Originally published in Theory of Flight (1935)
Two on the stairs in a house where they had loved :
mounting, and the steps a long ascent before them
brown: a single step creaking high in the flight; the turn :
the quiet house and the cheese-yellow walls shadowed by night,
dark; and the unlit lamps along the wall.
Dusk piles in old house-corners rapidly. Shade grows
where corners round to flights of stairs again. Evening
accumulates under the treads of mounting stairs.
They rise: he tightly-knit, clenched in anxiety, she calm,
massive in female beauty, precise line of brow
curving to generous cheek and mouth and throat,
and his face bright and strained with eagerness.
But the nights are restless with these dreams of ours
in which we cry, fling our arms abroad, and there is no one;
walls close in to a shaft and blur of brown:
out of the chaos and eclipse of mind rise stairs.
(Here, metrically and monotonously walks
each several person unprotectedly.)
Alone, the nightmare broadens in the rising,
dull step sinking behind dull step, now, here, here,
nothing in the world but the slow spiral rise, expectancy, and fear.
He turns his face to her, walk unbroken. Her face
questioning turns: there is no help for each
in the other. There are no eyes on them. The shaft
is empty of voices, all but the creaking step, regularly
in the flights recurring, preknown, dreaded that sound.
There is no face that he can see but hers.
She knows his look, and has known it for a long time.
The creak of one step is a punctuating rhyme.
But the nights are restless with receding faces
in massed battalions through the solemn air,
vivid with brightness, clangorous with sounds:
struck copper, chiming cylinders of silver, horns :
presences in the outer air. But here
only the empty shaft and the painful stairs.
He remembers the men and women he has loved:
fine-curved and brittle skulls housing strange ardency,
the male hard bravery of argument :
lips of women, love-writhen, and their hands,
pale fruit of comfort, pliant, governing, white consolation
against small fear and human bodily pain,
never against the terror of the stairs.
Remembrances of words, human counsel in sounds, and pictures,
books, and the bleak rush of shining towers,
tunes crop through the tired brain: Ravel’s “Bolero,”
an old blues going “Love, Oh Love Oh Loveless Love,”
humping through air powerfully with its sound.
She remembers the men and women she has loved:
the full soft cheeks of girls, their secrecies,
grave words that fell with sweet continuance in her youth :
men’s eyes, dumb with meaning unspeakable and low-sounding
among the intricate memories deep in her recessed mind,
the length of their arms, the firm triangled backs, stalwart,
turning beautifully in their planes on the narrow hips,
dark ease beneath their arms and eyes, strength in their voices,
but ebbing away in the silence of the stairs.
Remembrances of wind shaking November evenings,
arpeggioed skyscrapers, clean-heavy-falling waters :
“There’s No Today, There’s No Tomorrow”
debates against a symphony of Brahms’,
and foot follows foot heavily in the row.
He had gone to play apart, by the hollows of the sand
cupped (a pale arm about the ocean’s blue) :
picked pebbles and the soft-voluted shells,
laver and dulse, dark flowers of the sea.
He had been a child in a fantastic wood
where the dim statues stood, posturing gothically,
and “Mother, mother, mother!” cried : but they
remained with closed lips ceremonially.
The ocean and his mother and his childhood let him be
until he had grown and finished his lessons and his prayers,
and then : these stairs.
Night is treacherous with dreams betraying us,
leaving us vulnerable to inherited shame,
crying out against our secret, naming an occult name.
And she had enjoyed narrow fields, shaven lawns,
tiny stones freckled brown and white and red,
green water troubled by waves of a twig’s making,
grown out of these to wider thoughts that bred
high spaces and new knowledges, and cared for some
with mind and body, some with love only of eyes and head.
She had believed in the quick response to pain,
in union of crowds living in one belief,
a social order kept by a coöperative strain
steadily toward one thing, but aware of all :
she had reached out her hand with the gesture of one who dares,
and found : these stairs.
The stairs still rise. The halls remain, and dull
and somber stand to be trodden by the quiet two rising
laboriously along the fateful road. They should be high now.
(If the dun walls should slide into the night,
faces might be disclosed, bitter, impotent, angered
above slant shoulders swinging toolless arms, great hands
jointed around no implements, and the silent mouths
opened to cry for law. Some faces black, the rope
knotted beneath an ear, some black with the strong blood
of Negroes, some yellow and concentrate, all fixed
on the tower of stairs, should the walls sink, perhaps
all waiting, perhaps nothing but unanswering dark.)
They must be high. There are no voices. The shaft is very still.
Night is sick with our dreams. Night is florid
with our by-reason-uncontested imagings. We in our time
(not we : you : in your time : no credit ours)
have built brave stone on stone, and called their blazonry
Beauty Old Yet Ever New : Eternal Voice
And Inward Word : (a blur of fond noises signifying
a long thing) and raised signs, saying:
But Of All Things Truth Beareth Away
The Victory : (the pock-bitten pass to spit
gelatinously and obscenely on the bird-marked stones,
and shallow-cavern letters fade). The evil night
of our schooled minds is morbid with our dreams.
Whir. Whirl of brown stairs. Cool brow. Athenian lips.
The creaking stairs. Stupid stupid stupidly stupidly
we go a long voyage on the stairs of a house
builded on stairs. One stair creaks forever amen in the Name.
Treads rock under the feet. The two go : he tight and harsh
(but limp with warm exhaustion), she plods : one, two, foot : on
up mounting up O loverly stairs, hideous and cruel
we propitiate you with incensuous words stairs lovely loved
rise, idol of our walking days and nights,
travelled-forever road of the lordly mind : with shaking bannisters
and no sound crawling through the wall-hole-lips :
love-writhen women’s lips : the crackled lips of the mass
that must be there waiting for law at the wall’s decay.
Large female : male : come tiredness and sleep
come peace come generous power over no other, come Order here.
Steps mount. The brown treads rise. Stairs. Rise up. Stairs.
(c) Muriel Rukeyser