A Piety

I had been satisfied.

The dead surrendered to the winds,

I praised the God they too had praised

As though those long consecrated to the pyres,

Then raised Moonward as ash

Had by now filtered above the cirrus clouds

And left the blue sky clean beneath them.

They were neither my nation nor my blood.

I would breathe,

And imagine I did not draw them in with every breath.

I would stand here,

In the audacious city blooming off the desert floor

Honoring the sacred gulf between myself and He

who stands astride the broad-faced mountain

Soaring to a peak, tallest among the western ridge

And crossed daily by the ascending slash of the Sun.

But I would have that space cleared

Of those who once too stood apart this distance

And shouted Ie! Ie Paian!

East, the angeloi rise to greet the morning.

East, opposite Apollo's mountain

A package of F-16s appears above me, and is gone.

First one, then a pause, and another,

Four grey shafts upon the blue,

Streaking west toward the mountain.

Then the lead rolls right, metal wing dipped, and

One by one, the fighters vanish northwest.

Only now, the engine shriek ebbed off,

The alerted wailings of all the car alarms.

Come dusk, they will return in tight couples.

I peer into a black nozzle and regard the gold jet-wash,

Kindled, now kindled low

Which only minutes ago had shot back a hard Mach diamond,

The fighter craft a faint streak then in the high thin air.

I witness this and am satisfied among the living.

I do not pine for the curvèd prows of Salamis

Nor the crewmen, each long taken up into Night.

Here is good country, in a good world,

And the Gods are with us.

They are proved athanatoi, the Deathless Ones.

I have disremembered the moment,

But that it came in a single moment

Is printed on my mind.

It came like a footstep across an unmarked line.

I have learned to see in just this tracklessness

The tracks of Gods.

It came, and afterward I heard a hollow pit inside the air

That once was thick with the hymns as though with moisture.

Each year brought the choirs to Claros. They

Marched singing through the triple gate.

They sang before their fathers, who themselves had sung.

The priest had sipped of the water, and was ready.

Mnêsomai oude lathômai Apollônos hekatoio,

honte theoi kata dôma Dios tromeousin ionta:

kai rha t' anaïssousin epi schedon erchomenoio

pantes aph' hedraôn, hote phaidima toxa titainei.

They sang a thousand years, and then cut short.

The words remain as fishbones in the sand.

The music is devoured as mortal flesh is devoured.

What came and was passed to me was no enthusiasm,

But an overhearing of the God's heart,

Cast upon lost honors, and an ancient friendship.

Afterward, then, my own choice

To give the old words voice, and lay them upon my altar.

Let them gather in the air with the white incense smoke,

Above the pure water and the candle flames.

Delian, bless this speaking before the candle flames.

enth' ek nêos orouse anax hekaergos Apollôn,

asteri eidomenos mesôi êmati: tou d' apo pollai

spintharides pôtônto, selas d' eis ouranon hiken:

es d' aduton kateduse dia tripodôn eritimôn.

enth' ar' ho ge phloga daie piphauskomenos ta ha kêla:

pasan de Krisên katechen selas: hai d' ololuxan

Krisaiôn alochoi kallizônoi te thugatres

Phoibou hupo rhipês: mega gar deos embal' hekastôi.

enthen d' aut' epi nêa noêm' hôs alto petesthai,

aneri eidomenos aizêôi te kraterôi te,

prôthêbêi, chaitêis eilumenos eureas ômous:

kai spheas phônêsas epea pteroenta prosêuda:

I give voice, who have no more faced a vowel tripthong

Than the walls of Ilium.

Still a beauty rises off this speaking,

Beautiful the way this Sun-blast desert, where a constant

Purple blush descends from the dawn air to

Rest upon the salmon roofing tiles and upon the desert

Crust also is beautiful.

The stormcloud sage will make these words a fine familiar.

A lone stealth fighter drifts low above our roofs.

Slow, and otherworldly,

It is itself the shadow it would cast.

Alone, and it does not break northwest but glides due west

Toward the mountain.

I am ready.

I will press these old words

Till they are ground again to song.

Afterward, my Lord, only you know what magic.


In Your Honor. Todd Jackson © 2005

Full texts of the Greek hymns quoted in this poem:

Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo

Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo

Back to Hymns and Prayers to the God.

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