Copyright © 2002 Alfred D. Byrd
Careful, rowers! The water is rough,
And things afloat on the waves may bear
A host of dangers for boats like ours.
We have no skill for a sea like this,
A sea of stone suppressing the waves.
A day and a night have passed in storm
Since fire and surge devoured Atlantis.
A day without light, a night profound
As the world of death and dreams below,
Have covered the earth with shrouds of fear,
And we, like cowards, concealed ourselves
In dens on hillsides above the waves
That shook our island and swept away
The huts and boats that had hugged its shore.
The huts we’ll rebuild, the boats we found,
Not all in splinters, lying inland.
Praising the gods for sparing our lives,
We dragged the boats to the shore and sought
The fate of the land that long had loomed
On far horizons, but stood no more.
Atlantis is gone, but we remain,
The fishers who glimpsed its wealth afar,
And now some part of that wealth is ours,
No longer needed for pomp of state,
For praise of gods or fancies of girls
Who rode in litters above the crowds
And thought their world above disaster.
The sun has risen in wrack of red
And shown us, seekers of wealth from doom,
Our harvest, fertile, but touched with blood,
On a field unsafe to reap today,
But tempting, too rich to let alone.
Be careful! Feather the oars, my lads!
Before us, on stone that floats, I see
A treasure to hold in days ahead.
Just how it survived the wrack of storm
I cannot tell you, but here it is,
A bowl a master has carved from jade
With horses that pleased the god of waves
Before his wrath destroyed Atlantis.
The bowl will no more contain delights
To please the palate of king or bawd.
No fancy dishes of spice and sauce,
Of flesh of beasts both rare and dainty,
Will come before the king and his court
And left untouched be hurled to beggars.
A stew of fish and tubers will be
The best we’ll know for many a year,
But the bowl will hold, for eyes that see,
A picture of lands now lost to view.
Go slowly! Bodies ahead, a few
In tatters of robes of state as shrouds.
How strange for the sharks to let alone
So rich a feast bestowed by the sea.
Could it be the sharks were stunned like us
By the fall of what had seemed so strong
In the gaze of gods who smiled, then frowned
On glories raised aloft by men?
Let’s take our portion before the sharks
Recover their wits and claim their prize.
The dead won’t need their jewels and gold,
Their bangles, bracelets, pendants, and rings,
But we can trade them for cloth and tools,
And the goods we save from wind and storm
May someday, decking a girl with charms,
Recall to elders a land now lost
And move them to tell its tale again
To children destined to pass it on.
Be gentle, rowers, taking your prize.
No need to defile the dead whose loss
Has become our gain, their deaths, our life.
If moved to do so, utter prayers
For the dead to him whose wrath in storm,
In shaking of earth, in waves of rage,
In fire that burst from the earth in streams,
Has taken their lives and sunk their land.
We envied their life, but longed to wear
Their robes of silk, their jewels of gold,
And so, by right, their fate should be ours.
We’ll make our living by theft from death,
And death will reclaim our lives as toll
For passage from night through day to night
In which our lives will mingle and fade.
What god will recall our names from night
And make us ever rejoice in day?
Even Atlantis could speak no name
For the god above the god of storm,
The god who gives the downfall meaning
In terms of justice for us to learn.
Was lack of knowledge the cause of doom
For those whose bodies litter the sea?
Let’s pause awhile and look around us.
The face of the deep is paved with stone
As if it were the plaza of old
In which the priests would dance, and the king
Dispense the justice the gods decreed.
Behold the wreck that was Atlantis!
I sailed there in days of youth now gone,
And quaffed its wines, and watched its dancers,
And thought eternal the things that passed.
I heard the bells of gold announcing
The time for altars to smoke with praise
For gods Atlantis honored for gifts
The gods had bestowed for wealth and fame.
The city of gold, the fields of grain
Embraced by mountains teeming with flocks --
They all are phantoms, fading at dawn
And sent by fate to shadows below.
To sail the canals, to hear the songs
Of drover, soldier, strumpet, or sage,
Is now the stuff of dreams in the dark
In which our kinsmen, vanquished by death,
May mingle with things of thought alone
And cause us, waking, to mourn their loss.
Pillars of wood and tables that bore
The weight of winecups, trenchers, and knives,
Adrift before us, will soon be gone.
Let’s take what we may, devote the rest
To gods of darkness, and hold in thought
Atlantis as hope for times to come.
Let’s turn for our homes. The sun goes down
In wrack of blood like that of the dawn.
We’ll huddle in huts and roast our fish
On coals of driftwood the waves provide,
But at night, when work is done, and hope
May spread its wings and soar to the stars,
Let’s tell the tales of temples of gold
To children whose eyes grow big with awe
At what the hands of humans once made.
In times to come, the stories may move
Our minds to plan and our hands to work
For more than just the needs of the day.
Inspired by tales of a land that fell,
We’ll build again the cities of dreams.
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