David Slavitt: The Walls of Thebes

Copyright C) 1983, 1985, 1986 by David R. Slavitt
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America

Designer: Christopher Wilcox
Typeface: Palatino
Typesetter: G&S Typesetters, Inc.
Printer: Thomson-Shore, Inc.
Binder: John Dekker & Sons, Inc.

Some of these poems have appeared in Boulevard, Chelsea, Light Year '84 (Bits Press, Cleveland, Ohio), Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review.

The author expresses thanks to George Garrett and to Henry Taylor for their kindness and their help in the preparation and ordering of the manuscript of this book.

Publication of this book has been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., a federal agency.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Slavitt, David R., 1935 The walls of Thebes.
l. Title.
Ps3569.L3w3 1986 811'.54 85-23845
ISBN 0-8071-l306-9
ISBN 0-8071-l307-7 (pbk )

In memory of my mother

[text from back cover]

In The Walls of Thebes, David Slavitt veers away from the graceful exercises and witty performances that characterize much of his earlier poetry. The poems in this bookbrilliant, explosive, painful and chilling by turnsseem wrested from the gristle of life. This is a poetry of reconsiderations, of inverted truths. Experience, Slavitt finds, modifies and often reverses the truisms of one's youth, and in these poems he shares the wisdom bred of his pain and loss

For these ambiguous gifts, we learn to offer
our qualified thanks and admit that conventional prayers
for the spirit's repose are trickier than they seem,
pious impostures forseethe eyes are open,
the cunning devil knows it's his own repose
he begs for, and at what cost:
that effortless glycerine tears should mark
the course that once his real tears tracked,
burning their way like lava. Fainter and fainter,
the artist pulls his engraving from the stone,
wearing the image smooth, as water or wind
will in time. The last loss is of loss,
the mind's failure, the heart's damnable health.

There is much in The Walls of Thebes to provoke the mindand the imagination. Slavitt ponders his feelings and subjects until his intellect makes the connections that explain what the heart has sensed. These poems are vivid, varied, and tough, but they reveal a compassion that unites the poet with what he has experienced, and his experience with our common humanity.

DAVID R. SLAVITT is a lecturer in creative writing at Columbia University. His other books of poetry include Big Nose, Dozens, Rounding the Horn, and Child's Play (all published by LSU Press).


The Shadow
Eye Test
Bloody Murder
The Last Dalmatian
Jephthah's Prayer
Old Photo
Wilson's Pen
The Whippets
Mocking Bird
Excursion to Pergamon
Amphion's Lyre


A flight of birds, hundreds, a cloud of them, wheeling, 
enlivening the springtime Maryland air; 
or, on the way to Boston, just past Norwalk, 
those half dozen hot-air balloons in flotilla, 
a progress of dowager queens across the sky; 
or, once in Wyoming, that glimpse to the side of the road 
of a pair of antelope blurring away through a meadow . . . 
Snapshots. Gifts. Even to juxtapose 
and catalog them thus is wrong. My breath 
caught; I was caught up; I was held; I held 
the wheel steady driving through the moment 
that blessed hour. There ought to be halos: 
smiles make do but fade. It all fades 
away, or nearly all. Still, I can remember 
enough to wonder how I could just drive past
those rare moments. What kind of brute could? 
But it isn't such hoarded visions that can redeem us 
so much as the hope that their like may happen again.


The eyes and ears, let us say, bite, and the brain 
digests, chewing the cud, but the heart absorbs:

this is the system by which the soul is nourished 
and it builds--as fat and muscle accrete--wisdom.

Comes then like some tv-fitness bozo 
with a program of strenuous calisthenics, Rilke!

Do I go too far? Well, make him a music master 
and his Herz-Werk a kind of piano practice,

three against two, upon the psyche's grand 
instrument, exercises of just feeling.

The trick is sitting there upon the bench 
and hearing the notes sound, first in the head,

then in the air, the hands still in the lap. 
Stillness has its voice. One must learn to hear it.

Let it sing; it is not a trick, or rather 
the trick is for it not to be a trick.

Now get up from the piano and walk away 
as if the music still held you together,

as if all pianos did not have to fight 
the terrible habit of their vibrating strings

to die. The sostenuto pedal, the trills, 
the tricks of the repertoire are all undone.

A note dies in the air and then the next. 
Not even cadenzas' boisterous runs

can fill the maw of the hall. Lively applause 
cushions but cannot hold the fading strain.

Later, we may recall a phrase as it blurs 
to its extinction. The stillness afterwards

is not like the stillness that came before 
but bloodier, and the blood has dried. It's rare

and delicate nourishment, but on such morsels 
Rilke's finicky inner beast depends.


The tongue tip of the cold wave 
licks your toes--it's great fun 
to toy like this with so huge a beast, 
apparently tame and Iying supine 
beneath a Crayola sun. You dare 
a step further and maybe another, 
and feel the cold more at the ankles 
and calves now than the feet, numb 
already or somehow hardened to 
the bracing water. You also notice 
the weight of the waves as they come ashore 
and their gentle tug receding. A dog 
would tussle thus at a rawhide bone, 
a puppy that hadn't any idea 
of its size or strength, horsing around. 
The sparkle, the salt, the bluish green 
sluicing invites, taunts you to take 
its challenge and a step further 
and deeper into the bright water, 
and then the bottom falls abruptly 
away just when you need it, when 
a larger than average breaker gives you 
a not so gentle cuff, and you fall 
and feel the tug of the undertow 
taking hold not quite in earnest 
but giving you something to figure from 
as you calculate its power and shudder 
with a chill of fear as you clamber back 
up the steep slope to the smooth 
sand, a terry towel, and safety.

Months later and hundreds of miles 
away from the moment, it still hangs 
like a question mark, a wave about to 
break and engulf the declarative 
sense you thought your life was making. 
The unpredictable currents--of passion, 
disease, or fortune--that swirl harmless 
about your ankles could at the next 
innocent step bowl you over.

But you're no fool and have understood 
that those are among the risks of the game. 
Still, that feeling of being lifted 
up and carried away by some 
huge and indifferent power, that birds 
and fish in the great currents of air 
and water know in their fragile bones, 
murmurs into the inner ear's 
delicate balances and you 
go giddy, knocked one way by fear 
and pulled back by the undertow's 
embrace that waits like a patient lover.

The Shadow What boy has never envied Lamont Cranston, invisible, able to fight for truth and justice, defend his country, or slip unseen--and naked, of course--into the girls' shower at school? It isn't the trick we imagined but an art, severe in its discipline, arduous (most of them are). The limpid waterdrop, the rarefied upper air, the even more abstract refinements of science--radar or sonar-- betray nothing; this is the heart of the matter, that knack of selflessness, the purity of attention that never refracts, never reflects. You see, or don't, the perfectly clear pane in shop windows. They curve, disappear, tempting the not-so-innocent passerby to suppose he might reach out to scoop up a quick handful of gold and gems. That appetite for riches is what the illusion is likely to kindle. The real abnegation of crystal--if only the ball were perfect, we couldn't see it at all, and the gypsy might yet peer into the future's maw-- sets the impossible standard of refinement I know enough now only to dream of: to sneak into that school shower, to see with neither lust's reflection nor sentiment's refraction those girls' young bodies and as clearly their lives and deaths--as Dr. Chekhov might, or angels were they to eavesdrop on their giggles. I have held my breath so to listen to a brook's faint purl I thought I'd imagined but couldn't imagine where. All of us know what evil lurks in the hearts of men. What's harder is what is good and unremarkable except to the gazing eye, flawless, selfless as that glass, air, water. Obtuse, opaque, The Shadow got it wrong, knew nothing at all.
Eye Test Children say they see individual leaves but they lie or at least blur the truth a little, con forming to what they think we want to hear or what they can bear themselves to believe or doubt. And yet we think them honest witnesses, for the leaves, indeed, are there, each with its own stem on the branch just as the tree in the child's clear eye, focused on exactly, has its accountable countable leaves too. Older, our senses yield postimpressionist riches, the eyes' failure a triumph of truth: soft as nursery toys the plush trees swim in my yard, float on tides of air, and ride the floods and ebbs of light, their masts ashimmer in heat upon the continuo ripple below. What daggers children look, slicing their world so fine . . . Or make them nails with which they tack each fleeting object still, ignoring its wriggle to mount it, nicely dead, in its box--or so one might fear, but, no, the nails rust, ravel, seem to bear fur, relax and blur into bloom so that details, crucified, rise again, and their dry bones knit, flex into motion, and dance in a light that dances with them. Weathered myself, I see through wet lenses my block a glitter of jewels and familiar streets strung with glorias, halos, as simple vision gives way to the visionary. Below that big black E, the chart on the wall turns into nonsense Belshazzar paid so richly to have explained, though a child could read it directly: you have been weighed and found wanting (Again?); and the end is near. One learns to say Amen.
Bloody Murder Beauty and truth may dally together, but when it comes time to pop the question, it's ugliness that settles in to take the vows with truth for the long haul, the enduring and faithful companion. The difficult lesson we all must study is how to be children of such a marriage and honor what we cannot love. After the burglar bludgeoned my mother to death with a bathroom scale and a large bottle of Listerine, the police recommended Ronny Reliable's Cleaning Service--one of a growing number of firms that make it their business to clean up after messy murders, suicides, and other disasters. They have the solvents and strong stomachs for such work. I still wonder who would choose that kind of employment or what the men who performed this awful and intimate task looked like. We only spoke on the phone; detectives let them in; and the charge showed up on my next Mastercard bill. But I know they were there. The chemical smell hung in the air of the empty house for nearly a month, proving they'd been there and done the job, which is to say that the other unthinkable thing had happened first. Excess, whether of pleasure or pain, beggars belief so that lovers and mourners rub their eyes in similar ways, trying to take in the thought along with the image. One needs both. On the KLH radio my mother kept on top of the bureau, there was a white electric cord the assiduous workers missed with its evidence a doubting Thomas needs or dares, to challenge nerve and love, the reliquary stain of what had been done and undone. It wasn't a bullion cube, would not reconstitute in heat and water, but there it was, to be faced, the mark of faceless functionaries, furies, or Ronny Reliable's Cleaning Service. Jesus knew how it was--and wasn't-- a comfort to tell his stunned disciples: this is my body, this is my blood.
The Last Dalmatian
Imagine, as I often do,
a woman, old and sick in her whitewashed
hovel overlooking the Adriatic.
The year is maybe 1902. 
Once as a girl, she learned
words for goat, fish, water, sky 
in her mother's mother-tongue,
what everyone in the village spoke--
but the village dwindled away, and the countryside
took up whatever Serb or Croat
dialect was then in use among
the townspeople. Dalmatian shrank to a joke,
the lyrics to songs, a proverb about the weather.
Curses and dirty words
survived a while longer.
But she was the last, this woman, really to speak
the language. No academician came
with tape recorder or even a notebook
to make a career by taking down
whatever she mumbled as she turned the air
briefly Dalmatian again,
losing each day a little more weight and spirit
until she was gone, her mouth a gaping
hole in the universe, or universal O
we all recognize as the mother-tongue
of pain and woe.

Each of us has suffered losses, each 
has felt the terrible wrench of earth 
shrinking beneath his feet. 
There's less and less room to stand. 
Gone are such exotic treasures 
that once were the simple parts of speech. 
What we mourn is not the body 
but all those unmade sentences, rich 
in history and desire, none
ever to be uttered now. The lexicon 
and grammar have disappeared, 
and Alexandria's library is burned. 
If only I'd studied more and learned 
by heart some of the basic texts. They're gone, 
and I am the ignorant victim of my own 
sloth. Grief and shame choke the random 
smatterings I remember of English or Yiddish. 
I am a parrot, can say, "Hello, hello," 
and utter at inappropriate moments a few other 
simple phrases, telling all I know.

Magma To the dumpy tenor and fat soprano we close our eyes, trusting our ears for the transports of their duet's passion-- a primitive habit, that lids' closing out such extraneous detail to allow an inner order the triumph it needs sometimes. Or is it more to seal in the rare instant, the nerves on fire, the marrow molten, able to take an impression, cool, and then hold it, not forever but until the forge or rust's slower fire shall nibble it blank again? Fresco is like that, or fresh-poured concrete, tempting to naughty boys who want to proclaim their names and loves enduringly. They get it wrong, for hardness is never hard enough to endure through that eternity they think they imagine. What counts more is how the softness happens, the heated and glowing moment when rock and metal behave like water. And human hearts can likewise writhe, free for a moment to pour, dance on the anvil, marry the mold, play themselves into airy extrusions of almost infinite length. Cooler heads never prevail but cling to whatever it was that made them. Learned astronomers, looking up from blackboards covered with dense equations and long computer print-outs affirm the big bang we've all lived through and can't remember, although we know that nothing was the same before and nothing will ever undo it now except by erasing what we are, its creatures and its heirs. The eyes close and we turn our attention inward, deeper and deeper, digging for China, gold, diamonds, the seething truth. At that depth, in the heat and pressure, magma leads a life of its own and the firm earth trembles, twitches, an animal dreaming life as it is. Milton knew what Samson saw and Oedipus discovered--darkness in which ruin can fall away as easily as joy. One learns to stand still, the eyes closed, breathing slowly, attending and then not attending. The clumsy body comes into its own and one consults it, avoiding condescension, avoiding envy, for we arrive at the same end at the same time and owe one another, for odd favors exchanged at odd times, an honest acceptance, and even some regard.
Jephthah's Prayer We know, although we never pronounce, the name of the Lord. But Jephthah's daughter? Who was she? Her name appears nowhere, as if her blood had blotted out identity itself, as if the Jews--and even Jehovah-- looking back, felt ashamed that He was no better than Poseidon who exacted from the king of Crete the same terrible tribute, promised the same sporty way: Whatever I shall meet shall be the Lord's (Who therefore shared in the choice of victim and also the blame). Idomeneo meets Idamante and everyone sings his heart out until, at the end, Poseidon relents and we're given to feel relief that the barbarous age is over. That was the message Abraham and the young Isaac brought back from Moriah's wilderness: the Jews and their God ought not behave like Aztecs. Still, at moments of stress, we offer extravagant bargains, ruinous deals that are never refused, as Jephthah learned, whose eyes were opened only the moment he saw his daughter's close: the world is not a just world, and God is not a righteous God. Worship, stupid or insincere as all of it is, can neither please nor placate the blind and brutal power creation everywhere demonstrates. Innocence slaughtered, and no hand raised to stop it, no voice calling out in protest? Worship . . . ? Jephthah, Israel's judge, discerned the joke of it and in cold anger kept his silence to let them believe, and let them think he still believed: Let them, like savages, recite their old formulas and take what fools' comfort they can. One day, sooner or later, a time will come when disaster will reveal to them their folly, as all of them go, believing in the prayers they still recite, to die in thousands and in tens of thousands, animals led off to be butchered, for after the one, the rest are easy, a schoolboy's copybook exercise to prove how triangles or gods behave. One must be long in patience as the dead are patient until the day when a furnace glare shall dye the skies and God shall have His own back, in his watering eyes and nostrils, the stench of suffering innocence, His children, mine but multiplied by millions, for she was all, the equal of all light and life. You can hear in the end an echo of the beginning thunder that what had been done might be undone, as Jephthah thought but did not need to pray aloud: Let there be darkness.
Old Photo After years in a drawer with the film still in the camera, its instants preserved in an Instamatic's belly, it is not surprising that the prints come out skewed to the rose we're taught to expect of memory, be on guard against. The faces of my children (when did Evan still wear those glasses, or Sarah wear her hair that way?) help with the dating. Mother looks the same. The Quinlans' tree had not yet been cut down. Neither had Mother. Josh clowns with a fallen branch from the oak that still lords it over the yard. He thinks that shirt was one he wore in the eighth grade. If he's right, that was the last time all three were there at the house together with Mother and Dad who never were much for cameras--which explains how this half-shot roll of film got left for six or seven years. I took it to be developed to see what moment of passage, what special occasion had prompted a last session of holding still and smiling into the sun: the children's visit on an ordinary summer day. The Purdys' flowers are all in bloom in rose and mauve. Mother's face in the one shot is far away. Dad doesn't even appear. I close my eyes to see better, but not better enough.
Jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Eddying winds, dust laden, busy themselves 
in fitful domestic chores, polish 
and tidy up, but over time grind down, 
wearing the face of stone back to smoothness 
as before the names got carved. Listen, 
that sound the wind makes is that of the names 
unsaying themselves in the grave mouths of the dead. 
Among the living, too, gritty bits 
of the world of matter that claims to matter 
deface our clearest images. Details 
relax their tenacious grip, run off 
to hide in the barren landscape. Bereft 
past grief to rage, we cannot think 
how we could have let ourselves be cozened, 
our losses so compounded. But it happens. 
Vandals are merciless, and we share 
in the blame, for those shy spirits 
like all nocturnal creatures are easily startled, 
and we are clumsy, noisy, and maladroit. 
Worse, we prefer what is tidy and smooth. 
Bad faith, bad taste, and fatigue conspire, 
and pain saps our strength, even for this 
impotent protest. Vulgar plaster saints 
comfort, and the tintypes that grace our walls. 
Forgivable lapses? Such violent forgetting 
is no worse dishonor than what we do 
throwing out old socks and underwear, 
all those shoes, the ties no longer in fashion, 
the vitamins and medicines, their cure 
found at last. Harder to hold on to: 
the imperfections on both sides, the impatience 
on both sides, the thoughtlessness that marred 
the tyrannous ideal we gave lip service 
and to which we now promote them, doing them wrong 
in a good cause, weeping, then dry-eyed 
but no better able to see. The blindness 
of young lust commends itself as charmed 
and charming, or anyway necessary.
They settle on one another, persuading themselves 
that he or she will do whatever it is 
the script calls for as well as another. 
Such indiscriminate longing turns 
enemy in the end, its bad habits 
of a lifetime the impediments and traducers 
of love, which isn't clear and can't stand 
still to look at what it claims to crave, 
gaze fixedly at it, and then, eyes closed, 
summon up the details of a face 
worth all the world. The heads on Easter Island 
are more expressive, better detailed. I forget 
along with you, let go as I assume 
that you are letting go: but then you pause, 
turn back, reproachful, as vivid as ever. 
Then, like Eurydice, you hesitate, 
reconsider and disappear again. 
These shocks, diminishing in intensity, 
so exquisitely timed and calibrated, 
welcome, precious, are not to be commanded. 
For these ambiguous gifts, we learn to offer 
our qualified thanks and admit that conventional prayers 
for the spirit's repose are trickier than they seem, 
pious impostures for--see--the eyes are open, 
the cunning devil knows it's his own repose 
he begs for, and at what cost: 
that effortless glycerine tears should mark 
the course that once his real tears tracked, 
burning their way like lava. Fainter and fainter, 
the artist pulls his engraving from the stone, 
wearing the image smooth, as water or wind 
will in time. The last loss is of loss, 
the mind's failure, the heart's damnable health.

Parodos Cho[rus]. Kai min ego soi penthos hos phiilos philo lupron synoiso tisde kai gar axia. --Alcestis 369,370 Whoever the hero, whatever his crime, between the scenes of his agony, the chorus comes to speak their nostrums for us, to reassure, and yet at the same time, in elevated Doric to suggest what community at its best can be and how our mere attendance is a limit if not a cure for nemesis. The formal pattern of their saying, more than anything they say, assuages the pain we feel, the hero's rages, and the griefs that loom before us. The rhythm of praying, even to gods who will not hear, is some comfort. Neither stupid nor dumb, they turn first one way, then the other, and then stand, immobile, bearing what they can. We all have had our catastrophes at which we cried in demotic or simply wailed beyond comfort. Belief failed, and nothing in Aeschylus or Sophocles helped except the chorus, who murmured, numerous, inarticulate, very nearly humorous, but nevertheless conveying with each word what sheep bleat to each other in the herd. The cold comfort they provide is never adequate to the hero's loss, but here they file in their parodos with wisdom that seems somehow to have multiplied by a sympathetic resonance that rings response on any similar strings of harp or heart that happen to be near, much as in the transaction we call prayer. But what the chorus says does not imply much faith, as they stand there and wait to see how the hero will meet his fate. They're not blind, have seen, in fact, a lot, and know what to expect, as well as we for whom they speak--and from whom will be chosen the next agonist, whose moan, however dreadful, will not be alone. It's the best bargain one can strike or wring from the texts. I do not believe in heaven, but still pray for six or seven decent souls about me. I should like comforters, mourners, sounds of human speech around me. You, whom these words reach, faute de mieux will do--for whom this verse will stand as thanks or, if you fail me, curse.
Caution There comes a time when you can bear no more, some random scrap of news having proved to be the straw that breaks your spirit's back. New York has owls in every borough big enough to take a good-sized cat? You feel their wings beating the air over your head and resolve never to leave your house. You recognize the rightness right away of this avoidance of such pain and pity as everywhere abound, but the sound of rubber squealing on pavement, the silence, and then the smash of glass and metal break into that tight circle you've drawn. You draw it tighter, smaller, and promise never to go downstairs. The feeling, nevertheless, persists of risk, dreadful and universal. You don't quite trust your mental status, but isn't that just another proof, another worry? What can you do but carry on somehow, as conquered countries always have, and face it that you are likely never to leave your room. With blankets drawn up to your neck, it should be safe, but panic still takes your breath away. Your heart races; you often break into the cold sweats of the last judgment. The baseball bat you keep within easy reach may be of some use. There's no more retreat, now that you've sworn never to leave your bed.
Rat The dog knew first, heard it or smelled it, and rousing himself from his age, snuffled, went for it, stalking ass-tight alert. And then we saw it, a blur with a tail from behind the cutting board to behind the stove. One of the youngsters screamed. I grabbed a broom. The dog scratched at the wall, bloodlust up, while I banged under the stove, my stomach tight as the dog's ass, from anger that our citadel was breached, our civility ripped away, our decencies turned suddenly slum. From under the stove, the broom drew hanks of dust. --to prove we deserved such a visitation?--and sounds of the rat moving. The dog barked. The rat broke, ran through the door to the laundry room. I closed that and opened the outside door to the back yard to let it make its escape. Afraid or stubborn, it wouldn't, but crouched behind the door. I reached for whatever--a snow shovel (clumsy weapon but better than nothing) and poked, and he wriggled through underneath the hinge. When he was halfway I slammed the door closed. The high screak of ratpain pierced me; I opened; he shrilled again but didn't move. To dispatch him, I approached with the snow shovel as if with a halberd. He saw it and wriggled through, out, and away. To die, I suppose. I hope, to die quickly. I went inside for a gin. A week since, and the house has not quite healed; kitchen and laundry room are still tender. We try to go on with playing the play of our lives with its set decorations and props of crystal and china, speaking our lines as if we still believed them, and hoping to forget the untoward event that has shown it up as sham, turned it to farce. Filthy luck, screams, death, the bad smell: there's nothing to say. Where is the gin?
Wilson's Pen Wilson's Pen Is Ready. Thus, the headline announced, the treaty not yet signed, their man in Versailles still standing by. Some editor said, "Go!" unaware that the banner's second line ran the middle words too close together and to the truth. The second edition was different, even though Wilson went ahead and signed with whatever instrument came to hand--a fountain pen no doubt, but Europe was no less fucked for that. Self-determination is a game history plays rougher than gentlemen imagine and always for keeps. But the newsboys' hoarse laugh, prophetic enough, rings in the air every morning still, for other reasons, as I sit down at my desk to take once more that unreliable pen in hand in an attempt to perform the great trick that may not, of course, work: so I risk chagrin, by now an old companion. The odds are always long. Even the big Mont Blanc's burly power is null without the consent of the goddess to whom, when it comes, one learns to give thanks, knowing how much is her free gift and how little skill's desert. (Can women poets understand, holding a mute pen, a mere machine, what the ritual figures and how a bared nib quickens or dies according to the occasion, the concord of cue and sensibility, not to speak of how long it's been since the last time? Are they able to fake this too, whatever their reasons? That assurance, we sometimes envy but don't want.) Our silences are what in the end give speech its resonance, as the miles of barren sand set an oasis, a jewel in that dry shimmer. Would parched lips part to lie? The pen, I say, has a will of its own, will not be commanded, and, as Wilson demonstrated, to pick it up is to take our lives in our hands. The sword is less mighty, even stuck into a stone where it can say only yes or no . This, though, can calibrate the soul, measuring worth or its lack with intimidating precision. It's said that in primitive tribes, medicine men and chiefs wear them, who cannot write a word. They know magic wands when they see them and show daring, as they would displaying vipers asleep at their breasts.
Guts All that fine-tuned high-toned discrimination, where does it get you? Evaporating like foam on the hard line of hot sand, it's cute but has nothing to do with the depth or pressure of truth's mucky bed. To feel in the guts is to claim less but more, their crude fundamental reports being of pain or not, distention or relief, or the pleasant fullness of having dined well. The head is a clever place but hardly the domicile of the self, that big but shy tube-within-a-tube, that deep-sea creature of autonomic certainties you invoke as too dumb to lie when something matters enough for it to notice or care about. Or let it be rather that lazy baby you once were and still largely are, with rage and content its only modes, brooking no nonsense except its own. Words always fail, don't they, and meaning, prior and urgent, slithers away. That imperious being is all you can trust--even when it comes to the bad news. The five senses fool you, but here is common sense, the sixth sense you never like to speak of, even though it keeps your manor going--or the chateau where you play the lord while strains of music offer genteel diversion; but you remain alert to catch one of its slight but ominous rumbles.
Tambourine You think of gypsies, kindergarten brats, and the glassy-eyed bimbo, always the least adept of the group that calls itself musicians. What does she do but bang it on her butt? Pop and hiss, those contrarieties, caught as they are in the tambourine's eternal hoop, squabble, their bass and treble demands upon our flagging attention, stupid, vulgar. And music condescends to this, or aspires: Baron Ochs, however else he is gross, recoups a little, doesn't he, of our hearts, baring his own with that simple wistful waltz, its shallow depths his right and limpid pool? What we remember of all the refinement, nuance, and complication simplifies to that, and the tambourine is the virtuoso player of simplification flirting with boredom. Guess if she or it be instrument for the other to play--for we are not so circumscribed as she. Acknowledge the little frisson they make together, elemental, accommodating, even promiscuous (any tune will do), or close your eyes as hers are closed and conjure any face you will. Dumb as she is she knows how it is, how she's put upon, but doesn't seem to mind as she dishes out lucidities prefabricated for these healthy inarticulate creatures, the forms of feeling, the right vessels for what wine their lives' cuvée may provide. The best will age, mellow, deepen, but keep that scintillant character, the nerves' tambourine thrill, abstract, impersonal, and yet expressive of what they are. Fortune, good or ill, will compose the score, filling out the staves-- which is why gypsies, children in rhythm bands, and adolescents, careering into the future, like so well what most of us just suffer. They bang and jangle, playing, thoughtless, eager, happy, blindly happy. That's the skill.
The Whippets At the levee, you remember all those busy supernumeraries filling the stage to represent not just the luxury of the Marschallin's life but also the heavy demands wealth can make on time and energy, problems that burden only a few in the Grand Tier. The milliner, chef, hairdressers in their mistress's service command attention; other lesser figures--the scholar, tenor, and noisy orphans-- beg and take what they can get. (The pushy gossips, denied, will be back in the second act to nudge the plot along.) Meanwhile, the crowd, picturesque, dresses the stage, and offers the audience something to look at. See, in the back, that vendor of animals. Sometimes he's given a caged bird or maybe a monkey, or, on this occasion, a couple of dogs for their touch of lively disorder and also to balance the blocking. It makes for a nice effect worth the minimal risk one runs with animals on stage. Who doesn't have stories . . . ? Of the horse in Aida --or was it Fanciulla del West? -- that heard applause for the tenor and, circus trained, broke for the footlights to take its hard-learned bow. Still, on a brace lead, a pair of whippets . . . How can they fuck up? The poor sod stage director hadn't paid sufficient attention to his libretto and its resigned suggestion that our pretensions, or best intentions, are doomed, even in love, or one might say especially in love; and the pair of dogs (as Frederica von Stade daintily put it) "fell in love and got married," right there on stage so that Dr. Bohm had to lay down his baton and wait while the audience, on its feet, delighted, cheered. Octavian stood there, appalled although the Marschallin was hardly disturbed and the Baron, touched by such a display of innocence, affected to stare out through an upstage window at the prospect of a garden the sly designer had indicated there, a paradise to which the busy whippets were harking back. They made a trio Hofmannsthal and Strauss might have liked but wouldn't ever have dared write, too knowing in stagecraft and too shrewd in love to take such chances (how does one get dogs that will perform every night on cue?): Octavian Is that what it all comes down to, rapture or even faithlessness, that simple animal act? They are looking at dogs but what they see is me an hour or so ago. I cannot endure the shame of having been found out, but she queens it along as if she weren't still damp with me there. However does she do it? We are supposed to be sovereign over the beasts but the truth is that beastliness masters us. The heart and other organs lunge, slip from the leash and run wild, or drag us along helpless. Ochs is inured to it, thinks it's funny, and she'd agree except that she's unwilling to admit to such indelicate amusement, which may offer a hint of how she'll think of me in a year's time. Or will I be like him, a lecher and cynic, remembering her, if I do at all, as another name on my list? It's true, dreadful and true, which is why they laugh out in the dark pit, watching us fall --or have we already fallen?--to their level. The Marschallin That too, or that first and last, but what we add transforms both it and us to another realm, refined and elevated, as the power of speech can turn a simple fear or desire into articulated thought. Civilization admits, or even depends, on nature's crude données but, as at table, we try to carry on with a little grace. Tearing into their meat, would they offend Octavian's tender sensibilities so? And I wonder, is it on my account or his own that he's distressed? Supposing the latter, Ochs pretends to stare out of the window displaying a delicacy I shouldn't find so surprising, for I, too, maintain a certain posture as in a tableau vivant, and feel the strain increase with time. We must endure the applause as if it were what we deserved for this coup de theatre. The Baron Somewhere beyond shame, there's a shamelessness for which we dig deep in the mud, a twin of innocence. Those whippets, rutting away onstage, are purer than music that hung in the air like mathematics' body. We're old dogs, my friends out there applauding and I, schoolchildren again, staring out in the yard to study the lesson a couple of strays taught, going at it a dog's age ago. Where are those children? What has time done to us? Or ask how else to defy time except with that repetitive stratagem? The joke is old but still good for a smile if it's well told, which is why they applaud. But see how the youngster blushes. I would not change places, be young again and run such risks--to be obliged to repeat those strenuous exercises by which the soul becomes at last limber even while the body weakens and swells to what you see. They're done? Yes, and the maestro raises his baton for us to resume the pursuit of our quarry of meaning, driven, perhaps hounded, but not forgetful of who we are or where we are in the score. * They settle down and return to the transaction of the opera's business. Once again, the Baron will pay and depart and, with somewhat better grace, the Marschallin will exit, leaving the stage to the young lovers, as she has to do in production after production. The cast, timbres, tempi and lighting vary some, but the action is always exactly the same. Next time, darlings, the parrot (one that never talks) or maybe the monkey (but prepubescent, and wearing little trousers) . . . Whatever "life" the scene may require we can manage to indicate for intelligent people who understand well enough the risks of love.
Mocking Bird So let them come, white coated, their tape recorders set to catch the notes of various species of birds, each of them performing--encore! encore!-- the one trick he knows. To sing the self is anybody's business, but the mockingbird goes beyond to try on other possible lines and lives, mimic, improve, improvise upon, and imagine creations in which the flights of birds and their fancies are truly free in a way those dodoes in lab coats could never dream, much less get down to analyze for a learned paper. Their playback buttons always produce sameness which isn't at all the same as what the mockingbird would do, playing (for that's what it is). The territorial claims and mating calls the other birds warble are propaganda. Art should be inutile; mundane concerns of living elicit meaner modes in him. Should another mock- ingbird intrude on his private space, he'll squawk, threaten violence, though birds of other kinds he tolerates as themes for his variations, occasions. Even humans-- at our best, that is--can arrest his interest, with a radio, say, at a picnic, playing a sax riff (of Charlie Bird?) that he may pick up and even jam with a little before letting it go, as the moment passes (always before we are ready) and he moves on the gift of his noting.
Reading The hour or so before any poetry reading I spend at my desk at home, or more than likely sprawled on a motel bed, flipping my old pages . . . they're an album of my life. Honest, I can admit to recognizing here and there something stirring that stirred before. Mostly, I'm heartless and can't imagine what of these old loves once drew me to them or what we thought we had together. The reader, who may in theory exist, is faithful as I'm not, may take to his heart one of these dim darlings, settle down with her, be happy ever after, habit filling the rents in meaning or grace that trouble me now. Picky, picky . . . yes. And faithless, a pudgy Don Juan on the prowl. My clever tongue, my seducer's eye have served me long but turn against me. It's a conceit, of course, but something's true. Will I tell them to keep their women close, to love them better than I've loved mine? And if I do will they know it's for the sport, to make the game tougher and more fun? They expect their poets to behave badly. How shall I disappoint them? A quick nip from the flask will get me through this, but sooner or later the liver rebels, and the life.
Excursion to Pergamon Ruins and the simple life--for these, we will pay much, suffer much. The nozzles overhead in the coach produce no whisper of cool air, while outside on the steep slope, women in black lug bundles of sticks to camels under a tree. An odd system, but what we have come to see as much as the castro on top of the mountain. The holy places now are any that speak to us, however crudely, of what we have lost (or deferred, we tell ourselves) and how we have wasted our energies. Look at these stones, every one hewn smooth and hauled up here to make a wall that was breached anyway--all walls must be--so that Alexander's treasure is gone. And still we knock ourselves out for our trifle. We imagine life here, try the wine, risk the water, acquire the score or fifty words one needs to get by with, learn the main streets of the town, and are not even startled at a turn in the road to confront in a shop window faces that under the unfamiliar hats turn out to be our own. The rate of exchange varies from day to day, and one can always haggle some for sport, but the hard bargains are those we drive with ourselves while the motorscooters whine or snarl all night beneath our window. Can we visit shrines, acknowledge their truth, and return the way we came, as if the colonnades were still upright, the arches still intact, and not one book overdue from one of the world's trio of great libraries, that hole we looked down into from the excavation's lip? Achievement comes to this. Ambition or mere boredom drives the best away from the tiresome pieties life in a pretty village depends on (and the same reliable jokes) to Athens, Paris, London, Rome, or New York-- where these people vacation. Or Africa, for a two-week tour of the iron age. Ridicule works for a while (anything works for a while) to keep the large shaggy beast at bay; it returns nevertheless like one of those hungry cats that prowl the tavernas and have staked out a table or two at the station of some cross waiter. We try the village version of grappa, strong, raisiny, crude. I do not allude to these dark thoughts, unseemly for a vacation, but point instead to the white goat that grazes a patch of wasteland behind us. All day long the sun has beaten down on that dry hill, but the goat has found a patch of shade near a scrub bush (or is it a half-dead tree?). It can't last. Someone will come, charcoal maker hefting his ax, or butcher with his knife, or the sun will simply relent and set. Let's hope. With the local eau de vie we drink to life-- it's raw, almost bitter, but then it's cheap.
Amphion's Lyre 1 We know the dangers. Think of the trumpets before Jericho's walls, the blast that somehow brought them tumbling down-- a problem of physics more than belief, for we've all seen the commercials, a singer's high note, live or on tape, and the shattering glass, and none of us questions how it can happen or doubts his eyes. Such excess is more than likely to disturb the calibrations by which we've learned to live. Whatever walls there are will probably shudder, shatter to rubble. Plato warned us against poets, musicians, dangerous people with no idea of their own power, where it comes from or how to use it. The case is worse than Plato imagined, unfamiliar with Japanese customs and folkways. Wandering ronin studied the flute, the shakuhachi, an instrument demanding control of the breathing muscles, and therefore training, but also a way of making a living, for the repertoire of the flute included conventional pieces for passing the hat: unemployed, the ronin still needed to eat. There were also selections for meditation, simulacra of wind in the pines or running water, not so different from our own music in echoing nature. But the shakuhachi, one and two-thirds feet in length, was also a bludgeon, a billy club they learned to use, not a concealed but disguised weapon that could be deadly. Civic arenas sell out in hours now for punk-rock performers: kids flock to the theater of cruelty, high on the keening notes of electric pain that have always lain there among the frets waiting for idle fingers to find and pluck them out. We connoisseurs know where to look: in library stacks, they lie in wait in the cool dark, just as paintings on gallery walls keep their counsel until the guards turn away, and then will riot, beckon, and mock tycoons and elders who think they own them. Rebels, rabble, or worse, brats, they make rude noises breeding teaches us how to ignore or even forget. Who would give children hallucinogens and stimulants as strong as these? What can they learn but passion, excess, and, even worse, dissatisfaction that's sure to grow, making the lives they're likely to lead insupportable, turning decent if dull pleasures into occasions for self-reproach. What kind of present is that to give a youngster? Or ask yourself what painting, music, dance, or poetry ever built. The question, loaded, is what the uncultivated have learned to throw in our faces, a lunk uncle or smart-ass brother-in-law letting it slip sooner or later. There aren't many ready answers that spring to mind; and only later, after the anger has burnt away, one may perhaps remember the story of how Amphion played on the Iyre music of so rare a strain that the rocks flocked to hear it, climbed one on another, so that the walls of Thebes sprang thus into being-- a miracle answering and outdoing that of the trumpets of Jericho. 2 Twins, infants, left on the mountainside . . . You know what follows, not just from the many stories of this kind you have read before, but from the gut. A truth calls out, faint but insistent as the infant voices squalling from under the bushes. We're all left exposed on perilous ground to take our chances. We all deserved richer, safer, better, but hard earth and the odds between wild beasts and kind shepherds seems familiar. And the twins? You recognize them too, embodiments of ambivalence, of double natures, self and what the self denies, or aspires to, or fears but still learns to live with. Amphion and Zetus then, were twins, left on Cithaeron, found and reared to manhood and other chances. The shepherd--perhaps it was his dog, first--heard them and there were dismay and delight mixed, and wonder at how life is and how some of us bear it. There were also practical questions: who were the babies, how had they come there, and for what dread fate had they been destined? The shepherd picked them up, afraid--let's give him that. Is he doing right? Will this turn out in the end to be a kindness or not? But he's no god, can't see that far ahead. He has no choice and takes them home-- and that, we may suppose, is what their father wanted all along; what Zeus assents to happens, without any choice, that way. 3 Ignorance first, but then, with the passage of time, something puzzles, something that will not fit but binds them together. Their curiosity turns into a shared obsession. At last, the truth, or part of it, is revealed-- they're not the shepherd's flesh and blood but were left by someone else to be found or to die--and they hate whoever it was who did that. Even their own mother? But what do they owe her? They try to imagine her: selfish adultress or whore. It makes no difference. They have each other now and a vow to be revenged. Their quest; adventures. They find her at last, that mother whose breasts caked dry while for all she knew they were starving or mauled to death on the mountainside where she'd left them and walked away. They hear Antiope's story . . . And now we are truly suckered, as they were. The single purpose blurs. There's always another side to the question. Pity wells up in their eyes. The twins hear what we've known all along, that legacies of suffering can unite as surely as blood. She has been seduced, abandoned, kidnapped, rescued . . . And that was just the beginning. She was married, then spurned, put into prison, tortured, was given up for dead, but she endured it and somehow at last escaped. She has been looking for them, searching herself against all odds for the children of that first passion, for Amphion and Zetus, twins she bore to the great Zeus. But who is not a demigod, or who would deny that special providence, his own rightful heritage? Destiny intervenes, whenever, wherever it will, to make us equal--parents and children; wives, husbands, and lovers; rich and poor; the great movers and shakers and any shepherd's children. It's capricious, perhaps, but fair. They join forces, the mother and her two sons, all of them victims and vessels of fate with nothing more to lose, resolved on vengeance, instruments of the gods. 4 Guardian, uncle, husband, king, and also betrayer, Lycus was all those things together, the man she had trusted, had loved and then had learned to hate, whose death she envisioned-- the vision was all that kept her alive: Lycus and Dirce. As a dog returns to re-eat his vomit, a married man goes back to his old wife for a last good-bye fuck; caught there in his old muck, he loves it and stays. Both of them, then, the man and the woman, but one at a time, and let their dying be long, painful, and disgusting enough to hold her attention each lovely moment. That's what she asks for, and that is what Amphion and Zetus promise to give her, happy to find such justification for what they've both wanted and now can make a proper claim to. Step-father, great-uncle, Lycus is King of Thebes, whose throne the brothers will share. Assassinations on such a scale are civil wars: the fact that advantage attaches can always be denied. So they have it both ways and can claim as destiny's children to be acting blindly, only obeying the sternest dictates of implacable gods--though both the brothers have probably peeked. An opportunistic thought that crosses the mind of one occurs to the other right away. Twins are like that. Only Antiope's eyes are open, but she sees nothing, having already suffered enough to have gone quite mad. 5 Antiope's story is muddled; different reports stress now one, now another aspect of the union of god with a virgin--a nasty business, defying all the decencies: the bitch staked out on the ice where the wolves will find her and either kill her or mate with her. It's cruel but a way to keep the sled dogs' bloodline strong. And so, with us. But imagine Neanderthals, a tribe of them, to whom one of us appears to screw their daughters. It's a kind of promotion, really, a chance for survival--and yet they are not grateful. Resenting us, they disapprove of the girls as if they'd cooperated, or even enjoyed it. But what can one expect from Neanderthals? Antiope, a king's daughter, must suffer and the babies have to be separated from her and put in some rustic setting so they can emerge on their own merits later on. The shepherd's hut is not very different from, say, a manger. The humble raise themselves. The mighty fall. For Antiope from there on it was pure shit--Mary and Mary Magdalene at the same time. There is a logic to it that ought to produce twins. And also madness. 6 As a monster, Lycus lacked imagination, That is not surprising: torture doesn't need any special talent beyond the gift of dullness that never wonders what it must feel like to bleed. You see your chance and take it, as he did when his brother, Nycteus, the Theban king, began a war over the kidnapping of Antiope, his daughter, who hardly was a Helen but just as much a whore. What Epopeus, king of Thessaly, had seen in Antiope was hard for anyone to tell-- not that it much matters. Nycteus was killed in a fairly hard-fought battle, and Epopeus as well. So Lycus took command and returned to Thebes in triumph, Antiope beside him. The air was filled with cheers. And then he thought of marriage: instead of being regent, he'd be a king and bridegroom. "Live a thousand years!" That's what everybody in the agora shouted, except perhaps for Dirce, the wife he'd put aside in order to improve his claim to rule the city. He also bribed the army which drank to groom and bride. Labdacus, the infant, Nycteus' grandson, the only other claimant to the throne was spirited away before the thugs that Lycus sent to kill him got there--but no matter, if people thought him dead. Lycus threw a party, partly coronation, partly celebration of the nuptual rite. All of Thebes attended, some in terror not to, but most came for the scandal (it wasn't incest, quite, but an uncle and a niece?) Now, it's hardly every day that a thing like that will happen. One didn't need a seer to whisper the prediction that nothing good would come of such a match, or give it maybe half a year. Rather less was needed before the trouble started. Lycus disappeared for hours every night. Antiope complained, but he gave no explanations. Her tears did not affect him. He wouldn't even fight. And then, out of the blue, there came a brief announcement: Antiope was ill and had to stay in bed. Optimists believed it might be true, for Lycus would at least feign sorrow if the girl were dead. Realists replied that it wasn't very likely he'd even make the effort; the realists, of course, were right about that. Quickly, Lycus sent for Dirce as if they hadn't ever gone through a divorce. Pessimists required some time to imagine something even worse than what everyone could see, but soon their rumors started-- Lycus hadn't killed her; somewhere in the dungeons, still, Antiope was kept alive, was tortured, and Dirce came to see her, to watch her on the rack and listen to her screams. But very few believed that Thebes was taken over and the world was being run by figments from bad dreams. The pessimists turned out at last to be correct and Thebans were disgusted decades later, when Antiope appeared to confirm their worst suspicions. They shook their heads together and swore: Never again! 7 Lycus is almost plausible, explains he didn't do anything wrong--even believes (or seems to) what he's saying. He could have killed Labdacus, the baby, the heir, and didn't. He could have killed Antiope and he didn't. He just put her away--because he had to. She'd gone mad. Jealousy had done it. He admits his infidelity, but he explains it, a man of the world speaking to men of the world, as part of the job of ruling. The marriage had been political--he never lied about that. Antiope ought to have understood. A princess? What had she expected? What had any sensible person in Thebes supposed? The torture? He swears he never had any part of that. It was all Dirce's doing. He regrets it and takes exception to the very nasty suggestion that he connived with Dirce, or just to please her kept poor crazy Antiope alive as a kind of plaything. It just isn't so. It's monstrous. He had no idea whatever what was going on . . . And Zetus, bored, signals that the trial is over and finds Lycus guilty. He smashes the man's skull over and over until its pale pink goo has covered the jagged rock he holds in his hand. 8 The other appeared to be easy, beyond any possible question after Antiope told them, herself, how she had suffered, the tortures she'd undergone-- and Dirce didn't deny it. Zetus could let his brother appear to share in their power. A simple execution is not a great challenge, even for poets. What could he do? How could he screw it up? Vague, yes, inefficient, not very good with detail, not punctual, not a reliable management type, all that Amphion needed to do was to give the order and stand there and watch. But remember, their mother, Antiope, wasn't at all right in the head. She wanted to draw it out as much as possible, cruel to answer back for cruel. To this Amphion consented, even to her suggestion that Dirce be tied to a bull and dragged to death on the rocks in the fields outside the city. Zetus, who would have resisted, was rather surprised at his brother, so fastidious always, for having given consent. It wasn't that Zetus objected to the grisly business itself-- being stoned to death wasn't so very uncommon, and this just turned the victim into a more active partner to make it a livelier show. Still, you'd expect a poet, having imagination-- one would suppose it his forte-- might have been better prepared for what he was going to see. It didn't seem to affect Antiope much, one way or the other; she just stared. But it hit Amphion hard, watching the woman bounce, bleed, cry out, quiet, and after a while ooze, leaving a shiny trail as a slug does in a garden, but red. And he had to stand there, unblinking, enduring it all, as if he were being punished. That's what he told Zetus, who replied with affectionate oaths. But that was the first warning. The machinery'd started to work. Inspiration? It's rather more like an irritation to which the unconscious finger keeps returning to scratch. That image kept coming back, and Amphion had to discover a way to cope with it, manage to set it off at a distance or encapsulate it as art. Whatever his private reason (need or merely the habit), he turned it into a poem, the result of which was to wreck that nice balance between them Zetus had tried to arrange. Lycus' dying was nothing, a mere prelude to the story of Dirce done to death and then turning into a fountain . . . whatever the hell that means. In fact, a month or so later, in a field a mile away, some shepherd discovered a spring, most probably an old one that the run-off of recent rains had revived. There was no connection except what Amphion's poem imposed. But it made him famous. He had become the avenger of all of his mother's wrongs. Zetus now had to wonder what his brother intended, and whether for all those years Amphion hadn't contrived to hide a streak of meanness along with some managerial shrewdness. Or could it all be dumb luck? Could there be so much luck in the world? Either way, he resolved that it would not happen again. 9 A Song of Amphion "What we yell in its stupid face will not by even a whit deter it, but how can we not yell? I am going to die, you are going to, and he, and she, and probably it will die. There is nothing else to throw into the great chasm widening moment by moment at our feet but what we have made. It won't do any good, but some of us may believe, and the rest feel better for having tried, for having at least soothed in the moment of agony our own torment's twin. There is also always the chance that he, in his faith, is right, and I, in my unbelief, am wrong, too cautious, too timid, lacking in the real imagination in which there is said to be tranquillity and a peace I can almost imagine that I imagine." 10 Zetus built the wall; Amphion played his Iyre-- as simple as that. Anyone who was there can tell you Zetus planned it, supervised the masons, even worked beside them himself, sighting the hewn stones along the taut strings and plumb lines. His brother, worse then useless, was only a nuisance good manners contrived to overlook. But the story is still told--how the walls around the city of Thebes somehow sprang up, grew together, built themselves, because of the music Amphion played. To call it magic is not to dismiss it as arrant nonsense. Miracles happen. Mysteries aren't mere demonstrations of how we need more information. Stones came dancing together, embraced one another, and froze, startled--why not? Because his brother would almost surely have killed him then and there-- which is not what the story tells us. So figure the other way, bet with the odds, and suppose that Zetus built it. The legend at least suggests what the people of Thebes wanted and would have preferred. Take it as more than likely that Zetus grabbed more than half the governing power, that his rule was harsh, was cruel enough to arouse hatred first, then hopelessness, and the feeble fancies those who are desperate will sometimes invent for themselves, not so much for escape as the momentary distraction, the instant's respite such daydreams can offer. Zetus may have heard the stories going around, and for a while there was nothing he could do. On state occasions the two brothers, the joint rulers, made their appearance together--at least for a while. And then? It was only Zetus. Amphion was unable, regrettably, regretfully, to appear. You're not surprised, are you? Musicians, poets, artists, tend to get edged out in the best of times. Amphion disappeared, was locked away in the same dungeons his poor mother had once been locked in. That was one of the rumors--and none of the others was cheerful. Oddly enough, the story about the wall hung on, clung to the wall like a sprig of ivy, digging itself in, delicate, fragile, but tough as the stone itself once it has taken hold. 11 When the world turns nasty, we turn away to others, better or simpler, that we invent in dreams or art, and what we flee prefigures what we yearn for. Zetus, Amphion's twin, had imagination, which is dangerous with power. He could think up new orders to impose, new laws or no laws. Let us say mannerism in politics is tyranny by a politer name. But Amphion, no innocent either, idly plucking the strings of his instrument, played upon men's hearts a politician's aria they knew to fear. Feeling the damage start, they read the pages of their own souls' banned books. Each looked to the ages, eager to daub eternity's blank canvas and make upon it his individual mark. What they inflicted and what they suffered, how they arrived at that satiety we dread and envy, where it seems perhaps a gift after all to be mortal, wanting not another breath of time . . . From such hints do we read the lives of saints and monsters. Amphion simply disappeared. Zetus ruled for years, neither better nor worse than any other king, and then, abruptly died--either from sickness or poison, the gods' displeasure or man's. Anyway, he died, and with no issue. Runners went out in the four directions to find Labdacus, grandson of Nycteus, that infant heir who had fled many years before. When Labdacus died on the way back to Thebes, his son, Laius, inherited, carrying on the line: he married Jocasta. Oedipus was their son.

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