The Archaeologist

There was weight in the way she spoke the word.
Pot, she said. Pot.
It had echo, presence – solidity —
the syllable on her steady lip:

Off-white symmetrical labyrinth bands –
lions and sphinxes and Persian rug patterns —
Black-figure heroes in epic carouse —
Red-figure myths from scandalous plays —
Centaurs gone courting. Courts gone a-hunting.
The gorgon, first childish, then ever more suave —
the monster without become master within —
And the time-line readily, immortally, read —
for ceramic itself, fired clay, is immortal —
no one burns it for quicklime, melts it for metal, re-uses the sherds —
They may break it — smash it — but we read the styles still,
And the timely procession proceeds —
and seldom misleads —
there’s no road to retrace —
time sets a killing pace —

All this ran through my mind from the way that she said it:
Not vase, not amphora, not Grecian urn —
It had amount, certainty, an absolution;
Unadorned like an ancient poetic tongue:

Once it is kilned it will never dissolve.
You would dig from the clay pits, moisten it, fire it,
glaze it and paint it,
incise it, inlay it with metal or gems —
In museums
those tiers and cases and icon displays
Were just (when you thought of it) pots.
A noble nation remembered in pots.

She’d dug them, hefted them, puzzled them, pieced them,
cleaned them off with a cuff
or a fine hair brush,
moistened the glaze so the old hues glowed,
placed them, pronounced upon riddles, described them,
set the progress as shapely and knife-point sharp
as the shears of Atropos’ directed snip.
And you felt her possession as she said the word:
The elliptical round of her Oxford alto:
The massy bulge slim to an impudent point:

You’d hear echoes recede
as she murmured the word by the circling rim,
Hear it fall
like a rock through the caverns below
three thousand years deep,
till it muttered in sleep,
and gulped in an earthenware silence.

Just the Facts

Just tell me.

Just tell me everything.
I know, I must know, the facts.
I’m a know-it-all.

It is my place, my beat, my corner and my calling,
All properly ordered: The first, the second, the third …

Therefore: Just the facts, tell me all the damn facts —
If they’re dusty, my wit will smudge them clean

Before they’re displayed.
Conceal me nothing: I must have it all.

A nest, a lair, an interlace, fretwork,

An arabesque knot as on a carpet

In immemorial labyrinth array –

On which to preen and pluck my plumes

In all my imagined, illusory security.

Upon my hearth of facts, beyond assail,

I crow defense, defiance!
And my pensive hatchlings warm by my wings

Emerge insatiate of my paltry nurture,

My dribs and drabs and crumbs and clutter.

Secure (I imagine), a castellan, yet:
Disturb one twig of all my nesting,

By your prying cause me doubt —

Then all my confidence is thrown.

I know no more which brick leads to brick,

Which summit explained and, therefore, a conquest.

I walk as through an alien scape,

Some foreign world,
Unfamiliar and, though maybe its own sort beauty —

No longer my world

But, shaken, shattered, tottering, tainted,

I dwell tormented

The kaleidoscope shore. 

The Archduchess Reflects

The Empress sighed:
“Elisabeth’s content
As long as a man’s eye is upon her;
Diplomat, autocrat, servant, sentry —
So long as a man the homage confers,
Fixes perfection as it flickers and gazes,
Descends and rises, obeisant.
Forever the mirrors! And fittings! And men!
I’ll give her to France, she’s off to Versailles
(she’ll suit there very well), hoping to pry
Him loose from DuBarry – the old roué.”
— and she wrote widowed Louis that very day.

When the fever came, Elisabeth knew —
The familiar fate of all her family —
She sent for a mirror among her sisters
To gaze one last time on her perfect beauty
Before the blisters
Consummated her duty.

The saddest conclusion: She lived — and she lived —
But never looked in a glass again —
She could see what was there in every eye,
In disgust or compassion, appalled or wry,
All things unwelcome to princely pride.
Versailles withdrew his erstwhile offer —
“Madame, hélas — my widowhood’s bride —
Be glad you escape one so ancient and flabby.”
Her mother put the poor girl in an abbey.

Thirty years — or forty? — treacled by
Slow syrup poured while the cakes grow cold.
The English ambassador called to condole:
Having heard of an abscess that grueled her cheek;
She mocked his courtesy: “Sir,
Kind words do not bother to speak —
An unmarried archduchess finds no fortune strange —
A hole in the face is at least a change.”

The Language of Flowers

I have consoled myself for living
By the loving of old poems, the dwelling in old books.
That meant a lot of words were unfamiliar
Though if I sang them, they might rhyme. A clue!
There were many words I didn’t know — but I could look them up
— and sometimes did —oh, sometimes.
Particular, in poetry, since I’m no gardener,
Were names of flowers —
Strange of language, fragrance and of hue,
Wild ones and cultivars, native or intruder, frenzied or scentless, stealthy or brazen —
The Latin descriptors mystified —
but I could look them up — and never did.
I waited like a drear, arranged suitor at the gate
In hopes of formal introduction,
The odor of the hand as I stooped to caress it.
I learned them late —from languages of flowers —
from postage stamps —from specimens in jars —
from ancient myths
that spoke of slashed heads and bleeding hearts,
of lads or maidens, heartlessly pursued, transformed at the point of bliss,
of blood upon the claws of lions or of maenads,
of tragic, early death and rotting flesh —
Would you like a bunch? or several?
Shall I wrap them up?
Censor in some simpering vase?
Or else the tongue recoiled upon a less formal past,
the walkways through wildflowers, and the names
survived, as vague and common as the wind,
“long purples, that our maids do dead men’s fingers call,
but which our shepherds give a grosser name.”
Or something brash or useful, sharp or saintly,
unerring shaft of keen-stung slang,
the smart, hard syllable injustice to the bloom.
Would you like a bunch?
Shall I wrap them?

When Achilles Loved Penthesilea

In the sweat and the heat and the howl and the fright,
Symbol did not enter Achilles’ head,
Nor did it occur to Penthesilea,
Still less her horse, uprearing —

Only the poet, looking on
From safe distance (some hundreds of years)
Out of range of the dirt and the dart and the shard
But seeing the clearer (from his own dimension)
The taut, lithe muscle beneath bronze skin,
The foam-flecked muzzle, the maniac eye,
The queen’s pennant hair (blond? black?) behind, trailing —
The pedant suggests that she shear it for combat —

Only he notes the point of the oaken spear,
Achilles’ turn warding the plummeting beast,
Strict through the mighty breast, held true,
’Til chord dissects the equine throat,
The steed already dead, still dire,
His mortal weight falling forward then
On Thetis’ unpuncturable son,
Our Myrmidon princely heel,
Might crush him, but that he’s come aware
And steps aside, deft as a dance
Familiar from fields of exercise;

The spear point, aimed in defense, emerging,
With no thought for success but assault,
Continues (an instant, too swift for thought —
Not that thought was ever Achilles’ long suit)
To pierce where no blade was foreseen
The leather saddle, the battle armor,
The bodice and breast of the Amazon queen,
Piercing her heart (the poet will say,
However improbable that trajectory)
And out through her shoulders quicker than light;

Just (says our poet) at the self-same instant
Her flashing, confident, reckless eye
(or two, and did I mention they’re lovely?
Gray-hyacinth, gold-flecked?
Or such other hue as you like)
Met Achilles’ (sea green, wine dark, from his mother)
Eye to eye, in the moiling, they meet, they confront —
And in that jolt, that shock affront,
The juddering spear was ripping her vitals,
Comprehending capricious fate:
Soul to soul and breast to breast
To solve and solace each the other’s
Most armored amour —

At least he knew it.
She (on the instant) was dead.
Who knows what (if aught) her soul was thinking?
She attacked (’twas her way) the boldest man on the dusty field,
Then suddenly (how? Who will question
At such a time? And of whom?) she was no more,
But standing on some dimmer field, beneath leaden skies,
Misty memory among the naked shades —
“And who am I? Penthesilea? These syllables
Cannot be me — who is — or who was — she?
My name is neither my self nor substance — but then,
Like all the rest, I have no substance — here —
My name, my self, I left behind — there —
Doomed to rot — unless in a poet’s memory.”

But poets’ memories, too, may fester,
May swell with imaginary infection.

Achilles, though (upstairs – alive still – recollect?),
Gazed in her dead eyes, mightily puzzled,
And they were open yet closed, cold, shut, imperceptive —
The soul-light gone glass —
A feature of the temple now godless.

The poet says (half grinning)
Hardly bothering to hint the gesture:
Spear up into horse into lady into air into death
May suggest similes
If not in our hero (like all heroes simple)
Then in the smirking reader,
Necrophiliac-poet, lecher-hyena, inhaling the stink
Of the battle three thousand years dry.

So Achilles learned of the little death
Because his match (known too late) lay dead
His spear point between her perfect breasts,
Because her brave eyes held no threat in their thirst,
Because he saw there the foredestined embrace:
Ruddy death
Stalk the battle (his natural habitat), rape
This lovely creature to fields Achilles would soon enough furrow.
He might stare, but not wonder
At the murky, sarcastic fate —
He was not a man to ponder; anyway,
He must have known poets would do it for him
(That is what they’re paid for!)
And mate him with choice
Upon some demi-godly bourn —
Deidamia, Polyxena, Briseis, Helen —
Ghosts go a-wooing where they will.
For a man dead as he was,
Who loved no woman but his mother (entre nous),
He saw an awful lot of action,
For us, who limn the lurid tale.

The brave deserve the wayward fair — the fair
Deserve better — but there is no holding
To the strict morals of the fabulist

Who wonders:
Did he love her
Because she was lovely, a soldier, his match?
Because she was dead, and could make no demands?
Because he was single on Saturday night?
Or because her wide glance, on the live instant caught
And dead the next, frozen, particulate wonder,
Windowed, unshuttered, his own sad soul
Where Death was true partner, true mate?

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