Walking to Athena

Rome rattlejacks in vernacular,
wishing in Latin, marching arm in arm
with ladybug faces and groomed suitcases.

Someone is playing Liszt from an upper floor
as if it’s 1840, when Hungary was a jigsaw of another place
but Liszt, arriving here, said Mendelssohn couldn’t play his rhapsody
competently, and trashed him as propaganda
before composing the loveliest lieder to his enemy.

Water blows over my skin.
Wind has picked up impressions of splashing
from sparkling drinks or the river I’m crossing.

What a ruckus I find on my stone-walking
visit to the marble Athena at the villa.
A sphinx has elicited Medusa
to petrify a centaur, who as usual is causing havoc
and even the Harpies have taken sides now.
They hang from rooftops, flapping with the laundry.
An old man looks up and drags his finger across his throat with a laugh.

Botanical fever sweeps in from the east,
explaining with the scent of pollen and magnolia
where the garden terrace begins.
A cook smoking on the corner invites me in.
He serves me the most delectable veal that falls off the bone
the way we all fall off the bone.
I put my feet in the cascading waterfall at the Spanish embassy
where a party festivalizes with blue drinks.

Last night, in the giant bed at the hotel,
I dreamed of end-times
and wished I were dreaming in the dream.

I hope Athena recognizes me.
We’re been talking on the phone for years.
Maybe she will say truth is in the psalms.
We always talk about the form of epics, their sing-song
revenge, and she likes to rave about Odysseus
who she loved most, and how he got his revenge.
But Dante got the last word, I argue,
by drowning Odysseus for advising his men to sail
beyond the knowable world, knowing they would end.

When we meet, I hope I have the courage to say
epics are the sea voyage of imagination
but all the songs are here.

I meet my Athena from the dawn of the first century.
She is larger than I expect and smaller
than the gold and ivory Athena
made in the fifth century BC for the Parthenon
that she was carved to resemble.

The sea voyage lieder Liszt arranged for Mendelssohn
feels so cleaved open as if it had forgotten
what to make of itself in the middle of composing.

Copyright © 2023 by Diane Mehta. This poem originally appeared in PN Review (Spring 2023). Used with the permission of the author.