24 August 2010 | Vol. 10, No. 2

Triumph of the Will as Underwater Ballet

Rites for an American November

The shaman finds a mirror carefully slipped

beneath the water of a running stream

will open a window in the land of the dead.

Here, the yellow and umber leaves, doom boats

strapping the current, slip quickly over the dappled

bottom where rusted wheels and bent scaffolds backdrop

The Triumph of the Will as it simmers there, bubbling,

awaiting the buoys of resurrection.

Here and there the camera winks its dark eye.

It cannot forget anything it has seen fit

to take into the black box of its mind.

So the film spools out and smooth-cheeked

Nazi faces yearn up and up like limbs tendered

outstretched against the sky, sky branches filled

with bread and circuses hovering over

the purling curl and useless talk of the river,

whisper-road for shipping slaves home

to the backbone of stone broken off just there

from the mother continent and drifted

through all the ages it took to become just this

breakdown of falls at Richmond, now, here.

Leni, young or old, might have known

what to make of it, how to see things right.

The German Cleopatra is the Queen of Denial?

Ninety and frail, she does not flinch

when the shark darts in to bump

its nose against her nose in its rubber mask.

Another triumph, lifting the heavy

camera in the water's dark. Her bright

smile engages no arrogant evasions.

And there I am, too, looking back up

from the bridge shivering under the river, not waving

a flag or pulling a gun but making myself

take a hike here in the mind-sweeping cold

alone. Here I am again leaning on the rail

where I focused my dead brother's field glasses on

the pointed yellow-gray beak, the fierce gold-red eye

of the great blue heron, who glanced upstream

fitfully, then turned back once to look at me.

The heron sees whatever is there and saw

something that took something black and no bigger

than a book from the pack on its back

and held it a while. Then threw the tape in.

The river rising today wants to say it this time

push it names itself and what it wants

push and holds to it, hesitates only

a moment before the dip and pour

over and down like polished dark glass

into the white splash and froth which

uttered in twisted tongues of current returns

eternal to the same stretch of rock.

Courage may be to see whatever is there.

The river speaks faster now here and there

where stone gathers and hunches, push

against the geese who have come again

to swim against the current in pairs push

and shake their tail feathers in the air to duck

down for the choice morsel, to reach

down for whatever is there.

Leni would know, she always responded

to the magic opera of the fairytale spell,

the marching throngs, the sweet muscle

and magnetics of its surging pull, the unstoppable

vine crawling, the drama of evil, its hydraulics

precise, the attractions she would never deny.

So they all go down in the water, flipping

once and twice, flashing, spinning and soon

the smiling Nazi formations are in the swim

of their underwater Berlin, artfully turning

with synchronized grace and it must be hard holding

their breaths and smiling always smiling and pretending

to sing from the bottom of their hearts

from the bottom of that sea and selling it,

their magnificent ballet, until it all settles

in the silt, bottoming out here and there,

those bubbling songs still hanging on their lips

as they go down and away, the plazas dim, the ritual

dies down and is emptied and is done, a chorus of lies

answered with lies, the mirror cracks,

the window slams shut.

In Egypt once we thought the sin-filled sack of the heart

could be balanced against the feather of truth,

and those heaviest hearts would be chewed to bits

as the lighthearted stepped onto eternity's deck.

We wrapped ourselves up and we waited.

Now the river rushes by, faster now, pushed on

by heavy rain on the far mountain we can't see, breathlessly

saying what it's said for so long we can no longer hear:

shh—one long lazy hush, its wobbly bubble

rising to break—shh—opening to a release without end—

never the same river, never the same never

or never again—hush now, shh.

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About the author:

Gregory Donovan is Senior Editor of the online journal Blackbird and author of the poetry collection Calling His Children Home, winner of the Devins Award, as well as poetry, essays, and fiction published in the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, New England Review, Chautauqua, storySouth, MiPOesias, the Southern Quarterly, and elsewhere. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and helped establish its study abroad programs in Scotland and in Peru.

For further reading:

See the complete list of work by Gregory Donovan at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 10, No. 2, where "Triumph of the Will as Underwater Ballet" ran on August 24, 2010. List other work with these same labels: poetry.

42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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