Here is a poem written many years ago when I was travelling in Central America researching my doctoral thesis. I remember showing it to Ernesto Cardenal while I was staying in his commune in Solentiname, on one of the islands in the south of Nicaragua’s Great Lake. He told me then that it reminded him of Ezra Pound’s poem “Provincia deserta” and that indeed – in addition to my own experience – was the inspiration.
Le Minier is a very small village close to Le Viala du Tarn and not too far from the town of Roquefort, famous for its sheep’s cheese. Once a thriving mining community, nowadays the principal activity in the region is rearing sheep. In the time when I used to visit the village, many of the houses were in disrepair or in the process of being renovated as second homes for families who lived in Montpellier or other cities in the Languedoc.
Ezra Pound’s poem begins:
Where the hills part
in three ways,
And three valleys, full of winding roads,
Fork out to south and north,
There is a place of trees … gray with lichen.
I have walked there
thinking of old days.
This morning I awoke thinking of old days, and of the days that lie ahead. I still remember the sound of the sheep bells at dusk when the shepherd would drive the flock down the hill, through a narrow street, past the house where I was staying. The form of my poem was intended in part to suggest that descent.
Le Minier, L’Aveyron
The river flows beneath the old bridge,
swollen by recent storm rains, polishing
the stepping stones in the bed, racing down the weir.
In the square a memorial stone
at war with Germany. On the slopes
that run up from the square are their deserted houses,
some still with roof, but mainly caved in,
By the memorial the little chapel built by the names
on the stone,
perhaps helped by their fathers.
Room for sixty or more on the worn benches
though now at eight o’clock, before the sun
has broken the hill top, only
a handful of women dressed in black hear a mass
said by the frail priest who cannot shave so early in
Few returned to the village
and their young soon left for the cities
where they could bury themselves in life.
Now a few come back in retirement,
back to the village
so suited for dying.
At night the sheep come down from the hills
for shelter, the shepherd’s stick
keeping the pace steady, the anxious dog
guarding the rear:
through the narrow paths
The copper mine is finished,
no work. Perhaps a few women making gloves
at home, making lace for tourists.
Summer visitors arrive like a transfusion,
but the blood seeps out through the cracked
walls, gushes from broken window frames.
You may see a young couple kissing passionately
by the river, pledging
together. How can you tell if the next year
will not see them miles