DEEP CUT: Harry Brown

by Mieke Chew

From the dusty shelves in our vault: a poem by American Harry Brown from his book The End of the Decade, published by New Directions in 1940. The jacket describes Brown as “modern without being obscure,” adding “many readers feel that he will develop into a poet of the very first order.” After The End of the Decade, Brown published three more books—all now out of print—and several screenplays, including the 1960 heist film, Ocean’s 11.

Brown’s poem “Oceanic” takes on a terrible new meaning when read in this decade, a decade in which thousands of people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

OCEANIC

Rumors have come from the Mediterranean reaches

That there have been seen in the sea, surrounded by brightness,

The white and legendary horses of the ancient gods,

Foam-flecked, wave-riding, flame-eyed, whose fierce hooves

Beat out a track of destruction on the waters;

Seen from peninsulas their straight, dangerous course,

Heard from green islands their great, thunderous tread.

Swells and surges follow them, and the tall, moon-chained tides

Increase the proportions of fear among the peoples.

The sound of submarine gongs comes faintly through the coral,

And the incomprehensible deeps are lucid and alive

With blue harmless bays move the huge, pale-bodied stallions,

And past the fisherman’s village, where the useless nets are drying.

And beyond the coasts of Odysseus’ seven terrors,

Where myth still flourishes in the shepherd’s flute,

And beneath the ruined promontories of the Caesars,

And along the shore where Homer conceived a catastrophe,

And Xerxes saw his conquests sink, one by one,

The immortal monsters move, over the austere surges,

And the ponderous order of the Ocean is broken and disturbed.

The blacks of burning Africa are witness to the warning,

And the sutlers of Allah, by the minarets of their cities,

Uneasily stir. The whispers increase, the rumors

Spread past the Gates of Hercules, and the Atlantic is aware.

Rumblings are felt in the earth, storms threaten, even the sun

Reacts. And across the desolation of the sea

Come the irresistible stallions, the massive, immaculate steeds.

O, the world is on fire, and over our summer meadows

Smoke darkens the air. There is danger beyond the harbors,

The entire sea is filled with passionate sound–

Murmurs within the caverns, and muttering under the channels.

Look! There is something, in its wake the water

Foams, and the spume is boiling far behind it.

Look! That glare is the sun on furious flanks.