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We spend all our lives
making monsters of ourselves:
the tender feet
hard-trained until they arch like dolphins’ backs,
their bones like bridges spanned
by calloused skin.
The knees’ inverted arc
sails bony ankles heavenward;
the thighs like steely hawsers
cast the whole ship off,
cast it heavenward–
the collarbones like ploughshares
carve the air.

Hard to explain this,
though G-d knows I’ve tried.
What makes us do
all that the unseen god requires of us?
The music speaks
and stirs the weary dead:
go wake the living in their stalls!
The royal box looms empty
lonesome in the night.
Lone and strong we leap
now miracles, now golems,
in the light.

–14 August, 2017

Sysiphus’ Lament (A Poem)

I haven’t posted a poem in a while, so here’s one I wrote today, when I could have been writing up my class notes instead.

I rather hope that you’ll like it. I think I do, though of course it’s a rough draft and almost certainly needs some revision.

Sysiphus’ Lament
At first,
I hated the boulder.

Each morning, I woke,
encamped at the base of the hill
with the boulder beside me.

I boiled the water,
drank the black brew
that passes for coffee here
in the land of long shadows.
Fried up the eggs.
Scraped off the rough stubble
that peppered my chin.

I prepared.
I said to myself,
“These bitter gods will not break me,”
as I finished my breakfast,
“I will not succumb
to the madness of Tantalus:
I will overcome;
I will push this boulder
over the top of this hill.”

Then I set to work:
every day—
rain or snow,
cracked heat of summer,
joyful reprieve of the fall.

Every day
I bent down,
set my hand to the plow—
though if course it was neither my hand
nor a plow,
but the stone digging into my shoulder.

I did not look back.

Every day, I marshalled my strength.
The boulder rolled:
slowly at first,
then just a bit faster
as I found the pulse of my work.

Every day,
as I climbed,
I felt I was a man.

How can I explain?

For the length of the day,
I drew closer and closer,
the bald crest of the hill
rising before me
as ever I strained at the climb.

Each day, I pronounced,
“I am man,
I shall conquer!”

And then—
as each day staggered closed—
I felt first the will of the boulder
and then the hard will of the gods.

Foolish man!
Every day,
at the crest of the hill,
as the wheels of my fate turned their round
and the counter of days
added a hatch to his register
the boulder, too, turned—
subtly first,
and then sharply
and all at once there it was
charging back down
to the hollow that rooted the hill;
the place where I boiled the coffee.

Every night I wept—
not with sorrow, but wrath—
bitter tears salting the earth
as I followed my fate
to the place where I’d boil the water for soup;
where I’d rest myself under the stars
and the laughing, invisible eyes
of the gods.

Each morning ,
I hated the boulder.

Then one day I woke
and I boiled my water for coffee
and scrambled the eggs
and scraped off the stubble
and threw my weight into the stone
and did not look up.

All day I pushed,
climbing the hill,
saying, “This is my work,
as once being a king was my work.”

All day the stone rolled
and I felt the hot strain in my back
and the fire of my calves
and the weight of perpetual burden.

I welcomed them,
“This way I do
that which I was given to do.”

And at last,
in the pivotal moment,
as the last rays of light grazed the pale, bald crest of my hill,
as my boulder began its decent,
I felt my heart lift
knowing that I had done
the thing I was given to do.

My boulder rolled down,
tearing clods of pale grass from the earth,
racketing over the bare spots.

I followed with tears,
but not bitter tears:
as I had been king,
and every day shouldered the burden of kings,
now I am but Sysiphus,
and I shoulder the burden of Sysiphus.

And if I have not conquered,
no more does anyone else.

I go gladly instead
to the work that Persephone grants me:
let that, instead,
be the breadth
and the depth
of my victory.

And sometimes at night,
I look up at the dim, distant stars—
so far from this land of long shadows—
and think
how much harder it was
all those years,
all those hardscrabble years,
when I was still a man.

Three Poems

I wrote three poems today —
or really four,
because that one
is probably more than one,
but I don’t think it’s really more than two —

And now there’s this,
so that makes five, I think,
which makes me want to say,
“Oh, wow, that’s something—
look, I’m writing things again;
I’ve found that thing
(whatever that thing is)
that makes the words pour out.”

Or maybe just
“I’ve finally found the stopper,
yanked it loose.”

I have written, now,
five poems
and later I will take them all apart
and strip them for their marrow
as one does.

And this will be the day
(I hope it will)
that I look back on,
These five poems
became the start of fifty-five more poems,
five hundred fifty-five,
of this great stream of neverending poems
that tumbles me along
and does not die.

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