No. 6


Ruth Fainlight  


  “... a terrible thing, to fall 
into the hands of a living god.” A fierce hound 
bounded toward me. I was the quarry. 
The phrase thrummed through my head.

A terrible thing, to fall into such hands.
I knew the god must be Apollo  
and the hands not his but those of Marsyas, 

darkly varnished by his own blood, 
twisting in pain as his skin is flayed, and 
the dog the little one in Titian`s painting,
lapping the drips congealed below the head 
of the challenger, strung upside-down from a tree, 

who lost his contest with the master of poetry: 
the god who sits on the ground, eyes raised 
to the sky, mouth open to sing his triumph, 
strumming his golden lyre with lovely hands.


Because she forgot to ask for youth 
when Apollo gave her as many years 
as grains of dust in her hand, this sibyl 
personifies old age: and yet 
those withered breasts can still let down
celestial milk to one who craves 
redemption: a dry tree, not a green, 
the emblem of salvation. 


These habits come from the old place, 
customs brought from home: almost 
the only memories of endless 
trees, a northern waste of cold 
and dark beyond the Caucasus.
Because it was always so, here 
on the shores of the Hellespont I still 
must have my drum and lance, the three     
mushrooms and sacred feathers, before 
I rise to heaven and touch the stars.

Everything I know was taught 
by the last sibyl able to                  
recall those days. Crippled, toothless
and blind, she told me tales of how 
we fled the Scythians, and ravaged Thrace.

I learned the steps of the magic dance
(my body burned in trance, the music`s 
beat made me gulp gallons of water 
to quench such thirst), got by heart 
the words that trap the reluctant god.

He slides under my skin as smoothly 
as the blade of a knife in the hand of one 
who slits the pelt and pours warm blood 
from the throat of a perfect sacrifice.
Does god or sibyl then pronounce?

But now we are too near Greece, and priests 
interpret my oracles, move 
between me and the god, stifle my power, 
altering the ritual; 
fearful; changing the old ways.


(with acknowledgements to Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant)

How was Dionysus captured by the Titans?
With marvellous toys: a cone, emblem of the goddess;
a pierced stone that roared like a bull;
a tuft of wool, like those his killers used 
to daub on gypsum and disguise themselves;

a knucklebone, which grants divinatory 
powers; a golden apple as his passport 
to Elysium; and a round mirror 
to see his ghostly other image — what child, 
no matter how divine, could resist?
Who wanted Dionysus’ death? Hera,
furious, had plotted to destroy him 
in Semele’s womb. Her malign advice 
ignored, next she goaded Zeus to launch 
a thunderbolt against the moony girl —

but the six-month child was sewn into his father’s 
thigh, for when the time arrived he must             
be born. Yet wherever the boy was kept, 
Hera’s vengeful eyes pierced his disguise. 
She sent her hit-men, the seven simple Titans.

What did the murderers do to Dionysus?
They cut his body into seven parts 
which first they boiled and then they barbecued 
(the ritual procedure) — but the heart 
was put aside, to be saved by Athene, his sister.  

Why did Dionysus triumph? From 
his beating heart, the vital central organ, 
he was resurrected to defeat the Titans
(whose blood and ashes formed the human race),
to open the cycle of death and generation 

and, horned like a goat or stag or ram, raging 
over the mountains with his pack of Maenads and Satyrs 
brandishing cone-tipped ivy-twined spears and tearing 
apart whatever they met, to bring drunkenness 
and madness: those marvellous toys of paradise. 


The oak is full of doves, they nest in clefts 
among its naked boughs. This oak
is the oldest tree in the world. Homer wrote of it.
Here, Zeus rules with Dione and prophesies 
through the throats of doves, doves they call oracles.
Three Doves: three women cloaked in furs, 
whose calloused unwashed feet must never break 
connection of their flesh from mother-earth.
Doves’ voices speak gods’ words. The women 
stretch their vowels to sound like doves burbling.
Suddenly, the doves’ murmuring 
is drowned by the clangour of bronze rousing 
the sanctuary — chains of a scourge in the hand 
of a bronze statue, which every gust of wind 
makes clash against a hollow gong and echo.
Someone has come to have his fate confirmed.           
The stylos bit into the soft lead strip as he 
wrote the question. The Doves approached. They stamped 
their feet in the muddy grass. The doves in the trees, 
reverberations of bronze, the women’s song 
and the oak-wood lots in the black, snake-painted jar, 
agreed. “Yes.” All would be as he wished.

Lovely Hands originally published in ‘Moon Wheels’, Bloodaxe Books, 2006
Last four poems first appeared in “Sibyls and Others”, Hutchinson, 1980




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