Somewhere outside the Grands Boulevard,
I can’t remember where,
there stands a line of stone-made sisters
with breasts completely bare
in that style that seemed so french to me,
a tourist in Paris.
Their thin marble arms would live on while all
these beautiful fairy-
waisted french women yield to the years
as their mothers had before;
step by step, and joy by joy and tear
by tear, and chore by chore,
sin by sin, and love by love, their beauty flies
while the sisters, in their line,
still tempt the grandsons of their maker’s eyes
and wash their thoughts with wine.
But I looked again and saw an iron belt
around each carven hip.
A bolt beneath the navel seeming svelte
was placed to stop a slip;
the long assault of gravity and rain
will break the naked stone
as winds and passersby erode their reign.
Time will have them overthrown.
The barren rock beneath His heavy thresh,
incapable of birth,
is no more immortal than the sons of flesh
and daughters of the earth.
For though it is man whose body feeds the worm,
not monuments of granite,
he may in age to come replant his germ
and outlive his cradle planet.
So man’s bright genius may become ever
renewing as the morn
of some adopted star and by endeavor
find again some newborn
galaxy to people with his fairest youth,
to preserve himself beyond the grave,
to resist and to reject the ugly truth:
we are Time’s favorite slave.
None of this will survive a universe
in the heat-death of Apollo’s dying curse,
all men undistinguished
from the chaotic infinities of dust,
their atoms spread throughout
the countless waste of sculpture, star, and rust.
The sculpted sisters will doubt
any meaning cast on their bleak destiny
but we souled creatures are
drawn restlessly toward some eternity;
it matters not how far.
* One will note that I’ve drawn two phrases, including the title of this poem, from Bertrand Russell’s public domain work, “A Free Man’s Worship.” One particularly relevant paragraph reads:
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
I often think about this essay of his and it always produced in me the same feeling that I experienced upon looking at the nameless line of statues that I refer to in the poem. While I deeply respect Russell for his intellectual honesty, I’ve never found his worldview satisfying, and it is precisely that unsatisfied hunger that I’m trying to discuss in this poem. Despite the “debris of a universe in ruins,” I believe there is something inside of us that rejects that this world is without meaning; I do not believe this rejection is accidental.