Issue 1 ~ May 2011
In Praise of Short Poetry
Short Poem Editor: Deborah P Kolodji
Somewhere in Ionia, probably near the end of the
eighth century B.C., Homer composed the Odyssey, one of the world’s
oldest speculative poems. It is an epic we all know, filled with heroes,
monsters, gods, grand adventures, and love. A short poem from the same
inspirational source, like a still shot from an epic movie, might be
a haiku like this one by Ann K. Schwader:
another day’s weaving
—Ann K. Schwader
Schwader’s poem doesn’t tell Penelope’s story, but the reader feels her
emotion through an objective look at the scene through a close lens.
There is nothing in this haiku about Penelope’s suitors or missing
husband. Nothing that hints about the reason for the unraveling, or
even who unravels the weaving, but it doesn’t matter. The reader sees
the scene through Ann’s eyes and feels some of Penelope’s pain.
A reader unfamiliar with the Odyssey might not see the reference to
Penelope, but could still have an empathic reaction. Everyone, at some
point in their life, has had to start over again, or repeat work. Each
reader has the potential for seeing this scene as an echo of something
from their own experience. If the echo doesn’t come from Homer, it might
come from an ordinary experience.
Imagine that someone just tracked over a floor you recently mopped,
then read Schwader’s poem.
Next, imagine that your computer crashed after you had been typing for
an hour without saving your document, and then read the poem.
Then, pretend that you are in a forest and after hiking for half a day,
you find yourself back where you started. Now, read Schwader’s poem again.
Finally, pretend you were served with divorce papers that you do not
want to sign and read the poem again.
Each time, you might feel something different, but ultimately you would
gain a different appreciation of the same poem. Even if you had picked
up on the reference to the Odyssey, your own experiences will help shape
your reaction. Very short poetry is often a dialog between the poet and
the reader, some of the best have layers of meaning that unravel in the
mind as the reader sits with the poem a while.
Short poetry has been largely unappreciated by the academic poetry world.
In the speculative poetry field, to date, not a single Rhysling Award
has been given to a poem of ten lines or less.
In 2004, the Poetry Foundation awarded a $50,000 “Neglected Masters
Award” to Samuel Menashe, a poet who writes very very short poetry. In
2005, I published the first Dwarf Stars Anthology to spotlight high quality
short poems that were being overlooked during the Science Fiction Poetry
Association’s Rhysling nomination season. After its publication, Mike
Allen, the SFPA president at the time, decided to create a Dwarf Stars
But what causes this initial neglect? It is not as if short poetry isn’t
being written. Millions of people all over the world write haiku. The
Haiku Society of America is more than twice the size of the Science Fiction
Poetry Association. Poets are also writing and publishing tanka, American
cinquain, limericks, and other short poems. Twitter poetry has almost
gone viral. Still, on the whole, very short poetry is an underappreciated
art in the larger circles of the poetry community. Fortunately, in its
own circles, it is thriving.
I hope you will enjoy the sampling of short poetry, as well as Samantha
Henderson’s long poem selections, in the inaugural issue of Eye to
the Telescope. Each quarterly issue of Eye to the Telescope will
have a different focus, with a different guest editor. Please drop by
the SFPA Forum and let us know what you think. If you have topic suggestions
for future issues, we’d like to hear from you.
Circling back to Homer, when I was writing this introduction, I asked
several poets to send me haiku or other short poems that would be a snapshot
of a scene from the Odyssey. Every poet who sent me a poem wrote about
Penelope. But I could also envision poems about the wind escaping from
the bag Aeolus gave Odysseus or Circe turning the crew into swine, among
many other scenes. For some reason, Penelope at her loom is one of the
Velcro scenes that everyone seems to remember from the Odyssey. Yet,
I think it would be interesting to really explore the landscape around
these epics through a series of short snapshot poems. Hopefully, someone,
someday, will write them.
—Deborah P Kolodji
April 19, 2011
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In Praise of the Long Poem
Long Poem Editor: Samantha Henderson
Griots, bards, and skalds made,
molded and sung them: long poems. They’re the way in which a people tells
its stories, and the underpinnings of civilizations. Some, like the story-songs
of the Australian Aboriginal people, ensure both physical and spiritual
survival in documenting the features of both physical and sacred landscape.
Long-form poetry includes national epics like the Iliad and
the Odyssey, the Mahabharata,
the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and the Lianja; verse novels
like Danny Boyle’s Sharp Teeth; verse plays like Ntozake Shange’s For
Colored Girls, Kendell Evans’ Deepspace Shadows, Archibald
MacLeish’s J.B. Long poems take the time to tell the story,
in the heightened language of poetry; they have the luxury of defining
their own syntax as they create themselves.
Good long poetry is difficult to create and sustain; in
addition to this, the nature of print markets often prevents their publication.
In many ways the medium determines format: many editors prefer to publish
short poems rather than letting one work dominate the publication. An
on-line publication is not limited as to number of pages: to function,
the poems still needs to engage the reader but printing costs and format
won’t be what make sit unheard. As well as providing a venue for the
long poem the internet can also provoke a conversation that adds to it,
as in responses to Albert Goldbarth’s “Library”: poems.com/special_features/library.htm.
Here, then, we offer Jaime Lee Moyer’s retold fairy tale,
a piece of Larry Hammer’s alternate-history Greek epic, Kendall Evans’
space-age Merfolk, and Kristine Ong Muslim’s sequence of poems that,
taken together, begin to paint a disturbing landscape. Take your time
reading them, and return as often as you like.
carry droplets of tea
to her lips;
we watch for rabbits
as we sail past the moon
the more space
the fewer stars
left to us
counting again tonight
I find one missing
—Ann K. Schwader
I don’t want
to see the city
as she is,
but the way she was
the night I was a ghost
but still the dust
as though this planet
is drawing breath
two eyes staring
out from the glass coffin
of my skull,
Snow White, I wish I could sleep
as peacefully as you
no way i exist in different dimensions
the river rages below
somewhere in the mind
—John W. Sexton
The sky grows bright:
or the end of the world.
—Geoffrey A. Landis
I lose another moon
to deathstar poker
I long for the one
my planet circles
through their smoky bodies
the starlight glitters—
meadow full of nothings
—John W. Sexton
the same xenophobes
on every world
it seeps into
my vertical bed
Under the aspect of oil-soaked otter
the sea priest breaks over his heart
his bread of thorns for her.
He places on her tongue all the tears of the ocean
transubstantiated to orange sea-urchin flesh.
She tastes winter evenings on forgotten beaches.
The tide, a broken promise, a gentle lie,
whispers with a soft hiss, departing.
She rises from the altar of waves, heading inland,
the sea in her belly.
Plaint of the Stargazer’s Spouse
for Bruce Boston
Your thoughts swim so long
amid the night sky’s distant lights
I wonder you don’t need to jump
up and down on either foot
or bang the opposite side of your head
with the palm of your opposite hand
to get the shooting stars out of your ears.
She lunches on spinach salad,
ice water with a twist of lime,
then accelerates to the gym,
unaware, that in that same moment,
a dwarf star is captured
in the bondage of a black hole,
consumed and lost forever.
Event Horizon in Grandmother’s Room
the deep black hole
oozed the stuff of nightmares
from her gashed forehead—that chilling
our dark fears into the vortex,
one by one—the dolly
no one dared rock
Never mind two suns in the sunset
or interspecies romance,
this Valtekian can’t make any of his ends meet,
can’t put ipsum on the table
or a shoe on his child’s foot.
The volcanoes have been hyperactive this parsec-shift
and with trade to Fornash curtailed by two-thirds,
the economy has earthed for everyone.
Where’s a supernova when you need one,
or at least a drachma found on a moving sidewalk?
—Michael Dylan Welch
At Last, the Little Mermaid
She no longer remembers the knives in her feet
Or the one in her hand, so close to his throat
It might have pricked him without her meaning to
She no longer remembers the curse
Or the cure or the painful interstices.
All she remembers is foam, the bubbles rising
And the songs of angels,
So like the murmuration of the sea.
First published in Asimov's
Fangs for the Memory
Bob Hope came to me last night,
his potato face shining
so the bones shown through.
He sang that song, like a wind
moaning inside a long pipe,
No jokes, no pratfalls,
only a mouth full of sharp teeth
that buried themselves in my throat
for someone who had never liked
his mean sense of humor.
The Mermaidens of Ceres
by Kendall Evans
Excerpt from the Ganymede
Ring Cycle, from Book One of four Books. The Rings of Ganymede (or
the Ganymede Ring Cycle)
is a complex tapestry of numerous interwoven stories and many characters. The
scenes which follow, however, focus on the story of the human Garymon and the
The following Cast of Characters will acquaint you with the
GARYMON: The mortal
assigned by Rotan to forge the Ring of Power. He gave the first-forged
ring to Aurienna the mermaiden, as a pledge of love; Rotan received
a copy but soon realized that Garymon had deceived him. Now Rotan has
sent Garymon on a mission to Ceres, to retrieve the true Ring of Power.
But Garymon is not himself; his memories, thoughts, and actions are
controlled; he is no more than Garymon’s pawn.
Owner and President of Rotan Aeronautica, a privatized aeronautics
and space exploration corporation that is the most profitable organization
in the known universe. If he can acquire the ring that Aurieanna wears,
he will become the most powerful man in the solar system, ruler of a
new pantheon of technologically created “Gods.” Though Rotan does not
appear in the following scenes, he is responsible for the events portrayed.
THE MERMEN/MERMAIDENS OF CERES
AZARIM: Brother of Kyreem Abbatur.
SHYVULK THE MERMAN: A Merman of high
status, similar to a medicine man or priest, and advisor to the Prince.
PRINCE TYRNON: Ruler of the Mermen. There is no
King, since the honorific is assigned to the mythical Neptune, so Prince
Tyrnon is the equivalent of a king.
KYREEM ABBATUR: Brother of Kyreem
AURIEANNA: Also known as AURIEANNE. Thinks of herself
as being betrothed to Garymon. She wears the much-sought-after Ring
of Power, a gift from Garymon.
ACT I, SCENE ONE:
[Dim discharge of lightning, thunder’s rumble
blue-green asteroid’s shallow atmosphere;
Gauzy mist of rain; rainfall
like beaded curtains.
The gentle storm abates, Mermen appear
skyward: a shuttle-style ship overhead
Slowly orbiting the tiny ocean
A starlit silhouette becomes a silver gleam.]
[A human figure separates
from the ship.
Dull glimmer of a plummeting space-suited form,
firing to slow descent—
It plunges into the asteroid’s encompassing sea.
A flotation device buoys it surface-ward
A man climbs free of the spacesuit
Toward sharp rocks and fierce-armored mermen.]
GARYMON: [To himself]
A strange and wondrous world this is.
Once a barren,
An insulated singularity providing
Not but half our
Earth’s normal gravity;
A mini-world radically terraformed
Into a beauteous
Human makers manipulating DNA,
Creating a race of
Mermen and Mermaids—
Descended of woman, descended of man—
Ceres’ all-surrounding sea.
[breaking off his reverie, he calls to the
‘Hoy! I was but admiring your watery world!
We like our
world well enough, it suits us
So well we might have evolved here on
A peaceful place without human invasion;
Why have you come to
us again, and uninvited?
I bring the most exotic gifts to you—
Novelties from your cradle world, Old Earth,
Much memoried, though a
prick in your night sky.
I bring you beautiful beads and baubles;
eggs will hatch into fast-breeding fish
Improving your present food resources,
Replenishing the catch of your seas more quickly
Than the saline waters
can be depleted;
An invaluable resource.
might persuade us to accept such a gift—
Though truthfully we resent
Which time and again bode so ill for us.
why have you come again?
Again? Why this strange “again” that
you speak to me?
How do you know my name? My visage? My history?
Came your way?
My purposeful question dangles unanswered;
Garymon, why have you returned?
Returned? Why, I have never ventured before
Upon the face of the waters of Ceres;
Your words are worthless
KYREEM ABBATUR: [Aside
to Prince Tyrnon]
The man from Urth
He knows us not He’s lost his mind
It’s not his mind he’s lost, but
memories of us.
[Aside to himself]
Perhaps they confuse me with blundering Edmonton
came here prior to me, inciting their ire;
Perhaps all humans look too
alike in their eyes.
SHYVULK THE MERMAN:
Shall we play Garymon’s game
I would he truly were no more than stranger to us.
Garymon! Answer his majesty’s question—
Are not a Prince’s inquiries
My urgent questions go unanswered too!
How come you to know the name Garymon?
It seems impossible; makes me
feel so paranoid;
Are there voids within me
Like empty stellar spaces
I have traveled thru?
Quite possibly it’s true,
Your gifts masquerade
And we know all too well selfish human motifs—
intrusion is not a welcome event.
There is something much more you
want of us;
Something unnamed, unspoken … yet costly.
dishonestly are noisome things
Often involving unwonted sacrifice.
State your case with honest male brevity:
Why have you come?
What do you wish
To take from us? How appease our anger?
We have little
save our useful tridents,
And strong desire to demonstrate their use.
My request is single-fold: a simple golden ring.
a ghost of yourself, Garymon!
A man who has lost his personal past.
you forfeit, too, your most mortal soul?
Listen to me! Though they are not yet deities,
These new lords-to-be
lord it over me;
They desire the ring and shall have it.
Bold Rotan is
both anxious and dangerous.
His displeasure dictates my presence here.
I do his will, and mine is in abeyance—
As may be, evidently, my memories.
In exchange for that single ring of gold
You shall have an hundred diamond
An eternity of silver fishes flashing.
not to a merman’s taste;
Such things are a mermaiden’s affectation—
mostly they boast rings of coral.
It’s true enough, I seek a
ring worn by a mermaid.
SHYVULK THE MERMAN:
You’ve put ashore upon the
wrong rock island;
The mermaidens keep their separate place
and caves; a situation we prefer.
We like our solitude, our separateness;
For do not mermaidens bloody the waters
With their lunar cycles?
much displeases us.
I say that it disgusts us; let me speak
As pleases me.
They have an island of their own?
SHYVULK THE MERMAN:
Swim East by Nor’ east, t’ward the sun’s dim rising
And you will find their coral isles of orange
Eight leagues distant,
in bluest waters deep
Then I must swim a marathon.
What of the roe
you promised us, Garymon?
The hearty new breed of fish for our seas?
GARYMON: [In his wetsuit, Garymon sets off swimming to the east,
and calls back
over his shoulder]
Once I have the ring it will be yours to keep;
seas will be full of the silverlings.
KAREEM AZARIM: [Aside to the other mermen]
trade-offs —Let’s take our bounty by force!
SHYVULK THE MERMAN:
him or not? [Brandishing his trident]
I like the thought
of his demise—
[Trident likewise upheld above the sea]
Hold! How strange he seeks the very ring proffered her,
Yet owns no memory
of giving it to Aurieanne.
SHYVULK THE MERMAN:
I like these circumstances
less and less
Azarim! Abatur! What if your Kyreem sisters
Find him handsome
too? He thieves our maidens away
He stole Aurieanne’s heart from us,
She will hold no merman, now, in loving arms;
Nor allow fertile eggs.
Her heart has grown hard—
Our tridents might resolve the
Yet I’m in doubt in terms of final fates—
Interplay of these
events is too complex;
Is Rotan as powerful as Garymon boasts?
are new Gods truly imminent?
Philosophizing thus results
in indecision . . .
And sometimes saves the lives of innocents!
Let us at least follow after the man from Urth
And discover what
his meddling births.
[The four mermen dive beneath the ocean-world’s
Our scene follows them beneath the water;
fades into blue as
we observe their swimming forms;
fades into darkness.]
ACT III, SCENE ONE:
[Garymon, emerging from the surf,
climbs onto the
isle of the mermaidens.
He sees Aurieanna in the distance and approaches
She seems to recognize him, and smiles, also approaching.]
to himself, Garymon seems nervously erratic,
like a deprived addict,
making fast-odd gestures as he speaks.]
Just the sight of her ignites a firestorm in my brain;
Mismatched memories dance like dream fragments.
Did Rotan thieve these
memories from me?
My love for her could not be from some former life
If reincarnation is a myth, as I believe.
My Garymon …
I’ve waited for you for so long….
What do you know of the
ring that you bear? [Taking her hand]
I know you gave it as
a token of your love—
I feel our love affirmed, knowing you have returned.
I could not bear it while you were away;
Ill with my yearning, and always
The Sea of Ceres lost all beauty in my eyes—
so desolate; so pointless and empty.
[As Garymon and Aurieanna join in
Aurieanna holds to Garymon like a lover, seated beside
him on the coral,
one hand upon each of his shoulders, shaped tenderly
to his flesh.]
I gave you no ring, Edmonton’s the guilty one.
A grievous error; you must return the ring to me!
The man had no right
at all, it was not his to give—
I know of no Edmonton, no one
by that name.
GARYMON: [Aside, though in her arms:]
I think this Edmonton
must be a myth that Rotan made.
Or else must have intensely resembled
But why did he use my name, like some dark twin
Preceding me, both
marring and marrying my reputation?
[To Aurieanna:] So strange, too,
that his presence here on
Ceres Meant so much to you, so little to Edmonton.
For him such a bland time, poorly remembered.
That’s not the way it was at all!
How could you possibly forget our love?
How neglect such deeply fond memories?
How might recollections be so
Has amnesia deranged you? Strange madness!
ago my youth, much in ascendance,
Ripened me for a merman’s natural love;
But came along the human Garymon,
Who gave me a golden ring of betrothal.
Now you ask it back again, such treachery!
Love’s token circles ‘round
Faintly radioactive, superconductive—
wrought and forged of special gold
From the rocky core of your watery
Gold placed before the gritty dust of all of us
flesh by absent Gods!
Your love so passionate, yet no mem’ry
We talk at cross purposes — you must be deluded—
You refuse to
admit it, yet you’re the one who wooed me;
Have you listened to a single
word I’m saying?
I’ll tell you again, I know of no-one Edmonton.
Yes, I admit, there is pervasive déjà vu—
Deep down I know your loving
words seemingly speak true.
Nevertheless, I must have the golden ring.
For the sake of all, it must be given;
You know not of the looming consequences—
Dreadful disharmonies of our fates in balance—
A dissonance that is not
to be by mortals borne….
[During this conversation Garymon has has
increasingly distraught. Now he breaks off speaking
his head both sides with fisted hands;
looks upward and makes a mouth-wide
I’m at war with shadowy ghosts in
Surgically inserted in my cerebellum—
I know these memories
are false, Aurieanna—
I cannot fight them, my mind’s a craven muddle
Filled with broken images that won’t connect—
You seem so bitter-cold,
You’ve not embraced me once since your return.
to me; perhaps I will allow
My treasured ring to be your borrowed boon.
[Garymon removes a small water-proof packet
from the swimsuit he wears.
He removes a device
and reaches behind his back. His motions
to those of a person donning a necklace
and fastening its clasp, as his
fingers find the connector
at the base of his skull and jack the artifact
A digital medication for me.
What is this electronic
medicine? Are you ill?
It merely restores the brain-severed serpent
Who has been sleeping like the dead ‘til now—
[Rising, he takes her hand]
Let us repair to your dark cave, Aurieanne, &
black wine within your secret den.
[The two exit into the darkness of
which conceals their immodest behavior.
The scene slowly fades.]
ACT III, SCENE TWO:
[Outside a coral cave, into which Garymon
have repaired for their amorous adventure.
Aurieanne’s passion is unbridled.
We see nothing,
but hear her final sighs.]
[Aurienna sleeps, not merely
and wearied by love-making, but heavily drugged
by Garymon and
now nearly comatose.]
Though Rotan’s device allowed me to perform,
His cerebral implants blocked all my emotions.
How strange to make love
and yet feel nothing at all.
[Garymon’s first words have emerged
the darkness of the cave. Now he steps out
into the dim daylight of Ceres.]
In passion’s extremis, Aurieanna confessed
to return the Ring of Power.
Reality proved not so easily realized.
drugged unconscious, she could not yield it.
Somehow the ring had grown
into her tender flesh,
The metal band a part of her — meshing, connected—
I’ve tried the lubricants our lust provided,
Attempted force — nothing
I’ve tried suffices!
As if it’s done deliberately, to thwart me….
But this knife will free the ring, as Rotan suggested.
I’ll sever her
finger and be done with the deed.
[Garymon returns to the cave, vanishing
Long moments pass, we see a merman bob
above the surface
and disappear again.
Finally Garymon re-emerges from the cave,
a severed finger which wags and flexes
as if alive, and a bloody ring.
He casts the wiggling finger into Ceres’
ocean waters and holds the ring
up to the sky]
Once Rotan is handed his cursed Ring of Pow’r
He will return
my feelings and free will to me.
[He moves to the coral shoreline where
his floatation device
is moored, his spacesuit supported upon it. He
into his spacesuit, secures the helmet, tests the seals.
him we see one of the mermen enter the cave
and come running back out
again. The merman blows
an alarum upon a conch-like shell. Garymon
already folded and stowed his floatation device.
His suit-rockets fire and he ascends.
bob up from the
water to launch spears
in Garymon’s direction while Kareem Azarim,
who has just emerged from
the cave, throws his triton
from the island. One of the spear-like tritons
impales Garymon, lodging deep in his side.
He clutches at it, struggles,
and then goes limp,
while his suit continues to carry him toward the
Queenpin. The scene fades and ends as if the darkness
night is swiftly closing in—or is this merely
the darkness of Garymon’s
loss of consciousness?]
“Myrmidons in Calydon” is a sequel to “The Myrmidons,”
first published in The First Heroes edited by Harry Turtledove
and Noreen Doyle, which can be read here.
“The Myrmidons” retells the origin story of Achilles’s band of soldiers,
who were ants turned into humans, by correcting one aspects of Ovid’s
natural history: soldier and worker ants are, in fact, female. “Myrmidons
in Calydon” continues their story with the participation of some Myrmidons
in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. Together these are part of an
in-progress cycle of poems reworking Greek mythology, which I intend
to take through to the Trojan War. —LH
Myrmidons in Calydon
by Larry Hammer
The boar came out of nowhere, so they knew
By this and other signs—its angry eyes,
The damage targeted to rooting through
The just-ripe crops, but most of all its size—
From whom it came. But no one could surmise
The reason—what had someone done amiss
To rate the wrath of Lady Artemis?
When questioned, everyone denied offence,
And while it’s true that Calydon omitted
Her in their harvest rites, this lack made sense
For all agreed the Huntress poorly fitted
With grape or grain—not even the clever-witted
Could make such jealousy seem rational.
Divinities aren’t random, after all.
Regardless, for whatever goddess reason,
The Lady of the Beasts had sent her rage
Which must be dealt with in this harvest season.
But how? They couldn’t spear nor trap nor cage
Nor fence nor scare it off. To assuage,
All Calydon (and king) must make a clear
Apology or starve this coming year.
His household hero and his seers stumped,
King Oeneus agreed to call for aid:
A council of the pious—though he grumped
The time it’d take to have the lot conveyed
Would keep his kingdom’s field repairs delayed;
But while it cost him feasts, flute girls, and liquor,
’Twas cheaper than an oracle—and quicker.
Son Meleager had instead suggested
That he invite heroic help: by deeds,
Not words, Aetolians think men are tested—
Besides, this boar was not a mountain breed.
But he could not convince Dad of their need,
Although he was of age now—if no more—
Because he’d so far failed to kill the boar.
Indeed, this unsuccess suggested he
Had been at fault—or so the king inferred,
For Oeneus could never clearly see,
I fear, the children that his wife preferred:
There’d once been flocks of rumors, which he’d heard,
She’d played the hostess past the customaries
With one who wasn’t even mortal: Ares.
Though women then of certain classes turned
A few divine affairs—or so report
The genealogies. His wife had learned
The fashion from her sister Leda’s court,
But then she overdid things, being the sort
For sibling rivalry, and so was led
To also welcome Dionysus to her bed.
Thus Oeneus ignored the godly two
Althaea doted on—till they insisted:
Born hero Meleager flexed a thew
While Deianeira’s little finger twisted.
The latter could be wed before she trysted;
The former threatened trouble—like a fire
On wood that’s slightly green and pops sparks higher.
The calls for help spread wide their herald wings,
Flying to those the likeliest to know
Bright Artemis’s favored offerings:
Tiresias, remanned not long ago;
Wise Æacus, Aegina’s head honcho;
Cumae’s young virgin Sibyl, never kissed;
As well as others—I’ll omit the list.
Replies flew back as signs of coming—late.
The priests all gathered over nine long days
From first to last, which was a longer wait
Than Oeneus expected—Party’s ways
Includes surprises, for she likes to faze.
Worse: Sibyl was held by some Cumaean strife,
And Æacus had sent instead a wife.
Aegina’s king was needed: Hecate
(Another name for Her) was honored there,
And Æacus was widely known to be
A man who could restock dead towns by prayer;
His ex-ant myrmidons had fought off with flair
Invading Minos. All Greece spoke this word,
But far Aetolia had not yet heard
That only female ants can leave the nest,
And they transformed to women. Cyrene,
His leading soldier, armed with spear at rest,
With seven armed attendant women—she
Gave Oeneus her king’s apology:
Her co-wife had just borne her first-born son
And Æacus would not leave either one.
Thus her calm offer of herself as priestess
Of wild Aphaea, nymph of Artemis,
And hunter of some skill—which was at least as
Useful. She was too new to know, on this
First trip from home, how Oeneus was remiss
In briefly greeting her to hurry past
And welcome blind Tiresias, just come—the last.
For his part, Meleager was impressed
By Cyrene (or rather, by the size
Of her bow) and decided it was best
To stay away. It should be no surprise
His mother liked her: in Althaea’s eyes,
The myrmidons would never catch—ahem!—
A god, not dressed like that—they weren’t femme.
That night, a banquet—with the local wine,
Supple yet strong. Next morning, Oeneus
Led wobbly experts to Laphria’s shrine
(The locals supplicated the Huntress thus)
Where they could hear the boar described, discuss,
Attempt divining signs of why, and pray.
They came to no conclusion—not that day.
The process puzzled silent Cyrene—
Weren’t solutions better than a cause?—
But she, for all her battle bravery,
Was, here, intimidated. Of human flaws,
Nothing, not even guilt, will give us pause
And make our social skills go on hiatus
As mere uncertainty about our status.
Experience, for all that habits smother,
Is all that helps us on the social side—
Hers said that ant nests never help each other.
But Æacus, her native human guide,
Had told her this was normal—for it tied
A net of obligation; when things are grim,
It’s there to catch you—and she trusted him.
She held her own that evening at the board,
But then at dawn, before the rest awoke,
She took her party tracking what the boar’d
Destroyed that night. The spoor vanished like smoke,
But traces left confusingly evoked
Titanic size. Her posse in frustration
Returned in time for more deliberation—
Which, too, was not conclusive. That night’s drinkers
Were deeply desperate, both the old and young—
And Meleager learned that, like home stinkers,
These new-met elders had critiquing tongues.
Glum Cyrene & Co. drank less—though stung
By failure more—and tracked again at crack
Of day but, learning nothing new, turned back
And faced—It. As when you cross a crest
To meet, unsought, a torrent tearing down
A cliff, the rumble shuddering your chest,
The spray and grey and green and drowned black stone
All massed to form a hallow hollow’s crown,
Feeling the spirit of the place’s roar—
Just so their awe on meeting massive boar.
The morning session was nearly done when sud-
denly—that woman—standing quite dramatic
With peplos stained by sweat—and mud—and blood—
Informed them all in tones that sounded vatic,
“I’ve seen it.” Cyrene was diplomatic,
But said in no uncertain terms what must
Be done to regain Artemis’s trust:
“The boar’s divine—it so astonished us,
It gored a hunter before we could react—”
(Just hurt, for Cyrene was valorous:
Her arrow struck its snout) ”—and does, in fact,
Belong to the Mistress of the Beasts. The pact
We have with deities must be renewed
By sacrificing back to her this godly food.”
Her firm insistence on the numinous
Convinced the skittish congress: all agreed
With her, except for one whose querulous
“But why did She—?” was trampled by stampede
Consensus. Cyrene went on, ”We’ll need
Some help—it’s strong” —which was the start bell’s ding
For Amphiaraus’ ride into the ring.
This seer (also hero known for doing)
Insisted they should ask his former band,
The Argonauts, who’d proved their strength pursuing
The Golden Fleece, to lend heroic hands:
“We could have killed this killer undermanned—
A sideline in between bit episodes—
A minor matter in our larger loads.”
Young Meleager seconded the call,
Despite his own annoyance: ’twas absurd,
How Cyrene had told these elders all
He had—and yet, with her they had concurred.
Admittedly, he hadn’t used her words
Nor came to her conclusion (which did sting),
But snitty, he’d admit to no such thing.
But any backing, even hers, to his
Proposal was a plus. Perhaps some tact
Would have been worth the effort, but with this,
His driving thought was getting Dad to act,
Advancing every argument and fact—
Though not including, as he almost said,
”I told you so.” (Tiresias did instead.)
Though not impressed by bluster, Cyrene
Agreed that they could use an Argonaut
Or two. That she replied composedly
Convinced king Oeneus perhaps he ought
To buy this line—his wild son had, he’d thought,
Inflated boar accounts—although as well,
The fact he’d paid for this advice did tell.
So invitation heralds flew again,
Dispersed upon cross-current motives—though
Our reasons always are a mess, with men
And women driven by a mixed-up blow
Of greed, ambition, leveling, and show
Of status, making causes all complex—
Though some would say they all reduce to sex.
The scattered heralds fluttered back once more
With yeas or nays per time and temperament.
Each “No” received cheered Oeneus—purse-sore,
He still had hopes of keeping what he spent
Down—but the first guest set a precedent:
His nearby in-law Iphiclus brought others
With him—to wit, Althaea’s other brothers.
These men, too young when Argo first set sail,
Now cheered their chances to achieve, to do,
To grasp heroic glory. While the hale
Plexippus gave both aid and comfort to
The boar-hurt huntress, Toxeus went to view
With Cyrene her scene of gallant action
And traced her handling with satisfaction.
Not that the latter needed appreciation
The way the former did. Though human-born,
Philylla’d come to train in her vocation
As tracker—but she’d blundered, for all she’d sworn
She’d not. There was, back home, another thorn:
She’d argued with her boyfriend re: intentions,
So liked Plexippus’s mature attentions.
Because they acted useful, Oeneus
Could reconcile relations uninvited,
Even with queen Althaea’s doting fuss
And so-called son disgracefully delighted
With his heroic kin—so while he slighted,
He still accepted them. But every day
More heroes came—each with a protegé.
Some pairs were known—such as the Spartan twins,
Castor and Polydeuces, both admired—
But many parties had unheard-of kin:
Jason and Theseus had each acquired
A new blood-brother, and they both conspired
Amid their shipmate’s reuniting hails
To hustle them inside on their cloak-tails.
It got so bad, the seers formed a pool
For betting on each morning’s parvenu:
The who, with whom, on what excusing rule—
Though no one guessed at Atalanta’s two,
Raw cousins from Arcadia. Who knew
This heroine, who seemed so stern and tough,
Had family obligations? —But enough.
Suffice to say, the guests were many more
Than Oeneus expected—plus the way
They all behaved! —their drinking through his store
Of household wines—competing at risqué
Refrains throughout the night—he had to pay
Another flute-girl for each one—and worse,
Those myrmidons. By Hades! He could curse
The day they came. While Cyrene, he granted,
Was sober, young Philylla made him curl
His fingers—no sooner up, and she enchanted
A score of men inside her flirting whirl.
That “myrmidon” (so-called) was no good girl—
And even so, she wasn’t quite as bad
As Kalonike, always hero-clad.
For she’d had just her co-wife’s solace since
Their husband had been unmanned when nearly killed,
Fighting the Minos War. His lack (don’t wince)
Left lusty Kalonike less than thrilled,
So to alleve her feeling unfulfilled
She took this chance to fling a few affairs—
Especially in man + woman pairs.
Most often + with Iphiclus, who found
In her a robust woman equal to
The drinking/singing/wenching/fighting round
That is a hero’s life—and willing, too,
Unlike prim Atalanta. It was true,
Her captain would have made a better catch,
But Cyrene stayed faithful to her match.
Stayed faithful, yes—but she did not restrain
Her hearty myrmidons. I must admit,
This former ant was only partly trained
In human ways: she saw the benefit
Of rules that steadied state, but could omit
All others; if you didn’t cheat nor fight
Nor start a war, your morals seemed all right.
And if you think this ethic codifies
Self-interest (if, at one remove, displaced),
Consider her a toddler—though this implies
She lacked a certain poise, when it’s so phrased:
When young Laertes saw Cyrene was placed
In charge, he blurted out, “How old are you—
What, nineteen? twenty?” she said calmly, “Two.”
But I anticipate things—and misstate,
For she had taken—not been given—charge
Of local huntsmen, scouting where of late
The boar habituated when at large,
For Meleager never did discharge
This task. Since ant nests are self-organizing,
Her taking up the slack is not surprising.
He skipped that chore as hero guests arrived
Each day, and Meleager couldn’t shirk
His princely role as host. Of course, he thrived
On their attentions—that was just a perk—
Like Jason’s good advice on warrior work,
Though it provoked his father to descants
Of acid on heroic sycophants.
As for the myrmidons, the bold prince kept
His cold disdain for how they all would flirt
With (almost) anyone around—except
That dangerous Cyrene, who’d not desert
Her ancient husband (why?). Besides, it hurt
To see another do his other duty,
And so he hated this effective beauty
Almost as much as Atalanta did.
For her, it wasn’t just the competition
For token heroine: their spirited
Behavior tainted her unsure position—
Though were that all, she’d deal with inhibition
With mere contempt at groupies hero-hooking,
But Cyrene was good—and worse, good-looking.
For Atalanta had been raised the son
Her father never had and hid inside
A young man’s clothing that she wasn’t one,
But here—this woman—no one thought to chide
Her liberties, even when they saw her stride
With woman’s paces through the woodland oaks
In girdled peplos and a flowing cloak.
The queen was also bothered by appearance:
These ant-girls might not catch a god, but they,
It seemed, lured sons of gods. The men’s adherence
Irked her—but when her bestest brother, say,
Was stuck to one, had he been pulled astray?
Not him. And yet—what can a hostess do?
—Beyond bemoan her daughter’s poor debut.
While mother dithered, Deianeira turned
Sniffy at men. If Kalonike’s kiss
And that Philylla’s vamping hadn’t burned
Them up, she’d’ve reaped a swathe—a trench—abyss—
Through all these heroes; with that plan a miss,
She told herself she wanted other crops—
Like Heracles, not present and the tops.
Officially, the Herc was Laboring
(The truth: he’d met a pretty Lydian
Crawling cross-dressing bars—not quite The Thing).
They missed him. His brother, hero journeyman,
Gave a short speech, requested by a fan,
Describing how he helped his twin behead
The Hydra—pointers heroes liked, which led
To others trading notes about their trade:
Informal chats at first, but as they grew
The sessions turned to panel talks that stayed
On scheduled topics till the end review—
A change that baffled veterans who knew
How Jason struggled, leading these paragons.
But then, they didn’t know the myrmidons.
For after all, until they fought the boar,
Not every myrmidon need hike the hills—
So Cyrene detached a troop of four
To organize disseminating skills
The better heroes knew—and could instill.
(Besides, she thought it’d help the girls disperse
The reputation that they were perverse.)
They posted every morning’s subject matter
With where and when to hear “The Best-Made Sword:
Tapered or Straight?”, “Five Foolproof Ways to Flatter
A Bard,” “How Minos was de-Minotaured”—
All subjects that were usefully explored,
Though usually the best advice was heard
Down in the local tavern, afterward.
The myrmidons, past-masters of emergent
Behavior, shrugged and plunged into the whir
Of setting-changed exchange; they mixed divergent
Currents of knowledge, joining in to stir
The next day’s topics with the popular
Disputes. Attendance at their panels flooded—
As did the fighting of the hotter blooded.
They also started greeting new arrivals
To co-opt what they had to add. This worked—
And caught the eyes of guys—but made them rivals
Of Meleager, who felt he’d been jerked
Around. He could accept, for all it irked,
Their taking over hunters—hosting too?
Not him—for all his father’s temper grew
Impatient: given greeter girls, he should
Go back to leading trackers. Thankfully,
His staying had rewards—he got in good
With Atalanta as both watched with glee
A moment of strained relations: Cyrene
Met stepsons Peleus and Telamon
For the first time. These princes had been gone
Fleece-fetching during Aegina’s plague/invasion;
Because they hadn’t helped, these two were rather
Defensive. Her poise cut through this hard occasion.
Though Telamon, who lived in endless pother,
Scorned this gold-digger who had trapped his father,
After a late night where the wine ran thick,
His older brother called her “quite the brick.”
The king found Telamon quite willing to hear
His myrmic grumps, if not on the panels—but then,
A hero likes discussing his career.
’Twas not so bad by day, when girls, not men,
Controlled discussion; worse was nighttime when,
Rehashing over wine, harsh words were spoken—
Especially when furniture was broken.
Which evening didn’t start out quite so rough:
At first the talk was what change changes render,
As Cyrene (who liked males well enough),
Tiresias (who, having been a bender
Between them two, inclined to either gender),
And Caeneus (woman turned to man, who hated
Them both) described their morphing and debated
Which change was for the best—which parented
Some general thoughts on change, a line of spawns
Descending to the rub that always led
To voices ringing through great megarons:
Whether this “iron” will replace sharp bronze.
When heads struck this, sparks flew and caught a riot
That took till dawn before it burnt to quiet.
From which, king Oeneus correctly deduced
Make active heroes act or they go bad;
And even Meleager was induced
By royal temper to agree they had
Enough new men to hunt next day—as Dad
Announced that night (the ninth), to cheers from all:
Both feasting heroes and servants of the hall.
The cheers went on all night. When Dawn caressed
The morning hills, the myrmidons stood waiting
With Atalanta by the kennels, pressed
About by hounds and handlers waiting
To be unleashed, —and no one else. Waiting
Two hours turned up Iphiclus, hung-over;
Till noon, a dozen—but the chance was over.
The myrmidons (except Philylla: weak)
Disgustedly went chasing after traces
Of their prey, while heroes, feeling bleak,
Crept in to work on winning back their faces
(Big loss: they worked on reputation basis).
Next morning, Dawn discovered heroes more
Engaged: awake, alert, and armed for boar.
Delay (while Oeneus looked black) for omens:
Tiresias claimed ultimate success.
Then hounds, let loose ahead of spear- and bowmen,
Nosed to the north (per trackers: not a guess)
Past boar-torn vineyards, broken terraces,
To scrub oaks and pale grasses, where—there—tracks,
Running to where it rests between attacks.
They found it in the hills above the city,
A giant tusker wounded on its snout
(Which had become infected—never pretty).
The shock and awe—its size, its might, its clout—
Of meeting it made heroes give a shout
And charge right in, abandoning positions
To rush it as a crowd of bad tacticians.
I won’t delineate the whole affair—
Others go on at length about the assault
On Artemis’s beast by men who dare,
The vaunts, the boasts, who missed and who’s at fault,
The proud Ancaeus gored, young Nestor’s vault,
The ones who ran, the injured, and the dead.
Cyrene saw it all, and shook her head.
Just one blow, Atalanta’s arrow, struck—
Grazing its shoulder (just) to pierce its ear.
Though myrmidons were organized, their luck
Was bad and didn’t make safe shots appear
Within the crowd, and so the boar was clear
To harrow rows of heroes with its tusks
And turn the finest crop of Greece to husks.
While myrmidons could not attack,
They could defend, holding a spear-set spine
Against the boar as the broken band fell back,
Protecting hurt and routed with their line
Until they could escape the deadly swine
Behind the solid city walls—retreating
To lick their wounds and snarl about the beating.
The royal family, possibly more peeved,
Withdrew their presence from the grouchy pout
As Deianeira griped, Althaea grieved,
And Oeneus just growled aloud about
Each greedy, bawling, wenching, brawling lout
And threatened their eviction now—tonight—
Two toddlers could put up a better fight.
Throughout this, Meleager didn’t know
How to respond when he himself felt sore,
But hearing husband rate her brothers so
Provoked Althaea to defend them more
Than her shocked son could—and so they tore
A dust-up that blew into a general storm.
But then, a family is a retiform—
That is, a net that’s knotted from a spread
Of crossed relationships that, when combined,
Are stronger than a friendship’s single thread—
Though ties that hold are also ties that bind;
Pluck this string, that one resonates in kind,
For good or ill—as Meleager learned
When years of marital frustrations burned.
His raging parents’ pent-up accusations
Drove Meleager to the hall, where he
Ran into something even worse: dictations
On how tomorrow’s well-run hunt would be
Conducted, from the most heroically
Experienced. He seethed, but had the wit
To know he had no choice but to submit.
Though he negotiated one small change:
For he, though this cabal was Jason-led,
Believed that Cyrene had here arranged
This new humiliation—so instead
Of in the center, myrmidons were spread
Out in the wings with those who’d drive the quarry
Towards men who’d kill it, getting greater glory.
And then he got away again. This was,
As far as Meleager was concerned,
The worst day of his life, not least because
His uncles helped to kindle the coup—which burned.
He finally found the comfort that he’d earned
Quite late, in blind Tiresias’s arms.
(’Twas nice to hear that he indeed had charms.)
Dawn dawned. The heroes knew this day would be
Their time to do or fail. The soldier sense
That there is nothing of divinity
In what they sought to slaughter, a pretense
Of just a target, was their best defense
In this attack—and so, before they started,
Together they drilled at living harden-hearted.
This exercise gave trackers time to trail
The scattered drops of blood—still hard for pros—
From the boar’s bleeding ear. In a damp swale,
They found, surrounded, baited it with blows
Upon its tender still-infected nose,
Until they drove it in their killing zone:
A grove of grounded spears, butts closely sown.
With giant beady eyes, it gauged this mere
Death-trap, then charged what seemed the weakest place
And deeply gouged itself upon the spear
That Meleager held—and tusk to face,
The prince held on. It staggered. In that space,
The wounds then came so fast, they couldn’t know
Who in the end delivered the killing blow.
“Couldn’t,” and not just “didn’t,” was not surprising
Given their spears had met the numinous,
Which mazes minds—like a hushed fog rising
Shuts senses—leaving just the tremulous
Experience. While goddess animus
Was prep’d for offering, the band refracted
Upon the start, not end, of how they acted,
Thus: Meleager got credit for the kill.
Yes! —but in thanks for being named their peer,
Magnanimous praise was needed for good will,
So he gave co-credit to Atalanta here,
Claiming of all the wounds, the bleeding ear
That led them to it was the useful one.
And thus an uglier battle was begun.
His uncle Toxeus made the first objection:
“But surely the infected snout did more
For our success!” —a startled interjection
That prompted others to promote a score
Of later deeds. They’d have just sniped and swore
If only heroes had expressed protests,
But nephew/uncles? —that’s a family mess,
And internecine makes things worse by far.
Finally forced to choose, Althaea chose
Berating brothers for their non-avuncular
Attacks—a poking in of outside nose
That polarized the heroes from their rows
Of separate claims, to line up to defend
One helper, either from the start or end.
The prince, shocked by his uncles’ opposition—
’Twas almost like they feuded to profane
His joy in his heroic recognition—
Suffered from this fresh injury more pain
Than even Oeneus’s old disdain,
Which was familiar—if increasing now.
Resentment smoldered—choked—he’d show them how.
For Atalanta and Meleager both,
Each vote for her was taken now as personal
Approval, justifying an overgrowth
Of fine disdain for myrmidonic gall.
Their attitude was so ungenial
That Theseus reversed his inclination
Solely to see them squawk in indignation.
Indeed, as usual for politics,
Support for either heroine derived
Not just from merits, but a motive mix
Of biases and where self-interest thrived:
That Cyrene herself had not connived
(She knew her worth) at honor made a few
Decide she’s unheroic—snooty, too.
Before the sacrificial carcass burned
Upon the altar, all of them had sided
Without consensus. His troubles, the king learned,
Hadn’t expired with the boar, but bided:
Of all the family, he was undecided
Because he spent an equal effort snarling
At myrmidon and Meleager’s darling.
That all his family had turned partisan
Made him more prickly: How could they endorse
This check upon his will as king and man?
What strength drawn from these myrmic bitches forced
This challenge? Rational, no—though of course
We blame the trigger when events go wrong,
And not the flaws exposed, there all along.
But neither did he like the hunting tart,
Ally of trumped-up son—and overwrought.
The king’s ambivalence of hating heart
Gave Amphiaraus an analogic thought
For how to break the stasis that had them caught,
Viz, ask for judgment from a man who was
Equally (im)partial: Tiresias.
The seer’s biases were opposite
The king’s: on hunting days he’d comforted
Philylla in her bed, while nights he’d flit
Between whichever heroes could be led
To sleep with someone old but spirited—
This easy switcher claimed that he was gay,
But as a man or woman, wouldn’t say.
Because he’d bedded many (if not the leads)
From either side, supporters could adduce
A preference for their claim, and so agreed.
He tried to buck them off on some excuse,
But still was harnessed judge and not let loose—
Indeed, his bridle had a social bit:
Consensus forced the king to live by it.
Not happily, of course—that first suggestion
Of Amphiaraus hadn’t been too hot,
And whether ’twas worthwhile was still in question—
But somehow helpful myrmidons had got
Alloyed agreement tempered from this lot,
So king and seer joined. The latter grumped:
He hadn’t seen this coming till it’d jumped.
He used the wiliness that is the guide
Of senior seers, and made a quick decision,
Awarding Atalanta the boar’s hide
And Cyrene both ears and tail—a scission
Admired just as much for its concision
As ambiguity: you will, I trust,
Believe that everyone was left nonplussed.
A “left” that’s literal: Tiresias
Decamped for home, even while boar smoke rose
To gratify the goddess. ’Tis a guess
That deities are where what’s offered goes,
But while it’s true that no one ever knows
A god’s been mollified, no further beasts
Appeared—and that was good enough for feasts.
The trophied heroines both hurriedly
Followed the seer off—the one to hand
Her father proof she’s worthy, Cyrene
To ask her king why things went worse than planned,
How she and the myrmidons in her command
Could have avoided the botch they’d catalyzed.
He’d know the way, or she would be surprised.
The heroes all concurred, and got away
To salve, somehow, their new employment woes,
For civil wars are not quite worth the pay—
Not when the royal family raged as foes,
Even the quiet queen: When threats arose,
She promised her brothers that if they pursue
Her son, well, she could play with fire too.
At least the family fighting was, at first,
Confined within the palace walls (thank Fate!),
Which let the countryside repair the worst
Unhindered. Left alone and drinking late,
King Oeneus stayed up to calculate
Whether having divine displeasure cease
Was worth the price of his domestic peace.
by Jaime Lee Moyer
You come of age at sixteen and
Princes petition your father
for the right to woo you.
He lets them try,
old and young,
dark as leather and cave fish pale,
willing to let you choose
as your mother chose him.
Some men arrived with gifts in hand
or glib words for conversation,
hoping charm might win your favor
or a dance might sway your heart.
One fair-haired Prince offered
sweet roses still bearing thorns
and when one pierced your finger,
he smiled, whispered your name
and kissed the blood away.
You shivered and
lost yourself in his eyes,
but he leaves the ball early.
You never learn where he's gone.
• • •
The first time
you awaken on a staircase
that leads to ballrooms and
your father's audience hall,
grey-veined marble cool
beneath your cheek.
And you shake off dreams of an
hourglass shattering on a spindle,
and silky white sand
sliding through your bloody fingers,
and hurry back to your rooms
before anyone can see.
• • •
The blush of dawn
begins to frighten you,
but the fall of night
leaves you hollow with dread.
You never remember rising
from your curtained bed,
a phantom waif clad in white
wandering the sleeping palace,
unable to remember how you came
to rest in stables,
storerooms or your mother's solar,
or how you found your way
to the base of the witch's haunted tower,
scrabbling to open a door sealed
long before you were born.
You only remember waking
cold and afraid,
barefeet tucked up inside
your lacy nightdress,
and a voice that whispered stay away,
while another bid you come.
• • •
The shadows under your eyes
ripen day by day,
grow dusky as summer plums
in the palace gardens.
And you begin to hear
your ladies in waiting
mutter of enchantment,
of traps and lures
and spells that have never
known a woman's touch.
That night you find a posey
at your bedside,
charms under your pillow and
tucked into the wardrobe,
gifts, women's magic
spun with the hope
of protecting you.
Your mother means to sleep
across your threshold,
but your father names it foolishness
and orders her to come away.
Their quarrel is bitter.
• • •
New dreams call you to a tower room
a briar-bed of red and yellow roses,
the floor littered with petals
crushed under a man's boot,
the aroma of roses making
your head spin and your eyes close.
And you break an hourglass
on the point of the witch's spindle,
shards of glass you meant
as a threat slicing your shaking hand,
No! a roar in your head
but a whisper on your tongue.
The fair-haired Prince cleaves to you,
his voice silky as sand
sliding through your fingers,
the spell he casts pulling
you closer to the well
of darkness in his eyes.
Silence smothers you,
but not before you hear
the witch's spindle scream.
• • •
Some spells are forever dreams,
meant to keep the Princess trapped
in a rose-strewn tower;
others whisper words of anger and
revenge until the Princess stirs.
And when you finally awaken,
lips sticky with the taste
of kisses you can't recall,
you heed the spindle's whisper and
pierce the sleeping Prince's heart.
by Kristine Ong Muslim
The First Stranger
He was not claiming to be the messiah.
“Think of me as a door-to-door salesman,”
he said, “with things to offer—most of them
you do not need.”
He smiled. His faded
jeans, wrinkled; his face,
shaved clean, reeked
of gasoline when he leaned closer.
I opened the door,
let him in.
He came from another place, insisted
that he could tweak our eyes so we could
see much better. I believed him;
he had brought my next-door neighbor
back to life.
“You are beautiful creatures,” he went on,
“only limited. But I can help you with your vision,
make you see things beyond your visible range.”
And he did. It only hurt when he grazed
the optic nerves. He said that pain was all right,
that it could not exist in the memory,
that it was just there for the moment.
He told me to open my eyes, and all I saw
was darkness. “You blinded me,”
I said. “No,” he said, chuckled.
“Look closely. There are certain colors
interspersed with the black.”
Filmy, mottled swatches shifted
across the blackness.
All the colors were unfamiliar,
unnatural yet they looked as if
they had always existed.
And, oh, how the darkness sang.
The Second Stranger
In street corners, he brandishes
his Almanac for us to see.
Out of the pages, pictures
of our lives—the past and the future—
scar us forever. Unwanted memory
holds us back, and the second stranger
knows this. Tailored to assail,
the photographs appear
differently to each person.
He even hints
at the secret last pages,
the ones which depict our deaths.
Every day, the crowd around him grows.
Nothing much has happened afterwards.
We continue to gather around him;
the rest of the world follow—
the airports, the terminals, the roads
are filled with men, women, children,
their family pets pawing at closed car doors.
And looking closely at the second stranger
while he shows us another page,
I notice the beginnings of a smile
curling from his lips.
The Third Stranger
She claimed to be
the mother of the oceans.
We laughed at her
until she opened her mouth,
and we heard
the rush of the waves,
the sloshing of a thousand fishes.
In her breath was the smell of brine.
The Fourth Stranger
… a thing that was neither dark nor light nor colored with any known
—from ”The Dimension Of Chance” by Clark Ashton Smith
She builds mazes using sacred standing stones
to trap trespassers in, paints the stones with
paranoia—the ground pigments sifted through
a temperamental sieve called time.
She lines the coasts with white flecks
of sand and golden shells to leave a trail
for migrating birds, dying turtles and kelps,
genetically tampered game fishes,
and hermit crabs. The tides cannot wash
these subtle landmarks away. In deserts,
she sculpts dunes and oases, mirages
and thunderheads. In grasslands and forests,
she digs sinkholes and quicksands mixed
with star dusts and ancient bacterial spores—
the same curse that has made her
sleepless, inattentive to the procession
of the lost. All the exit signs point to
an imaginary north, cling to her promise
of deliverance. Her hands are always busily
retouching this and that, and this is the reason
why sunsets recur, why erosion takes many
years to accomplish its purpose. She even
freezes time so that every thing changes, slips
across the space around it, creates an illusion
that the landscape changes as she goes by.
The Fifth Stranger
Trapped inside our captor’s ribcage,
I sang with the other prisoners.
The yellowing bones were encrusted
with mold and something malodorous,
something which gave off a horrible light.
We licked them to stay alive.
The fifth stranger had long ago lost his heart.
His entrails were eaten by the first captives.
He had nothing to lose now.
Crying, we watched while he trampled the cities
and small towns. A satisfying smack thundered
with every crunch of flattened roadkill under his feet.
The fifth stranger staggered towards the sea.
He lapped at the water.
We wished that he would empty his mouth
of those stolen drops of ocean.
We were all waiting to drown.
The Sixth Stranger
The sixth stranger prowled the deserts.
It encountered the burning elephants walking on stilts.
The rocks, all sun-baked and perverted, swallowed their ashes.
The sixth stranger stomped on them. A trail
of ashes lost in his wake. The rocks shapeshifted behind him.
He held his worshippers’ heads down the shallow water
of an oasis. Flailing and gasping, they did not take too long
to die. It did not satisfy him.
The Ninth Stranger
We cornered the ninth stranger in the dump.
She was crouching beside the
rubber tires and an upended couch.
Somebody prodded her with a shovel.
She opened her mouth, and the unborn
strangers scrambled out of her throat—
the doorway, my grandmother said.
One of the elders was quick enough to strike
her neck with an ax. Her head did not fall
down cleanly. It took another swing.
We cut her up. She did not bleed
when sliced open, was all flesh
and bone. Her entrails had long ago
been eaten by what she had let in
to grow inside her body.
Her limbs we left by the lake
for the pilgrims to find.
Her torso we took home for the boys.
The Tenth Stranger
The tenth stranger’s voice
is on all the radio frequencies.
Every dial we turn, every bandwidth
where static is supposed to be heard
has his words, his mutterings
of our dark secrets on it.
What he says sounds differently
to every person. Mine is always about
how I resented my brother, coveted his wife,
poisoned his daughter. Then my favorite
bedtime story, the one about the children
who followed the Piper home.
Day after day, the tenth stranger
talks to me, to every one.
In car radios, on the phones,
on every record played on the stereo.
Each time he orders us to be free, to molt away
our skins, to bleed our finger stumps open,
to be in pain, in pain, in pain
so that we will understand how it is to be alive.
And many years later, one by one, we obey.
The Eleventh Stranger
The eleventh stranger shielded the sun from us.
We did not know how far his foot was anchored
down or how far up his head had broached the universe.
Calculations indicated that he was standing,
his hand curled around the sun.
That blackened behemoth.
That faceless apocalypse.
We sent warships to destroy that fist,
claim back our sun as the planet began
to turn colder each hour.
The thermonuclear weapons produced
blisters on the eleventh stranger’s skin.
But we did not have enough energy to make more
of those; we could not even heat our homes enough.
We waited, frozen in our beds.
And the hand around the sun
remained in place.
The Twelfth Stranger
The twelfth stranger was the train
that dragged and ferried our souls.
It had been chugging across the
continent, snatching souls and leaving
the husks to crumple by the roadsides.
The bodies collapsed like bundles
of sticks. I had seen one on TV.
On the train windows, the news had said,
were wide-eyed faces. They must not
have known what had happened to them.
The government urged every one
to go to remote mountainous locations,
away from flat lands where the
twelfth stranger could easily move,
turn its despicable wheels,
trample every thing on its way.
The Thirteenth Stranger
The stray angel.
He hides his wings under
the darkest of cloaks.
He will not show them
even to his disciples.
He conjures storms, creates
gamma rays from plastic spoons,
magnetic blocks from wood,
and a perpetual motion machine—
a pretty little thing, not even supposed
to exist in four dimensions. He lets us
peer into the heart of that device,
where its cogs intersect the void.
We are building a temple
for the thirteenth stranger.
It will have the tallest church spire
pointing high up in the heavens.
The Fourteenth Stranger
The fourteenth stranger was the carcass
we pulled from the lake. When the air
touched its wounds, it started to heal itself,
became bloated until it split open the body bag
which contained it. It gobbled half a town
and grew to the size of a three-storey house.
Would not even spit out the bones of its kill.
We led it to a trap, let it creep under the bridge
where the bombs were wired in strategic places.
We did blow the fourteenth stranger apart,
but every piece of it—the shredded raw meat
coating the pavement, the stalled buses and cars,
and the sides of the buildings facing the bridge—
began to stir, crawled towards us.
The guzzling could be heard for miles.
The Fifteenth Stranger
He came to life from a mound of sticks
and ashes from the barbeque grill.
It was only much, much later that he
had grown lips from intertwined twigs.
Then he began to smooth-talk,
and how the girls of spring swooned.
All the women made of leaves and tree bark
were split open to reveal their roots.
The fifteenth stranger tilled an orchard
where his wives grew. The worms
nuzzled their feet whenever he was away.
Versions of “The Stranger” poems have appeared
in the following publications:
“The First Stranger,” Abyss & Apex. Reprinted in The
Best of Abyss & Apex Vol. One (Hadley Rille Books, November
“The Second Stranger,” Noneuclidean Café.
“The Third Stranger,” Midrash (A Not One of Us Special
“The Fourth Stranger,” The Lorelei Signal.
“The Fifth Stranger,” Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine.
“The Sixth Stranger,” Cemetery Moon.
“The Ninth Stranger,” Oddlands Magazine. Reprinted in Anomalous
Appetites (Preshrunk Press, March 2009).
“The Tenth Stranger,” Kaleidotrope.
“The Eleventh Stranger,” OG’s Speculative Fiction.
“The Twelfth Stranger,” Polluto.
“The Thirteenth Stranger,” The Shantytown Anomaly.
“The Fourteenth Stranger,” Polluto.
“The Fifteenth Stranger,” The Shantytown Anomaly.
“The Last Stranger,” Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine.