Billows were breaking, sea against sand,
long before prime had rung from any bell—
and from a long way, hard and dangerous.
Yet little good hath got, and much lesse gayne
by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.
Each flower had wept, and bowed toward the east,
time’s winged chariot hurrying near,
but when the assault was intended to the city,
(before polygamy was made a sin)
their fluid bodies half dissolved in the light.
Cruel with guilt, and daring with despair,
the applause of listening senates to command,
they reeled, they set, they crossed, they cleekit,
and then the perilous path was planted.
I rose and turned toward a group of trees
through caverns measureless to man,
which kept my optics free from all delusion,
now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
diffused unseen throughout eternal space.
Once more uprose the mystic mountain-range,
and I, perchance, half felt a strange regret
of all the thousand nothings of the hour,
not knowing in any wise compassion,
all things counter, original, spare, strange.
Drawn on by vague imaginings, maybe,
the full round moon and the star-laden sky,
to wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
tell me not here, it needs not saying.
This land, cut off, will not communicate:
spot the blown word, and on the seas I imagine,
in short, a past that no one now can share.
Sources: Beowulf, Chaucer, Everyman, Spenser, Shakespeare, Herrick, Marvell, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Gray, Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Swinburne, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Housman, Auden, Thomas, Larkin.
Method: I’d never written a cento before, in fact never heard of it and now can’t remember quite how I did, but once I discovered the form and that it is “found,” I knew I had to try one. So I pulled out my trusty, undergrad Brit Lit I & II anthologies and began searching chronologically through the ages and poets, looking for single lines to steal and sequence. I was amazed that once I had a couple (in this case from Beowulf and Chaucer) the rest practically leapt off the pages to become the next, next, and next. The 2016 election and subsequent inauguration were heavily on my mind, and I found the resulting poem to be, in a slaunch-wise way, a commentary on the situation. I would guess that if I hadn’t said that, readers would find their own connections, political or not.
D. R. James’s seven collections include If god were gentle,Since Everything Is All I’ve Got,and the most recent chapbooks Why War and Split-Level. Poems and prose also appear in various print and online journals and anthologies. James lives in Saugatuck, Michigan, and has taught writing, literature, and peace-making at Hope College for 33 years.