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Short poem

Albert Frank Moritz (1947-)

The Little Walls Before China

      *A courtier speaks to Ch'in Shih-huang-ti, ca. 210 B.C.

              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
            17in your vast one, which joins them, stretching far
            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.


] 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.

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.

Online text copyright © 2004, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Albert Frank Moritz or the Brick Books permissions department.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Rest on the Flight into Egypt (London, On: Brick Books, 1999): 24-26. PS 8576 .074 R47 Robarts Library
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2004
Recent editing: 1:2004/7/22

Other poems by Albert Frank Moritz