Poetry: Reading Herodotus | clivejames.com
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Reading Herodotus

Sadness is to lie uneaten
among the buried dead, to die
without feeling a fire
kindled in your honor, that clean smell
of cypress rising and the chants, heat
increasing under you, into you, an old man
whose name the feasters weep and sing.
Confusion is to be born
into a people without names or dreams
to whom the dead must come in the daylight —
brief faces in the clouds, traces of familiar dust
to which you cannot call out, of which you cannot speak
as in the light wind those losses are lost again.
Suddenly, and without sound,
a god comes back, easing into our lives
as if he'd never left, opening
to our opened eyes those carved arms
as if that touch could be a tenderness to us.
Thus a man, a king, who sees a strange tree
burgeoning from the unveiled, inviolate dark
of his own daughter's loins,
wakes in high glee, doom
gathering in his chambers like early light.
So a woman who all night long has prayed
that upon her sons will descend
the greatest blessing that can descend to men,
finds in the first light they will not wake to their names,
their brows cooler than the coolness of dawn.
No telling how she answers this,
if after seeing her sons disposed of
in the custom of that country
—corpses torn by dogs, birds eating out the eyes
to sing from every tree what the dead see—
she curses her gods and desecrates fetishes
or falls to her knees that night breathing
an altogether original language of praise.
No telling if a man might carry
plunder and his own unsevered head
from the man-sized ants no man has seen
to the sweet tombs of a city where the dead rest in honey
always in search of something farther.
Does some dream country come to him at the last
—in the flash of metal, at the height of his own cry—
as to the slaves of certain nomads,
blinded so they will not know their homeland,
the birds one day become familiar,
the earth assumes old scents and contours
and the very air is suddenly sweeter than they can bear.
They are gone now, swirled
in the dark earth with the ones who,
seeing their slaves go mad, killed them,
who are themselves gone, their bones
partaking of the same silence in which lie
all the dog-headed men of the mountains,
headless men with eyes in their chests,
men so immense their shadows were as night,
men carved in marble to whom the gods gave only life enough
to let them fall to their knees . . .
                                                   Close your eyes
just this side of sleep and you can almost hear them,
all the long wonder of it, the lost gods
and the languages, the strange names and their fates,
lives unlike our own, as alien and unknowable
as the first hour on this earth for a womb-slick babe
around whom the whole tribe has formed a ring,
wailing as one for what the child must learn.