The Odyssey, Book 11: ll. 538-556
The soul of swift-soled Achilles hearing me Praise his son, silvered, and then was gone, His long strides causing him to blend, light-bent, Into the shining, maize meadow cloudbank Shadowed by that one solitary tree It takes sixteen years for light, let alone A soul, to cross. The other dead, who thrived Though they had died, rejoiced at seeing me And sang, one by one, to me; and I in Turn said back to one after the other That the song that soul sang was a blessing And that I had never heard anything Like it; which was true, but also, I must Admit, they bored me to tears, tears that their Surprisingly still finite knowledge took As tears of pure joy from hearing them sing. Only Ajax Telamoniades Kept away, arms crossed, refusing to speak, Dim-starred and disappearing into his rage. All because of a simple spar of words, A mere speech, and winning Achilles’ armor. Athena above and those men at the ships Decided that, not me, although it’s true He never stood chance. But by custom Should have been given the matchless metal. How I wish I hadn’t won that contest. How the ground closed over his head for it. What a fool I can be. Ajax. Who knew No equal in action but for the one Man who surpassed him, just-fled Achilles, So capable of happiness despite All that happened because he washed up here, Heaven: this implausible place for us. Strange that Ajax is also in Heaven Despite ending his legendary life. In the end he’s won, but he doesn’t seem To understand that he’s won. Poor Ajax. Like always, I thought I had winning words And so I said to him with unreturned gaze: “Son of great Telamon, mighty Ajax, War tower, shake free of your anger. No one else is to blame but Zeus, and look, He is no longer here, friend. Paradise Has found you and given you an eternal Roof under the one tree of High Heaven. Zeus treated us so terribly, and you, Whom he should have loved like his strongest son, You worst of all. But that is history Now. Come, my strong brother, lord and deserved Winner of all Achilles wore and was, Come, be with us here; let me hear the light Of Heaven in your voice; and let me know, Because I love you, how you (of all men!) Ended up in the keen of this endless berm.” But Ajax, gift-eyed, said nothing to me And took his seat under the rowan tree.
About this Poem
"This is a vision of the nekyia in Book 11 of The Odyssey as taking place in Heaven as opposed to the underworld. The silence of Ajax in the face of Odysseus's beautiful but suffocating grandiloquence, and his anger at Odysseus even after death, is one of literature's grandest examples of the power of silence and the endurance of rage. I have long been transfixed by this moment and by the open-ended chill of that silence. Set against the constant need for Odysseus to speak and his seemingly instinctual impetus to try to either win things or fix things, I heard, as I thought through this poem, Heaven emerge as a marvelous mise-en-scène through which to further explore that poignant human chain that ever connects us to the poignancy of poetry's past."
—Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Born in New York City in 1974, Rowan Ricardo Phillips earned his BA at Swarthmore College and his PhD at Brown University.
He is the author of two books of poetry: Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), which was a longlist finalist for the National Book Award, and The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), for which he received the 2013 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Poetry and the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award.
In her review of Phillips’s debut collection, Evie Shockley writes, “The poems in The Ground carry the authoritative descriptions and rhythms of Walcott, the philosophical and symbolic flights of Stevens, the subtle humor and cosmopolitanism of Dove, but in a language whose musical blend of the contemporary and the timeless is all Phillips’s own. These poems assert cycles—they repeat, recur, and return—but where we end up is not where we started. “
Phillips is also the author of a book of literary criticism, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), and a translation of Catalan poet Salvador Espriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012).
Phillips has taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Stony Brook University, where he was also director of the Poetry Center. In 2013, he received a Whiting Writers’ Award, and two years later, he was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. A fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, Phillips divides his time between New York City and Barcelona, Spain.
Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010)
Date Published: 2013-12-19
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/odyssey-book-11-ll-538-556