“A Conference in Time”

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Sometime between the beginning and the end,
who was it called, what great lamenting voice?
A word rang out across the inner sky
of jeweled zodiac zone and sailor’s star,
across the close-shored seas, the long-known lands,
to come, to meet in council in eternal Rome.
And while the pope sleeps warm in downy satin,
and homeless folk as always huddle cold
on Roman cobbles, those who were summoned here
from counted centuries and chasms of time
gather together.

They are not manifest to mortals,
though sleeping pigeons tuck their heads in tighter,
and children dream strange dreams. Pilots aloft
look down through dark to not quite see
the dome of Peter glimmering with glory,
flicker of myriad wings of candleflame;
a tired night-watchman by the Tiber almost hears
the ruined temples under ground groan welcome.

They come: those who are called the Living, those
forgotten and called dead, but in their presence
is life itself, and all things are remembered.

The two that walk apart are here, apart,
Allah, Jehovah, each one with his book;
and Jupiter whose mantle is the sky
and all its weathers, comes with his thunderstone;
and Zeus the stern seducer; the one-eyed Wanderer,
two ravens on his shoulders, with his staff;
Jesus healed from wounding, his ghost-winged dove
and blue-robed mother following modestly;
Freya with her beasts; the Many-Breasted One,
and striding, implacable Athene; and then, clear
and sudden as in summer with the wind
of dawn the young light strikes across the sea,
Aphrodite comes, and the stones of Rome
tremble with fierce desire at her coming.

The Lady of the Crossways, dark and bright, is here,
and goddesses of trees and hidden springs,
and shaggy sinuous river-gods, Pan leaping like a goat.
Down from the northlands pace the druid powers,
shadowy lords of the great fallen forests.
The gods of Egypt stalk with head of cat
or hawk or vulture, in white pleated linen,
narrow of waist, with long and narrow feet.
The bright lord of the Farsis blinds with flame
the dull-eyed, cruel idols. And slowly, one
by one, innumerable images
of clay and stone and bronze crowd silently
from storehouse, gateway, kitchen, army camp.
Old, old, crude, fat, headless Venuses of chalk,
out of the barrows and the shallow graves,
come in their ancient dignity of awe. So all the streets
and ways and open places of the city
are filled and shiver with fullness of immortal being.

So it is everywhere: for in the City
of Mexico blood starts from the pyramids:
the Plumed Serpent and the Turquoise One have met.
The lion of great stones that is Cuzco rises, scenting
from the altars of Machu Picchu smoke of copal,
and Pachamama strokes the dark head of the lion.
Who dances on the ashen steps the Ganges washes,
where a million forms of the endless dreams of Vishnu
gather in conference? Who comes to the drum-call
through jungles, over Africa’s long plains,
and who to Coyote’s quavering cry across the desert?
Corn Woman rises, and with White Shell Woman
walks in beauty, and the tall kachinas
stride through the streets in silence to the kiva.
The gods are gathering in all the hallows,
Ayers Rock, Kuala Lumpur, and Stonehenge,
all deities in all their names and aspects,
a flood that follows darkness round the world,
luminous, intangible, and countless;
and as it is in Rome it is in all sacred places.

The first to come, who is also the last,
opener and closer of the door, speaks from
his two mouths: “What is to be done?” he says.

The voice
Is like a great wind blowing in the darkness,
like a warm breath. The gods are that breath.
God is that wind. It answers: “Mourn.”
The anger of God gathers in the night,
a stormcloud deploying: “Have I not destroyed them
in their iniquity, before?”
The power of God bursts forth in a scream
of steel, a burst of blinding fire: “War!”
The mercy of God murmurs, “Forgive them.”

But it is Aphrodite born of ocean foam,
Corn Woman risen from the furrowed dirt,
Persephone daughter of the bread men eat,
with her dark-crowned husband, and the shadows
of all the lives that lie in Earth, who answer
without a word. It is the mortal Earth
herself, who breathes the being of the gods,
whose long warm sigh blows all the words away
into the silence that was always there.

The city falls. It takes a day
to fall, or centuries. The seven hills
stand for a while longer.

Prayers are spoken,
sung, breathed out; was there once an answer?
The conference is over. Dust blows across the mesas,
lies on the altar, fills the bowl of stone.
The poles grow blue and dark.
Low shores surrender to the sea. Islands go under.
Over drowned Mumbai and Bengal
the sun sets with a red grin like Kali’s.
Insatiable Tlaloc has had his fill at last.
The web Anansi wove hangs loose, a cobweb.
The roofs of the world collapse, Himalayas, Andes
flow down in torrents of barren rock and water
as thick as Shiva’s hair, as bright as Inti was.
White horses charge from the despoiled ocean
salt manes blowing, hoofs trampling, destroying.
No hand is on their reins to guide them.

There were places and their names and gods.
There were those who inhabited this house.
Across the sands of Libya a hawk flew hunting,
past the red mesas a lean coyote trotted,
a hummingbird in Nicaragua flared like a thrown ruby.
Over the broken Yangtze dam did dragons soar,
did phoenix or raven nest in rubble of cement
and rusted steel beneath the Golden Gate?
These names are named no longer. Voices
are few and far between, they are strange voices,
the mouths that speak have changed their shape,
and who is there to tell us the meaning
if a word is spoken?
If it is not in the end,
it was not in the beginning.

The poles whiten, spray of iron oceans
grows stiff as Styrofoam; islands arise again with steep
cliff-coasts of stone; ice groans in the great silence.

Among the many ways and other worlds,
galaxies of galaxies, immense vibrations,
quiver of atoms, quanta, passage of kalpas,
the Earth goes on her changing circling way,
dances her dance and does her chancy business,
sweeping her shadow down the shores of light,
maker of darkness, mother of the night,
whose children too cast shadows where they go.


*Published on page 158 of “Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril,” 2010 by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson, Trinity University Press.