The Shield of Achilles

By Tomas Venclova

To Joseph Brodsky

I speak alone that on the nerves’ taut screen
I shall see clearly now, as once you used to,
The key lying there beside the empty ashtray,
These railings by the chapels built of stone.
You weren’t wrong: all’s just as it is here.
For now. Even the scope of the imagination.
The same descent of kilometres to the shore-line
Where still the sea

Hears both of us. Beneath the green leafed roof
Gleam,almost as before, the heavy lampshades.
The different tempi that impel the clock’s hands
Are far more dangerous than the bitter wave
Between us. Moving far in space’s grip
You grow as distant as the Greeks, as strange as
The Medeans. In shame we’ve stayed, we others,
On board this ship

Which is not safe, not even for the rats.
And if one looks well, then one realises:
This is no ship, but brick walls, bright roofs, troubles,
A date that all too frequently comes round –
In fact, maturity. This tutelage
Sinks into all our brains. Expanses,
Each day growing emptier, would have come to blind us,
If by the verge

Where, vertical, the rain hovers and roves
A solemn vault of sound had not arisen,
Almost annihilated in this sudden summer,
But giving us the blessed manacles
That probably coincide with, fit the soul –
Exalt and burn, defining outlines, forming,
Because our heaven and our terra firma
Are in voice, all.

Peace be to you. To you and me, both, peace.
Let it be dark. Abd let the seconds hurtle.
Through densest space, that dream of many layers,
I read each character your pen’s released.
Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead,
A whitge shield, counterweight to non-existence.
In its enrgraving both our different eras
Lie double-etched

(Were there but happiness and strength enough!)
As though in water. Or, put more precisely,
As though in emptiness. Waves beat the beach-head,
Distintegrate the mobile sketch. The squares
Of windows gleam with blackness. Late in dreams
The heated air seeps slowly through the glass panes.
Beyond the towers, a motor faintly rasping,
And into me

Roll day and hours. You see, between each chime,
The bell’s blind swing inside its belfry.
Till the foundations answer its peal dully
There flows an endless interval of time.
The portals quiver, tautened by the beat,
And archway signals out to neighbouring archway,
And souls and continents call out to one another
In living night.

A dirty gloom enshrouds the sails, and sticks.
The sodden quay exhales a pungent vapour.
You see Thermopylae, having seen Troy earlier –
The shield is given to you. You are a rock.
The pillars set above this permanence
Impact the wind with their scintillant metal,
Although the rock, too, stands near sham and swindle
And wordlessness.

Entrusting to each one of us our fates
You cross now to the level of remembrance.
But every mment that exists, exists twice.
Wee accompanied by a double light
Inside the ring that days, nights tighten more.
Low tide. On sand the ebb’s pools glisten.
Boat, stone don’t yet look different on the coastline,
The empty shore.

(translated by David McDuff with the author)

See also:

Nel Mezzo Del Cammin
Night Descended On Us With A Chill

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