“... 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.
THE CUMAEAN SIBYL II
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.
THE CIMMERIAN SIBYL
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
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 ORACLE AT DODONA
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”,