Nathaniel Tarn Waterhole, Breasts, Root

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in Memoriam Harald Pager

For those things that have been called paradise
and will never be called so again
where the lion might have laid down with the lamb
if the lamb had not grown absent from the beginning;
where the elephant might not have struck fear in the lion
before its ability to swim through air was granted;
where the rhinoceros would not have feared to intrude
upon the elephant’s towers despite his armor
and sulked around angry, like hammer on forge,
for a way into water; where oryx, kudu, springbok,
all the supernal antelopes in their dancing trances
would not have had to sample the wind at every instant –
there where the things called paradise in the beginning
might have been able to continue in that calling forever,
or for a length of time that could be called forever,
when all else crumbled in the world around them.


When the sun had burnt your sight to glass
yet you continued measuring the heights
and nonetheless transferred the twenty-two thousand paintings
left by the ancients onto notebooks where they could be still
as the old records, nailed, burnt, brushed into the rocks,
still and available to study by man’s mind
wanting to catch the first beat of this organ
when the ancients agreed to fix the springtime of the eye.
Further east, those who keep our root alive,
unable to persist on their own lands
for fear they should endanger the pristine view
of the animals beloved by travelers and banks
and where the furrows of the diamond mines
have turned to blood along the continent –
the whole dimension of the continent at war –
so that diamond has truly turned to ruby
but without the ruby’s value,
those things that were once baptized paradise
especially the backbones of mankind
now bear the label trash, thrown out like garbage
to hunt for rats and mice and scorpions.
Among the trash: arms, legs, feet, hands
hacked from the tribal bodies, feeding with blood
the blood-stone’s brilliance.


Where the mountains are eroded down to granite:
huge breast-like structures spaced over the desert,
the spaces themselves coming to be admired,
the relationship between the spaces hailed as beautiful –
and below them the immense congregation of sands
covered with thorn tree and acacia, the lion’s prides.
Here is the male lion, his maleness behind him
between his legs; here is an oryx dead of disease,
only the maleness torn out by a predator;
here is root threatened: sky wrapped in mourning winds,
while jubilant earth covered with fallen stars
sings these to flowers among her proven thorns.
On one rock painting, six tall men, down from the north,
carrying baskets on their heads – the oval pattern:
clearly they can be called baskets from their position
but there is no message from that wounded time
concerning their contents, these were not painted:
were they fruit, were they greens, were they honeys,
were they things once called paradise, that will not come again,
will never be called paradise again – for the lack of land’s root?

Brandberg – The Erongos
November 2003

Harald Pager, an Austrian working in the Brandberg Mountain, Namibia, discovered some 900 sites containing rock art which he painstakingly documented from 1977 until his death in 1985. In these years, living in the caves and sleeping on grass beds, he recorded some 43.000 figures onto six kilometers of drawing paper. This extraordinary achievement is documented in several huge volumes published by the University of Cologne, Germany. Some of his original work, saved from aging, is preserved at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. [NT]

This poem previously appeared in Recollections of Being, published in 2004 by Salt, Cambridge, UK.

This material is © Nathaniel Tarn

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