For Elpenor, On The Way Down
Remember him?—the “youngest sailor,” who enters The Odyssey
By waking up on Circe’s roof, where he’s been sleeping one off,
and immediately exits it by missing the top step of the ladder
and breaking his neck, so his ghost flees “to the dark.”
The whole crew is readying to sail off on a prophetic visit to the dark
that day anyway, but Elpenor beats them to it, the hard way, and for keeps.
I cherish him as the epic’s Champion of Real Life, the embodied “loose end”
who defies the hermeneutical urge to discover significance in everything
in a poem, as if it all contributes to The Big Meaning, as if everyone,
whether they know it or not, must have some bona fides just to be there—
to further the story-line, thicken the plot, or enrich our understanding
of some other character’s character—something!
But Elpenor’s dumb un-Freudian slip leads nowhere and adds nothing.
Other characters die in the line of duty, for a cause or a reason—
for being brave, or craven, or friends with somebody on the wrong side,
or the object of some god's dyspepsia, or some monster's allegorical appetite.
All that Elpenor does in his ten lines of existence is wake up, yawn, stretch,
miss the ladder and die. (He does, later, in the Underworld, get Odysseus
to promise to go back and bury his corpse, but so what?)
Maybe I’m partial to Elpenor because, like me, he was apt to get drunk
once in a while, and is "no mainstay in a fight nor very clever."
But for whatever reason, if I were ever to pray again, it's him I'd look to:
Oh, blessed Elpênor of the Purely Accidental, thank you
for saving Homer’s epic from the bogus artifice of no meaninglessness,
and for having—like most of us—no role whatsoever in the plot.
And for wondering, as you must have, on the way down,
"And the take-away from this is . . . what?”
Last night I dreamt I played the mandolin again,
as the moon pursued wild clouds across the meadow.
The adverb “again,” made me uneasy,
as I had never played the mandolin before.
You can, they say, step into the same dream twice.
But this was the old black and white movie
with Fontaine and Olivier, the painting of his dead first wife,
and the unreadable housekeeper who worships it.
Last night, my mother played the housekeeper.
And I was a strolling troubadour (who’s not in the movie:
different river), dreamily strumming my mandolin—
which was, actually, more like a Mycenaean harp.
My mother, who is around a hundred and seven
years old (though dead for the last twenty),
was not surprised at my being there, in a dream with her,
and “putting on airs,” as she would have put it.
In the dream, she resisted, out of love I thought,
any trace of an impulse to sneer at my performance.
But in life, to be honest, I never really knew her.
Lot's Wife On Death Row
A pillar of salt? Yeah, that's the spin the scribes put on it
all right, but the truth is, I just couldn't stop crying,
the saline tears running clear down my neck,
which they deemed lousy for the morale of the other refugees—
so they bound my wrists and hung me up in the mouth
of a shallow cave, so I looked like one of those fancy Greek
columns. And once my tears dried, I was, yes, salty.
They left me there, in the desert. Himself never said a word,
kept his eyes on his sandals, corralled our daughters, and hit
the road. It was days later, when the sky was free of smoke
above the ashes of the old cities of the plain, when two shepherds
cut me loose and saved me with their curds and water.
I was dry-eyed by then, and will be for the rest of my days.
Believe me, I would never have gone looking for the old goat
if it weren’t for our girls. I’d seen him looking at them
once they’d started to bud, and I’d heard him offer them up
to that mob of lust-crazed Sodomites, and I knew what all
he could get up to, if his "Lord" spake to him in the privacy
of his twisted mind and told him, Lot, do this or that thing
in my name!
I'd had those decrees, down my gullet and up my bottom
and every place else you can name. So I went
looking for him. It took a while. And by that time, both
girls were already big with his seed, having been terrified
into believing his muck about saving our people from dying out.
They looked like oxen just after the hammer’s dropped.
I coached them on how to get him drunk, and then I went in,
all cozy like, whispered in his ear the nasty stuff he liked,
and stroked his "Lord" till it was rigid and angry looking,
and, as he was telling me where to put it,
I said, "How about in the sewer?"—showed him the box-
cutter I'd hidden in my beehive do, and with one swipe
lopped the thing off and plunked it into the chamber pot.
His eyes bubbled out of his head, and he grabbed me
hard by the windpipe. Knowing how Mr. John Wayne
Bobbitt had got his sewn back on again and not wanting
a repair job on this nasty bugger, I slid the blade
a couple of more times across his belly, letting his insides
blurt onto the sheets. "Pillar of shite," I said. "That's you."
And I got out of there. Took the girls to a safe house,
And turned myself in. Enough said.
If that was a crime, okay, I'm guilty. But don't write me up
as "Lot's wife." I have a name you know.
Jove's Golden Shower in Fort Knox
Let me assure you, folks, it had nothing to do with urolagnia—
what today’s woke players like to call "water sports"—
and nothing to do with coins, either, as in that Titian painting,
as if the lovely Danae were some kind of Tijuana strip-joint grinder
plucking gold-pieces off tables with gym-ripped labia!
No, and I was nothing like I am now either, smelted
into this vulgar bar of “U.S. Pure.”
Back then, I was more like a spritz of pricey cologne, a tactile mist,
so much so, that Danae persuaded old Ovid to nominate me
"the Golden Shower of Jove!”
And so intoxicating was I to her refined plush
that she would’ve found the rush unbearable if the prospect
of stopping hadn't been even more so. And, yes,
not to put too fine a point on it, she did voluntarily open herself
to facilitate my self-application, like 24 karat leaf,
to her little dome and over the soft walls of what would later be
the birth canal of our son, Perseus—
that heroic product of a grain of me swimming all the way up
to her—relatively speaking— massive egg, and the bio-chemical
super nova of that collision was—well, you had to be there.
Let me here remind you that it’s damn few people’ve ever even seen
real gold-dust, glistening and weightless as dew—except in the movies.
Some of you folks’ll recall what happened to that split-open sack of it
at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—
that all-but-invisible cloud of it dispersed by the wind
to mingle forever with the desert sands. Tragic.
And don’t I wish that's what had happened to me!
But no. Cheap-skate Jove goes and vacuums me up and sells me
to the U.S. Government, screwing me worse
than he'd screwed Danae. She at least got to be famous, while I'm
this nameless, fungible brick—an educational trinket to amuse
busy tourists like yourselves, who, while bad-mouthing me
as the Root of All Evil, simultaneously covet me as much as she did.
Be honest, now!
You wouldn’t welcome a cloudburst of gold in any old orifice
up to the brim, if you thought you could scam the metal detectors
and leave here suddenly rich? Start flying first-class,
buy that little place in Belize, a Harvard diploma for the kid—
the whole ball of dream-wax? Not to mention happiness?
Let me remind you, folks, what gold did for Danae:
got her knocked-up and put to sea in an open box,
then a long life without love or joy. And here I am, pure gold
itself, yet somebody else’s property, and dirt-poor. Dirt poor.
So, good people, as you head for the exit, please do consider,
when the guard is not looking, what a modest gratuity
for your humble guide could do for your very own self-esteem.
The Old Fools Revisited
"Why aren't they screaming?"
It’s no one’s fault but our own that, mired in our eighties,
we have everything still to do, but squander all that
promising emptiness, doing nothing.
Imagine if we clutched it and held it against ourselves!
The tannin bite of the Darjeeling we were sipping—
the cover design of the book that just slipped from our lap
to the floor—a book
we relish for the study it reports
of how chimps and human babies both are inclined
to be fair at play,
and the anecdote of a girl child
who corrects a cheating puppet with a punitive swat.
How delicious it feels
to laugh out loud!
Staring out the window at the pewter light,
the charcoal rubbings of clouds changeless with fixative,
the bare arthritic limbs of the crabapple
hung with shriveled brown beads,
like the wooden rosaries of long ago schoolroom nuns . . . .
And precisely because we have everything yet to do,
the appetitive minds of people in their eighties
will not be deterred from lacquering everything
with a raw, unspecific desire
for the all that will soon be gone.
And, ah, how anodyne, then, do we imagine,
will be the gentle, scattered applause
our final bow might elicit—
a sedate, ironic clapping of hands that look much like our own,
only supple and spotless. Supple and strong.
Variations on Self-Abuse
No, that’s not what we’re talking here.
We’re talking a category of things that, if you do any one of them
even once, you’re doomed to be forever contemptuous
of yourself, no matter how repentant you are thereafter, or good.
So, like . . . . leaping naked out of a closet
at your sister’s sixteenth birthday party--shrieking girls
pelting you with chunks of cake?
No. That’s mean and stupid, but harmless.
Things more like losing your temper with your beloved
partner, and snarling something ugly and hurtful,
(O god don’t remind me.)
Or: reaching into the back seat (eyes front, on the road) to swat
the leg of a child who won’t stop kicking his sister.
Then lighting up a cigarette, as if it were medicine, or
something you had earned . . . .
Parlaying a simple affinity with some nice if lonely person met at a bar
into a night of friendly sex,
and then never again contacting her (or him), knowing full well
that a misled person is out there waiting for a call, or—finally—
for a story in the local paper about the discovery of your mutilated corpse.
I mean, as I said, these are things you can’t do even once
without despising yourself forever. Things like,
half drunk, kissing a friend’s partner that way
as you palpate her/his buttocks . . . . (O god don’t
I mean, what I really mean is: finally, one day,
there you will be, tubing on the Styx—drifting in lazy circles
as the one thing you really can do only once (and will),
without so much as a twinge of self-hatred, bobbing
forever in the empty doldrums of . . . . well, if not forgiveness,
at least immaculate and permanent forgetfulness.
JIM CRENNER entered first grade in 1943 and never left school until he retired from the faculty of Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 2008. He contends that his 65-year involvement with formal education was, in sum, salubrious, for he is now either a relatively contented octogenarian supernumerary enjoying a life of reading, writing towards a fourth volume of poems, gardening, and playing Boggle with his beloved life partner, Elena--or he is a drooling, insensate victim of extreme geriatric senility who believes himself to be that contented octogenarian, and whichever is the case is fine with him (though maybe not so much with Elena).