– so we moved along the bank upstream,
and where the river bent in a broken circle
to the left, beheld a busy municipium:
welter of gleaming glass and flickering steel
resembling vast shuttlings of water bugs
(chaotic, breaking apart the smooth still
surface into myriad coarse shags
of garish noise). Then my eyes shifted
to the river itself, and picked out a brig
there – hermaphrodite, trim, she drifted
with peculiar motion, perpendicular
to the flow. At prow and stern were lofted
pennants (princely St. George at the fore,
and aft, a black-green, jumbled image
fusing, it seemed, some fasces with a star).
Upon the poop, a gaunt man in a rage
stood, yapping imprecations toward the bow,
whereat a lank chap, dignified with age,
responded languidly (voice diffident and low).
Apparently, they each commanded wheels,
and piloted the ship as if to go
both ways at once – causing the luckless keels’
erratic laterality (crosscurrent,
at cross purposes). I turned to him, whom eagle’s
perspicacity once lifted to the firmament
on high. Stern and melancholy then
he gazing, spoke. “Throughout the Occident
once reigned supreme in poetry, these men –
their tandem sway the ultimate authority.
In talent matchless, their forceful mien
bore down all before them. Yet, perdie,
an overweening awe for ordered rule
(drawn, I blush to say, from De Monarchia!)
caused them to miss that inlet whence the whole
sweet cataract of liberty descends;
and so you see them, netted in such moil
of turbid aimlessness.” “And yet,” contends
me – “if there be contempt for duty,
honor, justice, loyalty – neither high lands
nor low – no fear of that sublimity
called holy – what remains, but feud and die?
What path leads out of universal enmity –
that peevish self-engorged impiety
which desolates the vernal countryside
with fattened castles – that blighted antipathy
to common good, which makes the cities bleed?”
My dear guide, pensive, murmured then:
“Remember this (your elder teacher’s screed
of long ago): Freedom builds within,
or breaks your bones
.” And on that note
I glanced upriver – glimpsed the leonine
white crown, the heavy shoulders, the stout
birch staff, the hiking boots – the veteran’s
cap, askew – the slouching, musing gait –
pioneering through cane reeds, alone –

* ["Freedom builds within,", etc. : from a poem by Edwin Honig titled "Cuba in Mind"]

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