25 January 2015

We lie through the blood of the dog

                                                by Heleanor Feltham

The icon painter

Lazarus the icon painter
Senior among the artists of Byzantium
Caught God in wood and gold
And filled the courts, churches and monasteries
With choirs of angels.

But there were those who said
The infinite could never be confined
Within the circuit of a golden frame -
Not even in the glittering tesserae
Of the great dome.

How can the living Word express itself
Through the dead medium of glass and paint?
(And when the hanging lamps supply the light
Through coils of blue-sweet smoke, and incense hangs
And shimmers in the air,
How easy to suppose the image smiles
And moves within a cloud of miracles.)

So Lazarus was branded on both palms
And scourged, and stigmatised;
Anathema cried out against him.
Those who would steal a part in God’s creation
Must also suffer in His crucifixion.

……But when they smashed the glittering reliquary
Did God hatch from the icon like an egg?

Drinking the blood of the dog

Ref: Theophilacti Bulgariae archiepiscopi in  Fontes Graeci Historiae Bulgaricae, Sofia 1963, 6: 31

When Leo V, Byzantine emperor,
Devious pragmatist, local boy made good,
Wary iconoclast,
Met with the young Khan Omurtag to sign
A treaty giving thirty years of peace,
They swore by Bulgar custom on each other’s gods
To seal the bargain.
Leo killed a dog,
And raising one hand filled with grass to heaven
He drank its blood. The chronicle does not say
What Christian oath Khan Omurtag declaimed.

Dogs, nomad people think, prefigure us.
They are the unborn human generations
Come here to sniff the landscape; fugitive,
They monitor our contracts.
And how they live with us comes back to haunt us
On the other side of a new incarnation.

A generation of the dispossessed,
Abandoned and abused
Darkens the sun.
Those who receive our love,
Fire suns to harvest.

Dogs who are valued, and whose lives are lived
Within the frame of mutual obligations
May be cut short when need is absolute.

Dogs, on the whole, deal honestly with us.

Out of a primal, bright-eyed innocence,
An honoured sacrifice will take our vow
Swiftly as wind through grass
And bring our words
To lie in the hands of God like a thrown stick.
And the dog within will see our treacheries.

Leo did not live long. His death
Was cinematic.

In the shallow pre-dawn dark of a Christmas morning
With the rows of chanting monks and the incense rising,
And rings of lamps reflected off white walls
As clear of images as snow,
And even the emperor singing in a voice
More used to moving armies,
His assassins moved
Out from among the monks.

And Leo fell,
Wielding the abstract gold cross like a club
Against the sudden violence of death.
Cut down, his blood spilt over holy ground,
No sainted stony eyes to follow his,
No numinous shimmering surfaces to haunt
And echo in the night;
Only the betraying purple and the feral dog
At the heart of things.

We spin out empty words in the hollow air;
Sending a message to the yet unborn
Of doubt, mistrust and fear.

We lick our lips and lie through the blood of the dog.

18 January 2015

So the end of a rope frays

                                             Marianne Boruch


Some kid in the class,
a boy usually. Do we have to, Sister?
And the nun once: no. She turned and slowly no, you don't
have to do anything
but die.

A room's hush
is a kind of levitation. So the end of a rope frays. So mortality
presses its big thumb into clay early, 6th grade,
St. Eugene's School, mid-century.
It's a mudfest, ever after. Free, yay! Is what some heard
howbeit the gasp
primal, a descending, an unthinkable click.

Forget what she'd no doubt been
programmed to say, as postscript, as speaking of: but we live forever,
don't we, children? In God's sweet light?
She didn't. Too old, too mean, too tired, too smart, maybe shocked
at her own relish, her bite coming hard.
I'm just saying there are
charms on the bracelet from hell.

An ordinary question, the boy's whatever it was, and did we have to?
He was stunned. I could tell.
And he must have walked home in the falling leaves distracted,
disturbed, pushed off for a time
from the anthill.

As for the other ants, we had our work.
It gleamed like truth is said to, in the dark before us –
grains of edible filth or just
sand and splintered glass. To carry.
Carry it down.

From The American Poetry Review, November-December 2014.

11 January 2015

The last gladiator in the new Rome

                                                     Brian Barker

                                                     Evel Knievel

He jumps mountain lions, man-eating sharks, a pit of rattlesnakes three
feet deep. He jumps from skyscraper to skyscraper, over ten thousand
hippies marching down Fifth Avenue. He jumps six Soviet battleships
and a caravan of sheiks perched on camels. He jumps one hundred dead
Hell's Angels stacked like flattened Impalas. He jumps the Great Wall of
China at dawn, and the Grand Canyon in moonlight. He jumps fifteen
yellow school buses full of nuns and orphans. They wave pennants from
the windows, pom-poms, streamers, and he jumps blindfolded, with no
hands, spread-eagled while eating a bucket of fried chicken. He jumps
and never comes down, floating on his motorcycle through the blue-black
limbo of a coma. As his cape flaps in the stratosphere, he sweats through
his hospital gown. His hair beneath the gauze skullcap still smells like
gasoline. A nurse sponges his bruised testicles with one hand and hefts
his gold belt buckle in the other. She lifts it to her cheek and dreams of
the Aztecs, of the lost shield of Achilles. He's the last gladiator in the new
Rome, and she feels the light from his broken bones crowd the room like
jig-sawed ghosts. Deep down in his darkness, he's squinting through a
snow of confetti. He's sizing up the next ramp. He's revving his engine
against destruction.

From The American Poetry Review, November-December 2014.

04 January 2015

My Brilliant Friend

  by Elena Ferrante


My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille's apartment.  

I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn't run over my skin, that the rats wouldn't bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo's ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.

At some point she gave me one of her firm looks, eyes narrowed, and headed toward the building where Don Achille lived. I was frozen with fear. Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolutely forbidden to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him, I was to act as if neither he nor his family existed. Regarding him there was, in my house but not only mine, a fear and a hatred whose origin I didn't know. The way my father talked about him, I imagined a huge man, covered with purple boils, violent in spite of the “don,” which to me suggested a calm authority. He was a being created out of some identifiable material, iron glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth. I thought that if I merely saw him from a distance he would drive something sharp and burning into my eyes. So if I was made enough to approach the door of his house he would likke me.

I waited to see if Lila would have second thoughts and turn back. I knew what she wanted to do, I had hoped that she would forget about it, but in vain. The street lamps were not yet lighted, nor were the lights on the stairs. From the apartments came irritable voices. To follow Lila I had to leave the bluish light of the courtyard and enter the black of the doorway. When I finally made up my mind, I saw nothing at first, there was only an odor of old junk and DDT. Then I got used to the darkness and found Lila sitting on the first step of the first flight of stairs. She got up and we began to climb.

We kept to the side where the wall was, she two steps ahead, I two steps behind, torn between shortening the distance or letting it increase. I can still feel my shoulder inching along the flaking wall and the idea that the steps were very high, higher than those in the building where I lived. I was trembling. Every footfall, every voice was Don Achille creeping up behind us or coming down toward us with a long knife, the kind used for slicing open a chicken breast. There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille's wife, would put me in the pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head the way my father did with mullets.

We stopped often, and each time I hoped that Lila would decide to turn back. I was all sweaty, I don't know about her. Every so often she looked up, but I couldn't tell at what, all that was visible was the gray areas of the big windows at every landing. Suddenly the lights came on, but they were faint, dusty, leaving broad zones of shadow, full of dangers. We waited to see if it was Don Achille who had turned the switch, but we heard nothing, neither footsteps nor the opening or closing of a door. Then Lila continued on, and I followed.

She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was. We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.

At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.