Nothing like it, to catch a ride on the comber,
the muscle of the breaker curls into a wing,
Hermes’ flexed scapula. We bodysurf the ruffled feathering
of the water’s wonder,
both messenger and message in the pinioned thunder.
After Grayon Murfi
We say our fate is in the lap of the gods, pray
to our deity, but the pantheon today stood up in dismay
seeing us run out of control across the map.
The majority of them take flight
of distant galaxies whose denizens allow them to sit about.
The bushed gods who stay, stretch themselves out,
take a millennial nap,
but not before they cast bets
on whether Gaia, who is so sickly that she is laid out,
will make it or not.
Not a godly lap in sight.
Visiting the Delphic Oracle
We climb to the oracle that people
visit from distant islands with their supplications.
Temple Hocus-Pocus makes us feel better,
conjures answers, gives us hope. Hope may be
the god who, down the ages, has been most
necessary. Where would we be without hope?
We’re so inventive, so hopelessly clever.
In This Life
All certainty of eternity is out
the door: Purgatory, Hell, Tartarus,
Heaven, Elysium, but now we doubt
the certainty of such certainty also,
reaffirming the zonulet at the edge of Oceanus,
the fog-shrouded Cimmerian land, or of Limbo,
the only uncertain states we will certainly ever know.
To be inside on a wet day, rain on the roof,
the heavens opening, the diamond drops draping
the window. Nothing to do but hunker in, snug
under the quilt, in the armchair
by the fire with a book, or watch a game,
no pressure to cut the grass, oil the bike,
clean the car, run to the bank, jog, swim—
freed from the taskmaster of good weather.
Forget happiness. Accept your lot
of mundane discontent,
family foibles and furies, the doldrums
of friendship, the megrim of the body, being without
an iota with regard to the whole show: the general epicedium
since the human episode began.
Unhappiness is our plasma. Consider
for instance, the way you’re more at ease, wallow
in Melpomene’s sad songs. Consider the dearth
of joyful emanation and say I’m wrong.
Maybe only then will Happy grace us.
When we let go of his shirt tail
this deity will begin to feel ignored, left out,
tap us on the shoulder, say, “Remember me, pal?”
It’s as though the god of unhappiness, of low-level discontent at least,
injected his serum into our veins when born, inoculating us
from feeling good for long. He’s like a grim schoolmaster
patrolling the playground, reminding children
they have only a minute or two before the line-up bell,
darkening unconscious happiness, marring natural mirth
with back-burning anxiety, fretful they’ll have to line up soon
and march back into interminable lessons, tests,
right and wrong answers, punishment, the classroom’s gloom,
learning by rote, the slow tick of the metronome,
the dolor of the adult world; that life isn’t all play.
I only noticed them and then almost too late
—as we drove on, cursing the minor holdup—
the laborers as they perspired in orange jackets,
pouring tar, working dinosaur diggers,
one with an insect-eater snout. Maybe it was Maria Callas
on the radio that opened up the sacred,
brought me to my senses, the high way of art.
There they were, the Lares of motorways,
laboring away, laying out ink-black tarmac
in boiling sun. Sweating for us beneath hard hats.
The gang of tattooed construction workers strip to the waist,
cast off their exomis, bend into the labor of drilling, digging,
mending the road; an excuse not just to manage the sweltering day,
but also, though they don’t say, to show off Herculean bodies,
their sweat-laminated muscles, to passing men and women alike.
The satyrs of the cotton-wood trees spurt,
shoot seed into the air all over the city
without embarrassment, being branded indecent.
How lucky they are, how unselfconscious
these swingers of plants, these exhibitionists.
Another tree before the Fall.
Bells ring all across Sunday morning.
People are summoned to their gods.
Even to a nonbeliever the bells
are sacred; the peal, the carillon,
the pistillate chimes of swaying metal flowers.
The bells toll, loll soothing
as a foghorn, train whistle in the distance,
hoot of a ship sailing into harbor.
Such sounds chime our sole divinity,
intimations of humanity.
Music of the Spheres
Eris visits us in different guises everyday.
She comes now via the tyranny of Muzak
everywhere we go: the mall, bus, street, café;
rock, reggae, rap, jazz. For heaven’s sake,
drowning out the sound of nothing. Almost everyone fears
the sirens singing this silent music of the spheres.
The gods are always at it, pick on each other,
Hera and Poseidon, Hades and Demeter; more human
than the humans themselves, or at least
that’s the way it seemed, till today it struck me
as the barman jabbed at a regular with a barbed remark
and turned up the news, everyone glued to the latest Iliad.
It is humans who put the gods in the shade,
being such expert backstabbers, naysayers, killers.
Too late even for a populus ex machina to save the day.
After Listening to the World News Again
So, these days one is dimly consoled with the thought
Hell, even the sun will eventually come to naught.
Entering the Acropolis
In the temple of Athena Nike, the goddess smiles smugly
down on the daily tourists in their comfortable Nikes.
She has won again. Not all victory is a matter of war. Complicity
is the deity hardly anyone sees.
Soldiers carve their names
on slingstones: Gregory, Hipponik, Dan;
or words like Ouch, You’re Dead, or This Maims:
precursors of bombs named Little Boy and Fat Man.
The two swordfish in the market are gawked at by all
who pass. Parents coax wide-eyed children up to ogle.
One grinning family has a photograph taken alongside.
Picture these noble knights of the sea being caught,
their bodies, great muscles, writhing on the deck.
The fish could be the heraldic sword-crossed emblem
of a family coat of arms, but their great lances
are hacked off. All they could emblazon now
is the family Homo sapiens.
The eight winds blow,
an earthquake shakes Mount Olympus, cholera
ravages the states, drought everywhere, the mysterious
death of bees throughout the country,
the flowers and crops die, the hourly
slaughtering of innocents,
and all we do is debate
in the assembly, cast ostraka—shards of democracy—
regarding our ships, the color of their sails.
Helen: I never went to Troy; that was a phantom.
Those within the inner circle knew the story. Even sane,
family-man Odysseus toed the line after his ruse to dodge
the draft—casting salt for seed, feigning insanity—was exposed.
He shied from leading his men on another assault
to satisfy old brutal ways for the sake of a bombshell.
Menelaus and the general assembly pumped up the demos,
the statesmen preying on their sense of impotence.
Many declared the gods decreed this war to lighten
Gaia’s burden, the weight of ever-increasing humans.
A whole nation played its part—converting a lie into truth.
Blind shrewd Homer played his harp to that fabricated story.
The phantom that launched a thousand missiles.
Fragment from the lost poem Helen
To bystanders it seems I must decide between one
man or another: Menelaus, companion
of a score of married years whose sound nature fortifies me,
or the intimacy with the other in body. But the one
I’ll choose will not be the one I choose, for as soon as I pick one I miss
the other. Both glasses half empty.
Fragment from the lost poem Helen
I avoid places where children play:
squares where families congregate, parks
with swings, slides, monkey bars, seesaws;
the seaside where yesterday I turned my head away
seeing a father and mother with their kid, the dad
running, pretending not to be fast enough to catch up
with his laughing child. My Telemachus, my son,
you tag me everywhere I go.
Fragment from the lost poem Telemachus
The ocean wraps its surf scarf round the shoulder
of the shore. Everything’s in touch with everything else:
the sky with the sea, the wave susurrus
with the zephyr in the fuchsia and furze, the cock crowing
again and again, dawning on us
every second is now. And then the day trippers come,
I among them, a scout,
already parked. The army of cars winding along the road
glitters like the helmets of hoplites,
takes over for a while, the legions
of an empire going the way of all empires.
And so Paul proselytized in this place, the remains
we stand upon below the limestone mountain,
Acrocorinth, with the hodgepodge fort
harboring also the temple of Aphrodite,
the hotspot of call-girls who satisfied the local studs.
From here, he established the condemnation of the body
long before Augustine, chastising those swells
for their profligate ways. But what’s not recorded is that he envied
their dedication to the flesh, shunning the thought
that this was simply healthy fun, afraid of his need, predilection.
He fled, not because he gave up on the Corinthians,
but for fear he’d surrender to appalling desire.
. . . we have a savior who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet
is without sin. Hebrews 4:15
These days the Savior could not come back
to live without sin among us, the matrix beneath the surface
of daily existence being sewn so intricately
by that crafty angel, tireless Complicity.
God’s temples are heated by oil secured at the expense
of slaughter. The pillows He’d lie on are the down
of the bird that saved Noah. Even a sackcloth would likely
have molecules of blood in its stitches.
He couldn’t drop down, mosey
around town, take in His handy work: trees rising up
from concrete, the hubbub of folk about their workaday,
a passing woman who reminds Him of Magdalene, the smell
of coffee. How He envies the creature
created in His own image. How He longs to become His image.
How He pines for this earth. How absurd
the old God feels now. Our Image. Pray for Him.
When exactly we felt it we can’t say, a tiredness beyond
any we felt before, beyond age, beyond acedia,
beyond work, beyond burning the candle, beyond megrim
and malinger. Our blood is mercury. We are heavy
as the cadaver of ourselves, lugging our own dead weight,
a condensed black star, a tar-star
travelling night years, dropping uranium-dense tiredness,
tiredness made night, exhausted night, tired night.
The god of day, Diurnus, is more than usually relieved to see
the god of night descend. He says,
“I couldn’t wait for you, old Nocturnus.
I’m weary of bipeds, such a shady bunch,
always pulling the blinds. I’ll take to my bed, tired of making up
tomorrow’s to-do list, fixing the alarm clock,
insisting there’s hope, that tomorrow is
another day. I’ll take another nitroglycerin tablet
to ease chest pain. Perhaps the hour has come for me
to give in, to hand myself over to you, say Good Night.”
Sip by sip Poseidon is away,
the ebb tide emptying the bay,
leaving cappuccino suds along the strand
sprinkled with cinnamon of sand.
The Literary Party
I gave you the gift of a book
with a cover that you could judge
the inside by, a hand casting
a world conjured with ink magic.
You opened the present, said nothing,
hardly a thank you. I, who took
so much time, delight and trouble
to give you this. To add salt,
you lavished praise on other gifts,
some of them flashy tinsel.
I slipped off my paper crown,
Stepped out into the dark, head down.
Redwood sorrel adapts so well to light levels
that its heart-shaped leaf
folds down and hides under direct sunshine,
opens up in shade, diffused rays. We’re not
unlike that plant, never getting far from earth,
hardly able to take the fierce light of joy,
or bliss, nor the pitch night
of despair or fear. We survive best
in the shadows, the understory of our days.
To Another Daily God
Today I want to thank the daily god of unhappiness,
petty worries, disgruntlements, sorrows great
and small for having taken such good care of me,
making himself at home in yours truly,
and for taking the odd break as now he slips away
into the background, smiling kindly perhaps,
giving me over to his reclusive sibling, Peace,
at a traffic light on Pearl and Union as the sun
softens the snow-bordered street, the ice-cased lake.
We turn into our clearer selves like snow and rime
turn to water. I wave a driver ahead. He avidly
waves thanks. I would like to wave
gratitude to the god of unhappiness.
He could’ve finished me off often enough.
His present absence accentuates my happytime.
(The following five poems are from an exercise given by Montagus
in the Athenian Workshop the morning after the workshop spent
a night at a local symposium.)
I didn’t resort to the hair of the god
that bit me. Being by the sea I went for a dip.
Afterwards I never felt better,
my hangover dispelled by the trident deity,
the cold brine shocking the system out of its doldrums,
soothing it, lifting it like a wave,
sparkling in the sun. Poseidon is a swell.
Now I’m myself again it’s time to celebrate,
to raise a cup to you, Dionysus. Cheers. Your health.
PASU (Post-Alcoholic Sexual Urge)
This morning I woke at dawn—cock crow
would be more correct, Chrysilla, after all
the vino yesterday. Wouldn’t you know,
you had no mind for a morning call,
my drinker’s alarm clock, nudging you awake.
And last night—my hot wife—
you were in the thrall of Himeros. But for Bacchus’s sake,
I had the wine-decline. Oh, drooping life.
Usually after periods of solitude, domesticity, work,
I’m swept by the sense that something’s missing,
another Antaeus touching down
on the ground of the earthy, the flesh of night
to be reminded that life is tastier
seasoned by the salt of anxiety, the pepper of guilt.
The Nine Fluffers
The muse lifts wilting songs. She’s like a fluffer
between takes in the shooting of a porn show,
keeping the studs alive, hard, erect, tumescent.
Art is closer to sex than we think, like it or no.
The Artist’s Disgrace
The player strums, tires of what he loves
to do, plays from the graveyard of his self
for a few drachma. Old Pandelia, revive him.
Let not the music of this place
suffer such disgrace, the bouzouki itself pregnant
on its back, patiently waiting to give birth.
The Lady Killer
Suddenly, catching myself in the mirror,
—hard to figure what precipitated this shift,
appropriately in The Old Town Bar—the timeless self-image
of a curly, handsome twenty-something-year-old
fell away before my eyes and I saw this unfamiliar
gray-haired chap, hair receding above his temple.
Only this morning the world was at my feet, God’s gift
to women, a lady killer. The Graiae, three crones
born white-haired, nudge each other on nearby stools.
My new girlfriends flirt with me, only one tooth
between them in their snickering heads.
I’m like those dolphins
I read about, confined in isolated cells
of a pool with sliding doors.
A zoologist manipulated their encounters,
observed their sexual behavior.
The one released dolphin
refusing to take afterwards to the sea,
head-butting the pool’s gate to get back in.
A young woman strolls out of the below-zero weather, breasts
nippling her T-shirt. You let
such a sight go. A benefit of drooping age.
You relax into the day, enjoy being on your own, the hush
of vestal white snow outside the glass doors, the hustle
into the manufactured warmth of the mall,
this Western bazaar with its Christmas carols, holiday bustle.
Good to be in control, not at the pheromones’ beck and call.
Unable to stop ourselves, we parked off the road in Arcadia,
clambered down into the copse. Everyone is overcome
by the gods from time to time, possessed by them, like it or no.
Then I was Pan, goatee and all. You were Syrinx,
but this time you didn’t make a bolt for it,
didn’t turn yourself into a reed.
We made out in that bug-invested sacred grove,
assisted by last night’s Viagra.
We managed to ignore the pestering insects,
the traffic flashing by on the road to Sparta.
The rapture on her face,
had the look of the prophesying pythia,
narcotic fumes rising from the chasm below,
inducing trance. When a god enters a body
the mortal is annulled, put out of misery.
What a compliment Aphrodite paid me,
to feel safe in my company, to come down to earth.
We were too frenzied to undress.
Besides even a goddess is more inviting
when a little is left to the eyes of the imagination,
her flexed calf muscles highlighted by blood-red stilettos.
I want you to tell me everything will be hunky dory,
perfect, not unlike the way I wanted the priests’ stories
of heaven to be true. Hell and purgatory
are more believable. There are no guarantees.
To ask for heaven is to make a hell of purgatory.
Great, the time-out of love-making, no
doubt about that. I was lucky
to have experienced the body of Aphrodite
—wearing merely a silky thong—for a night
or three. But there’s payment for such good fortune.
Sadness, Loneliness, Longing are like vultures
hovering over the god, Ecstasy, waiting to descend
and pick the bones of the Eros
even at the very first, tender shut-eyed kiss.
All day I followed the regimen, routine
to keep me buoyant, took my morning pills:
vitamins, anti-depressants, no caffeine,
read poems—spirit sustenance—, sent emails.
I got out of the house, reckoned Apollo
highlighting the snow would lift the down
I’d been attempting to ignore. No go.
I joshed with Hermes, the postman, played the clown,
humor being the refuge of a desperate man.
Struggled on, forced myself to exercise, a swim
to induce a rush of natural morphine,
the cell’s opium, the endorphins to kick in,
raise my spirits. Useless. Nothing more to do
except face up, succumb to missing you.
But the reverse is true too.
A good wind often blows some ill.
You were the good wind that blew
the daily missing you. The wind blows still.
Who’d have thought we’d come to this a year ago?
I sang happy birthday, a mite tipsy, over the phone.
I gave you gypsy earrings, chiffon scarves, a lapis ring. We were so
sure of our future together. Now you’re on your own.
Now I’m on my own. My present to you on this day
is not to make contact with you in any way.
I sit in the same square, in the same overpriced café,
watch the same frantic stream
of people pass by, the same comic pigeons
reminding me of the way everyone speed walks
in silent movies. I browse my book, come across
a poem with that familiar quote of Heraclitus,
that nobody steps in the same stream twice.
You were here only a week ago.
The New Athena
If the gods are simply players within mortals
then it’s time to lay down my armor, plumed helmet, spear,
the aegis of my goat-skinned shield with gorgon’s head.
I pit difference between peoples: the Egyptians, Turks,
Trojans, the States, igniting their battle cry,
the gore glory of war. Now I must allow my wise side
to emerge from within you, to break the cycle. I’ll have a word
in the ear of Ares, my blood-thirsty brother.
Even he’s weary. I must now solely be the deity
within you who seeks an answer in conflict
without bloodshed, guardian of the small few who command
with their stentorian voice “No more”.
Fragment from the Lost Poem Athena
The New Pastoralists
Good it is to get off the beaten track, to chance upon
this untrodden realm: the mall of trees, fluttering pennants
of leaves and butterflies, wild flowers, the creek. Arcadia.
The dragonflies are stretch-limos chauffering spirits
of the natural world through the portals of our senses.
The muse of the pastoral steps down the waterfalls
in a dashing white gown. She requests makers
to burst forth into idylls lauding her once more, especially
now we mortally hurt her. The trees and water applaud.
Over Ithaca deep into the lush, hushed green
undulating forest toward Syracuse the sky blushed
with damask dusk—it takes more nimble
finger-tip word freshness on the lute of renewal
to transmute the mere gist of such a firmament.
And I recalled a word
serendipity brought as I searched for another
in the lexicon thick as a bible.
A word I’d never laid eyes on or heard before, mysterious,
plain beautiful to me in its inkself.
How can we see without a new word, a new god?
GREG DELANTY's next book of poems, The Greek Anthology, Books XVII, comes out from the Oxford Poets Series, Carcanet Press, in November of 2012. His recent books are Loosestrife (Fomite Press); The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (W. W. Norton); The Ship of Birth (LSU Press); and his Collected Poems 1986-2006. He has received many awards, most recently a Guggenheim for poetry. He teaches at Saint Michael's College, Vermont. He is a past President of The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.