Prometheus on Fifth Avenue
This is one of the first poems I wrote on arriving in New York City many years ago. Its early versions were a little imprecise: I think it is sharper and clearer in this revision. St. Patrick's Cathedral was then a soot-covered haven of religiosity, and I loved the gilded paganism of Prometheus as the antithesis to Jesus -- both suffered, but Prometheus suffered for a purpose and requires no sacrifices or groveling on our part. I was quite besotted with Shelley at this point, so the rebellious spirit of "Prometheus Unbound" is here too. I would come back to this story just a few years ago with my longish poem "Prometheus Chained."
One kind of hero draws no veils,
no fainting ladies, hides not
in St. Patrick’s, binds no virgins
to their rosaries,
shuns candles and goes naked
down Fifth Avenue.
Bronze fleshed, he walks
unnoticed, sees the morning
flush of fire on windows half-mile high,
ignored by cold-eyed men,
oblivious girls, the passing eyes in
buses bent on headlines, paperbacks.
At the peak of mob-time, he stops.
He and the sun flash gold together.
Here’s Rockefeller Center.
Above a pagan tree a-lit with lights,
atop an ice rink decked with world-flags
he is astonished to see himself.
One gleaming statue rises, words
in stone to celebrate Prometheus
are carved behind/
Two gaudy spinsters
cross the plaza, way to Mass. One frowns
at the sculpture’s nakedness, its leap
from earth to challenge the heavens.
“I think it’s not heroic at all,
why put that nude and vulgar carving
right over our beautiful Christmas tree?
I mean, if it’s a god, isn’t a god
supposed to suffer?”
“He has always been there, my dear,”
the platinum harpy rejoined,
“That’s Saint Prome-something.
They nailed him good, right onto a rock,
left him for birds in the sun.”
Then he died?”
“I think he suffered a very long time.”
“Why did he?
What did he do?”
“He died for someone’s
sins, I’m sure. Just like Jesus. I read it all
in The Book of Saints, with the Sisters.
There’s just no other way to be a hero.”
“Saint Prome? Saint Prome? I think it’s
coming back to me now, Matilda.
I think they named an orphan’s home or —”
fled the place, flew on a swift wind
to Caucasus, climbed the purple mountain,
stood high on a snowcap, blasted by wind,
greeted the deathless vengeance of Zeus, hurled
himself from cliff to cliff, rose unwounded,
cursed, crying the wrath of the last hero.