for Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi
The ox is on my tongue.
1. THE WATCHMAN‚S WAR
Some people wept, and not for sorrowųjoy
That the king had armed and upped and sailed for Troy,
But inside me like struck sound in a gong
That killing-fest, the life-warp and world-wrong
It brought to pass, still augured and endured.
I‚d dream of blood in bright webs in a ford,
Of bodies raining down like tattered meat
On top of me asleepųand me the lookout
The queen‚s command had posted and forgotten,
The blind spot her farsightedness relied on.
And then the ox would lurch against the gong
And deaden it and I would feel my tongue
Like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck,
Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck,
All swimmy-trembly as the lick of fire,
A victory beacon in an abattoir...
Next thing then I would waken at a loss,
For all the world a sheepdog stretched in grass,
Exposed to what I knew, still honour-bound
To concentrate attention out beyond
The city and the border, on that line
Where the blaze would leap the hills when Troy had fallen.
My sentry work was fate, a home to go to,
An in-between-times that I had to row through
Year after year: when the mist would start
To lift off fields and inlets, when morning light
Would open like the grain of light being split,
Day in, day out, I‚d come alive again,
Silent and sunned as an esker on a plain,
Up on my elbows, gazing, biding time
In my outpost on the roof... What was to come
Out of that ten years‚ wait that was the war
Flawed the black mirror of my frozen stare.
If a god of justice had reached down from heaven
For a strong beam to hang his scale-pans on
He would have found me tensed and ready-made.
I balanced between destiny and dread
And saw it coming, clouds bloodshot with the red
Of victory fires, the raw wound of that dawn
Igniting and erupting, bearing down
Like lava on a fleeing population...
Up on my elbows, head back, shutting out
The agony of Clytemnestra‚s love-shout
That rose through the palace like the yell of troops
Hurled by King Agamemnon from the ships.
No such thing
Her soiled vest,
her little breasts,
her clipped, devast-
trueness in them
in her dropped-wing,
No such thing
Old King Cock-
balled, old buck‚s
stride was back.
And then her Greek
at lambing time,
bleat of clair–-
of the roused god.
And a result-
–ant shock desire
to do it to her
there and then.
cunt of their guilt:
in she went
to the knife,
to the killer wife,
to the net over
her and her slaver,
the Troy reaver,
saying, őA wipe
of the sponge,
ably and the light‚s
3. HIS DAWN VISION
Cities of grass. Fort walls. The dumbstruck palace.
I‚d come to with the night wind on my face,
Agog, alert again, but far, far less
Focused on victory than I should have beenų
Still isolated in my old disdain
Of claques who always needed to be seen
And heard as the true Argives. Mouth athletes,
Quoting the oracle and quoting dates,
Petitioning, accusing, taking votes.
No element that should have carried weight
Out of the grievous distance would translate.
Our war stalled in the pre-articulate.
The little violets‚ heads bowed on their stems,
The pre-dawn gossamers, all dew and scrim
And star-lace, it was more through them
I felt the beating of the huge time-wound
We lived inside. My soul wept in my hand
When I would touch them, my whole being rained
Down on myself, I saw cities of grass,
Valleys of longing, tombs, a wind-swept brightness,
And far-off, in a hilly, ominous place,
Small crowds of people watching as a man
Jumped a fresh earth-wall and another ran
Amorously, it seemed, to strike him down.
4. THE NIGHTS
They both needed to talk,
pretending what they needed
was my advice. Behind backs
each one of them confided
it was sexual overload
every time they did itų
and indeed from the beginning
(a child could have hardly missed it)
their real life was the bed.
The king should have been told,
but who was there to tell him
if not myself? I willed them
to cease and break the hold
of my cross-purposed silence
but still kept on, all smiles
to Aegisthus every morning,
much favoured and self-loathing.
The roof was like an eardrum.
The ox‚s tons of dumb
inertia stood, head-down
and motionless as a herm.
Atlas, watchmen‚s patron,
would come into my mind,
the only other one
up at all hours, ox-bowed
under his yoke of cloud
out there at the world‚s end.
The loft-floor where the gods
and goddesses took lovers
and made out endlessly
successfully, those thuds
and moans through the cloud cover
were wholly on his shoulders.
Sometimes I thought of us
apotheosized to boulders
called Aphrodite‚s Pillars.
High and low in those days
hit their stride together.
When the captains in the horse
felt Helen‚s hand caress
its wooden boards and belly
they nearly rode each other.
But in the end Troy‚s mothers
bore their brunt in alley,
bloodied cot and bed.
The war put all men mad,
horned, horsed or roof-posted,
the boasting and the bested.
My own mind was a bull-pen
where homed King Agamemnon
had stamped his weight in gold.
But when hills broke into flame
and the queen wailed on and came,
it was the king I sold.
I moved beyond bad faith:
for his bullion bars, his bonus
was a rope-net and a blood-bath.
And the peace had come upon us.
5. HIS REVERIE OF WATER
At Troy, at Athens, what I most clearly
see and nearly smell
is the fresh water.
A filled bath, still unentered
and unstained, waiting behind housewalls
that the far cries of the butchered on the plain
keep dying into, until the hero comes
surging in incomprehensibly
to be attended to and be alone,
stripped to the skin, blood-plastered, moaning
and rocking, splashing, dozing off,
accommodated as if he were a stranger.
And the well at Athens too.
Or rather that old lifeline leading up
and down from the Acropolis
to the well itself, a set of timber steps
slatted in between the sheer cliff face
and a free-standing, covering spur of rock,
secret staircase the defenders knew
and the invaders found, where what was to be
Greek met Greek,
the ladder of the future
and the past, besieger and besieged,
the treadmill of assault
turned waterwheel, the rungs of stealth
and habit all the one
bare foot extended, searching.
And then this ladder of our own that ran
deep into a well-shaft being sunk
in broad daylight, men puddling at the source
through tawny mud, then coming back up
deeper in themselves for having been there
like discharged soldiers testing the safe ground,
finders, keepers, seers of fresh water
in the bountiful round mouths of iron pumps
and gushing taps.
Source: Seamus Heaney. The Spirit Level. New York: The Noonday Press, 1996. 34-46.