My Helmet Cloven

October 13, 2011 § 4 Comments

John Michael Rysbrack

The other night I watched a group of amazing actors (Alan Coates, Kevin Collins, Christian Conn, Michael Early, Dana Ivey, Anthony Newfield, Bruce Pinkham and Cat Walleck read/perform an edited version of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad at the Cathedral. It’s an excellent translation—crisp, muscular, clean; every word sounded exactly right. I was very happy to hear it, especially with such voices, and enjoyed leaving those echoes of human folly and carnage behind me as I exited the Cathedral through the Council of Pronghorn, which I’ll write about another time. ( A wonderful, mysterious piece of art. You can just imagine it for now.)

The Iliad. I just can’t seem to like that poem. Agamemnon’s a creep, Achilles a sulky thug, Hector’s too perfect, and the gods are like 7 year olds on a sugar high. Helen’s okay, but boring. Priam has way too many sons. It reminds of that time-tested writing advice: create characters your audience will care about. Obviously The Iliad does it for some people, but not me. I admire the descriptions and there are certain moments—Andromache pleading with Hector; Agamemnon being pissy; Achilles dragging Hector’s body, face in the dust,  the gods not allowing any harm to come to the beautiful dead visage; Hermes leading Priam invisibly through the city—all of those are powerful, but there are too many bodies piling up, and for no good reason (which is the point, I know).

I far prefer The Odyssey with its variety of monsters, its crafty and complicated women,  its hero second to none in my heart. Here’s a passage about the nymph Calypso’s island. Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner for 7 years, lavishing him with pleasure until he was cleansed of the horrors of war and could go home.

Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave, 
alders, and black poplars, pungent cypress too, 
and there, birds roosted, folding their long wings, 
owls and hawks and the spread beaked ravens of the sea, 
black skimmers who make their living off the waves. 
And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine 
laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes. 
Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold, 
running side-by-side, took channels left and right. 
Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets, 
lush with beds of parsley. Why, even a deathless god 
who came upon that place would gaze in wonder, 
heart entranced with pleasure. 


Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation

Yet The Iliad, at this point, seems more real. Life is bloody and stupid. Mostly you stay in the same place, beseiging the city, and know that somewhere something–let’s call it Olympus–is pulling the strings.

I used to know all of Greek mythology. I read it so many times, in so many versions. But now I have only partial access to my brain. Past knowledge is stored, but the librarian can’t remember the system.  New information fares even worse. Things go in and fall out, like money from a torn pocket. It may be the anti-depressants, or just getting older. Lisa said the other day, “It makes so much difference when you remember we’re all going to die.” She meant in regard to compassion, tolerance, seeing the other’s person’s point of view. I said, “How can you not think of it at this age?” My body and brain are preparing for death quite vocally.

That’s why its presence in art has such an effect on me, as it never did before.  Of course I think of it as an escape hatch sometimes, which makes a difference. Still, I believe that even if I learned happiness like a new language—I do know some of its best words—I would never forget death was coming. Nor would I, or will I,  fear it as I once did. Like Achilles who keeps being told by his mother Thetis that his death fast approaches, and is supremely unconcerned, I feel unbothered by the prospect of my demise.

Yours, on the other hand, is not allowed. None of you. Don’t go running into glorious battle in your fancy god-forged armor. Sail home on your ship, tied to the mast if need be, and greet the frail elderly dog who loves you.

I found the following poem by searching “Calypso” at poets.org. It has nothing to do with my post, but I love it.

INSECT LIFE OF FLORIDA

In those days I thought their endless thrum

was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.

In the throats of hibiscus and oleander

I’d see them clustered yellow, blue, their shells

enamelled hard as the sky before rain.

All that summer, my second, from city

to city my young father drove the black coupe

through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever

parcelled between luggage and sample goods.

Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,

my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew

something of love was cruel, was distant.

Mother leaned over the seat to me, the orchid

Father’d pinned in her hair shrivelled

to a purple fist. A necklace of shells

coiled her throat, moving a little as she

murmured of alligators that float the rivers

able to swallow a child whole, of mosquitoes

whose bite would make you sleep a thousand years.

And always the trance of blacktop shimmering

through swamps with names like incantations—

Okeefenokee, where Father held my hand

and pointed to an egret’s flight unfolding

white above swamp reeds that sang with insects

net over the sea, its lesson

of desire and repetition. Lizards flashed

over his shoes, over the rail

until I was lost, until I was part

of the singing, their thousand wings gauze

on my body, tattooing my skin.

father rocked me later by the water,

on the motel balcony, singing calypso

above the Jamaican radio. The lyrics

here the citronella burned, merging our

shadows—Father’s face floating over mine

in the black changing sound

night, the enormous Florida night,

metallic with cicadas, musical

and dangerous as the human heart.

Linda Hull

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