With my forked branch of Lebanese cedar
I quarter the dunes like downs and guide
an invisible plough far over the sand.
But how to quarter such shifting acres
when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows
mass where all was bright before,
and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?
All I know is that underneath,
how many miles no one can say,
an unbroken water-table waits
like a lake; it has seen no bird or sail
in its long darkness, and no man;
not even pharaohs dug so far
for all their thirst, or thirst of glory,
or thrust-power of ten thousand slaves.
I tell you I can smell it though,
that water. I am old and black
and I know the manners of the sun
which makes me bend, not break. I lose
my ghostly footprints without complaint.
I put every mirage in its place.
I watch the lizard make its lace.
Like one not quite blind I go
feeling for the sunken face.
So hot the days, the nights so cold,
I gather my white rags and sigh
but sighing step so steadily
that any vibrance in so deep
a lake would never fail to rise
towards the snowy cedar's bait.
Great desert, let your sweetness wake.
Edwin Morgan 1986
*Someone who searches for underground streams by holding a forked branch of cedar or hazel, which twitches when it is above water. A "water-table" (line 10) is the level to which underground water rises.
Oh isn't it exciting to find a poet one is drawn to? There is something about this poem that is mesmerising, though perhaps I am in a frame of mind to be lulled into a supernatural poem's world (I have the Rime of the Ancient Mariner perched atop my thoughts). This is another poem that would be helpful to read out loud; like P.K. Page's "Deaf Mute in a Pear Tree," "The Dowser" exists as an aural piece of art. My Norton Anthology tells me that Morgan has been noted for his creative use of form; I glanced at the MLA International Bibliography to see what kind of work is out there on him and found that he has written a lot of science fiction poetry. He is also a translator, which implies that he has a strong literary command of several languages.
I am interested, in this Poem of the Week, in discussing who the dowser may or may not be and how Morgan achieves the poem's rhetorical artistry. This control is achingly evident throughout the poem; the rhythm and rhyme shift almost organically throughout the poem, perhaps mirroring the seething desert sands. I will discuss this more at length.
In the title and the beginning, we learn that this is a dowser's take. He walks across the desert all day with a forked piece of cedar searching for underground water. Morgan, with the reference to Lebanese cedar, refers to the famous Cedars of Lebanon, out of which King Solomon's palace was entirely built. This helps establish a sense of place; this desert is Egyptian (a claim that the reference to pharoahs later confirms). So far, so good. He then refers to himself as a farmer; this could be confusing (I would hardly call dowsing harvesting water or growing it), but this may refer to the fact that his day to day job involves working with the land.
The next couple lines are perplexing to me. The dowser informs us that "I quarter the dunes like downs... But how to quarter such shifting acres / when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows / mass where all was bright before / and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?" He first says that he quarters the dunes, digresses for a moment, and comes back asking *how* to quarter them. And then he never provides an answer, which indicates that he does not know how to geographically map the desert, or lay one's bounds across it. (This hole in logic is a good indication in any poem to keep that detail in mind. I usually take these little rends in the poetic fabric as indications that there is something that needs to be patched up. I will come back to this idea of "quartering" the desert). The land, like the dowser, thwarts its assumed identity, for it is a supernatural place. One might almost call it super-supernatural, for the wraiths here do not need the cover of night in which to wander about; they walk at noon.
What the dowser does know, however, is that beneath the sands, "how many miles no one can say, / an unbroken water-table waits / like a lake." Water, perhaps a symbol of fertility and life, exists in plentitude under the parched and choking surface of the earth. It is curious that he refers to the water table as "unbroken," for this means that he has actually failed at his job. If nobody has tapped this water table from the time of the pharoahs, he hasn't found an easy-to-tap place for the water, either.
The pharoahs' presence in the poem is a little odd, as well. After all, weren't we talking about harvesting water? I suggest that the dowser, in telling this story, reveals part of his function. The speaker appears to be an eternal, quasi-immortal being traversing a shifting, mysterious landscape. He is almost a catalouger of the desert, a historian of the sands. His reference to the pharoahs hints at the mythic, ancient knowledge he has of this place. Furthermore, he refers to his "ghostly footprints," and calls the desert to wake at the end of the poem. Thus, we may return to the idea of quartering the desert. To quarter something means to establish it, to find the way it lies. But, in an unstable landscape, this is not possible. Thus, its true shape may be internal, intangible. Thus, I suggest that "quartering" the desert means understanding it. His job is to search the desert, to experience it, and to recognise its value.
He describes his process of understanding the desert, saying "I put every mirage in its place. / I watch the lizard make its lace. / Like one not quite blind I go / feeling for the sunken face." He tracks the mirages and biological events in the desert, searching them out always with a belief in the sweetness, in the life-giving essence of the desert. Does this idea of his affection for the desert feel like a stretch? I think not - he accepts his trials there "without complaint", perhaps because he believes in the rightness of his actions. When he says "I tell you I can smell it though, / that water," he asserts his literal sensual belief in the goodness of the desert.
I am not sure if I would want to write a paper on this idea, but I have "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on my mind, which is a poem of the imagination. One can't take it literally (I am having to learn), and so to read it, one has to simply open oneself up to it. This poem works in some of the same ways - we have a wandering, quasi-immortal creature telling us his lonely story and a spectral, shifting landscape. The way to take important thoughts away from it is to throw your imagination into it full-force. Imagine his steps sending out vibrations meant to wake the richness of the desert, the deep black of his skin against the whiteness of his rags, his hot and cold nights, and the well-worn cedar from far away he carries around. Even writing that, more questions come up - how did he get this cedar branch? How have his rags stayed white in the dusty, sweaty desert? Just somethings to think about.
I have a lot more to say about this poem - what if it is an allegory for love, for trying to get to know a person and loving them wholeheartedly? Morgan has a rich (and breathtaking) array of love poems - read "Strawberries" if you come across it - or email me and I will email it to you. At any rate, I have to leave this where it is for the shifting sands of calculus.