Old English, New English: Two Poems by Miller Oberman
There was a house built before you were born.
Before you came from your mother, your dust was here.
But it wasn’t active, its deepness not known,
not yet locked in what length it would lay for you.
Now you are brought there where you shall be.
Now you are measured and the dirt after that.
No, your house is not made high with boards,
it is un-high, low when you lie in there.
The cover-walls are low, the side-walls un-high,
the roof is built full near your breast.
So you shall dwell in full-cold soil,
dim and dark. That den fouls around your hands,
that house is doorless and dark within.
There you are kept fast, and death has the key.
That earth-heave is burdensome, and bitter to abide in.
There you shall dwell and worms will dismember you.
There you are laid, and loathsome to your loved ones
No one, never will a friend come near to see how you are,
to look and see how you like that house,
that will ever undo that door after you
and make light [ ]
For soon you are burdensome and loathsome to see,
(for soon your head is bereft of hair,
all the fairness of your hair is scattered,
and never, no one will stroke it softly with their fingers.)
After my father died but
before I died, we sat
at the edge of the sea
in a tall watch chair,
the year the sky changed
its meaning. I was taller,
closer to the world’s roof,
or it had fallen an inch
or two, the two inches
my father had that I did not
have, which I now saw,
sitting high off the sand
on the tower made for watching,
in daylight, swimmers.
She had stood at the rim of the woods
the day I lowered his body
gently down with ropes, gently
but not without effort,
the bearers planting their feet
apart, digging in, inverted
sailors, hoisting down not up,
hand over hand, bent forward,
not back, hips not opened to sail
and mast, but closed. Lowering
a body in a box. In the chair,
not lowered, our two bodies sat
under the sky, two inches
closer, and fell, or continued
I was not taller, it was the sky
dropped down, and I was I,
pulled back from a yawning
distance into my body. You also
in a body, on the watch-post,
had arms and hands and heat.
The arc of the sky, the illusion
of the sky’s arc— came closer.
The stars spread on its blue
curve, and we did not touch
except in the way the sky
touched us, poured its bent
dark down, as if we were
enclosed. Not by a hole
in the earth, but a hole
in self itself, or the illusion that
one person can live inside another.
And if it was not illusion, the sky
came closer, we unburied ones
bore our bones up.
The first poem “The Grave,” above, is a translation of what is thought to be the last poem written in Old English. The last three lines were added on later, in Middle English, by a scribe medievalists refer to as “the tremulous hand.” The brackets note portions of text that are missing, as part of the manuscript was destroyed.
The second poem, “The Grave,” is a new original poem.
About the Author:
Miller Oberman is a 2005 recipient of Poetry Magazine’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His poems and translations recently appeared in or forthcoming in Poetry, The Nation, Tin House, and Beloit Poetry Journal. His translation of the “Old English Rune Poem” won Poetry Magazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation in 2013 and his poetry collection Useful was a finalist for the 2012 National Poetry Series.
A doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, Oberman studies Poetry and Poetics with a focus on Queer Theory and Old English translation.
Read Miller’s poem “On Trans” at the Poetry Foundation.