If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
that the god-loved, god-protected hero
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife
and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge--then you read Homer as I did,
too fast, knowing you'd be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.
Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who's nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not
a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog
you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely
but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.
He was the yard dog's yard dog.
His heads accessorized with snakes.
His tail a scorpion's, and his slaver
a seed bank for hell's herbarium.
And his bites were worse than his barks.
What did he do in the underworld
except to guard the stairs leading
from the bitter tide-lap of the Styx?
How did he spend his days in the darkness
where only the dead can see?
His rheum-yellow eyes. His chainmail ears
larger than a basset's. Slower than Charon
at sorting the dead from the living--
yet more accurate, for like the dog
he was, he knew the various scents from the world above:
the grasses and tree bark, scat tracks,
the sweet acrid talc of dried piss. He knew
the dirt-under-the-nail smell of the desperate digging
from the buried-alive, the iron-on-the-tongue
of the licked wound. As ugly as he was,
he had exquisite breeding, a species unto himself.
The stud who would never have a mate. His cock,
a huge suppurating rudder, stirred the sulfuric
ocean of his realm; a homing device like his anger,
uncircumcised, guiding, probing, a love that could kill.
Ruth Bolduan, "Byzantium"
see more of Ruth Bolduan's work
Last night the world's rifts, the ridges
that lie under the oceans, entered my dream,
seams and wounds of creation that spread
and subduct, whose monumental movement
makes mountains, erupts volcanoes,
and sets continents adrift.
In that peaceful destruction the possessions
of our house lay scattered on the floor
like a collection of basalt, glassine,
brittle from cooling, shaped like pillows
and sheets and columns from the temple
of the world's beginnings.
But out beyond the talus walls, over the caldera's edge,
the earth's manufacture of abyss slipped by
slowly. That was the night's upwelling, and in it
the sheer transparent creatures coalesced,
rafts of stellar luminescence--red, blue, and green--
deep, beyond reach, but in the world.
2212 WEST FLOWER STREET
When I think of the man who lived in the house
behind ours and how he killed his wife
and then went into his own back yard,
a few short feet from my bedroom window,
and put the blue-black barrel of his 30.06
inside his mouth and pulled the trigger,
I do not think about how much of the barrel
he had to swallow before his fingers reached the trigger,
nor the bullet that passed out the back of his neck,
nor the wild orbit of blood that followed
his crazy dance before he collapsed in a clatter
over the trash cans, which woke me.
Instead I think of how quickly his neighbors restored
his humanity, remembering his passion
for stars which brought him into his yard
on clear nights, with a telescope and tripod,
or the way he stood in the alley in his rubber boots
and emptied the red slurry from his rock tumblers
before he washed the glassy chunks of agate
and petrified wood. And we remembered, too,
the goose-neck lamp on the kitchen table
that burned after dinner and how he worked
in its bright circle to fashion flies and lures.
The hook held firmly in a jeweler's vise,
while he wound the nylon thread around the haft
and feathers. And bending closer to the light,
he concentrated on tying the knots, pulling them tight
against the coiled threads. And bending closer still,
turning his head slightly toward the window,
his eyes lost in the dark yard, he took the thread ends
in his teeth and chewed them free. Perhaps he saw us
standing on the sidewalk watching him, perhaps he didn't.
He was a man so much involved with what he did,
and what he did was so much of his loneliness,
our presence didn't matter. No one's did.
So careful and precise were all his passions,
he must have felt the hook with its tiny barbs
against his lip, sharp and trigger-shaped.
It must have been a common danger for him--
the wet clear membrane of his mouth threatened
by the flies and lures, the beautiful enticements
he made with his own hands and the small loose
thread ends which clung to the roof of his mouth
and which he tried to spit out like an annoyance
that would choke him.
I think of Plato and the limited technology
of his cave, the primitive projection
incapable of fast forward or reverse,
stop action or slo mo and the instant replay
that would have allowed him to verify,
once and for all, Justice or the Good,
such as the way my family did, hour upon hour,
in the dark, watching films of my sister
diving, going over her failures and successes
like a school of philosophers, arguing
fiercely, pulling her up from the depths
of the blue water, feet first, her splash
blooming around her hips, then dying out
into a calm flat sheet as her fingertips appeared.
Sometimes we kept her suspended in her mimesis
of gainer and twist until the projector's lamp
burned blue with smoke and the smell of acetate
filled the room. Always from the shabby armchairs
of our dialectic we corrected the imperfect
attitude of her toes, the tuck of her chin,
took her back to the awkward approach or weak
hurdle and everywhere restored the half-promise
of her form, so that each abstract gesture
performed in an instant of falling revealed
that fond liaison of time and movement,
the moment held in the air, the illusion
of something whole, something true.
And though what we saw on the screen
change, never submit to our arguments, we believed
we might see it more clearly and understand
that what we judged was a result of poor light
or the apparent size of things or the change
an element evokes, such as when we allowed her
to reenter the water and all at once her body
skewed with refraction, an effect we could not save
her from, though we hauled her up again and again.
Michael Collier has been the director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for five years and has taught English at the University of Maryland, College Park, for fifteen years.His books of poetry are The Ledge (2000), The Neighbor (1995), The Folded Heart (1989), and The Clasp and Other Poems (1986). Collier is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, NEA fellowships, and the Discovery/The Nation award, among other honors.
Published in Volume 1, Number 3, Summer 2000.