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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to

This poem is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Odyssey Response Vahni Capildeo
I. Words, take wing
Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people
who have power of health and employment over us;
go like the sparrows rife on summer streets of a holy
island; unlearn any fear; flitting, bring to mind
light, and how quickly light fades; bring to mind life,
comfort in houses, fragile as windows onto space.
Words, take wing, as if lawyers were angels, as if death
were a paper doll in a set of identical
paper dolls, an infinite set of paper doll kings
of terror, cancelled by a gentle fiery sword.
Sometimes, words, you launch in many lovely languages; yet,
before you begin to fly, you are misrecognized,
like an owl entering a superstitious person’s
open-plan room being beaten to death, Athena’s
wise bird struck down, bloody feathers everywhere,
a soft body a futile piñata
releasing clouds. Could you gather up a faith
in strangers, in the absence of a god of strangers?
Does any homeless person gleam like a god in disguise?
Disgust rules. Do without. Doing without big symbols.
Zeus! Eagles may acquire cruel associations.
Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people
who share vulnerability on a trembling earth;
who drink, or hope to drink, sweetly, cool water.

II. Hero?
Tell me how to simplify a song. Tell me about
identity; fidelity. Solve the problem of a face.
Tell me about a state governed by emotion – would you move?
Choose to move? If they force you into moving?
If you cannot afford to, cannot afford not to –
Make a song about one person. Who can cope.
         Is it a hero you want? Why not say so?
I am suspicious of heroes. How do they survive?
I know a mother who scattered her children
on the way out of war, and has not gone back to look.
What if the hero shining like a falcon arrives
having traded their body for life, trailing killings
and transactional sex? Is the hero empowered
to treat their spouse to raw cuts of trauma, treat them worse
and better than anyone else? Help can be a trap.
Home, a mating of traps. Who do you want at your back?
Enough. I am privileged to have civil conversations
in a corrected city, commemorate the correct dead.
         How changeable is a hero, like modern rainfall patterns.
How fearful is a hero, patched like an archaic sail.
How lifted up is a hero, like the great-grandchild
of immigrants, hurting his parents, hoping his child is kind.
Witness those ghosts who, after a natural disaster, don’t know
they’re dead; poor, wet ghosts, trying to board real taxis home.

III. The sea
Hooves, chevrons, arrowheads, champion ski racers, nothing, no,
nothing runs so swiftly, nothing seems to run so, so
swiftly as cool water pours back in, making
an island of a piece of land once, sometimes, no more
than another part of the shore, a tidal island.
Nothing runs so swiftly. Did you think I was singing
about death? Should we give death preferential treatment?
Should we be women singing to death? You saw. You know.
The sea is a cover for bones, how busyness covers news.
New bodies are laid every day in the innocence
of the sea. New burdens explode every day
in the innocence of the air. How many
of my family dropped like shining falcons
in the duress of a forced migration, ivorying
into the sunken halls of the only Atlantis
really worthy of the name? The sea is a cover.
There is a law of the sea – No. The sea is lawless. –
There is a modern law of the sea. The conference
proceeded for nine years. – No. It is a convention
of the toothless, for the toothless, by the toothless. The sea needs
teeth. – How can there be freedom of the sea without protection? –
How can you be territorial about the sea?
Most of the civilized – America never agreed. Never –

IV. Companion
I tremble to think of meeting you. How did we meet
on this trembling earth?
A blizzard blew up. We sat
on a stone, a few paces from the farmhouse.
We could not see, or move, to go to them. They could not
come to us. We could not discern the tide, rising towards us.
         How did we meet?
         He had turned his back on you. I loved
the poetry of your anger. I wanted the poetry
of your anger on my small island. Transported. Cherished.
Forget any other kind of kiss.
         I tremble to think of not meeting you. You could be
better off. Light was fading quickly. You saw. You knew
I was unsafe, waiting, in my full-passported femaleness
in the cruel associations of a village
of privileged abandonment. You sat on the bench,
reached beyond death into Persia at your back,
unrolled for me a mat of pure imagination,
placed for us both a vase of pure imagination.
Your metamorphosis was from refugee to host.
In the street, you gathered guest-right, offered me
hospitality where had been others’ hostility, till
my neglectful, official friend arrived. We thrived, like two birds
in an embroidery orchard of pomegranates, oranges,
and weeping pears: like impossibilities of climate
         They spin epic words to say none of this is home.

V. Hades Social
Be thankful for the friends in a blue and white country
who invite you to meet their dead. Together, in a small group,
crossing the clean-smelling river pierced by mossy rocks,
enter among tombs like garden sheds, houses;
graves with lost names, granite pitted by acid rainfall patterns.
Rub flowerless hands over lost names. – Try not to bring
anyone home with you, someone invisible says
in your memory, sharpening into many voices,
women singing to death.
         What is this place? How did you get here?
You know. Graveyards are unclean. The only way to go
is by fire open to the sky, on fragrant woods,
white camphor tucked under your tongue, releasing spirit
from the ragged body to the innocence of air.
– I cannot be burnt, I cannot burn as I need to
burn, among these new friends, these kind friends, thinks the stranger.
Be glad to meet the new kind dead your friends have buried. You saw.
Next time bring flowers. – But I am sad for my future,
in a country where my funeral customs are illegal.
Whose problem is a soul? Identity? Fidelity? Death
is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out.
The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you!
Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out.
Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee,
helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.

VI. The Faces of Odysseus
When the trembling earth dips away from our common ancestor,
a wife living as a widow may look at the streaks and stripes
of another seaside sunset, beauty in isolation,
and tremble like the earth at the men lined up
to land on her like shining falcons, quickly, but not lightly.
If an old person perseveres in life, yet needing your care,
do not harass or tease them as Odysseus did,
tricking his father into hardworking tears, washing his brain
with real grief and reactive gladness.
You know, you see Christ in the face of a wounded enemy,
if you listen to the now-celebrated poets weeping.
What if you hear the song of yourself simplified on the news?
What if your song is impermissible as the blacked-out news?
Odysseus, I see you. I know I thought I might
dislike you. You were so hot. You planned it: standing naked, hot,
in the doorway, drawing the long bow no-one else could.
Standing where Penelope could see the slaughter of fine men
her hero would commit, war for an indoor Helen.
I see you in the face of the vagrant thoughtfully
washing his clothes at the standpipe in the Savannah
under the trees with no-one to care. No-one, Odysseus.
One man’s soldier is another man’s beggar, Odysseus.
He lives without love or teasing, sweet talk or complication.
One woman’s king is another woman’s case, Odysseus.

VII. Zeus, god of strangers
Stranger, how are you cast away, cast upon your own
resources, cast on wildly different styles of hosting?
What if your angry host feeds you up to go to war?
What if the gifts lavished on you lay expectations on you
to go away, make a success of yourself, and don’t come back?
What if you are blown back, empty-handed? You would be
right to hide your name. Yes? You are a king at home. No?
Slaughter and laughter cross your threshold
in your absence. Slaughter and laughter at a distance
shadow and echo you, no matter how you set off,
or your clean presentation, now, among the élite. Yes? No?
Where are you? Islands aren’t always islands. All maps are pop-up.
Volcanos yawn, spatter out something the sea covers over.
Rivers rise, or silt up. Clumps form, or dissolve, barely the size
for two blue-coated Norsemen to duel on.
Islands are provisional. World; whirl. The sea covers over.
The Queen of the Dead lifts, in her lily hand
with its violet nails, a head of snakehair.
Do not go too deep. That way paralysis. You want action,
like tired people do. Stranger, you are cast like in a dream
of being on stage, unprepared. Is it right to invent lines?
Traveller in body, buffeted about as a guest, Zeus
loves us. Spirit Traveller, revive as a good host. By Zeus,
Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight.

VIII. That’s epic
There is a city beneath the city beneath the city
beneath the floodplain. Forget about it. A city
is at the back of the city at the back of the city.
Ignore it. Ignore the scripts in which mathematics
and astronomy were first written. Ignore the scripts
incised in rock, the scripts inscribed in landscape.
O Muse, make the poet move on. Memory is no good
to triumphant civilizations.
O Muse, your poet is blind, saying life has a sheen.
O Muse, your poet’s a hostage, saying land has a meaning.
Nobody likes a try-hard, a lacemaker working
with a vascular surgeon to join delicate gaps.
Put memory in the service of intention
to keep the story shining, like tears shed over onionskin,
or the cheering faces of the well-fed family watching
screensful of migrants plummeting or washed up
at a border, from a wall. The camera admires
guards, themselves descended from migrants.
The shining chorus of weaponry,
made manifest by taxes, drops death
on more children shining and their many lovely languages
as if they were done for from the get-go, like paper brochures
in a digital age. Forget about it.
Keep going. A story has the tricks of appetite.

This poem is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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