The Little Walls Before China

Original Text: 
Rest on the Flight into Egypt (London, On: Brick Books, 1999): 24-26. PS 8576 .074 R47 Robarts Library
1Highness, the former walls were helpless. They
2stood alone in the middle of small fields
3protecting nothing. A single peasant's holding
4engulfed each one as it ran briefly, straight
5from noplace off to noplace, with ruinous steps
6of broken stone at both ends. Only head-high,
7without the towers, gates and towns of your great wall,
8they stuck where they were, never rising over hills
9or curving through valleys: nothing but shoddy masonry
10and a mystery: who built them, how long ago,
11what for? They seemed to have no role but balking
12the reaper and the ox; their bases made
13islands in the flashing scythe-strokes, where wild flowers
14and shrubs sprouted.
15                                    So all the people praise you
16for burying such walls and their memory
18beyond where they once crumbled to hold your Empire:
19a wall which therefore can never have an end
20but has to go on extending itself forever.
21How useful, how cogent your wall is: a pale
22for the civilized, a dike against the wild people
23outside, who trade their quiet human blood
24for the rage of gods, tearing men to pieces,
25throwing them, watching them fall. In burying
26those little walls, Lord, you have covered our shame
27at our ancestors, best forgotten, whose mighty works
28were so pointless, or so pitiably useless.
29Was all their effort so that daisies could grow in fissures?
30So that some human work would rise over the flats
31and weather till it seemed not human? Only
32so that something of ours could be like trees and rocks:
33docile-seeming, yet sullenly opposed
34to use, and when compelled, only half serving,
35reserving from the functions that we give them
36a secret and idle self. The peasants would make
37lean-tos for cattle against those walls: they served
38for this alone.
39                          Now scholars, Lord, are saying
40the gods are not bulls and cows. That in ancient times
41we herded these animals to keep from starving
42and going naked, and so came the old custom
43of thinking them gods -- from dependence. In my youth,
44I know, the peasants said just the opposite.
45Worship came first. The awesome bull and cow
46were gathered to be adored more easily,
47till people noticed how they let themselves
48be driven and penned. Next came the first murders
49against these gods, and the careful observation
50that they stood to be killed. And so their cult became
51contempt of beings that would live with us
52and submit to our crimes and hunger, and we began
53to breed them. That is why, the farmer says,
54cattle are honoured, murdered, eaten, cherished
55with labour that makes him their slave, and that is why
56in summer he exults in blood, but shivers with fear,
57with exhausted terror and regret, and sinks into
58stunned revelry all winter, eating the salted meat,
59getting children, his house closed up with snow,
60himself awake as if he slept, living
61as if he had already died, and rich, happy
62as if he were a buried worm.
63                                                     Is God,
64then, Highness, the fat flaccidity of cattle?
65Myself, I don't like to wonder anymore.
66I only hope lifelong service earns what I ask:
67the command of some far bastion on your wall
68where it curves out into the unsettled wastes
69beyond any field, and the barrenness inside
70is indistinguishable from that without.
71This is the reward and end of life I want:
72to be a point, though infinitely small
73and far from you, in that wide circle centred
74on your great self. I see myself arriving
75to take charge of my troops. I look down from the tower:
76bare plains, outcrops of ice and rock, vast restless
77stirrings of grey grasses and dark-veined overcast,
78the cold wind's hissing. Year after year the same,
79waiting for an assault that never comes,
80straining to glimpse our naked enemies
81creeping blended with their stony soil: nothing
82but legend, it may be. Maybe a morning
83will rise when, waking, I find that I've forgotten
84which way is north, and can't tell if I am turned
85outward to danger or inward, Highness, to you.
86The sun invisible, a murky light diffused
87throughout featureless cloud, and the wall so long
88no curve appears -- it seems to stretch out straight
89endlessly east and west: what clue will there be
90which way to face my people for the attack?
91It will be crucial then to show no doubt.
92My orders, I vow, though ignorant, will be crisp.


0] Ch'in Shih-huang-ti: Emperor of China, 259-210 B.C., who first unified the seven states by war and gave China its name. Back to Line
17] vast one: The Great Wall of China, 4,000 miles long, the construction of which the Emperor ordered following the unification of China in 214 B.C. Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

<b>This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Albert Frank Moritz or the Brick Books permissions department.</b>