Four Orpheus Poems
ORPHEUS, GATHERING THE TREES
-The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Book X,
When love died the second time,
he sang at dawn in the empty field
and the trees came to listen.
A little song for the tag alder,
the fire cherry, the withe-willow.
The simple-hearted ones that come quickly
Then he sang for the mulberry
with its purple fruit,
for the cedar and the tamarack.
He sang bel canto for the quaking aspen
and the stave oak;
something lovely for the white pine,
the fever tree, the black ash.
From the air he called the sparrows
and the varieties of wrens.
Then he sang for a bit of pestilence––
for the green caterpillars,
for the leaf worms and bark beetles.
Food to suit the flickers and the crows.
So that, in the wood lot,
there would always be empty places.
So he would still know loss.
ORPHEUS CONSIDERS HIS APPROACH
A three-headed dog named Cerberus, guards
the opposite shore of Styx, ready to devour
living intruders or ghostly fugitives.
-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 31.a
As one comes to wolves. Song of canine bodies
circling through the pines. Aria of bone-gnaw,
of driven snow in Caucasus, of sweet, sweet marrow.
Song of lip-curl, of bloody gums, of gritted teeth and snarl.
Whimpered song of bitch-and-den, song of musk,
of tongued pups, of burrow thick with steam.
Song of fire, circle-song, beaten onto skins. Song of meat,
of shearling, of glowing coals and cinders, song of hellish fleas.
Ballad of hound-hunger, of want; song that calms the dog.
In the stony deep, Oh! are lesser gods, the stink of sulphur,
and the spirits of the dead. The beast is chained, or else
the beast runs loose. I have sung my way through darkness
and wait upon the shore with open palms.
Oh, dog, dog, dog. What song must I sing to get by thee?
His head [the women] threw into the river,
but it floated, still singing, down to the sea,
and was carried to the island of Lesbos.
-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 28.d
Before my lips kissed the gravel
of river-bottom, I looked back
and saw the lost body,
and the fingers of my severed hand
twitching for my lyre.
Even then, I bobbed up, singing.
They threw the lyre beside me
and the lyre began to play.
I could hardly hear the strings
for the noise of rushing water.
As the river slowed through the tidal flats,
I came to love the taste of salt.
Eight months I have drifted
among the bluefish and the tunas.
Leached of all blood and beset by sea lice,
one eye pecked by a passing gull––
I still sing. The lyre, drifting with me, plucks on.
I hear the sounds of wave-on-beach
and sense the schooly candlefish,
frenzied in the surf.
Whatever land I drift toward,
I sing for what lives there.
My hair braids through the nut-brown kelp
that tangles along the shore.
ORPHEUS THE PROPHET
As for Orpheus’s head: it was laid to rest
in a cave at Antissa, sacred to Dionysus.
There it prophesied day and night.
-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 28.g.
Salt-washed, my right eye pecked sightless,
my left, still cloudy with sea water,
I loll atop this stone and say what they want to hear.
When the weather is dry, I prophesy rain.
When asked for the stars, I say Look at the sky.
The blind-shrimp that scurry, tap-tapping through the pools,
the fruit bats that flap around and foul the stalagmites––
all of us are happy. A swan, paddling the last round
of wintered water, foretells its own death,
singing more sweetly as it comes.
Whenever I must speak now, I speak in stagy whispers.
The vireo, the meadowlark, the tiniest sparrow––
name one songbird, nested at last among the darkening trees,
who will not prophesy the night.