p o e m i o a n f l o r a
The Battle Commander stood at a table littered with portfolios, dispatches, cups,
quills, inkpots, maps pinpointing citadels—Baradulim and Bel Grando,
Ahandin, Zorio, Zorzanelo and others, a multitude, as far as Burgas,
Pera and Constantinople.
He was engaged in leafing through random chapters
of a massive manuscript inscribed in tendrils of gotic textualis,
yet he seemed engrossed by neither contents nor appended llustrations.
What was clear was that he lingered over only the parts about dogs,
“strong and fierce, raised on purpose to be vicious and to bite”
(per ipsum designum demonstratur):
lank dogs cloaked in vests of donkey or buffalo hide, bearers of fire
in copper cups; and especially the horseman struggling
in his steel-armor trap, the cavalier, cornered, who endeavors to do battle
against chimeras of barking air but loses his balance,
tumbles heavily to the ground, helpless.
“It’s passing strange,” the Battle Commander muttered to himself.
“Everything is represented here
as if we fought (and died) in a perfect desert:
no house in sight, no trace of a tent, no river or tree.
Just the dogs’ presumptive howl at the moon, ripping shrill
through the dense black sheet.”
The Battle Commander drifted into a deep reverie. No images flitted through his mind.
No fancied apparition with six hands, grasping
in each an adder, a torch, the talisman of a hairbrush,
a key, a whip, a dagger.
For some moments, his thoughts turned (inexplicably) to belladonna;
he concentrated on remembering what else the plant is called
that can multiply life, that kills on the spot.
“Devil’s cherry!” the Battle Commander exclaimed triumphantly,
after the briefest hesitation.
And long ago it was known as dwale. . .
There’s also deadly nightshade. . .
His temples throbbed again, jagged wrenching palpitations, stomach cramps.
Although he had fought no one, this day he felt defeated—
the soil forever black.
The room smelled of garlic and naphthalene,
his flushed cheeks reflected purple in the sliver of mirror glass,
the cube or glass clock on the table,
a perpetually unchanged nature, and always someone else who savors doubts
about well-nigh everything.
(How could something that is just vanish?)
On pale winter evenings, he’d talk about pre-apocalyptic disasters,
about astral cough and mushrooms.
Once in a while
a reminiscence of those rare days
when he drank his beloved with his eyes
(dismembering her, recomposing her in his arms).
The fields where they sought refuge heaved into view, drowned in sweat.
We’d talk for weeks, even though sometimes
we didn’t speak a word.
Meanwhile he invented rollerblades and the nail de luxe, each
with profound implications—gnostic, financial, existential.
We’d talk for months; gradually the century set on our shoulders
(with amazement and mild distrust, we watched
second after second tick by on a giant screen).
He invented rollerblades and the nail de luxe. I racked my brains
with grandiose, shadowy nothings:
instant relief for stress, anger, worry;
mapping the five Europes on a foreign continent;
unconventional cures for sciatica and angina pectoris;
sinking the Balkan powder keg
to the bottom of a dead sea.
We’d talk. Simply talk.
“At war, knights stifle all fear,” wrote
the squire and biographer of Don Pero Niño,
the unconquered knight of the late 14th century.
“They expose themselves to any peril, they squander their bodies
for love of adventure, they grind their lives away
on the pyre of adamantine death.
Sour bread, moldy biscuits, meat cooked or raw;
today food in abundance, tomorrow blackest fasting;
little or no wine;
water from rain barrel or pond;
shelter of dry branches or tent under stormy sky;
hard bed, poor sleep
stiffly dressed in plate armor, nailed fast inside iron, they bless their enemy
a short arrow’s flight away.”
A poem of the period:
“A knight is a worm,
a worm worming
in an iron cocoon.”
The knight rides in a saddle that juts high
like a ridge on the horse’s spine, with spurs
attached to stirrups that hang so low
he is nearly standing.
He strikes first with his lance.
He carries a sword wielded in two hands and
an eighteen-inch dagger;
also, attached to his saddle or carried by his squire,
a long sword that he hurls as if throwing a javelin;
likewise, a battle-axe with a spike behind the curved blade,
and a mace with sharp, ridged edges,
the weapon favored by warrior bishops and abbots.
A knight is a worm,
in an iron cocoon.
Courage, strength, skill made a knight preux.
Honor, loyalty, courtesy, politeness, generosity
defined the ideal chivalric behavior, along with courtly love—
genius for leadership.
The troubadour Bertrand de Born:
“My heart fills with gladness when I behold
a multitude of fallen vassals,
horses of the dead and wounded straying to the four corners of the earth.
My heart fills with gladness when I behold
men of the best lineage pitch into battle,
purposing only to break bright heads,
chop off young limbs.”
In an ambush, Don Pero Niño was struck by one arrow
that pierced gorget and gorge
and by another through his nostrils.
What most disturbed him, however,
were several lance stumps stuck in his shield,
a radiant sun in its center.
In the treatises, in the Codex Latinus Parisinus, nothing gets said
about captive noblemen
(oh, berserk hydra with ninety-nine heads!
oh, insatiable swarm of locusts,
shadow darkening life in this world,
total eclipse at noon!),
or about hands tied behind the back, a rope around the neck,
about throat-cutting or the indignity of trekking
week after week,
barefoot and bareheaded, clothed
in a beggar’s shirt of hemp.
Ransom is not mentioned either, nor the price of knocking at its door:
twelve Irish falcons, each accompanied by a falconer,
falconer’s gloves embroidered with pearls and precious stones,
twelve hunting hounds,
twelve thoroughbred stallions caparisoned with harness
bearing the coat-of-arms of the duke’s house,
saddle trappings in the form of golden rosettes,
purple Reims cloth or tapestries of Arras depicting
the history of Alexander the Great, for instance—everything to soften the heart of an enemy
as terrible as he is greedy and vengeful.
In the treatises, in the Codex Latinus Parisinus, war machines
are represented by the thousands,
and above all the Victory that the Battle Commander will enjoy,
our brave and righteous soldier of Christ,
be it at the very end of the world,
whirling in an ultrasonic spin, inexpressibly deceitful.
La Tour Landry, a nobleman of high estate who had fought in many campaigns, was, contrary to the customs of chivalry, a man who loved his wife and who sometimes was known to enjoy sitting in his garden, luxuriating in the song of the thrush in April.
For a knight, to travel by carriage was
against the principles of chivalry, and never under any circumstances
did he ride a mare.
It looked like we had taken Vidin and Rahova. No, I wasn’t dreaming
or seeing with the bloodshot eyes of the mind,
the chronicler Paulus Sanctinus confessed one August morning.
The blue sky showed no intention of falling, and if it fell,
in any case, French knights were ready to prop it up
on the points of noble lances.
They had ridden into a skirmish on the hill, not far from the Fortress;
Turkish spahis enveloped their flanks.
Down on the plain, the Commander and his allies fought like frothing boars,
the French knights kept piling up around them in mounds of the dead,
and withal, caution had bowed before vainglory and the faltering
mystique of valor.
A delicate balance between the living and the dead still seemed possible,
but then a two-faced schismatic with a thousand horsemen
came to the timely assistance of the Turk (a direct descendant of Alexander the Great!),
with the result that the heavens from the Danube to Avignon soon hung with mourning.
It looked like our master, the Battle Commander, slipped from his saddle
under the heavy onslaught of spears and yatagans. But immediately he remounted
a nag and rode backwards to the bank of the river
and through the water to the confused ship
floating down the Danube.
When it came to escaping, yes, he made his escape —bareheaded,
riding a white mare.
Once again, as if nailed to this oak bench, I sit at the oak table
in the kitchen garden, pensively watching
the neat rows of tomatoes, garlic, cabbage,
the dill that has no intention of growing
under my eye greedy for the real.
As I have said, at the low table I leaf through random chapters of
the massive document where the author explains,
in the most minute detail,
how a truly enlightened Battle Commander can subdue
a walled city, however proud, defiant, hostile:
“Without the water of the river that courses through the city, the mills are doomed,
and along with them, the tanners’ trade as well as the wool and dye shops;
soon the city’s populace must decide to yield to the greater power
and be grateful with obedience.”
About the water, about drawing it off and depositing it somewhere at the heights,
the old author writes that it will sparkle with sun because
“it will thereby have been restored whence it originated.”
And about the water that turns the wheel, having fixed upon the axle
the bellows that fan hot coals in the forges, one may also say that
it will be of practical advantage in the churches
“for sounding the organs and giving praise
to the Lord.”
The oak bench, the coffee that cooled long ago,
the cabbage, tomatoes, dill,
the Battle Commander preparing at leisure
(in Timişoara, it seems to me)
for the impressive (and likewise, as will be judged later on,
the definitive) Crusade,
the dill, the wine grapes nowhere close to ripe, the neat rows of tomatoes.
His fogged-up eyeglasses,
the hill which, so they once believed,
had tumbled into the valley out of the clear blue sky
(depending on how you interpret the eternity of the moment!),
the dill, the acacias with their cascades of yellow flowers,
the wild apricot trees bent low with fruit,
the rows of tomatoes,
Anno Domini 1396.
I sit on this oak bench, at the oak table
in the kitchen garden:
crickets, horseflies, the rains soon to come, the forest
(not the hill) set in motion,
the Doberman Le Duc gnawing the afternoon away on a sheep’s shank-bone,
Paul and Doina who are supposed to arrive any moment,
the apple tree in full bloom,
the Sauvignon in my torpid glance, frosted with mist,
a sparkle in the dusk.