“The Trojan War Will Not Take Place”; Lao-Tse and the Louse; Firefly; Night Letters


“The Trojan War Will Not Take Place” [1]


Mycenae, 1334 BCE


Turns out those sparkling goddesses we loved
Were summer air, and so who cares about
Their little spat? Besides, that golden fruit
Was just a Jaffa orange with a stalk,
All dolled with glitter and a touch of paint.
Young Paris dropped it near the Odeon
While flirting with a leggy Kelebek
Or was it Fusan, Naz, or Asuman?
(Turns out that Helen simply hated Troy
And had a thing for Hector anyway.)
Put back the bows, the spears, the axes too,
And throw a cover on those chariots,
Line helmets nice and tidy on a shelf
And stack bright shields all neatly by the wall.
I’m sorry, chaps: no dress-up games today,
No whizzing out across the “wine-dark sea”;
Turns out there’s not enough old growth round Troy
To make a wooden mouse. Best pour a bowl
Of rough, sweet red, dissolve fresh snow in it,
And add some thyme, and hope that Hesiod
Gets born before too long. You know, why not
Invite Achilles round to play a game
Of Petteia, and get Patroclus too:
They’re mostly free these windy winter nights,
Just yarning to those bruising kids they have
Who play at being soldiers all day long
And don’t believe a word their fathers say.

Lao-Tse and the Louse


Chengzhou, 516 BCE


“To be an archer,” Lao-Tse said one day,
“Stretch out beneath a loom for two full years
And when the shuttle rattles back and forth
Don’t blink, and then you may embrace your bow.”
(The archers stood and fingered their taut strings.)
“Hold it three summers long, and never turn
From where rich sunlight comes to play down there,
Then pluck a louse so lightly from your hair
And set it crawling up a thread of silk,
And when the louse is larger than a wheel,
And when the louse is vaster than Mount Hua,
And when the louse entirely hides the sun,
And when you see its massive, pounding heart,
Just then release your shaft” (he shifted feet)
“And see its tip divide his ventricles.”
But then a louse in Lao-Tse’s hair stood up
And said, “Bold archers, listen well, grow wise
And see how splendidly my children cling
Upon your locks, how finely each one shades
From gray to black, each mouth tucked up inside,
And how each claw and thumb can grasp a hair;
Just think on these, my golden boys and girls,
Another beauty than the ones you know,
And then your shafts will always find their mark.”
He stopped; and romped on Lao-Tse’s thinning pate,
Antennae slowly flexing in late light
And gazed upon sharp mountains and cold streams.


One heavy summer night my father woke
And led me out, barefoot, onto the lawn,
Our blue hydrangeas ghostly under sheets,
And pointed to a comet in the sky,
A rip up there, in all that cutting cold,
And neither of us said a single word,
The blackness stretching back a billion years
And jasmine going to my head; and then
A rogue mosquito bit me on the arm.
Last night, I lay in bed beside my wife,
Another summer and another land,
My father long since gone into the dark,
And brooded on a comet overhead
But blocked by trees and clouds. I’d waited weeks
To catch that little flash between faint stars,
As though it might just show me something more,
As though my father might just say a word
Now fifty years have passed, our house torn down,
But only saw a firefly flicking on,
Just once, beside a fence, before it flew.
I lay in bed, fans blowing chilly air,
And breathed thick Brisbane jasmine once again
And felt a darkness older than the sky,
Older than any fear or love I’ve known,
Well up from nowhere I could ever name,
And nestle in my chest, now growing calm,
And linger there until the rip was closed.

Night Letters

At night I flick my lamp and write to her.
Words live inside that circle, dance around,
Each crying, “Look at me! I look at you!”
After a paragraph, her face appears,
After a page, I see her on the couch,
And feel her fingers interlaced with mine.
Perhaps there is a word that equals love,
That cores the self and leaves it ragged raw;
Perhaps I’ll find it waiting in the dark
Before my letter flies across the sea
Like all the others that have gone her way.
In truth, I never know if they arrive,
If they must linger in some border town,
Be read by men in suits, who want to know
That word I riffle all of life to find,
Who see her conjured as they turn each page
And fall in love themselves and breathe her name,
And say, “He’ll think she’s gone on holiday,”
While one confines my letter in his coat;
It crouches in the gloom, remembering
The things I hadn’t said when morning blinked.
I’ll write again, and tell her everything
But so those men will quickly let it through:
How I can taste September rain in fruit,
How moonlight’s walking naked in our room,
How, now I’ve pruned the dogwood once again,
The mailbox can be seen from every chair.


[1] A play by Jean Giraudoux.