ACHILLES WALKS THE BEACHES
The Iliad, 24.1-16These mornings, while my men sprawl beneath dead
stars, their dreams unarmed, I trawl gray sand and sky
for my tall boy. I stalk the stark sea, the black sails—
in the dark, I shadow Dawn, lest she bloody the beach
with light before I can find and touch the grain, the drop,
the ground where your glory resides. Patroclus,
surely your brawling heart bides somewhere near my hands:
in the shoreline gored by spears, knives, my pacing tread;
in the waves that slowly lap the ships to threads;
in the salt the moon washes back to Thessaly.
Fair Thessaly—a realm palled and failed
as the love shades bear for the living,
love which has no rest, no home, no gain.
Thessaly without you, Patroclus, lies slain,
its cliffs mauled by the assailing blue. It is no more
noble than this galled plain, which Helios gilds
so that men believe they fight for gold,
not land that they will never own. Poor Ilium—
when set beside your bright hair, my warrior,
how dull it seems; how dim its king’s howls,
its white walls, its bereaving fires.
And yet in this dark, when only kites and jackals
share my untired watch, I could almost pity it;
while the living and the light both cleave
to sleep, I could almost rest
my mouth against the city’s eaves
in hopes of touching you within one stone.
One stone, and I could turn away—alone,
awake, I crawl the sands, and I nearly believe.
But I do not steal to the city. Nor do I slumber.
I shine my greaves. I mend my helmet’s strap.
I watch flies plunder bowls of wine
I can’t remember pouring. I watch them drown.
And before Dawn skewers everything with light,
I plead the Muses for one grace:
that blood not be the only song that’s sung of you.
But Patroclus, my dagger and my harp—
the laughing gods bark and spar,
the pantheon warring in my throat
so that I cannot cry aught but battle;
though the shields of all Troy’s armies shatter
behind my eyes, only Pallas Athena is kind.
Now behold the thundering Achilles:
I am a captured ship, a sundered citadel,
a lioness whose pride is torn apart.
Before my men awake and see me here,
before day drives a shaft again into my eye,
I do for you what I know, and what I can.
I whet my spear. I clean my sword.
I pace and curse the Dawn, and Priam’s land.
Patroclus, my pyre, my boy,
these are the labors of Achilles the grand—
I walk the shore. I fit my blade into my hand.
I take the reins. I sweep a sweet prince through the sand.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem was written in the summer of 2004. Although I had been living in Atlanta for five years, I still had (illegal) Tennessee plates and a Tennessee license. My Tennessee license was about to expire, so I decided to stop being so trifling and become a law-abiding Hotlantan, which meant that I had to stand in line at the infamously grimy and always entertaining Moreland Avenue DMV (since closed down, alas) for a couple of hours to get a Georgia license. I took Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Iliad with me to read while I waited, which was a good idea, because I stood in line that first day for nearly three hours. When I got up to the front of the line, the no-nonsense lady behind the counter informed me that I had not brought enough forms of proper identification--so I had to come back the next day. Over two days, I plowed my way through a lot of the poem, which I hadn't read in about eight years. I'd always found the bond between Achilles and Patroclus the heart of the poem. I guess after two days at the DMV, I was feeling loopy enough to try my hand at my own interpretation. (I hadn't read Christopher Logue's War Music in 2004. I'm not sure I would've tried my own version if I had!) My version focuses on how Achilles expresses his grief. I was interested in the idea of a man who would rather write a song or a poem about the loss of someone he loved but who can't--his power is in his strength, speed, and violence, as he himself acknowledges in this poem. Ritual does not help him grieve, either. So he has to grieve the only way he can, which is by killing Hector.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wish I could remember! But if it's the same as most of my other poems, I revise each line so much as I'm writing it before moving on to the next one that it's hard to tell how many "drafts" I go through; I suppose it depends on how one defines a "draft." A lot of times, the poem's working itself out in my head or on scraps of paper or in my journal for weeks or months (or even years in some cases) before I actually sit down to write a full draft. Once I do settle down to write, a draft might take me a week to write, or it might take a few hours. I don't save each tiny change as a separate draft (I hate lots of cluttery documents, and my cantankerous old laptop would prefer I keep her cleaned up, as well). Because of this practice, I am usually (and somewhat blissfully) unaware of how many drafts I do of most of my poems.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I definitely believe in inspiration--there's no question about that. I believe in the Muse. I believe in the white heat of the process where I don't consciously know what I'm doing--where something else is in charge. I also believe in toil--making deliberate choices, consciously crafting the poem--and there's no question about that, either; because I often write in traditional forms, I'm always aware that what I'm doing is (pleasurable) work.
At least one phrase of the poem was "received" in a very literal way--the lines "the shields of all Troy's armies shatter / behind my eyes" were adapted from something my friend Dominick had said that summer. I can't quite recall the exact context--I believe he was talking about how people's eyes look when they're in pain, as if glass is shattering behind them. I'm pretty sure we weren't sitting around talking about shields--though you never do know.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
It seemed to tend toward tercets from the first couple of stanzas, so I just went with it. Mostly I was proceeding according to internal rhyme and slant rhyme--"trawl," "sprawl," "brawling," "palled," "galled," "mauled," etc., though those rhymes give way to other sounds about 2/3 through the poem. There's no structure to the rhyming--just intermittent chimin' (my debt to Hopkins is always apparent, I reckon). I typically construct poems by ear, so this practice isn't unique to "Achilles." I did feel strongly that I didn't want a received form or an end-rhyming form for "Achilles"--I wanted his speech to be looser and longer than the more strict forms I often write in would have allowed. Though there's still a lot of music in Achilles's speech, that's simply because the musicality of words is the element of language I never can resist.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This poem wasn't published until my book was, in 2010, so the interim was close to six years.
How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I've sent poems out after five years and others after a few months--just depends on how I feel about them (and how lazy or proactive I'm feeling about sending things out; it's usually the former, alas, for I am a very haphazard submitter).
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not really, but I do think that ideally, when I write a poem, I would want Emily Dickinson to read the poem and not hate it.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I'm pretty free and easy about showing people drafts--I'm not very private about my work. Who sees drafts of poems depends upon whom I'm hanging out with at any given time. I don't have a regular group I show work to, but I do have a great poet-friend I've known for nearly twenty years; we've been regular readers for each other since college, so I'm sure she saw this poem. My boyfriend, who's a wonderful poet, is a great reader and editor for me now, but we didn't know each other back when I was writing this poem.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It's longer than most of my poems, and somewhat looser with respect to its form. It's also something of a love poem, which I don't tend to write very often.
What is American about this poem?
I've never thought of this as a particularly "American" poem, I guess because it's set in a mythological time and place. I think the knee-jerk emotional and violent reaction of Achilles--the bottomless grief that moves him to immediate and bloody retaliation--might be seen as "American" by some, particularly post-September 11th, but I think the desire for revenge after a great loss is not confined to one set of borders. It's a dark human feeling that seems to me universal. And obviously, grief is universal.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Like most of my poems, this one was abandoned.