Quest Topos

September 7, 2009


Suppose two monks are searching for a river, for

A certain bridge. Suppose they think this bridge

Is magical, that it will change the water

Into salt—transform the river into salt-like tears—

And thereby let the monks enter the sacred lands

That lie ‘beyond horizons’. Just suppose this.


Of course, they have adventures on the way.

Some stuff right out of Harryhausen—like a fire

Exhaling dragon, two two-headed vipers, and

Arachnids carrying poison spears that spin

Webs out of burning sulfur…Then they cry:

Childe Roland to the dark tower came!


Because they do come to a river, and…

It’s wide and calm and shallow. No big deal.

Why, they could wade across right here,

Be done with it, the quest complete, a piece

Of cake. The monks are puzzled. This is too easy.

Not part of the quest topos. And no bridge.


They stand and wait. A woman all in white

Is wading out. She beckons for the monks

To cross: rainbows and butterflies appear.

One monk thinks: This must be it. Perfecto!

A bounteous land. Don’t complicate. It’s good.

That is one of the virgins greeting us, for sure.


The other thinks, this surely is a trap.

For one, she’s far too pretty—she reminds

The monk of Raquel Welch, that caveman flick,

B. C. something or other—and we’re missing

The point. We have to use the bridge. We need

The salt. The issue is the salt, a world of salt.


Where nothing’s stable. Think of the effort just

To crawl through the white, blizzard-like arcades,

Your skin white, chaffed Giacometti-blue

And bruised. Pure salt supports nothing that lives.

This is an ancient metaphor, one monk

Points out. The pillar of salt. A consciousness.


Of ruin. Of salt tears souring the land.

This quest topos is one of sorrow—both

Our monks are clear as crystal here: selfish

Satisfactions are what caused this.  ‘Mind’

And ‘mine’, you see, the self as shell, a salt

Mine. Turn the world into this? That bridge…


For they do find the bridge. Somewhere there is

A bridge they call the Bridge of Sighs, could this

Be it? One monk starts the Childe Roland thing

Again…but shush, it’s scary here. This bridge,

It seems alive. Remember Heidegger:

The bridge gathers the earth around the stream.


…and mortals keep in mind the vaulting bridge…

Or they forget that they too seek it out,

Are striving always to surmount the unsound

And common in themselves, to bring themselves

Before what the divinities bring: that

The common gathering remains the final one.


Alberto Giacometti painted rivers,

Or would have if he’d lived, or would have if

He’d seen those churning waters with his bronze

Sculptures standing, etiolated and submerged,

In struggle beneath the breath of the bridge,

That vault that gathers rivers into seas.


The salt seas.  All the waters, rain and rivers

Even the ice and snow, lakes, reservoirs

Will change to ‘tears of salt’: the bridge might be

The vault of the heavens, the monks, the stars,

The moon, the planets—and they cross each night—

Why movement is perfected in stasis.


Why the two monks are statues on the bridge;

Why Giacometti sculptures en passant

Can battle rivers; why the mortals keep

The bridge in mind; why the quest topos

Fits a veil of longing over what cannot

Be longed for; why poetry lives in words.


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