The Second Slaughter
Achilles slays the man who slew his friend, pierces the corpse
behind the heels and drags it
behind his chariot like the cans that trail
a bride and groom. Then he lays out
a banquet for his men, oxen and goats
and pigs and sheep; the soldiers eat
until a greasy moonbeam lights their beards.
The first slaughter is for victory, but the second slaughter is for grief—
in the morning more animals must be killed
for burning with the body of the friend. But Achilles finds
no consolation in the hiss and crackle of their fat;
not even heaving four stallions on the pyre
can lift the ballast of his sorrow.
And here I turn my back on the epic hero—the one who slits
the throats of his friend's dogs,
killing what the loved one loved
to reverse the polarity of grief. Let him repent
by vanishing from my concern
after he throws the dogs onto the fire.
The singed fur makes the air too difficult to breathe.
When the oil wells of Persia burned I did not weep
until I heard about the birds, the long-legged ones especially
which I imagined to be scarlet, with crests like egrets
and tails like peacocks, covered in tar
weighting the feathers they dragged through black shallows
at the rim of the marsh. But once
I told this to a man who said I was inhuman, for giving animals
my first lament. So now I guard
my inhumanity like the jackal
who appears behind the army base at dusk,
come there for scraps with his head lowered
in a posture that looks like appeasement
though it is not.
In the saltwater aquarium at the pain clinic
lives a yellow tang
who chews the minutes in its cheeks
while we await our unguents and anesthesias.
The big gods offer us this little god
before the turning of the locks
in their Formica cabinets
in the rooms of our interrogation.
We have otherwise been offered magazines
with movie stars whose shininess
diminishes as the pages lose
their crispness as they turn.
But the fish is undiminishing, its face
like the death mask of a pharaoh,
which remains while the mortal face
gets disassembled by the microbes of the tomb.
And because our pain is ancient,
we too will formalize our rituals with blood
leaking out around the needle
when the big gods try but fail
to find the bandit vein. It shrivels when pricked,
and they'll say I've lost it
and prick and prick until the trouble's brought
to the pale side of the other elbow
from which I turn my head away—
but Pharaoh you do not turn away.
You watch us hump past with our walkers
with the tennis balls on their hind legs,
your sideways black eye on our going
down the corridor to be caressed
by the hand with the knife and the hand with the balm
when we are called out by our names.
On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
Copper Canyon Press
Copyright © 2012 by Lucia Perillo
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission