Three Poems from The Exeter Book
Translated from Old English by Gnaomi Siemens.
All over the earth are countless creatures we can never know.
Wherever water encircles the world’s bright breast, legions
of land-roving beasts, huge swarms of birds, crowd against
the roaring surf, the surge of the salty waves.
We heard tell of a certain wondrous wild thing, living
in a far-flung famous land, making her home in mountain
caves. Well read people write about this lonely wandering
creature, they call her Panther.
She is full of goodwill, a friend to all, all except the dragon
that is. Him she hates. He is a sick fuck—evil—her enemy
She shines and sparkles every curious color. The poet claims
not even Joseph’s fancy coat could beat her brilliance.
The color of her coat is glossy black, catches the light. Each hue
has its way, playing over her body in lux flashes, so that each
is an ornament unto itself, and dazzles more deliciously
than the next, and more strangely, more freakishly fair.
She has a singular style. She is mild, meek, gentle with men. Kind
and easy to adore, she has no ill will towards any soul, save
that one mentioned before—her adversary of old—that toxic destroyer.
She takes pleasure in the feast, over and over, until, satiated,
she steps to her rest. Sumptuous.
She disappears into the dark heart of the mountain, her hidden home,
a champion of her people quietly curling up in a cave. For three nights
times three subdued by slumber, she drifts in a sweet sleep.
Rise up dauntless one, daring on day three, suddenly restored to your power!
From your wild mouth music comes, the most gorgeous song. And with that
song, your scent. Sweeter, stronger than any other. Sweeter than the vital fresh
field herbs, more potent than the plush blossoms of the forest bursting forth,
more exotic than the earth’s most esoteric treasure.
From city halls and town squares, and the courtyards beyond the palace walls,
multitudes riot, spill out into the streets. Spear-wielding warriors, rowdy bards,
and beasts go in search of her magical scent, entranced.
It was just so with that god once, the joy-giver, benevolent to all except
that prince of poison—the bastard dragon.
That ancient fiend he cast down into an abyss lit with his own torment,
fettered him in fire, and covered him in constraints. He banished him
and rose victorious from the darkness, beating back death’s third night
to rise up an angelic prince.
The story of that victory left such a sweet scent, it wrapped the whole world
in its winning grip, and from then on they throng thick, from the far corners
of the earth to take in the wonder of that scent.
Even the saint said, “Manifold around middle-earth are the lush gifts laid out
for us, to save us, the all father, the only hope for each and every creature
above and below.”
What a scent!
So there’s this mega-fish, the monstrous whale.
Often encountered unwillingly, she is sadistic—
unsafe for seafarers, for everyone. The foul one
floating on the ancient floods—Call her Fastitocalon.
She is stone-grey, scabby. Her hulking back sports
sandy reed-beds. She stealth wanders the sea’s edge,
fooling sucker sailors into thinking they spy an island,
and so shelter their serpent-prowed ships to the un-land,
lasso their sea-mares to that supposed safe spot.
The brave boys unload, keels fixed, listing in the currents.
Spirit-weary, they set up camp, minding their business.
Coaxing kindling, stoking a high-fire—heroes, crazy
for a little comfort, ready for rest.
Creative in her craftiness she can feel the travelers
settling in, making camp, taking in the weather—suddenly
that murderous ghost of the sea, seeking the salt floor
plunges with her plunder, disappearing craft and crew
into the drink, into the death-hall.
This is the way with such devils, these evil spirits
with their secret power, they live their lives to trick
unsuspecting folk, corrupting them, and bending them
to their will, until, so full of anger, they seek help from
fiends—they pitch their tent with the oath-breaker.
When that dang destroyer sees them all stuck, sucked
into her circle of influence, by hook or crook, high or low
whomever, she pulls down her helmet of darkness and
heads straight for hell. The bottomless abyss boiling
under the murky waters, the monstrous whale sinking
ships’ captains, deck-swabbers, whomever.
Even more mysterious, when hunger troubles her,
when this monster’s gut-lust tugs, that hulking hunk of
hubris has another uncanny ability. The sea-warden
stretches her sick grin, and out of her entrails, wafts
a winsome scent meant to trick delicious little fishes.
Expert swimmers they seek out the origin of that
sweet stench, clueless school, they keep going, until
her gaping maw full—she suddenly clamps her clatch.
Everybody is oblivious so often now, attention spans shrink fast,
people let themselves be tricked by that sweet stench, duped
by misguided desire. The devices blind them, prevent even
a glimpse of that old glory.
Instead, death’s curse is hell’s key for those dancing the body’s
empty delights—distracted—against their better judgement.
And when that big tricky fish, has finessed them into her fortress,
her flaming vortex, still stuck to her like guilty glitter, eager
to learn her lore, she grips them in her grim jaws, lifeless
and smashes down the grated door of hell. No way out now,
or ever. They can’t get out, just like the little fishes trapped
in the whale’s grasp.
So beware of what you do or say, you devils, if you ever want
to get your glimpse of that old glory. This earth’s time
is up, why not live what’s left with love, and get something
out of that glory, forever.
THE LOST BIRD POEM
I’ve heard some speak about a certain strange
Gnaomi Siemens is an MFA candidate at Columbia University School of The Arts, in poetry and literary translation. Her words can be found at Asymptote, Words Without Borders, The Believer, and Slice Magazine. Her visual work has been shown in New York, D.C., and Maine. She is currently finishing her first poetry manuscript and a book of new translations from Old English. She lives in New York City.
Published on June 5, 2018.