Ganymede

The following poem is the first of three poems that comprise a "prequel" to Homer's Iliad. Don't be daunted: this is a love poem about a young man abducted by an eagle, who turns out to the the Olympian god Zeus. Ovid devotes only a few stanzas to this story, one of the most-painted and most-sculpted episodes in all Greek Myth. It is related to Troy, since the boy's father is the precursor of the Kings of Troy. I weave it all together in a Shelleyan manner. This was published in 1991, and when it appeared in a British magazine, the journal was seized by the authorities. For the upcoming 20th Anniversary edition of my book, Poems from Providence, I have revised the Ganymede poems. Here is Part One, which stands alone as a rhapsodic poem about the Alternate Lifestyles of the Gods. By the way, the Greeks approved of this kind of behavior and emulated it: although Zeus's girlfriends were usually hunted down by jealous Hera and either killed or turned into animals or inanimate objects, Ganymede is still up there, the favored cup-bearer, known to us as "Aquarius."


1
Night after night the pack of wolves came down
to stalk and ravage the peaceful flocks. Rams
fled and bellowed, ewes wailed while white lambs fell
and blood, black in the moonlight, stained the rocks.
Teeth gnashed at tender necks, bellies gave way
to serpent-sprawling innards, torn apart.
Dark silhouettes dragged limbs, ribs and gore
off to their own awaiting young ones. “Likos!”
the wolf-cry, made the blood run cold,
Likos” made mothers reach for children,
elders to run for gorse-piles to increase
the fire that kept the hungry ones at bay.

At dawn, in cover of iron-gray clouds,
the men set out to find the lupine lairs,
hoping to slay the mothers and cubs,
then track and destroy the rest of the pack.
Never had so many wolves run wild;
never had so many flocks ’round Ilion
suffered such losses repeatedly,
as though a new kind of night-beast,
wily as man himself, strode on long legs,
feeding with jaws that never seemed
to fill a belly, as though they killed for sport,
Likos, then, or likanthropos
the wolves that once were human?

The chief's son, young Ganymede,
too young to hunt, too gentle and kind
for the ways of killing,
remained at the shelter-cave with the women.
Tros took his nephews,
leaving his own son to guard the clan mothers,
the virgin sisters, the incoherent babes.
One torch at cave-mouth would be enough,
for no beast dared a burning brand.

All day, no enemies appeared.
Had not his mother thirsted for spring-fresh
water, had she not sent him with empty pouch
to the hillside source
(oh, as she later rued it!)
nothing might have happened.

But one low-hanging cloud which spread
from Ilion’s walls to these high shepherd crags
was no mere storm — it was a god,
the dozing presence of Zeus himself,
who sometimes sleepwalks, unmoored from Olympus,
drifting from Hellas to the ends of Ocean,
or grazing the firetips of spouting Oeta,
or waking at the bruise of Caucasus,
scattering beneficent rain and the random strokes
of hubris-guided fire to some impious target.
Had not the thunder god awakened then
and seen the slender boy, filling the pouch
from the patient trickle of rock-pure water
(oh, how they wept and rued it!)
nothing might have happened.

2
The boy felt the tense of lightning poise.
His reddish hair stood on the nape of his neck,
his ivory skin, his eye-whites luminous.
He froze when the cloud unveiled itself —

A terrible eye regarded him
     from the black moil of suspended rain —
a place of cerulean blue, windless and calm,
the all-perceiving eye of the son of Cronus.

In one rock-rending thunderclap
     the heavens shattered.
The bowl of sky-clouds spiraled in,
the self-annihilating storm
consumed itself —

3
                    For that immaterial
blink-out the heir of Titans nearly ceased:
the strength to make a storm
was but the night sweat of his stupor,
the strength to stop one
a nearly impossible act of will
for even the hoary father of Olympus.
He caught his breath, feared
that the quake might tremble the arms
suspending the Earth from Chaos —

And then he hovered there, vast hawk
over hapless sparrow, assuming eagle spread
and talon grasp to assure the taking.
He pitied the tiny boy, frozen in his shadow.

No one had ever done this to Zeus —
no love at first sight for Io and Semele
(the prayers of suitors to Eros had scented
them out and lured a curious deity,
misunderstood by goddesses, to sample
the charms of mortal womanhood.)

But this was only a shepherd boy,
sprung from the loins of the chieftain Tros,
unsung in any lover’s plea, a boy
whose beauty would bloom
for an instant as dew on hyacinth
or frost upon a frozen bowl —
a face, an eye, a cheek, a brow
so great as to transfix the storm
and make the mid-day Phaeton
     stumble in his headlong course.

Beauty too soft for marble, subtle for wood,
too unrepeatable to risk to memory,
too human to transform to star or shrubbery:
Ganymede, a happy accident of nature,
spared by the Fates until this imperious peak
of his brief, unnoticed existence.

4
It was worth the wrath of Hera
and the mockery of the wine-drunk gods.
“Zeus with a boy? A stripling boy!
Poor child, he’ll waste away on arid Olympus,
turn to a withered ancient while Zeus
forgets him in one of his longer slumbers.”

To their astonishment, the Titan forfeits sleep,
sends to the boy each dawn a cup
of nectar and a slice of Pomona’s apples.

5
He summons the troupe of ageless gods,
puts on his grey-beard visage and says:
“None but Ganymede shall bear this cup,
none but Ganymede shall serve me wine,
     and his the hands that pour clear water.
None but Ganymede shall turn the clouds
on which I rest and forge my thunder.
One tithe of my lot of immortal life I give
so that this boy will never age. His voice
will stay at the threshold of manhood,
his locks unshorn, his beard withheld.
He shall not shed even the salt of a tear,
immutable in my affections, semidivine,
safe from the envy of goddesses.
Let him attend me always.”

As seal of his oath, great Zeus displays
the form of Ganymede among the elder worlds,
joining the sun-path zodiac, the faithful boy,
star-striding Aquarius.


6
Ganymede feared the eagle.
He was relieved when great Zeus came to him
as the gray-beard god, almost a grandfather.
He came again in shepherd’s robes,
younger by decades than before, hugged him
with great arms like a loving father.
Zeus laughed, then leaped into a waiting cloud,
his ever-ready tapestries and anterooms.
That night, he returned to the boy
     as a handsome youth,
fringed with first beard, tightened
     with muscle on arm and calf.
The boy did not resist, but let his hand
touch the hard lines of the lover’s chest,
slipped to his knees in terror and awe,
not breathing when the athlete’s body
     covered him,
thrilled with the priapic thrust against
     his loins,
not caring that a seedburst could cinder him,
not fearing the rending of flesh by godhood.

And there was no pain — the ardent god
gave him, and took, a thousand pleasure strokes,
and every one was joy to both of them.
No one has ever been raped by a god.

7
Zeus steals again to look at the sleeping boy.
At last there is a question he cannot answer,
a riddle whose solving no manner of trickery
or Titan bluster can achieve. He asks himself:
Suppose I withhold a month of apples
from Ganymede? Suppose I let him age
just that much more? It maddens me
to hold a perfect Ganymede if Ganymede
plus Time were yet more perfect still.

The god turns sleepless on his mountain peak,
frozen between beauty and a mystery.

8
Ganymede thinks only of Zeus.
No one could imagine a greater joy.
And yet his delicate fingers shake
as he takes the green-peeled apple.
He puts it down on the golden tray,
looks at his blushing cheeks
     reflected there,
his hair still tousled by passion,
his lesser size, his frailer limbs.
He wonders: if I refuse the gift,
and let but one day’s aging pass.
If I were older, fuller, stronger —
would Zeus love me better?

The boy turns sleepless in his sheltered bed,
frozen between love and uncertainty.

9
Hera paces outside the banquet hall.
Each night the men gods revel there:
Hephaestus, Apollo, blood-stained Ares,
Hades with his burning gaze, tide-worn
     Poseidon.
Each night they sing more merrily,
trade dangerous boasts about the Titan wars
as if Tartarus held no sleepers,
wax even stronger in their tales of love
for maids, and goddesses — and mortal boys.
Each night they leave, brawling with shields
and swords and tridents and staffs,
down to the waiting chariot hall,
until the room holds none but Zeus and Ganymede,
Ganymede and Zeus. For months, the goddesses
have been ignored and shunned.
Now Hera, the lawful mistress of marriages,
of love and hearth-fire parentage,
is banished to the kitchen of the gods,
the weaving room, the tending
of her temples. How long, she asks,
how long will this Olympian dalliance
preoccupy the lord of the gods?

10
I like to think of the gods still banqueting,
how they all came to love young Ganymede,
how Zeus neglected his Olympian rites
and ceased to trouble with the squabbling of gods.

I like to think of this summer storm
as the rolling of cloud from their lovers’ bed,
as the never-tiring spark of their passion
rejuvenates this earth of forgotten temples.

I like to think of a joy that never dies,
of a beauty that never fades,
of a god’s love transforming a boy,
of all manner of love enthroned
     and noble at last,
of love oaths written with stars.

11
I stand in the sorrowing wastes of Ilion.
By an eternal spring, I raise my cup,
in the shade of a lonely apple tree.
An eagle takes wing from a distant crag.
My heart cries: Ganymede!


Comments

  1. Wonderful poems! You ought to submit these to Assaracus, a fine new gay poetry journal named after Ganymede's younger brother; they have seven poems of mine in their next issue, and have no problem with including poems that have previously appeared on a personal website. Check them out here:
    http://siblingrivalrypress.com/assaracus/

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