So I wanted to write about what’s happening as I read Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Tempest keeps shining through. The first bolt came in Book 4 of The Odyssey, with “cooped up on an island far too long,” and then flash after flash in both Odyssey and Iliad: pay in blood, ship you down to the house of death, hit the skies. . . More and more than that. You can read Scott Warmuth’s tidy and thorough “Tempest Commonplace” on his Pinterest board. I give him full credit for a tidiness and thoroughness you won’t find here, but I promise I found these bonbons on my own reading. And if you haven’t done it yourself, I recommend it–it’s a headier feeling of tiny time-travel wormholes even than Confessions of a Yakuza.
And what I wanted to think and write about is death and life in The Iliad, and death and life in Tempest. Every death in The Iliad matters. From the puniest chariot driver to the god-infused magnificences of Hector and Achilles, you feel the shock of life speared or sliced or trampled out of a man’s body. You feel and see the moment when each body voids its life, and there’s no attrition to the way your attention cringes with each of these deaths. Often enough Homer manages to insert, right along with the spear blow, the names of the dying soldier’s father or grandfather or the lovely island home whose soft hills he will never see again while his parents weep for his loss–Homer can send your imagination to the soft hills and desolate mother and father in the space of a man’s last breath.
I wanted to write about the way individual death matters in Tempest, in that song and in Roll On John. Then I wanted to write about the Greek hero. The man who is marked by the gods and then has to bear up under more-than-mortal gifts and ordeals until he dies exactly as all men die, once and for all. We tend to love Odysseus because he has genius that we recognize: his wit plays with his fate. Odysseus seems to create his way through every tribulation. He has an artist’s spirit as other Homeric heroes do not and as Romantics we love him for that and often pay not enough attention to Odysseus’s own persistent awareness that his gifts are his mortal destiny and not the way around death and the gods’ prerogatives. I hear that in Tempest, in Duquesne Whistle, in Pay in Blood, in Scarlet Town— the vitality whose playfulness and potency are born from no-bullshit mortality. Like noon at the break of darkness.
Well, I had things to say about life and death that now would ring just about as *true* as the Roman frieze at the top here showing the harrowing glories of dead Hector in unbroken stone. Then I heard about George Zimmerman’s acquittals and I didn’t expect the air to get as knocked out of me as it was. Well, I didn’t expect the acquittals themselves and the moment I heard I had one of those immediate thoughts that Homer uses to describe the speed of a god’s passage from here to there. The only point of this event is that a black man’s life matters less than a white man’s fate. The intricate instructions given the jury on differentiating between manslaughter, degrees of manslaughter and murder–these seem to me instructions on the value of Trayvon Martin’s corpse to George Zimmerman’s life. The jury decided what mattered.
So, if you are white like me, instead of contemplating life mattering in The Iliad and Tempest, listen for the thousandth time to …Hattie Carroll, and reflect on that rag.