Think how some excellent, lean torso hugs
The brink of weight and speed,
Coasting the margin of those rival tugs
Down the thin path of friction,
The athlete’s dancing vectors, the spirit’s need,
And muscle’s cleanly diction.
Clean as a Calder, whose interlacing ribs
Depend on one another,
Or a keen heeling of tackle, fluttering jibs
And slotted centreboards,
A fleet of breasting gulls riding the smother
And puzzle of heaven’s wards.
Instinct with joy, a young Italian banks
Smoothly around the base
Of Trajan’s column, feeling between his flanks
That cool, efficient beast,
His Vespa at one with him in a centaur’s race,
Fresh from a Lapith feast,
And his Lapith girl behind him. Both of them lean
With easy nonchalance
Over samphire-tufted cliffs, which, though unseen,
Are known, as the body knows
New risks and tilts, terrors and loves and wants,
Deeply inside its clothes.
She grips the animal-shoulder naked skin
Of his fitted leather jacket,
Letting a wake of hair float out the spin
And dazzled rinse of air,
Yet for all their headlong lurch and flatulent racket
They seem to loiter there,
Forever aslant in their moment and the mind’s eye.
Meanwhile, around the column
There also turn, and turn eternally,
Two thousand raw recruits
And scarred veterans coiling the stone in solemn
The heft and grit of the emperor’s Dacian Wars
That lasted fifteen years.
All of that youth and purpose is, of course,
No more than so much dust.
And even Trajan, of his imperial peers
Accounted “the most just,”
Honoured by Dante, by Gregory the Great
Saved from eternal Hell,
Swirls in the motes kicked up by the cough and spate
Of the Vespa’s blue exhaust,
And a voice whispers inwardly, “My soul,
It is the cost, the cost,”
Like some unhinged Othello, who’s just found out
That justice is no more,
While Cassio, Desdemona, Iago shout
Like true Venetians all,
“Go screw yourself; all’s fair in love and war!”
And the bright standards fall.
Better they should not hear that whispered phrase,
The young Italian couple;
Surely the mind in all its brave assays
Must put much thinking by,
To be, as Yeats would have it, free and supple
As a long-legged fly,
Look at their slender purchase, how they list,
Like a blown clipper brought
To the lively edge of peril, to the kissed
Lip, the victor’s crown,
The prize of life. Yet one unbodied thought
Could topple them, bring down
The whole shebang. And why should they take thought
Of all that ancient pain,
The Danube winters, the nameless young who fought,
The blood’s uncertain lease?
Or remember that that fifteen-year campaign
Won seven years of peace?