Conrad Aiken “Electra”

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Electra

I

The little princess, on her eleventh birthday,

Trapped a blue butterfly in a net of gauze,

Where it was sunning on a speckled stone.

The blue wings fluttered in the silkworm net.

“What voice, Blue Butterfly,” (the Princess cried)

“Is voice of butterfly? … You scream in fury

Close to my ear; yet hear I not a sound.”

She caught it down against the stone, and pressed

A royal finger on each round blue wing;

And as one tears apart a folded leaf

By pushing right and left, so tore she, smiling,

The azure fly…. Her eyes were bright and blue,

 

Her teeth were sharp; the sunlight streaked her hair

With twining gold along two braids. She frowned

As might a chemist at a test-tube-drop

(Bright, poisonous and pendent) when she saw

Cerulean dust upon each finger tip.

This, being rubbed against a tulip-mouth,

(A glutted bee dislodged) she sat demurely:

Opened her book, on which leaf-shadows winked;

And blew a dart toward a scarlet bird

In bright green tropics of the Amazon.

II

Dressing the naked doll of redded wax,

(The white cheeks rouged) she feathered-stitched a square

Of scarlet silk with golden staggering stitches;

Chain-lightninged all its edges, After this,

Superimposed; and then a tinfoil crown,

Massive, of divers colours; this, compounded

(Relics of Beaune, of Jerez, and Oporto)

Blazed the wax brow. A bed cottonwool

Was smoothed; and thrice-anointed Ferdinand

(First pressed against her thigh for nourishment)

Was covered with a soiled green handkerchief

And closed his eyes: exchanging glass for wax.

 

This was the seventh year. Between the eight

And ninth, the form of nourishment was changed.

The doll was clasped between her knees. She held

A knife in one hand, while the other lifted

A paper bird. The neck of this was severed.

And Ferdinand had passed from milk to blood.

 

III

“Your soul” (so said her father in the spring

That brought her sixteenth year) “turns smaller, as

Your body waxes to ripe beauty. Dwarfs

(As you haven seen circuses, or tumbling

Through scarlet-papered hoops, at vauderville)

Bear on the brow, though mouth and eyes be fair,

A drawn and arid look, of suffering.

Dwarfed, and as blue and arid, peers the soul

Like a starved nymph from your bright eyes. Your mouth

Though beautiful, and yes, desirable,­ ––

(even to me, who like a wizard shaped it),––

Is much too red; too cruelly downward curved,

It hides a tooth too sharp. You will do murder ––

Laughing and weeping; hear the song of blood;

The gnome in you will laugh; the nymph will weep.”

 

She locked strong hands around his neck and kissed him.

Lifting a naked knee to press him subtly

She hurt him consciously; kissed till he laughed;

Unlocked her hands, then sobered; moved away;

Shook down the golden skirt; whistled a tune;

And read the morning paper, coiled like a cat.

 

IV

 

“Under this water-lily knee” (she said)

“Blood intricately flows, corpuscle creeps,

The white like sliced cucumber, and the red

Like poker-chip! Along dark mains they flow

As wafts the sponging heart. The water-lily,

Subtle in seeming, bland to lover’s hand

Upthrust exploring, is in essence gross,

Multiple and corrupt. Thus, in the moonlight”

(She hooked a curtain and disclosed the moon)

“How cold and lucent! And this naked breast,

Whereon a blue vein writes Diana’s secret,

How simple! How seductive of the palm

That flatters with the finest tact of flesh!

Not silver is this flank nor ivory,

Gold it is not, not copper, but distilled

Of lust in the moonlight, and my own hand stays

To touch it in this moonlight, whence it came.”

Naked in moonlight, like a doll of wax,

On the stone floor nocturnal, she stood still

But her moved her hands. The cruel mouth was curved,

Smiling a little; and her eyes were fixed,

In wonder, on Diana’s hieroglyph.

And it was then (her nineteenth autumn come)

She heard at last, so often prophesied,

The singing of the blood. Her beauty broke

To sound beneath her hands, which moved from breast

To knee and back again, and bruised the flank

That was not gold or copper, but became

A throbbing sound beneath palpating palms.

Thus stood awhile; then sighed; then dropped her hands

And wept, as he (who loved her) had foretold.

 

V

It was the twentieth birthday, or the moon,

Which flung a careless net upon the house

Trapping the stone (as she trapped the fly);

The house with weeping. In the room they lay

Weeping together. “Like a harp it is”

(She said) “which but to sound, but once to sound,

Snaps every string. Better to die, than be

Where sound of life was once.” She pressed his hand

Against her side, where once the doll was pressed,

Prince Ferdinand; but she was hungry still.

And heard the song of blood, outrageously,

And cried, “Shut eyes and kiss me!” “O, Arachne!

What web is this you weave, dear poison-mouth?”

“The web, alas, is cut as soon as woven,”

She answered. And the word she spoke was true.

 

VI

The moonlight and the house then sang together,

Yet not the house, but something in the house,

As if together they once more distilled

(Of blood and moonlight) ivory or gold,

Copper or silver; or, if not quite these

Something of which the moon contrived the surface

While blood beneath supplied the essence gross.

Useless! for it was spilled as soon as brimmed.

Prince Ferdinand was dead, Arachne dead,

The blood unmoving, and the moonlight vain.

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