• Crown Shyness

    A. E. Stallings

    Spring 2023

    The ancient epics do not overlap.
    Hector dies. Achilles is a ghost.
    The wooden horse is backstory at most,
    Or hasn’t happened yet. A witch’s trap
    Turns men to swine. A living river burns.
    A dog lies pining on a heap of dung.
    A woman waits, and is no longer young.
    A ransom’s paid. A wanderer returns.

    So great trees grow, they tell us, putting down
    A map of roots that chart the underworld
    As deep as topmost leaves reach up, unfurled
    Into the blue sublime, and side by side,
    Though deep and tall, they only grow so wide,
    And hold aloof, not touching at the crown.

    They hold aloof, not touching at the crown.
    Walking between their columns, look above
    To see how sky’s a river delta of
    Blue leaking through, as puzzled light sifts down.
    How do they know—how do they sense the touch?
    We call it shyness. Is it courtesy,
    An antique courtliness of tree to tree,
    That somehow knows the border of too much?

    When Priam in his laden wagon came
    Under the veil of night to meet his foe,
    And buy the body of his son, laid low,
    Achilles drew back from his savage brink
    To courtesy, and said, “We are the same:
    Though princes, we are mortals. Eat. Drink.”

    “Though princes, we are mortals. Eat. Drink.”
    So all that bloodshed ends, in a shared feast,
    Stories, tears. Dawn kindles in the East,
    The westering stars go ashen as they sink.
    As neutral birds erupt in morning choirs,
    Mules shake their ears, their hides atwitch with flies.
    There’s nothing for the living but to rise
    And to prepare the wood for funeral pyres.

    The forest groans and braces for the axe:
    So many trees it takes to burn a man!
    Nine days they gather wood from every side.
    Between the trees, there open up dirt tracks
    For mules and sledges. Now the thwacks elide
    In rhythms that no bard has ever scanned.

    In rhythms that no bard has ever scanned,
    The timber falls. It’s timber when it falls
    And crashes into silence with its calls
    Of birdsong and its rustling sarabande,
    A library of turning leaves; its rings
    A record of the years no needle traces,
    Shade the annihilating sun erases,
    Torn from the catalogue of living things.

    (It started with the catalogue of ships:
    Whole forests felled for keels, masts, spars, oars, hulls
    Made black and waterproof with tar and pitch.
    The sight of the armada stirred the pulse
    Of men more than the hair, the skin, the lips
    Of beauty’s queen men later called a bitch.)

    The beauty queen men later called a bitch
    (She called herself that sometimes) stood aloft
    Upon the ramparts, while the old men coughed
    And young men died, and thought how it was rich—
    No wedding could go off without a hitch!—
    Men blamed her for their bloody-minded slaughter.
    She missed her ex sometimes. She missed her daughter.
    She’d go to Egypt, and become a witch.

    There on the wall a fig tree grew. Its shade
    In summer made the city street a park
    Where all the little Trojan children played,
    Chasing each other round the wall, all games
    Until their mothers called as it grew dark
    And they became a litany of names.

    The shades become a litany of names.
    They creep up to the trough of blood to drink.
    And now the fog clears—they can speak and think.
    His mother nears to say she never blames
    Him for her death of—here her sigh is sharp—
    A mother’s broken heart. His father, well,
    He lives in squalor, half a man, a shell.
    His wife—she plays those “suitors” like a harp.

    (Someday he’ll show his father as he grieves
    The orchards he was promised: thirteen pears,
    Ten apple trees, two scores of figs, and vines
    That make the best home brew a vineyard bears,
    Not strong as Agamemnon’s sea-dark wines,
    But sweet and bright, like light through olive leaves.)

    Sweet and bright, like light through olive leaves
    The dawning of his homecoming. Yet still
    She doesn’t recognize him. But she will!
    Unless it is deception that she weaves?
    Has someone moved the marriage bed? “What brute . . .”
    He starts to say. And then he sees she smiles,
    And knows they are well wedded in their wiles,
    Bed carved from one tree, anchored at the root.

    In sleep, though, king and queen are like two oaks,
    Grown deep and tall, and yet not touching quite.
    One dreams of battle, one of breaking yolks;
    One hears house sparrows, one the rhythmic slap
    Of oars; one ravels, one swims waves all night.
    Their ancient epics do not overlap.

    A. E. Stallings is an American poet who has lived in Greece since 1999. She has recently published a new verse translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics), and a new collection of poetry, Like (with FSG).

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