my ceiling,
 There are suns beneath my floor...

   ... it is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
 And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,
 My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
 And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
 There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
 And a god among the stars; and I will go
 Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
 And humming a tune I know...

 Vine-leaves tap at the window,
 Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
 The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
 Repeating three clear tones.
-- Conrad Aiken
One of the most intensely musical poems I've read. The way Aiken keeps moving
from the individual to the cosmic and back again, seems to give it a wonderful
clear, crystalline feel. The phrases are wonderful: "swiftly tilting planet..."

Aiken isn't much known today, although his daughter Joan Aiken will be familiar
to fantasy and children's fiction buffs for her wonderful eerie stories. I've
only read one other work by him, but that was superb - his short story 'Silent
Snow, Secret Snow' which is hypnotic in how it describes a child's growing sense
of schizophrenia.


PS. While looking for background for this though I discovered that there's also
an Evening Song Of Senlin, which I'll give below. It perhaps explains why Aiken
seems to have remained a minor poet. It's a perfectly nice poem, but read in
conjunction with the Morning Song it starts to seem like much of a muchness. A
bit of trick effect, almost parodying itself.

'Evening Song of Senlin'

 It is moonlight. Alone in the silence
 I ascend my stairs once more,
 While waves, remote in a pale blue starlight,

 Crash on a white sand shore.
 It is moonlight. The garden is silent.
 I stand in my room alone.
 Across my wall, from the far-off moon,
 A rain of fire is thrown ...

 There are houses hanging above the stars,
 And stars hung under a sea:
 And a wind from the long blue vault of time
 Waves my curtain for me ...

 I wait in the dark once more,
 Swung between space and space:
 Before my mirror I lift my hands
 And face my remembered face.

 Is it I who stand in a question here,
 Asking to know my name? ...
 It is I, yet I know not whither I go,
 Nor why, nor whence I came.

 It is I, who awoke at dawn
 And arose and descended the stair,
 Conceiving a god in the eye of the sun, --
 In a woman's hands and hair.
 It is I whose flesh is gray with the stones
 I builded into a wall:
 With a mournful melody in my brain
 Of a tune I cannot recall . . .

 There are roses to kiss: and mouths to kiss;
 And the sharp-pained shadow of death.
 I remember a rain-drop on my cheek, --
 A wind like a fragrant breath . . .
 And the star I laugh on tilts through heaven;

 And the heavens are dark and steep . . .
 I will forget these things once more
 In the silence of sleep.

        -- Conrad Aiken


  b. Aug. 5, 1889, Savannah, Ga., U.S.
  d. Aug. 17, 1973, Savannah

in full CONRAD POTTER AIKEN American poet, short-story writer, novelist, and
critic whose works, influenced by early psychoanalytic theory, are concerned
largely with the human need for self-awareness. Aiken himself faced considerable
trauma in his childhood when he found the bodies of his parents after his father
had killed his mother and committed suicide. He later wrote of this in his
autobiography Ushant (1952).  Educated at private schools and at Harvard
University, where he was a friend and contemporary of T.S. Eliot (whose poetry
was to influence his own), Aiken divided his life almost equally between England
and the United States until 1947, when he settled in Massachusetts. He played a
significant role in introducing the work of American poets to the British
public. After three early collections of verse, he wrote five  symphonies"
between 1915 and 1920 in an effort to create poetry that would resemble music in
its ability to express several levels of meaning simultaneously. Then came a
period of narrative poems, several volumes of lyrics and meditations, and, after
World War II, a return to musical form but with richer philosophical and
psychological overtones. The best of his poetry is contained in Collected Poems
(1953), including a long sequence "Preludes to Definition," which some critics
consider his masterwork, and the often anthologized "Morning Song of Senlin."
Most of his fiction was written in the 1920s and '30s. Generally more successful
than his novels of this period were his short stories, notably "Strange
Moonlight" from Bring! Bring! (1925) and "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" and "Mr.
Arcularis" from Among the Lost People (1934). The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken
was published in 1950, followed by A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism from
1916 to the Present (1958) and The Collected Novels (1964).

        -- EB

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Leo said...

The deeply touching lyricism of this poem is simply wonderful. Although you mention the evening song is not as good, I like to consider both of these poems, and all other senlin poems (there are in fact many) part of a wonderful whole that's too often fragmented by anthologists.

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