Somewhere, Homer writes about a man who has been struck by a spear. The spear is still embedded in his body, and the spear shakes with the rhythm of the beating heart. This is war. And what reminded me of this? Well, today, I went hunting for some more old notes to build into my "how to write" project. But what I found, instead, was the ruins of my projected epic, "Troy," from which I extracted a small fragment, The Death of Patroclus, which I have added to my collection of online poems.
What a mess! Looking through this old material, some of it as much as twenty years old - older, in fact, since this work on this epic got underway back in the 1980s - anway, looking through the material, it's plain that this is one project which has precious little chance of ever getting finished. A single word takes me back to quite a different time:-
One of Ezra Pound's favorite words, I seem to remember. But I don't find it in the dictionary, so maybe I misremember, and the word is my own mutant invention. (Which is quite possible, since I went through a phase when I was commonly inventing as many as half a dozen words a day.)
The gameplan for "Troy" was to write the story of the Trojan War, all the way from its causes through to its consequences, including details like the recruiting:-
The Drafting of Odysseus
And so it is war.
And so they come for Odysseus, the stern-hearted recruiters:
They come to hold him to his oath.
And find him thus:
Ox plowing with ass, hand
Airing salt to the furrow.
His eyes puzzle shadows from the sky. His laugh is brilliant.
Half tongue, half spit, he speaks, he says, says he:
"Five leagues of questing rule my turtle's foot.
Nine stars have quelled their brewing in my corn.
Yet shall I gainsfoot the sparrow,
Or nary down the stockings of her desire?"
Then Palamedes takes Telemachus from his crib
And rocks him with a whisper to the catch
Of breaking air.
The boy falls squalling to the earth.
The furrow's keel plows toward his death.
And then Odysseus, his strategy thus broken,
Hauls his team to sanity,
And gathers up his infant son,
To join his weeping.
I was going to do the whole lot, even the boring bits like the Catalog of Ships, which is the Homeric equivalent of all those "begats" in the Bible ("Then Yelsap begat Elsap, and mighty were the number of his years; and Elsap begat Belsap" - and so on and so forth.) I got at least as far as a partial draft of the Catalog of Ships:-
The Gathering of Weapons
Now forth from the hall of weapons they come,
The men from the hills of grass and gold,
The horse-lords with their chariots of war,
And, from their islands of uplofted stone,
The sea-kings in their glory.
Surely their weapontake is mighty
As armies gather to Aulis
To range against the Asian empire
The might of Greece.
Singing they come,
From Thisbe of the many doves,
Bronze made for death and living flesh to bear it.
Striding they come,
From Daulis, from Panopeus,
Men whose mothers think of them, already,
As buried yesterday.
Like a wind to shake the stars,
Their voices shout;
Like a rumor of distant thunder, their marching feet
Bestir the earth;
Like storm clouds' onslaught, their sails
Gathering in to Aulis, their numbers swell.
From Aspledon, and from Minyaean Orchomenus,
A squadron of thirty hollow ships
Led by Ascalaphus and Ialmenus,
Those sons of Ares whom Astyoche conceived,
Meeting in secret in a sunlit attic
To strive in desire with the mighty wargod.
Thus the sons of gods and the sons of men
Gather to Aulis for a single purpose.
Ajax of the Locrians, the master spearsman,
And, with him, forty black ships.
Forth from Euboea, the ardent Abantes,
Enlisted under Elphenor:
The men of Calchis, of Cerinthus by the sea,
And from the fortress rock of Dius:
Fell warriors, with spears of ash,
A blood-lust like burning fire.
From Athens comes Menestheus,
Master of infantry,
Unrivalled - save by Nestor - in his skill
When I was writing this, I was perfectly aware of the fact that the notion of "Greece" sending an army against "Asia" was decidedly unhomeric, since the notion of "Greece" had not even been invented in Homer's time. Instead, in the world of Homer's poetry, it is the Argives, otherwise known as the Danaäns, who make war against the Trojans, and the societies which are at war with each otehr seem to be culturally similar. However, right from the start, this was always intended to be a modern poem.
And a lot of the projected epic is here, in disjointed fragments, half-completed segments. The sacrifice of Iphigenia. The wounding and marooning of Piloctetes. The first battles, fought to possess Helen, who is actually not there to be possessed. Helen is in Egypt, and has troubles of her own to cope with:-
What drink this is she cannot say,
She drinks distended shadow,
The robes are ready:
And catch her as she falls.
More war. Helen finally shows up in Troy. War intensifies. Plague. For good cause, Achilles refuses to fight. Patroclus begs from Achilles his armor. And Patroclus, wearing the armor of Achilles, goes forth and fights:-
As Thrasydemos falls, Sarpedon thrusts,
His spear jabbed sideways by the sun.
Maimed by the sun, a horse goes down,
Its screams all thrash and flailing.
And Patroclus, weighting home his blade,
Stabs for the heart,
And vents both life and blood together.
And, fighting, Patroclus dies. Achilles kills Hector:-
And darkness is the sun, and darkness
All that tottering imperium which falls -
And, having fallen, kicks a little, until
Steps on the breathing corpse and hauls,
And wrenches the stick from the meat.
Which voids its bowels then dies.
And, having killed Hector, Achilles despoils the body. Naturally, the death of Achilles follows in due course:-
Turning on the blade of the sun
He feels no pain.
He counts it all as illusion.
Existence was a cobweb's whisper.
And now he is nothing, and knows it,
Darkening to extinction as he falls.
And, finally, the fall of Troy, and the consequences of that fall for the survivors:-
He is sore. He is hurt.
He hurts her for his hurt.
Her mouth is fishes gaping for the sea.
A streak of soot upon her cheeks.
She blubbers, and he slaps her down to silence.
Stones dimpled in her buttocks where his weight
Combined with hers to shift her down to silence.
With Troy defeated, the Greeks divide the spoils of war and depart for home:-
Now upon the sands the sun
Beats in waves of silence.
The Greeks are gone,
To leave the daylight smoking in the ruins.
Upon the plain, a single dog stands sovereign.
Now upon the plains of Troy,
The wasp holds tenancy,
And dung on dung the beetle stirs to work.
Rock, dog, ashes, wasp and sun -
And so much carrion plunder
A stick would take three shakes to sum its total.
The Trojan dead unburied in the sun.
A season's rains will rack their joints apart,
Then the earth will open like a veteran whore
And take them under, pregnant in reverse:
Great flesh digesting lesser flesh, unnaming names,
Unbirthing dynasties, devolving
Heart, lung, bones, brain and belly
To coarser dust of earth, and common clay.
But that is later.
Now is now.
From Ida out to Samothrace the plunging light
Pours down in bright ignition and excites
The shore, the plain, the city and the sea.
Lit by lucidities of Asian light,
Armor gleams as black and red make war,
As heroes rend and tear, and pull down pain,
In reek of cinnamon gas and silence screaming.
Knowing no better.
Knowing no better.
Locked in the circus of a horseshoe stamping,
The ants contend, make war,
For the ninetieth part of a broken sparrow,
For the shreds of a fallen wing.
But at this stage we're only halfway through the epic, because the return of the victorious Greeks from Troy - the consequences of war, not for the defeated but for the victors - now require a detailed exploration. And the consequences, by and large, are shipwreck, disaster, death. And memories, of course:-
And the spear which shocks and shakes
To the shudder of the beating heart.
It returns by dream and by daylight:
The battle the blood still fights with the battle done.
Slewed on the shock of a scream, a chariot topples,
And daylight topples, falling with the scream -
But this part, I find - the part after the fall of Troy, that is - has been scrappily done, more fragments and fewer coherent passages. Though I have written an ending for the epic:-
Light, brightness, beads, baubles and reflections
Decline by stealth, until at last the eye
Repents its tolerance, and calls frank blindness night.
Now night has come, and underneath its blanket
The pinprick cities commune a while in warmth,
Then sink to bed,
Leaving their fires as embers.
A little while she lingers, then she brings
Lips to shoulder, fingers to a thigh:
Warm, wet and nubile,
Ready to be done.
The embers burn. Exhaust themselves.
Pinch out - and perish.
And now the night is dark, and in that dark
All dogs are dreams, and dreams are barking dogs,
And in those barking dogs the cats
Scuff mice to fur and feathers while dissolving geese
Chase squeaking ospreys widthwise through a ring.
It is night.
Lofted above the whalesmoke waves of Ocean,
A single gull in flight.
Caught in the baffle of a seagull's cry,
Beyond all fall of Greece, Achilles cries:
After all this - this long trip down memory lane - I've decided to add just one more piece to my collection of online poems, this being a fragment about someone wounded in battle, Wounded, Not Yet Dead
As for the dead:-
Here, south of Gallipoli,
South of Anzac Cove and Chunuk Bair,
Here lie the dead.
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