Senlin: A Biography


Conrad Aiken



I am a house, says Senlin, locked and darkened,

Sealed from the sun with wall and door and blind.

Summon me loudly, and you'll hear slow footsteps

Ring far and faint in the galleries of my mind.

You'll hear soft steps on an old and dusty stairway;

Peer darkly through some corner of a pan,

You'll see me with a faint light coming slowly,

Passing above some gallery of the brain...

I am a city...In the blue light of evening

Wind wanders among my streets and makes them fair;

I am a room of rock...a maiden dances

Lifting her hands, tossing her golden hair.

She combs her hair, the room of rock is darkened,

She extends herself in me, and I am sleep.

It is her pride that starlight is above me;

I dream amid waves of air, my walls are deep.

I am a door...before me roils the darkness,

Behind me ring clear waves of sound and light.

Stand in the shadowy street outside, and listen—

The crying of violins assails the night...

My walls are deep, but the cries of music pierce them;

They shake with the sound of drums...yet it is strange

That I should know so little what makes this music,

Hearing it always within me change and change.

Knock on the door,— and you shall have an answer.

Open the heavy walls to set me free,

And blow a horn to call me into the sunlight,—

And startled, then, what a strange thing you will see!

Nuns, murderers, and drunkards, saints and sinners,

Lover and dancing girl and sage and clown

Will laugh upon you, and you will find me nowhere.

I am a room, a house, a street, a town.


It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning

When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,

I arise, I face the sunrise,

And do the things my fathers learned to do.

Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops

Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,

And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet

Stand before a glass and tie my tie.

Vine-leaves tap my window,

Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,

The robin chips in the chinaberry tree

Repeating three clear tones.

It is morning. I stand by the mirror

And tie my tie once more.

While waves far off in a pale rose twilight

Crash on a white sand shore.

I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:

How small and white my face!—

The green earth tilts through a sphere of air

And bathes in a flame of space.

There are houses hanging above the stars

And stars hung under a sea...

And a sun far off in a shell of silence

Dapples my walls for me...

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning

Should I not pause in the light to remember God?

Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,

He is immense and lonely as a cloud.

I will dedicate this moment before my mirror

To him alone, and for him will I comb my hair.

Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!

I will think of you as I descend the stair.

Vine leaves tap my window,

The snail-track shines on the stones,

Dew-drops flash from the chinaberry tree

Repeating two clear tones.

It is morning, I awake from a bed of silence,

Shining I rise from the starless waters of sleep.

The walls are about me still as in the evening,

I am the same, and the same name still I keep.

The earth revolves with me, yet makes no motion,

The stars pale silently in a coral sky.

In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,

Unconcerned, I tie my tie.

There are horses neighing on far-off hills

Tossing their long whire manes,

And mountains flash in the rose-white dusk,

Their shoulders black with rains...

It is morning, I stand by the mirror

And surprise my soul once more;

The blue air rushes above my ceiling,

There are suns beneath my floor...

...It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness

And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,

My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,

And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.

There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,

And a god among the stars; and I will go

Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak

And humming a tune I know...

Vine-leaves tap at the window,

Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,

The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree

Repeating three clear tones.


I walk to my work, says Senlin, along a street

Superbly hung in space.

I lift these mortal stones, and with my trowel

I tap them into place.

But is god, perhaps, a giant who ties his tie

Grimacing before a colossal glass of sky?

These stones are heavy, these stones decay,

These stones are wet with rain,

I build them into a wall today,

Tomorrow they fall again.

Does god arise from a chaos of starless sleep,

Rise from the dark and stretch his arms and yawn;

And drowsily look from the window at his garden;

And rejoice at the dewdrop sparkling on his lawn?

Does he remember, suddenly, with amazement,

The yesterday he left in sleep,— his name,—

Or the glittering street superbly hung in wind

Along which, in the dusk, he slowly came?

I devise new patterns for laying stones

And build a stronger wall.

One drop of rain astonishes me

And I let my trowel fall.

The flashing of leaves delights my eyes,

Blue air delights my face;

I will dedicate this stone to god,

And tap it into its place.


That woman—did she try to attract my attention?

Is it true I saw her smile and nod?

She turned her head and smiled...was it for me?

It is better to think of work or god.

The clouds pile coldly above the houses

Slow wind revolves the leaves:

It begins to rain, and the first long drops

Are slantingly blown from eaves.

But it is true she tried to attract my attention!

She pressed a rose to her chin and smiled.

Her hand was white by the richness of her hair,

Her eyes were those of a child.

It is true she looked at me as if she liked me.

And turned away, afraid to look too long!

She watched me out of the corners of her eyes;

And tapping time with fingers, hummed a song. it sure she tried to attract my attention?

She leaned her elbow in a peculiar way

There in the crowded room...she touched my hand...

She must have known, and yet,—she let it stay.

Music of flesh! Music of root and sod!

Leaf touching leaf in the rain!

Impalpable clouds of red ascend,

Red clouds blow over my brain.

Did she await from me some sign of acceptance?

I smoothed my hair with a faltering hand.

I started a feeble smile, but the smile was frozen:

Perhaps, I thought, I misunderstood.

Is it to be conceived that I could attract her—

This dull and futile flesh attract such fire?

I,—with a trowel's dullness in hand and brain!—

Take on some godlike aspect, rouse desire?

Incredible!...delicious!...I will wear

A brighter color of tie, arranged with care,

I will delight in god as I comb my hair.

And the conquests of my bolder past return

Like strains of music, some lost tune

Recalled from youth and a happier time.

I take my sweetheart's arm in the dusk once more;

Once more we climb

Up the forbidden stairway.

Under the flickering light, along the railing:

I catch her hand in the dark, we laugh once more,

I hear the rustle of silk, and follow swiftly,

And softly at last we close the door.

Yes, it is true that woman tried to attract me:

It is true she came out of time for me,

Came from the swirling and savage forest of earth,

The cruel eternity of the sea.

She parted the leaves of waves and rose from silence

Shining with secrets she did not know.

Music of dust! Music of web and web!

And I, bewildered, let her go.

I light my pipe. The flame is yellow,

Edged underneath with blue.

These thoughts are truer of god, perhaps,

Than thoughts of god are true.


It is noontime, Senlin says, and a street piano

Strikes sharply against the sunshine a harsh chord,

And the universe is suddenly agitated,

And pain to my heart goes glittering like a sword.

Do I imagine it? The dust is shaken,

The sunlight quivers, the brittle oak-leaves tremble.

The world, disturbed, conceals its agitation;

And I, too, will dissemble.

Yet it is sorrow has found my heart,

Sorrow for beauty, sorrow for death;

And pain twirls slowly among the trees.

The street-piano revolves its glittering music,

The sharp notes flash and dazzle and turn,

Memory's knives are in this sunlit silence,

They ripple and lazily burn.

The star on which my shadow falls is frightened,—

It does not move; my trowel taps a stone,

The sweet note wavers amid derisive music;

And I, in horror of sunlight, stand alone.

Do not recall my weakness, savage music!

Let the knives rest!

Impersonal, harsh, the music revolves and glitters,

And the notes like poniards pierce my breast.

And I remember the shadows of webs on stones,

And the sound or rain on withered grass,

And a sorrowful face that looked without illusions

At its image in the glass.

Do not recall my childhood, pitiless music!

The green blades flicker and gleam,

The red bee bends the clover, deeply humming;

In the blue sea above me lazily stream

Cloud upon thin-brown cloud, revolving, scattering;

The mulberry tree rakes heaven and drops its fruit;

Amazing sunlight sings in the opened vault

On dust and bones, and I am mute.

It is noon; the bells let fall soft flowers of sound.

They turn on the air, they shrink in the flare of noon.

It is night; and I lie alone, and watch through the window

The terrible ice-white emptiness of the moon.

Small bells, far off, spill jewels of sound like rain,

A long wind hurries them whirled and far,

A cloud creeps over the moon, my bed is darkened,

I hold my breath and watch a star.

Do not disturb my memories, heartless music!

I stand once more by a vine-dark moonlit wall,

The sound of my footsteps dies in a void of moonlight,

And I watch white jasmine fall.

Is it my heart that falls? Does earth itself

Drift, a white petal, down the sky?

One bell-note goes to the stars in the blue-white silence,

Solitary and mournful, a somnolent cry.


Death himself in the rain . . . death himself . . .

Death in the savage sunlight . . . skeletal death . . .

I hear the clack of his feet,

Clearly on stones, softly in dust;

He hurries among the trees

Whirling the leaves, tossing he hands from waves.

Listen! the immortal footsteps beat.

Death himself in the grass, death himself,

Gyrating invisibly in the sun,

Scatters the grass-blades, whips the wind,

Tears at boughs with malignant laughter:

On the long echoing air I hear him run.

Death himself in the dusk, gathering lilacs,

Breaking a white-fleshed bough,

Strewing purple on a cobwebbed lawn,

Dancing, dancing,

The long red sun-rays glancing

On flailing arms, skipping with hideous knees

Cavorting grotesque ecstasies:

I do not see him, but I see the lilacs fall,

I hear the scrape of knuckles against the wall,

The leaves are tossed and tremble where he plunges among them,

And I hear the sound of his breath,

Sharp and whistling, the rhythm of death.

It is evening: the lights on a long street balance and sway.

In the purple ether they swing and silently sing,

The street is a gossamer swung in space,

And death himself in the wind comes dancing along it,

And the lights, like raindrops, tremble and swing.

Hurry, spider, and spread your glistening web,

For death approaches!

Hurry, rose, and open your heart to the bee,

For death approaches!

Maiden, let down your hair for the hands of your lover,

Comb it with moonlight and wreathe it with leaves,

For death approaches!

Death, huge in the star; small in the sand-grain;

Death himself in the rain,

Drawing the rain about him like a garment of jewels:

I hear the sound of his feet

On the stairs of the wind, in the sun,

In the forests of the sea . . .

Listen! the immortal footsteps beat!


It is noontime, Senlin says. The sky is brilliant

Above a green and dreaming hill.

I lay my trowel down. The pool is cloudless,

The grass, the wall, the peach-tree, all are still.

It appears to me that I am one with these:

A hill, upon whose back are a wall and trees.

It is noontime: all seems still

Upon this green and flowering hill.

Yet suddenly out of nowhere in the sky,

A cloud comes whirling, and flings

A lazily coiled vortex of shade on the hill.

It crosses the hill, and a bird in the peach-tree sings.

Amazing! Is there a change?

The hill seems somehow strange.

It is noontime. And in the tree

The leaves are delicately disturbed

Where the bird descends invisibly.

It is noontime. And in the pool

The sky is blue and cool.

Yet suddenly out of nowhere,

Something flings itself at the hill,

Tears with claws at the earth,

Lunges and hisses and softly recoils,

Crashing against the green.

The peach-tree braces itself, the pool is frightened,

The grass-blades quiver, the bird is still;

The wall silently struggles against the sunlight;

A terror stiffens the hill.

The trees turn rigidly, to face

Something that circles with slow pace:

The blue pool seems to shrink

From something that slides above its brink.

What struggle is this, ferocious and still--

What war in sunlight on this hill?

What is it creeping to dart

Like a knife-blade at my heart?

It is noontime, Senlin says, and all is tranquil:

The brilliant sky burns over a greenbright earth.

The peach-tree dreams in the sun, the wall is contented.

A bird in the peach-leaves, moving from sun to shadow,

Phrases again his unremembering mirth,

His lazily beautiful, foolish, mechanical mirth.


The pale blue gloom of evening comes

Among the phantom forests and walls

With a mournful and rythmic sound of drums.

My heart is disturbed with a sound of myriad throbbing,

Persuasive and sinister, near and far:

In the blue evening of my heart

I hear the thrum of the evening star.

My work is uncompleted; and yet I hurry,--

Hearing the whispered pulsing of those drums,--

To enter the luminous walls and woods of night.

It is the eternal mistress of the world

Who shakes these drums for my delight.

Listen! the drums of the leaves, the drums of the dust,

The delicious quivering of this air!

I will leave my work unfinished, and I will go

With ringing and certain step through the laughter of chaos

To the one small room in the void I know.

Yesterday it was there,--

Will I find it tonight once more when I climb the stair?

The drums of the street beat swift and soft:

In the blue evening of my heart

I hear the throb of the bridal star.

It weaves deliciously in my brain

A tyrannous melody of her:

Hands in sunlight, threads of rain

Against a weeping face that fades,

Snow on a blackened window-pane;

Fire, in a dusk of hair entangled;

Flesh, more delicate than fruit;

And a voice that searches quivering nerves

For a string to mute.

My life is uncompleted: and yet I hurry

Among the tinkling forests and walls of evening

To a certain fragrant room.

Who is it that dances there, to a beating of drums,

While stars on a grey sea bud and bloom?

She stands at the top of the stair,

With the lamplight on her hair.

I will walk through the snarling of streams of space

And climb the long steps carved from wind

And rise once more towards her face.

Listen! the drums of the drowsy trees

Beating our nuptial ecstasies!

Music spins from the heart of silence

And twirls me softly upon the air:

It takes my hand and whispers to me:

It draws the web of the moonlight down.

There are hands, it says, as cool as snow,

The hands of the Venus of the sea;

There are waves of sound in a mermaid-cave;--

Come--then--come with me!

The flesh of the sea-rose new and cool,

The wavering image of her who comes

At dusk by a blue sea-pool.

Whispers upon the haunted air--

Whisper of foam-white arm and thigh;

And a shower of delicate lights blown down

From the laughing sky! . . .

Music spins from a far-off room.

Do you remember,--it seems to say,--

The mouth that smiled, beneath your mouth,

And kissed you . . . yesterday?

It is your own flesh waits for you.

Come! you are incomplete! . . .

The drums of the universe once more

Morosely beat.

It is the harlot of the world

Who clashes the leaves like ghostly drums

And disturbs the solitude of my heart

As evening comes!

I leave my work once more and walk

Along a street that sways in the wind.

I leave these stones, and walk once more

Along infinity's shore.

I climb the golden-laddered stair;

Among the stars in the void I climb:

I ascend the golden-laddered hair

Of the harlot-queen of time:

She laughs from a window in the sky,

Her white arms downward reach to me!

We are the universe that spins

In a dim ethereal sea.


It is evening, Senlin says, and in the evening

The throbbing of drums has languidly died away.

Forest and sea are still. We breathe in silence

And strive to say the things flesh cannot say.

The soulless wind falls slowly about the earth

And finds no rest.

The lover stares at the setting star,--the wakeful lover

Who finds no peace on his lover's breast.

The snare of desire that bound us in is broken;

Softly, in sorrow, we draw apart, and see,

Far off, the beauty we thought our flesh had captured,--

The star we longed to be but could not be.

Come back! We will laugh once more at the words we said!

We say them slowly again, but the words are dead.

Come back beloved! . . . The blue void falls between,

We cry to each other: alone; unknown; unseen.

We are the grains of sand that run and rustle

In the dry wind,

We are the grains of sand who thought ourselves


You touch my hand, time bears you away,--

An alien star for whom I have no word.

What are the meaningless things you say?

I answer you, but am not heard.

It is evening, Senlin says;

And a dream in ruin falls.

Once more we turn in pain, bewildered,

Among our finite walls:

The walls we built ourselves with patient hands;

For the god who sealed a question in our flesh.


It is moonlight. Alone in the silence

I ascend my stairs once more,

While waves, remote in a pale blue starlight,

Crash on a white sand shore.

It is moonlight. The garden is silent.

I stand in my room alone.

Across my wall, from the far-off moon,

A rain of fire is thrown . . .

There are houses hanging above the stars,

And stars hung under a sea:

And a wind from the long blue vault of time

Waves my curtain for me . . .

I wait in the dark once more,

Swung between space and space:

Before my mirror I lift my hands

And face my remembered face.

Is it I who stand in a question here,

Asking to know my name? . . .

It is I, yet I know not whither I go,

Nor why, nor whence I came.

It is I, who awoke at dawn

And arose and descended the stair,

Conceiving a god in the eye of the sun,--

In a woman's hands and hair.

It is I whose flesh is gray with the stones

I builded into a wall:

With a mournful melody in my brain

Of a tune I cannot recall . . .

There are roses to kiss: and mouths to kiss;

And the sharp-pained shadow of death.

I remember a rain-drop on my cheek,--

A wind like a fragrant breath . . .

And the star I laugh on tilts through heaven;

And the heavens are dark and steep . . .

I will forget these things once more

In the silence of sleep.