Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE VIKING GRAVE AT LADBY, by KAREN SWENSON



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THE VIKING GRAVE AT LADBY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: An old whale hump of earth
Last Line: They have grown their wheat out of his grave.
Subject(s): Christianity; Graves; Vikings; Tombs; Tombstones


An old whale hump of earth
it rises between plowed furrows of a farm,
a memory of violence in these peaceful fields
where only the poppies bleed wild amongst the wheat
rooted in a memory now fallow in the soil.

You enter the earth,
walk down stairs into the tomb
domed in the sun with grass and wildflowers.

And there in a glass showcase,
as though it were ordinary as an earring,
a fossil under fluorescent light,
is the boat and the bones nine hundred years old.

The planks are decomposed until they are only
a child's fingernail tracing in the dirt.

The ribs are broken,
but still the bow of triumph breaches,
a wave forever at the cupped crest,
alone out of the earth
though rot is its wake.

Between its ribs a compost heap
of bones and ornaments -
dogs, horses, and gold -
sacrificed by those who knew
life must be made a gift to death
if there is to be memory.

All the bones are there but his,
the man who was worthy of sacrifice,

the man whom they wanted to live
through these animal deaths,
whom they wanted to ride
triumphant into Odin's kingdom -
heels to horse and hounds to hand.

But when Christ came on an East wind
the folk were afraid
caught between the crucifix and the sword -
between wood and steel.

They thought this man came back
a rider over the sea of eternity
on that storm a pale rider
his hound baying at his hand

to stalk their fields
where his tomb rose among their furrows
a memory of the old belief,
a humped animal asleep under the moon.

Since they had decided to let a man die for them,
rather than die for a man,
afraid of what they had forsaken
they pled in the dark to a dead God

and to exorcise the ghost of glory
they dug the man out of the mound.

While the priest muttered the words against their fear
the church bell rang across the level fields
swallowing its own echo.
Faith desecrated faith to consecrate.

Shivering terror they carried his bones
in solemn procession to the sea
and cast him into the salt.

They unearthed a Lazarus
without a Christ to flesh him,
gave Christ a tomb unangeled
but as empty as his own.

It is nine hundred years
since the warrior was lost in the waves

and still one rises from his grave,
from the fluorescent's pale refrigerator light,
eyes cringing in the sun and poppies,
carrying a darkness on hands and clothes,

while somewhere the warrior wanders
in anger alone, cast out by Christ,
his bones tumbling like dice in the waves -
this earth his empty reliquary
where for nine hundred years
they have grown their wheat out of his grave.





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