Dark Lady on the bus

In the late 60s I attended Blake School, in Hopkins, MN (west of Minneapolis - poet Allen Grossman's alma mater) through high school. Every senior at Blake had to deliver a "Chapel Speech" at some point (I wrote a novella called Chapel Hill which describes what this involved). Anyway, my "chapel speech" in 1969 was a long poem, which came to me suddenly (one day in the fall of 1969) after I had stalled for a long time in the putting-together of that speech. The resulting poem (along with some others) was part of my successful college application to Brown U. I don't think I had ever read Shakespeare's Sonnets before writing this : the "Dark Lady" was just part of the cultural air. (Another element of the atmosphere was that Blake at the time was a "boys' school" : we were required to wear coats & ties every morning, in Chapel.) Anyway, here is the poem :


Hi there glad you could all come
just straighten your ties and listen to a tale
my name is Prester John
I'm a king from deepest Africa
ancient coptic christian
in heathen jungle,
where tigers and Tarzan
compete for prize money,
while cameras roll and monkeys scream
I'm Prester John
son of the magi
magi that's right magic
teller of lies/teller of truth/teller of lies
so just straighten your ties and listen.

I'm an old man
once I was young rolling in hay
heaving bright air through fields
bones of beasts not yet risen burned
me through laughter, silence.

Then one day
then one day the day turned aquick black
then back again new before I knew
I was pounding in the dark and afraid
but I could not go back to Smileand.

I pounded and frowned and groaned
pounded and groaned and frowned
groaned and frowned and pounded.
I moved slowly into enclosures of steel
then quickly broke them down
fearing dreams and fearing days
writing my name in different ways

(my name remember is Prester John, priest john.
your neckties are asleep. wake up and listen.)

So I climbed fresh-blaked on a bright bus
which wound its way toward washington
where we meant to carry candles, chant
and further exorcise the place.
we shall be a million strong, we sang
and we shall overcome. we rode like children.

and then
and then far back deep under the dark
rear of our bus arose a flower
arose a dark, dark lady on a seashell
from beneath the green seat
a dark, dark lady riding a seashell
a dark, dark lady riding a shell
and she drew me and drew me and drew me
back, back into the bus, back, back, back
back, back into the bus, back, back, back, back

(Wake up! Remember! I am Prester John,
mythical ruler in northern rockies
a holy flower colony of children
where our own few seeds sprout, and
we survive and live and grow.)

So she drowned me
and my lady and I were lost
and I was lost, and white washington
temples were lost and we awoke
exhausted in Ithaca, New York.
I read the news of Washington,
groaning in Ithaca nowhere.
My dark lady laughed her rage
and screamed her laughter
into frozen nights.
So I went away, away, away, away.

Wake up! This is the last time! Remember!
I'm an old man making food
in my children's colony, bearded
like Moses or Ulysses or Prester John
I rule my flower children with a fist
so they may survive in wilderness.
but my days grow yellow.
my children are not sane.
the ground lies fallow, while
my sons steal down the mountain to find
a hamburger stand, and my eldest now,
he wears a coat and tie, and my youngest, now,
he wants to be a business man, and my daughters, now,
they want to go to school...


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