The School Bag

The Umbrella

Weldon Kees
To Conrad Aiken

Because, in the hot countries,
They worshipped trees; because,
Under the sacred figs, Gautama
Became a god; because of the rain,
Because the sun beats down.
Because we followed orders, building a tent
‘Of ten curtains of fine twined linen,
And blue and purple and scarlet.’ And because
The ark required protection, with four pillars
Holding the curtains up, and ‘the veil
Shall divide unto you between the holy place
And the most holy.’ — I planted the seed
Of an elm and watered it. Rest
In the shelter of the shade. Black spines
Of metal and a tent of cloth
Are blooming where a tree stood up.

Discs float above the heads
Of the images
Of Indian gods. Sometimes
There are three of them, and each
Smaller than the one
That goes beneath. And sometimes
These tiers of aureoles
Are gone: umbrellas
Crown them in their place.

Two thousand years before the birth of Christ,
If there is any believing Chinese legend,
The wife of a carpenter named Lou Pan
Said to her husband one morning: ‘You and your father
Before you have built well my Lord. But your houses
Are ridged, immovable. Now that the grass
Goes brown with autumn. I will build roofs
One can carry about. I will build a pagoda
On a stick, to give shelter wherever one goes.’
At this she proceeded to do.

                                               When the Son
Of Heaven strode to the hunt, twenty-four umbrellas
Went before him. The Mikado proceeded in similar fashion
Under a red silk sunshade: emblem of ‘absolute power.’
Protectors of kings and princes, floating
Over triumphal processions and battlefields,
Moving like a sea of tossing waves.
And in India, in 1877, the Prince of Wales
(Later Edward VII) moved in stately procession
Mounted on an elephant,
A gold umbrella before him. The Greeks
Hinted at secret rites of the umbrella cult.
At the Scirophoria, a priestess and a priest
‘Went from the Acropolis to a place called Scira
Walking under a great white baldacchino.’
And during the Thesmophoria, slaves
Carried parasols over the heads of the women
Who brought gifts to Persephone at the temple,
Desiring infertility. — And when we left the corpses
Out of doors, we put umbrellas over them,
Not to shield them from the sun, but rather
To protect the sunlight against pollution
By the dead. The Pope’s was carried by a man in armor
On a white horse. The English and the French
Trimmed them with ruches, valances, pompons,
Tassels, fringes, frills of lace, glass beads,
Sequins, artificial flowers, ostrich feathers,
God knows what else.

Over the empty harbor, gray and motionless,
The clouds have been gathering all afternoon, and now
The sea is pitted with rain. Wind shakes the house.
Here from this window lashed with spray, I watch
A black umbrella, ripped apart and wrong side out,
Go lurching wildly down the beach; a sudden gust
Carries it upward, upside down,
Over the water, flapping and free,
Into the heart of the storm.