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THE BRIDGE AT TSAVO, 1898

"Descent approaching now," the guide had said

perched familiar to the hunching train.

Steam obscured valley and track, dead

tangles glimpsed forming patterns like pain

housed in the far-off smoke where toil

channels extension of an awakened skein

to bridge two worlds. Hours it has taken to join

the work camp, passing walls of thorn

in which the animals blink and turn, avoid

confronting the mystery (as though war

were not raised amongst them) harboring vague

monitions surpassant the hunt only in horror:

no such contest convenes for sentences bred

of our inner coilings. "Lions," responds the guide

when asked why many laborers have fled.

"Theirs are not the eyes you see, though - they bide

the night to stalk from uncompleted span.

Last male branch of a disfigured pride,

"they acquired their appetites from discarded men

grafted to servitude. Human bones still mark

points of stoppage for those caravans."

He pauses staring at abandoned work

benches and tents as the scenery slows then stops.

"It is a wonder, these lions. Boma and bulwark

"have not sufficed. No cleverness foretells the drop

of paws among us, victim's retreating cries.

Many think them devils. Sahib does not.

"He calls it a dream, but I heard the lions outside

my tent flap. They spoke as you or I would, breath

hot upon my upturned face. I kept eyes

"battened to dam betraying waters. 'Not death,'

continued the one named Ghost. 'I look beyond

this local contagion to futures of broader swath

'tabernacle to conveniences, adamantine bonds

and confinement, vivisection, enjoined disease.'

'I will halt them,' said the Darkness. 'Hand

'and foot I bind individually, with joy seize

and carry stammering prey along the banks

of River Tsavo to the den of trial and feast

'where waves lap black as the air, stones dank,

no insulting light to glimmer on their tears.'

'I, too, take them,' said the other, 'eagerly drink

'blood and marrow, reading skull, tooth, femur,

if any you have not broken. And I tell

you I have seen one who has come and will, father

'to orders eschewing battery cage and cell,

stranger alike to feedlot and silent spring.

His silhouette comes at sunset striding our hills

'where the sparrow flocks to outstretched arm and song.'

More I do not recall." Heat clings to fade

of light on the empty platform, lone lantern hissing

in sudden quiet. Somebodys throat clears. "I say,

where is that station master? Shouldnt one

of us go and see?" The lantern creaks, gutters, sways.

previously unpublished
© 2014 David W. Parsley
Parsley Poetry Collection

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I had to look Tsavo up, but I was deeply impressed by this piece, the existential threat is vivid, the atmosphere is reminiscent of the best psychological horror, yet locked into its time and place, effectively. I enjoyed this deeply.

 

Well done!

 

Juris

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Hi Doc, I really appreciate your commentary and the fact that you troubled yourself to look up Tsavo. The whole story made the basis for a somewhat recent film, "The Ghost and the Darkness." (I am having trouble including links, will try again later.) The movie, in turn, is a reenactment of historical events around the turn of the previous century. Try here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Colonel_Patterson_with_Tsavo-Lion.jpg

This canto/poem introduces the story through a fictional (though hopefully plausible) episode involving the arrival of some sort of delegation accompanied by an Indian guide. They arrive at the site where the bridge is under construction and that constitutes the open-ended conclusion of the canto.

Among the themes of "Notes" are animal rights, ecological awareness, and the conflict between human survival and expansionism as confronted by the forces of Nature. All are present here. And, of course, it is supposed to be a spooky yarn with Dantean undertones.

Thanks Again,
- Dave

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I recall seeing the film "The Ghost and the Darkness" in the late 90's. Your poem is well researched and impeccably written. It embraces various subjects as you state and is worthy of being a study piece. G.

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Hi Geoff, I saw your post on the way out the door to a two-week vacation. Your comments are much appreciated. I'll return later to respond to other comments and perhaps expand on this response to yours. But allow me to drop a few hints for the "studious":

1. Note the use of terza rima, in admiring imitation of Dante's "Divine Comedy."

2. And that is no accident. Compare with Dante's attempt to cross the damaged bridge at the level of Grafters in "The Inferno."

3. Play-on-words alert: Malebranche (transl. Evil Claws) also from that same section of Dante.

4. Comparison with Grendel's lair in "Beowulf" anyone?

5. Then there is always H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau" with its chilling concept of the "House of Pain".

6. "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson.

7. Recognize the figure of St. Francis of Assizi? You'll see him again in "Notes."

8. more but that would be ruining the fun...

 

Talk More Later,

- Dave

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Okay, here is a little Halloween bump, along with some more "notes":

 

9. Did anybody notice the significance of a guide being present? The role of guide conducting the quester(s) on his/her/their journey is a recurrent theme in epic poetry from Gilgamesh to The Odyssey and The Aeneid (illustration below). More particularly it is a prominent theme in The Divine Comedy of Dante, where the epic poet of antiquity, Virgil, guides Dante through the horrors and perplexities of The Inferno, and on to the summit of human aspiration as described in The Purgatorio. The guide in this poem is firmly situated in the early portion of The Inferno, transl. House of the Dead.

0428-1-gif.gif

 

10. Now likely to be the third canto in House of the Dead, this PG-13 poem/canto represents a distinct turn downward, signaling horrors ahead: "Descent approaching now." In the The Inferno, Dante and his guide, Virgil, mount the back of the "hunching" monster, Geryon, to accomplish their descent to the lower depths of the damned (illustration below); in the present piece, delegation and guide take a steam engine train.

Geryon.jpg

 

11. Prior to this descent, Dante encounters Minos, the figure that determines the level of Hell to be assumed by damned souls. They confess their offenses before him. Upon completion of this disclosure, Minos indicates the level to which each soul must proceed by wrapping his coil about himself the number of times that would indicate the level's number. (See illustration.) For members of the animal kingdom, their levels of "punishment" are assigned by "inner coilings" of human beings. Some of their levels/afflictions are discussed by the lion named "Ghost."

Michelangelo-minos2.jpg

 

12. Finally, I want to glance off another play on words, "grafted", a term for people in positions of authority who extract undue profit (bribes, kickbacks, etc.) in the process of conducting business (usually public). For the purposes of this canto, I chose to loosely relate the illicit gain aspect of such grafting to the practice of slavery in general, and particularly here to the slave trade route that passed near Tsavo. It was a common practice to abandon prospective slaves who were too ill or injured to complete the trek, and Tsavo appears to have been one of the places favored for such disposal. It is supposed by some commentators that these weakened individuals fell prey to local lions, thereby engendering a race of man-eaters, the last of which plagued the bridge-building crew in 1898.

 

By another definition, grafting is an action of bringing branches into a tree or vine to augment its utility. In this case, it refers to a dark branch of humanity's greed, that of enforced servitude, which is a principal theme of Notes from the Common Era. This applies to human slavery as well as animal use for human ends. I selected the level of the grafters here, partly to represent an aspect of greed, but also because of the coinciding elements of incomplete bridge, peril for the quester, etc.

4f234a64d2.jpg

 

Are we having fun yet?

- Dave

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The paths of human endeavour have always been open to imaginative parallels for that is our nature. The lure of Greek mythology when I was young, took me on an Odyssey of literary paths that has no final destination. A little knowledge of Guelph and Ghibelline politics that enshrouded Dante's Florence rubbed off on the way; and helped me understand more about his world and mine. His expansive literary work along with the later work and art of others reflect the religious belief systems of their age.

More recently I read of the construction of the Panama Canal: tales of how it almost bankrupted France and how the U.S. took up responsibility for completing it. The similarities should one wish to draw them: are political,cultural, commercial and military. So much ingenuity and manipulation, political and otherwise; while the twin lions of yellow fever and malaria had to be dealt with to protect the brave. Monster steam shovels, the damming of the River Chagres to create Gatun Lake and tiers of locks that changed the world. We soldier inexorably on with our updated mythologies and I cannot help but equate them with an established human template. One that now resides in the fingertips of technology, yet has an inescapable link with literature, cultures and great projects of the past. Geoff

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Hi Geoff,

 

Wow, there you go again! What a fascinating analysis, proffering a number of parallels to the Tsavo project, but on a grander scale. Precisely the kind of thought process intended to be provoked by this and other cantos coming in the "Notes." Parallels should abound for projects of every kind, but I am particularly impressed by your delineation of them for the building of the Panama Canal.

 

Actually your insights are becoming downright uncanny. One of my devices in the "Notes" is to equate disease and other miseries to mythical monsters like Grendel rising from mysterious lairs to inflict abrupt and unexpected destruction upon either individual persons or whole groups of them. Your evocation of Yellow Fever and Malaria in this instance anticipates what amounts to a dead reckoning of my aims. Weirds me out a little!

 

Definitely Having Fun Now,

- Dave

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