Burned by the middle-sun, we came unto a city
Walled as if by thoughts, yet unwalled, bare,
Still awaiting the Sack, when she would
Scream. We came unto those unwalls and found
The Gate-elders, whose craniums were on the verge of bursting.
We approached those languid kings and
Inquired: "What is this city called? who rules it?
Who built it? who are you?
Where are we? do you understand us?"
So we said, to whom one swollen, wrinkled mouth:
"This city, we knew its name
Once. Who rules it, we know no longer.
This country, this strand beside the sea
Of the world, this earth: now it is as if foreign
To us, wizened into abstracted cadavers.
We understand your speech, but already I begin
To forget what you said: it dies away and the memory of its sound
Floats into that ancient Argive's void. We have lost
Our bearings; we are as children lost
In the undulations of faceless monsters,
We were consumed and excreted by the present,
Now ever pressed by the question: 'Where is mother?
Oh, where, where, where, is mother?'
We cannot retrace our steps, can only move forward,
Our god is Progress, whom we revile -- no other to protest.
The walls, I think, are sound, as your speech is.
A tune three thousand leagues away to the west hints
The foundations are sound also.
This city was built on terrifying rhythmic drum beats,
Or the blare of a mad poet's voice.
We are haunted not by sound -- the walls crumble -- but by
Black letters on pale parchment, and,
Of late, by pictures and by moving images,
The memory of movement, the soundless swells
Of torpid river-torrents of shields, spears, and scrolls."
His feeble voice resumed: "Before I forget entirely --
I am Priam, Laomedon's son, or was Priam;
Or was I Atrides Agamemnon?
Or Menelaus? or the father, Atreus, Pelops' son?
I am too old, too old."
His finger pointing near imperceptible to the right:
"This is Achilles, man-slaying son of Peleus --"
His once long and glorious beauty
The sorry hairs of an overused broom.
"He is Achilles, and look!
Look at his hands --" his voice's timbre was unchanged
"-- The blood on his hands!" We looked, but
Pelides' hands were the brown of ancient paper --
Whether it was the blood of Priam's sons, or the atrophy,
We could not tell. The smell gave away nothing.
We thought we saw a crystal tear run down
Priam's face, muddying itself in its course.
Pointing to the left: "Nestor, who has slept since, since..."
His pallid head was flung back, and his great mouth lacked every tooth.
Pointing farther: "Ajax the Giant, and Ajax the Lesser,
But who is who, I can no longer tell."
"That sea-faring king, Odysseus, left us long ago.
I miss him, I miss him, or do I hate him? Neither that can I recall.
That is Idomeneus, and that Aeneas --
But he left, too, didn't he? He left as well..."
We said, in reply: "Are you not all dead?
Why are you unsure of who you are?
Why do you sit side by side, who were
Warring enemies, who wept because of each other's
Brutal, bloody work?"
The decrepit megacephalic: "I am Priam. I am dying.
I would like to be dead and not dying -- indeed, all of us --
But that thread, a single capillary, has not run its span."
(A decade later, we realized we were the reason.)
"There," pointing to a figure sitting solitary, "is
Hector, breaker of horses," and, unprecedentedly:
"We are all overladen Hector,
And we are all Achilles,
Murderous and doomed.
We are all Priam,
Ragged, filthy, and hungry.
We are all Agamemnon,
Slain by treacherous dagger.
We are all Menelaus,
Whose wife was stolen way.
We are all Paris,
Who is execrated by all.
We are all Aeneas,
We are every soldier
Whose blood poured itself forth in the sight of these walls.
No one who has stood on this cursed soil
Stands in and of himself.
I am vanishing --" he croaked an attempt at a laugh "-- We here all live
This lengthy and evil process of dying."
We stood silent, being able to do nothing else.
Priam's eyes glistened, as they did at Hector's rape.
"We all returned here, to this burnt land;
There was no other country who'd keep us.
We took the gods by the hand, we found
We were a match, we drove our spears straight through their mouths.
We slew the Olympians together, in the name of
Progress," said the king, who before our sight visibly wasted away.
"It did nothing. Father Zeus' brood were phantoms
In the end. Other gods had risen with the new sun."
"Proceed, if you wish," he continued.
"You will find multitudes inside."
After a solemn, motionless, darkening hour, we did so.
With a faint "Halt who goes there" dogging our steps, we walked
Into the fading, torn-paper streets, ascended
The hellish rungs of descent. After years, we found
Ilus, son of Tros, erector of the city, a skeleton on his toilet.