“Wealhtheow” takes us back to early English, to the sources of our literature. Potter says the name “Wealhtheow” refers to a character in Beowulf. She is Hrothgar’s queen but is barely mentioned in the poem. We see in this poem, as if contemporary life isn’t enough of a lesson, how fragile sanctuary is. But maybe, the poem suggests, our real home is less in a geographical place and more in the stories we tell. Notice the rich language, the way it evokes Old English and hints at alliteration, repeated sounds at the beginning of words. Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor
I hear laughter, as I always do in the night—
warriors chanting, beating their empty goblets
against the mead-benches, kicking aside
the iron shields and helmets that litter the floor,
clamor rising as the broad hall-doors open,
as the men clank and stagger into the black-feathered snow,
to piss, or to plot, in pairs or threes,
the downfall or glory of my husband.
Above their noise rings the high nasal song of the bard,
and at intervals I snatch a phrase—a spear of gold,
an ancient name, a shadow that haunts the fens.
And beyond this rabble, I hear the sea,
always the sea,
pebbles rushing back and forth, back and forth,
in and out of the current’s maw—tireless, bone-cold,
under cloud murk and flurry.
On those terrible nights, when Grendel or his dam
would stalk in from the marshes to devour our sons,
the silence around the hall seemed to quiver.
Even the hissing sea shrank away from us,
retreating to its lone black outpost on the sands.
We dreaded the quiet and yet it was vast also,
and vivid in its distance.
We felt the smallness of our lives: we hid nothing within us.
Better, in such silence, to have been stones or sky.
We were doomed by our clattering hearts.
If only quiet could enter without disaster in its wake—
without those shreds of flesh and sinew
heaped on the doorstep with prideful gaiety,
as if the fen-beasts were sleek little cats
and our sons the bowels of a rabbit.
If only quiet could enter as bodily peace,
a stillness of the mind, a dense solitude,
so that each thought might linger unto itself,
as a pond shimmers under its fog-cloak
on the last morning of winter.
I hear laughter, as I always do in the night,
now that the hero has murdered the monsters,
now that the warriors have forgotten their dishonor
and reclaimed the hall. Beside me, his breath heavy, harsh,
rank with drink and tooth-rot, sleeps the old king.
His nervous, twitching hands look strangely young.
Sorrow has crippled the king for too long.
I have lain beside his terror for nearly all of my years.
He will die in this bed, asleep or awake, by stroke or by sword,
and when his gods betray him, I will be here still.
The waves will hurtle over shingle and stone.
In the mead-hall, warriors will beat their empty goblets
against the benches, and a bard will rise to sing.
Our sons will survive and flourish.
Our sons will be heaps of flesh and sinew—
quivering, bog-dark. A dense solitude.
The king will moan in his sleep. The sea will rush
back and forth, back and forth under the feathering snow.
A tale will rise like a shadow from the fens.
Dawn Potter’s “Average Land” traces how as we age out of our youthful adventurous spirits a little calm, a little peaceful sanctuary that we once dismissed, suddenly seems well–almost welcome. This poem previously appeared in Vox Populi Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor
Even a person like you,
paddling away in your outrigger canoe,
counting strokes and plotting interviews with fans
(or, contrariwise, splitting your proud bow
on a sharp rock and girding yourself for death) –
yes, even you might wake up one gloaming
to find yourself stranded on a fat-faced isle –
green-haired, peaceable, round as a penny.
You begin your stay by lying nose down in the sand,
maybe for hours, concussed by zeal,
pestered by tame robins.
It takes that long to admit you’ve been caught.
Call it a failure of imagination, but you never believed
that a person like you could find herself demoted
to the safe-and-sound.
You were bound for glory, born to gun.
You waned with wrecks and waxed with thorns.
Now here you lie, with the modest waves dribbling at your feet.
On the hillside a lamb obediently crops the grass.