Ilya Gutner lives together with his wife in a farmer’s backshed in a place on the city outskirts of Shanghai where he has divided the village by pact and handshake between himself and an eleven-year-old boy expelled from school for being naughty; was once himself expelled from one university and quit another; feeds three domestic cats together with two wild ones; has a loose following of village dogs; and makes himself to be a student of philosophy.
To the memory of E.R. Dodds.
– Going round about, and high and low.
The angel Satan’s answer in the Book of Job.
What is all the world of things when in the heart is sorrow?
It is much: the goats on Athos and over the Argive Plain
the extending sunset one would not know how to put in words
and the fact itself that men did put in words this beauty,
put in ancient words which live again
whenever a poet says:
Goats upon Athos, sunset on the Argive Plain.
One night I overheard the ghost of E.R. Dodds
mumbling these things like a mantra to itself
in an obscure corner of an old brick home by Xu Jia Hui,
the edge of the French Quarter in Shanghai,
where there lives a retired old doctor who believes
that in the sky is air and nothing else,
and it is onions, onions,
onions that save against the deadly bat-meat flu.
In that house they lock the windows every night
but the lock is broken on the door.
In that house they keep a book
for informing the authorities about the date and hour
of each sound of laughter in the dark.
In that house for the whole month of April
which I guess was the whole month of March
we lived in a room so narrow
that the only light that came in was from God.
And I asked,
Lord, but what has Dodds done to earn this judgment
to remain in that piss-smelling corner of that dead old home,
Dodds who saw the Buddha’s Glory climbing up the mountain in Tibet
and who met the bear when climbing in New York,
and, once, had heard himself pray to you in despite himself
benighted in a high place in the dark?
And the Lord God answered,
blessed be his Name,
Have you not heard of fighting spiritual evil in high places?
Or can you answer me what that house of the dead has done
to earn to be the humbling-place of Dodds
to free him from the earnest sadness of himself,
the sadness of the prison of the serious self,
in his reward for that one hour of prayer from the heart
up on the unknown mountain when the tackle gave out in the dark?
Myth of the golden Aphrodite
Ποικιλόθρον᾽ ὰθάνασσ᾽ ᾽Αφροδιτα
– First line of Sappho’s hymn to Aphrodite
Yes, we are the Scythians! Yes, we are the Asians,
The ones with slanted and with greedy eyes!
– Alexander Blok.
You have not met Mia Wallace?
– Pulp Fiction.
The people came to Homer and they said:
We the people
except for one thing.
Ajax had to kill himself because he was insane.
Odysseus had to kill the suitors
because they had it coming.
Also Earthshaker Poseidon, whose name sounds like a trembling of the chimes
and rumbling of the spheres, turned the ship of those Phaeacians into stone
because they had it coming, too,
for helping people whom he wants to hurt.
And then as well the sea
is called the wine-dark sea
because we drink the good dark wine from childhood
in order not to suffer from sea-sickness
when we come forth young pirates on the sea
and make a dashing nation in the ages.
But why is she the golden Aphrodite?
Why did you have to name her golden? Is it,
O, is it not because she costs her weight in gold?
The epic poet Homer answered them these words:
You are all very good people,
all of you without exception;
but that is not the reason why.
It is not a good wise reason
why she should be the golden Aphrodite
because it is the reason of a fool to hear
to speak which tastes of youth,
of youth and chance,
not age and wisdom.
O, once I knew a woman
whose walk was slow and dark like bitter wine
when kings drink peace in secret meaning war
poured slowly into cups of beaten gold,
a scorching wine, an evil wine of madness
like the clear flame the Scythians drink for courage.
The jealous Muse forbids me to remember
her name while I remember her slow walk,
her walk as long as I can call her name to memory;
and that is what I call her, Aphrodite.
In the days when Homer was alive on Earth
the people all continuously asked him:
We understand everything
about Achilles and the Trojan War,
about Penelope’s experience with the suitors,
about the big old Cyclops and his little sheep,
about the wanderings of god-like
god-opposed Odysseus, but,
but why, why, why did you call her the Golden Aphrodite
if women’s lips are pink
and if their eyes are brown
and if they dress in white,
Them blind-eyed Homer answered thus:
I, too, have often had these thoughts.
What makes her,
o, what and what and what,
makes her the golden Aphrodite?
They say she sits upon a many-colored throne
and this makes sense:
as numerous many as the eyes of Hera’s peacock
were we to paint the colors in our thoughts
of each ill deed men do for female woman
would be the colors of them. But why gold,
why golden Aphrodite? Is it,
O, is it just because she costs her weight in gold?
Or is it gold the thing which the most violent men compete for?
Just what does it all mean and why?
If I knew why I sing, good people, I would tell you
and not hold back the truth,
that dark gold is the color of a voice,
a woman’s voice whose name the jealous Muses
who sing the truth and also not the truth
delight in telling me in tones of silver laughter,
each time I hear them speak with shapely cadence
and fitting metaphors, it is no name,
no name of mine I ever need have known,
no name at all in common with my song.
Or is it for her eyes like pure gold which
bends winningly beneath rough fingers
and dominates with its own softness
the hardest, the indomitable heart?
Or for the fretted strings under her fingers
of human consciousness, man’s conscience,
which make a golden music out of shame,
impatient, hurried, false-eyed goings-on?
There is a simple and not shallow truth
that time is that which passes
and is gone.
The body does not last and in some years
your beauty will be faded
as not now.
Anacreon once held two black-eyed elbows
and buried his bald head between the nipples:
that kiss lives to this day and she
who kissed him is still young as day
and bright as dawn considered as to beauty.
But if you grudge the sweetness of your breasts
to buy the love of half a day that offers,
ten years of days
will steal from you that treasure
which you were saving only for yourself.
δ A Horatian joke
Poetry is words in freedom
as naked as a temple dancer
of the old Near Eastern godhead
whose many names all mean destruction
visited by woman unto man.
I will not cause a false god to be named but
I speak about the temple dancer, not the goddess,
the female dancer with the string of bloodstones,
wild pearls and onyxes about her waist.
Poetry is also without clothing,
a shamelessness of selfishness which never,
not ever in the world goes dressed in language
other than the body of its words.
From girlhood she has been a temple dancer,
her lifetime’s only clothing that one string of rubies,
black pearls and onyx stones as chosen
by her own self according to her taste.
When it is time to die because her body
through pregnancy or laziness or age no longer
moves in the girdle without cuts and bruises,
the eunuch priests will eat her boiled alive.
Poetry in this post: © Ilya Gutner
Published with the permission of Ilya Gutner