CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Will of Achilles
But under the rain
a different thing. Vine leaves
Achilles sees, inconsequent
myrtles. There is no end
to weather. The gods are done with him.
If prowess were the answer—
but men die anyhow,
skilful or cack-handed
eventually go down.
Some say it is a road.
Some say it is nowhere at all.
Something of honor clings to him—
in the eyes of the living
there is some dignity in being dead.
And something ridiculous too.
He cuts through the warriors
to find the one man he has to kill.
Every city has a slim identity—
hard to grasp it, sometimes young man
or woman glimpsed at a window
or old man a-doze beneath a tree.
This city was a man,
a wifed man and a children’d man
and a man with father, with mother.
No wonder he has to die.
I belong to too many, Hector sighed.
Let the walls of my city fall down on me.
But the walls stood.
If only none of this were true
and one man could befriend another
and the crows find other food beyond the mountains
and Scamander ran clean over golden gravel.
It is the ship’s fault,
if only ships had never been invented
we would stay at home
on the rough fertile uneven plains of Thessaly
or all those rocky little islands.
The terrible migrations of people—
without travel there would be no war.
The engine of wanting to touch you
moves so many words.
Wars. Mars is the meaning of it
everywhere he’s been.
It is a matter of leaping
over walls or fires
or a matter of pounding the ground
with the heels. Earth.
Some call it dance.
A way of looking at the sea
and saying goodbye to the woman
at the same time without a word—
the cormorant skims so close
to his shadow, dives into itself,
itself is the whole sea, rises up
a shockingly long minute later
one small fish glitters
in the corner of his beak.
Achilles so swift in all things
studies the bird, knows,
dives into his shadow.
The war is what is left
when he has turned his back on the woman.
Not Briseis, not Polyxena,
certainly not Helen.
The woman no book mentions—
in Thrace already he had seen her,
No one knows her name
and he will not say it aloud.
Though it’s hard for him not to hear it
whenever people stop and try to talk.
hurt beneath all his hurts—
what happens in Ilion
more like a bad dream
the night tells again.
He came here to find
how much he had lost,
how much left to lose.
On a bright day
thunder so far away
it sounds like servants
moving furniture out of heaven.
He remembers heaven.
How quiet war can also be,
silence of sword blades and last whispers.
Then no sound. Sometimes
it is like this: he gets
up early and stands on the hill.
I am an animal
in their experiment.
They take things away
from me one by one
and give me bright
weapons. How long
before I start to kill—
they stand in brightness
over me taking note
of all I do. Messengers
who are gods, gods
who are messengers.
It was something in the cup they gave him—
taste of nutmeg taste of butter—
eased him for a little minute—
a soldier is such a fractious child—
and something in the cup was sleepy.
Maybe he should have a good
night’s sleep before he dies.
Be wide awake when the accidental
blade opens the last door.
Or that he didn’t know
from the very beginning.
What is bronze?
What is the energy that rouses
when lovers’ lips congest together
and is there a unit of it men
could measure and does it happen
if only one love assents to the kiss?
Where does the wind come from?
What is the moon?
One is left alone in the world
with what one can do.
And tell today
a little more of the story
than some teller let slip yesterday.
Harp clangor, horn call—
why does metal sing
when you strike it?
Is that really what it’s for?
No time for questions.
Clouds here and there
padding the far sun, wind lift,
hint of rain. The smell of things.
On such days the body knows
something’s on its way.
Already there are more trees
than he had names for—
each thing comes to help me
but the last one kills
he thought. He watched the sky:
a nice girl sweeping the floor.
Be thorough in it, anything,
he thought, and that will do.
We comfort ourselves with stories,
wise remarks, analogies, gods.
Surprised, he came aware
the clouds did not move at all.
We are interrupted by time.
Artemis is too beautiful to see—
she had always been the one for him
his special god the way the Hindus say,
the godself a boy gets one glimpse of
and all his life is shaped. One look’s enough.
Ever after seeking that pale flank
in pine woods seen. It didn’t
even have to be a woman. Didn’t even
have to be alive—because it alone
owned life, and life comes from it,
a glance gives birth—is it
ever just enough to be alive?
A man like this man
has servants to whet his sword for him
and keep his plastron bright.
armor he becomes an insect,
we learn from beetles and hedgehogs,
we study the manners of the low.
Sometimes in a fountain pool
he happens to see what he looks like,
an insect locked in a machine
one oversized claw outstretched to kill.
It is absurd to think that one of these
could have a friend. Or be one.
There are those we kill and those we guard—
how easily they turn out to be the same.
Close to the city wall one night
he hears an enemy soldier
call out from within Ile unarme again!
and wonders if such a deed is possible—
One day perhaps this helmet on my head
just won’t come off, and my copper
breastplate last longer than my bone.
Now while I still can
let me be naked man
run away on my swift feet
into the hills always surround us
and never say a word about them—
a mountain has no history,
it cancels human anxieties
into one huge terror of its own.
Or one morning leap out of dream
and explain it, that all I have
is that image I got or was given
the goddess to be chased through trees and seas
and pursuing her is identical with my life.
I have to speak the language of the place
where I was born, another blood,
Arion rushed to judgment
sustained by what he said.
He thought he was borne along
by music, “my words
become the sentient beasts
of down below who carry me
safe to one more audient shore”
he can plunder sense by sense
into images for poetry.
A city to be sacked by song alone.
O Achilles, he has heard this story
all his life, poet, pirates, dolphins, music
sustaining. Who cares enough to carry me?
My mother on her knees before the god
grasped his knees. Everybody
has a mother. By the waters
of Styx he swore—that water
rises in the brain, flows down
spines to the testicular, knees
cushioned in the synovial, all
the same water, all the same sea.
Everybody has a god. But who carries me?
Water of life, sea of witness
we live with these stories in our heads,
this aion, life fluid, in our bodies.
Witness. Wetness. Arion
must half-drown, has to trust
nothing but the animal his song becomes
to carry him safe from savage admirers
(rapists, murderers, enthusiasts),
has to trust the sea. The sea
is one long contract with us, brine
of it in our bodies. Is our bodies.
We are salt.
Weary thinking. To this point
he had come so many times before
on this and so many seacoasts. Euxine.
Marmora with Asia over there,
fatal mirage, Ionian, Aegean,
so many names for this one sea.
All round us ocean river,
zonē, belt, zoē, life,
belt of the goddess wombs us in.
So many times his thinking
had come to this same place
and got no further. What is further
than the sea, this sea that runs
through him. And through her too,
all of them. The ocean that flows
in me flows through Hector too, he reasons.
He killed the boy I loved I must kill him
till we all become one body of love.
Body of death. And is that also the sea?
Can’t thought get further?
Is an image an answer?
In India the wisest one
held up a flower. Smiled.
This happened so long ago
every century or so someone remembers
and writes it down
as if it had just happened. The sea
he thinks is not an image,
it is one long forgetting
wide deep chill and everything goes down.
If the sea were only one thing
what would it look like?
Patroclus lying dead at his feet?
Polyxena now. She isn’t the prettiest.
A girl’s behavior is her major body,
not the shape her shadow casts
on some wall at sunset. How a girl
acts is her real body, laughter is a bone,
her silences the volupté of her flesh.
Something about her—that’s all he said,
naïve as any soldier, something
about her, the way she talks.
Not like Helen, unforgettable
(unforgivable) in visual beauty.
not like Helen full of clinging
and sudden letting go, not like Helen
sumptuous and all-receiving,
deceiving, think what you please.
Not like Helen. This one
you’d pass in the street and hardly notice.
Unless she looked at you. Unless she spoke
and brought herself towards you
simple, nothing special, just as if
she were the famous flower
held out to your questioning hand.
So simple. It was as if she said
Come home with me
and I will be your home.
And for a man who has been on the sea
and on the road and on the battlefield
year after year, that was a tender
thing to hear. To take him by the hand.
Love is all about confusion.
All the rest is clear.
All the rest is war,
one cuts, one is cut down.
Does war happen
to rescue us from love
he wondered. Or is war
what happens when you come
to the end of thinking?
When you’ve thought your way
to the same point, the same
irreducible but unspeakable
awareness surging inside you
but no further, nothing clear,
only war is clear, is it then
you turn from the sea, or cross it
in long ships groaning with bronze
hungering for one more image,
rush up some unthought beachhead
cutting and being cut down?
Is war the thing beyond the mind?
Men get there without thinking.
But what if my thinking
could get past the thing I thought?
Saw through the sea
and all its pilgrims all its corpses,
what if I could see through that flower—
would that be the end of thinking? Of killing?
His shield showed
everything. Showed the story
he was right in the middle of,
showed even himself at this very moment
studying the shield.
Everything was in it.
His mother gave it to him,
had it made for him
by that rambunctious deity,
the limping god who made
copper leap beneath his hammers,
lord knows how she paid for it,
gods have strange tastes,
sea-nymphs strange ways of paying.
This shield so wrought
she gave her son
was a diary, wasn’t it,
filled up already,
every day of his life to come,
in tiny metallic images,
his whole life complete already,
the city and the river.
The woman on the wall and the girl in the gate,
sun on the bright shield hurting his eyes.
Resentment, his resentment, is a sudden shower,
there quick, more toadstool than vascular,
not a flower but as densely colored
rosing the cheeks but blanching the blood then
not like rage. It is shame as action
turned outward, a fist, a weapon, the eyes
of the resentful always turn outward
to find something hurts him even worse.
Rules are the opposite aren’t they
of compulsions, but hard in practice
to know which is which. He needs
to unlatch the toggles of his cloak
with right hand only, he doesn’t
bother to know why. I’ll unarm again
he heard inside the walls,
he says it now again, liking
the sound of it in his own mouth.
It sounds like sleep. A long sleep
unencumbered by knowing.
There’s always too much light.
He feels so much and wants so little—
no wonder he rages when he doesn’t
get what he thinks he wants. The nameless
little things I want. Crows around him
in the cold field could name them
for him though, and the field mice
in a sodden-nest with five still-blind
newborn mouselings in it, shallow breathing.
They know all the words too.
Only we have lost them. Let them go.
All the things I’ve hurt.
A mouthful of water
before food. Don’t spit
on hot iron. They weren’t
things, they were people.
I wash my face before I wash my hands.
They aren’t people now,
they’re bone and leather meat
I lie down on my right side only
when I go to sleep but who knows
where I am when I wake at dawn.
Someone moves me.
Lust takes away my appetite
but being satisfied makes me hungry.
Never in all these years a good night’s sleep.
Everything does connect.
That is the beauty of it. The horror in it.
It is like a picture of a house
a child draws with a potshard on the sidewalk.
Or one of the panels on my shield
showing oxen toiling up a field
or a woman pauses at her loom and looks
up at a curious bird outside her window—
its head strangely like a woman’s head.
But it is blue. It all
intersects in me. That is what
it means to be a me. Or to be.
So different, the way we think
about a city, the English,
the Greeks. For them it is a heap,
a humped-up surface
atop a vulnerable plain.
For us a town’s a fenced-in place,
Walled. But Troy has walls.
He has to get into the town of it,
to be safe inside, the snug enclosure
where she lives, the new one
Death of course is waiting—his mother
made sure he’d never forget
all wounds have to come from inside—
death is in me, a stowaway.
But death also is a city wall
will one day close me in.
Then he’ll say: this is a garden
I hear her voice
the wall was pain
but here she waits for me,
wearing the garden
as her wedding gown.
Which part was the dream?
Her face moved through the conditions of thought.
Even a war isn’t a war all the time.
Pigeons roost snug on battlements,
a girl milks her cow in the shade of a plane tree.
Most of the wounds have stopped bleeding.
Bleating of sheep. Men shaving.
Shapes of soldiers huddle in doorways, sleeping.
Furloughs. Picnics in the barley fields.
He moved among such unexpected calmnesses
looking for her. He had taken off his armor,
his dark hair lank over his eyes.
His actual normal body was a good enough disguise.
Always something just out of sight
you need to remember. Her name.
The names of her children
by her fallen husband. Or that bird
who wakes you every morning,
lost. The Lydian spicers call it
gold-quick blue-river. You
don’t even call. Take.
Take up. You have come
to the bottom of your thought.
The bird sings perfectly well without you.
You thought the priests could help
so you asked the priests and they said
there is a god for everything. Maybe
the bird and you are gods to each other.
He was beginning to remember
whose all these images had been.
Where they came from
to be in him now. Not
from himself or from another
but as if the place itself was
stored, richly with the thought of things.
The notion thrilled him,
scared him too, it was girlish of him
to get so excited, of course everybody
is a girl to begin with,
that’s the great secret isn’t it,
Eleusis, Egypt, there is only
a woman to begin with, and why
all the world strives for that condition
to be or consume or possess
the woman. The only value.
Was Achilles a girl still?
And he was afraid of the earth
suddenly itself, it rises up
through us and speaks
and we are, he was, hardly anyone at all,
his whole helmeted identity
was just a clay simulacrum of a meaning
the earth wanted to play with or express.
His whole mind, he thought,
no more than a seeping,
the way ground-water soaks a dug pit.
Not my will, he thought,
but a vessel only. And there was nowhere to go
that was not earth. Or what the earth meant.
The old books, the ones nobody reads,
they talk about Polyxena, amber-coiffed
sweet-featured close kin to murdered Hector.
Seeing her once, Achilles knew desire
for the first time in a long time, a passion
Homer nowhere allows him—
a common thing, the canonical
way of a man with a maid,
of no interest in that most moral war.
From which Achilles now must flee.
Where is there to go from a battlefield?
Only the city. From war into town,
He stood—but he should have knelt—
before old Priam, saying little, as if
I’m sorry, but that’s how the world is,
be glad you’re alive. Or did he—
in the secret book behind all spoken words,
the long mind where thinking is
the same as remembering—did Achilles
kneel down after all, do we see him now
with tear-stained cheeks resting
on Priam’s knees as once Thetis’s
cheeks had pressed on Zeus’s, sobbing
now for no reason he could say, because
he had no reason anymore?
I killed your son, I want your daughter,
I want to take his place, become a part
of the machine I broke
in mute obedience to my own virtue.
I want them to laugh at me in the streets
scoffing that he (they mean me) who felt
no desire ever did this for desire—
he is in our power now
because he is in her power, a mere girl
is the only queen of everything that happens.
Priam woke from his doze,
supposed he had heard such talk
in the harsh northern dialect
his conqueror barked. He laid
a wary, soft old hand on the nape
of Achilles, lisped in his mushy
toothless old man way, Child,
my city is burning, it is finished,
you are asking my permission
to burn with it. Follow your whim,
find her and consume her, as she
will consume you, everything
is a fire anyhow: a boy in a burning house
looking at a pretty girl—
that is all a city is, and now it is done.
As if waiting always for another word—
“at the tip of the tongue” we say, one thinks
of all the places tongues have been
and what they learned there, names
they cried out ill-silenced by the deed itself.
For whom did he cry out?
Distance, you understand, is illusion,
a parable only, or simile for time
stretched out before us.
You can step from the north wind to the Sahara
in a second—your body tu sais
is part of the illusion too,
so all the world and all the worlds
are right here at your beck and call
we used to say. At your call.
You cry out the name—instantly
you are there, in her embrace,
illusory space that has warm arms.
You call. There is no way out of the city.
Or once you have imagined a city
it is part of you ever after, changing
as you change. Calling as you call.
Or you belong to every name you call.
So the priest had said, Calchas,
in one of his abstruse sermons
or that’s what Achilles remembered,
the bearded guru bent over the fire
ladling lamb fat in, and sweet oil,
heaps of barley, sprinkling salt.
For salt and barley are the whitest things.
But a green spark of flame when salt goes in.
Doubt everything but mind, he’d said,
but don’t think there is a mind—
no, mind’s busy doing, is no thing,
a wind from nowhere and all you need.
The ruined city all around him
he sat with Polyxena in the cool room,
cool after the last fires had died down.
Don’t bother me with history books,
I know. I was there, I was him
or I was her, or was the cat on the scorched
goathair rug she shared with me
whoever I was. The heroes were all gone.
This woman. They will say I loved her
but I know she is the last convulsion
of my will. To fall silent in her loneliness.
Is will the same as love?
No man can tell. We don’t know
what she looked like really, or even he,
so famous, we don’t see his face either
though we are told his hair was dark,
so black it had blue glints, springtime,
hyacinths. And she we are left to think
was tawny blond, like so many girls
of that region still, fulvid, full-lipped.
We do not see their faces. They bend
over the chessboard, an Egyptian toy,
Achilles’ hand reaches out to move
his blue faience queen, the piece
they called the runner and just then
the arrow strikes him, he slumps
over the board, his hand dislodges
half a dozen pawns, all his moves
are made at once, they scoot
into her lap and his head falls.
She sees the arrow’s shaft protruding
quivering a little as his last heartbeats
wrench the sunken chest. Then the feather barbs are still.
She knows who it must have been who shot it,
Pandarus the censorious, or sweet Paris the half-
conscious villain, makes no difference, the man is dead.
He came to her, she guesses,
more for this moment than for her love.
It’s not a story anyway, she thinks,
just a single gesture ten years long
that ends in my lap, a man alive
who isn’t anymore. And we do our best
to forget this part of his life,
the secret agency that runs him
runs us too, beneath all our love and anger
running pure, the secret being
inside our being, that makes her
for instance feel a little sad now
about this man she hardly knew
just like everybody else.
Robert Kelly has published more than fifty books of poetry and prose, including Red Actions: Selected Poems 1960–1993 (Black Sparrow Press, 1995). His most recent books are Lapis (Godine/Black Sparrow, 2005), Threads (First Intensity, 2006), and the novel The Book from the Sky, which came out this year (North Atlantic). The Logic of the World (short fictions) is forthcoming from McPherson & Company. Black Widow will issue his long poem Fire Exit this winter.