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"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

The Odyssey, Book 11: ll. 538-556

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

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.

Copyright © 2013 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 19, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 19, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips