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The Oral TraditionBill Manhire
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Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009
Poem

The Oral Tradition

Bill Manhire

472 words

The oral tradition tore us apart.
It sang in the heart, it chanted of the sun.
It knew the attributes of gods,
naming their triumphs one by one.
We looked far out: that ship was like a bird!
Its sails were wings beneath the stars.
And kennings like swans would visit from afar
to teach us to be travellers.

Such noise, so many voices!
The oral tradition was absurd.
It knew where killings had occurred.
It said it could cure the damaged sky.
It poured a Scotch, and made the roof beams sigh.
It always knew which horse to back.
It loved the work of Kerouac.
It said that we would die.

And always it tore us two apart.
It gathered on the terraces and in the stands
– we lingered on the stairwells of the heart –
and true to form the game went on.
Someone was carded, another player scored.
The oral tradition roared and roared
– such noise! so many voices! –
then left to join the fighters at the ford.

Soon it returned with ice plant for a wart.
It passed some comments on my school report.
It sang of the kayak and the waka,
it chanted above the creatures of the water;
it gossiped, and stank of honeydew,
and sniggered whene’er I spoke of you.
It said it knew a man who knew a man who said.
It placed this dark caesura in my head.

At night we heard it make lament.
It summoned the battlefields of France,
and killing fields in Africa and Spain,
the topless and the falling towers,
and armies marching over damp terrain,
and suicidal men who flew from shore to shore,
who could not think in metaphor,
and I believe we wept full sore.

We turned to books and parchment then,
touching a word to turn the page.
The oral tradition grew enraged.
Carving the eagle! A bright blade rose
and now some poor scribe’s lungs
lay there beside his poor elbows.
The oral tradition loved such woes.
It called a dozen talkback shows.

Such noise! So many voices!
The oral tradition crept from tree to tree.
It sat small children on its knee.
It held out its glass and said, When I say when.
And then, and then, and then, and then –
it whispered that you betrayed me with my friend;
then warbled about the afterlife
and said that you would never be my wife . . .

Thus we awoke in the smoky hall at dawn,
and there I assailed you loud and long.
You wept and wailed, and the oral tradition chanted on,
building its blind and paratactic song.
I walked away. The oral tradition
offered up a prayer. I heard it cry: We’re out of here!
Such noise, so many voices . . . I think I heard
you calling, but I could not hear.

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