On the Marginal Way

By Richard Wilbur

            Another cove of shale,
But the beach here is rubbled with strange rock
  That is sleek, fluent, and taffy-pale.
I stare, reminded with a little shock
How, by a shore in Spain, George Borrow saw
A hundred women basking in the raw.

            They must have looked like this,
That catch of bodies on the sand, that strew
      Of rondure, crease, and orifice,
Lap, flank, and knee—a too abundant view
Which, though he'd had the lenses of a fly,
Could not have waked desire in Borrow's eye.

            Has the light altered now?
The rocks flush rose and have the melting shape
      Of bodies fallen anyhow.
It is a Géricault of blood and rape,
Some desert town despoiled, some caravan
Pillaged, its people murdered to a man,

            And those who murdered them
Galloping off, a rumpling line of dust
      Like the wave's white, withdrawing hem.
But now the vision of a colder lust
Clears, as the wind goes chill and all is greyed
By a swift cloud that drags a carrion shade.

      If these are bodies still,
Theirs is a death too dead to look asleep,
      Like that of Auschwitz' final kill,
Poor slaty flesh abandoned in a heap
And then, like sea-rocks buried by a wave,
Bulldozed at last into a common grave.

            It is not tricks of sense
But the time's fright within me which distracts
      Least fancies into violence
And makes my thought take cover in the facts,
As now it does, remembering how the bed
Of layered rock two miles above my head

            Hove ages up and broke
Soundless asunder, when the shrinking skin
      Of Earth, blacked out by steam and smoke,
Gave passage to the muddled fire within,
Its crannies flooding with a sweat of quartz,
And lathered magmas out of deep retorts

            Welled up, as here, to fill
With tumbled rockmeal, stone-fume, lithic spray,
      The dike's brief chasm and the sill.
Weathered until the sixth and human day
By sanding winds and water, scuffed and brayed
By the slow glacier's heel, these forms were made

            That now recline and burn
Comely as Eve and Adam, near a sea
      Transfigured by the sun's return.
And now three girls lie golden in the lee
Of a great arm or thigh, and are as young
As the bright boulders that they lie among.

            Though, high above the shore
On someone's porch, spread wings of newsprint flap
      The tidings of some dirty war,
It is a perfect day: the waters clap
Their hands and kindle, and the gull in flight
Loses himself at moments, white in white,

            And like a breaking thought
Joy for a moment floods into the mind,
      Blurting that all things shall be brought
To the full state and stature of their kind,
By what has found the manhood of this stone.
May that vast motive wash and wash our own.


Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943–2004, Harcourt, 2004.