At the Start of His Ninth Year
Water is sweet still,
water, and the morning mist
that shrouds the crags of Lemnos,
and the seabirds' cry.
Solitude makes men's hearts heavy,
their tongues heavy,
heavy as this foot I drag
that prisons me in solitude.
A man alone cannot speak,
not even to shout aloud his pain,
not even to cry back at the wheeling birds.
At first light
Helios-Sun-Rider parted mist
to wake me from pain-drugged sleep,
and the gulls spun like homecoming sails,
white in the distance.
There will be no sails
to bear me home to Oetaen land,
no sailcloth softened
with weather and sea-spanning time
to bind this foot, make decent
to gods and men
its eye- and nose-revolting filth: only rags,
wrack of the sea, refuse of ships long lost,
spurned and torn on the sharp-shingled beach
and fouled by birds.
Zeus, Zeus kind to suppliants,
and you nameless hero of the bronze shield
who knew my heart-earth,
the banks and willows of my Spercheius,
hear me. At first light,
propped rusty-jointed on the twigs and leaves
that soften my cavemouth floor,
I broke silence, made woman-weak
by the cool touch of mist
on my black foot and sunseared face.
Not to cry to gods,
no, nor do I now: who spurs
a god's displeasure, though innocent,
has no respite from pain
that clouds his eyes, nor hopes for such
for the old tales lie.
Not such my speech,
when mist and sleep-leaving undid my guard,
tight as my strung bow awake,
I heard the gulls crying, crying across the open sea,
took them for human voices
sweet to my ear, and called to them
in glad answer, so long unheard.
merciless Apollo banished
the Lemnan mist and mine, and I lay
dew-damp at cave-mouth, staring down
the ragged drift of years,
seeking the headland of my last speech
weathered by the slow abrasion
of uncounted time.
A man alone does not speak,
save at first to scream
when, climbing painful to sea-vantage,
hopeful for sweet sails, leaves graze
his throbbing foot, and dark matter
bursts forth to stain the rocks;
or when stumbling the sharp shingle
he croaks like a child to mimic the birds
and lure them in arrow-range,
his only food.
Speech then, and one time after,
when, sick for the dear sound of Greek,
he leans across a standing pool
to drink scummed despair and his foot's stench,
sees this cord-faced stranger outcast from men,
wretched in the savagery of his illness,
and bids one soft farewell
to the distant ridges of Trachis, the valleys
whose softness shelters the Malian nymphs,
and his father Poias.
Then speech no more,
mouth tight as the island-guarding rocks,
breath dear, little warmth inside a man
and none to waste, all
for this island-circling cripple's progress
to some god-drawn destiny sustained
on rank birdflesh and silence,
gathering herbs to mute the pain.
For who can judge the gods' whims,
who foresee suffering from an unknowing step
in the peaceful groves sacred
to Chryse, bitter of heart, or know
the course and purpose of this exile?
Now, not stranger to Kronos,
but stranger to those numbers
Prometheus brought to chart his workings,
and by choice: they made
the etch of longing deeper. Only the birds
to neighbor my sorrows, and I in the end
to return their food.
Thus life drawn out,
but no speech, no bitter cry
at the ever-empty harbor
or bite of salt in the cursed foot
until this dawn
when, caught weak and unguarded
by longing long thrust aside, I called
in glad answer to imagined voices.
And now at nightfall still
by the meager fire -- rub stone on stone
when rain floods the cave --
they will not leave me, those heard sounds
and my hunger,
yesterday almost forgotten.
Unstrung my bow now, unstrung
this stiff spine
that has balanced my painful stumbling
through so many circles of seasons,
unbending, obedient only
to the gods' will. And I, a
warrior once, stare through the flames
with eyes blurred.
King of the bright land, no-man-knowable,
grant me not hero's fame at the walls of Troy,
nor even the long sea-voyage
to Chalcedon, thence the journey to Oeta,
my friends and my old father,
nor respite from my pain;
to live again among men,
in some bare corner, undemanding
save for speech, and my affliction
no longer to give offense beyond bearing
in men's eyes. Only to have
relief, however slight, from
this hunger so long borne,
the silence of my solitude.
This only do I ask,
though no man can command
the gods, nor foretell
what is to be.
6 Dec 62