The quality of the outside light is shifting,
a chilly glare thawing to something brighter,
something softer, something slowly drifting
into a Maxfield Parrish glow, a hint
at least. The pulse picks up. The head gets lighter
as something like romance scents the cloying air.
A coming fling? It isn’t that at all.
No woman waits behind a brownstone’s stoop.
It’s something else. I’ll let you in the loop:
We’re in New York; it’s morning; and it’s fall.
Cue “Rhapsody in Blue.” You know the plot,
the sun that glistens on the Midtown spires,
even from Brooklyn, a helicopter shot
for yet another film not worth twelve dollars.
Down here, the streets are plastered up with fliers,
and buses bear announcements on their sides
for that race thing they’ve got going on
with TV crews and Ethiopians,
a thousand masochistic diet plans—
the annual New York City Marathon.
And as the runners line up at the markers,
a shot goes off, and so the race begins.
Surging to the front, completely starkers,
runs Mr. Pheidippides, the pride of Athens,
hurtling forward to the cheers and grins
of bearded hoplites lined up on the sidewalk
waving spears and dressed in battle kit,
ululating, iron swords half-bared.
(A Persian clot around the block looks scared.)
“Go Pheidippides!” He’ll do his bit
for city, citizens—and for the world.
“Historical” as a term has been debased,
thrown at pop-star slags du jour and hurled
at sit-com episodes, but this is real,
even if, I know, it’s just a race.
Pheidippides, of course, is representing
the piss-ant hamlet and the adrenal gland
that goes berserk when tax-men are onsite,
bearing bills, affecting shows of might.
“Pay up, and I’ll leave.” “No, bitch! Git off my land!”
It lasts all day, circling Central Park
and weaving through the outer boroughs. Yet
our hero stays out front until the dark
advances from Long Island in a gloom
that’s subtle and somehow funereal
even on an ancient TV set.
The leader’s clear. “But at what price?” we wonder.
No matter, since our runner has got thick skin
(he’d have to, after all)—and he will win
despite a hint of rain and distant thunder.
Pheidippides finishes the run and greets
his waving fans with a classic shtick—
grasping at his bleeding, ruined feet,
gasping for breath even as he’s moaning,
Come on, you pervs, stop staring at my dick!
The film is rolling, and the journalists
ask him questions as he’s in convulsions
from his fatal victory—his thoughts
about New York (his throat’s done up in knots;
can barely breathe). But still, their crass compulsions
drive them to shout their questions, and he cries,
Leave me alone. I’ve got somewhere to be!
“We’re trying to observe. What do you see?”
I need some rest. This pace is killing me!
“Just an impression’s really all we ask.”
The runner’s angry, but he takes the task
with a caterwauling heart, and brokenly,
he gives an answer for Democracy.
A new imperial city, set
along a river, with a view
of skyscrapers for the ziggurats,
steeples for sacrificial fires.
Here, there are taxis, columned banks,
light-bathed arenas, cramped, dark flats,
swells of noise, and troops in stations.
I’m always running, moving through
the likes of you, a mass of suits
and work clothes, trying to keep ahead
of something that we can’t control
as slogans lash us to the fray.
See the world and find yourself,
the few, the proud, and Semper Fi!
Join today! Take up the gun!
Injured on the job? Feel trapped
in your career? Are you in debt?
Just call this number to enroll.
Se habla Español. Call now.
A beggar with a matted beard
and old fatigues, caked up with mud,
raves about a distant war
and hikes his shirt to show the wound
and beg for money. “Motherfucking
politicians! I was in ‘Nam.
They sat on their asses. Sacks of shit.
I’m hungry. Can you spare some change?”
Pheidippides ends abruptly as he hacks
a gob of blood at a woman’s business suit.
She looks up, shocked. The runner’s breath is back,
if only for a moment, and he roots
around for words. Sorry! I didn’t see ya.
I was lost in thought on Seleucia . . .
Stratum on stratum, jumbled up,
found accidentally in sand,
abandoned even by the mud
along the Tigris’s shifting banks.
From up above, the naked eye
can’t see its grid-iron city plan,
its palaces, its bustling markets…
or guess its sack and slow decline.
“Pray that the road is long,” as long
as earth is round. Odysseus
never made it there; his “stop
at Phoenician markets” ended soon.
But no Penelope awaited
the conquerors of desert sands.
Beguiled by landlocked Circes, they
forgot the modest palaces
their two-bit fathers had bequeathed
to them, the heirs of Macedon.
City of the Hellenes! Out there,
the caryatids seemed to sweat
in unrelenting sun like tourists
bearing guidebooks, taking shots
of peasants in their native garb
while shouting in a foreign tongue
for burgers, french fries, Diet Coke,
a front-row seat, and brash burlesque,
a city of expats, dropping cash
on drink and ostentatious mansions.
But in the countryside, dark eyes
stared hatred at the palaces,
places of taxes, foreigners,
and poets of a later year
would speak of Ozymandias
and all he’d wrought—or said he’d wrought—
on some blank, forsaken ground.
The tabloid vultures won’t let up, of course.
“But how’d you do it, Pheidi? What’s your trick
for winning races with a flapping dick?”
I dunno. It helps if you’re a hick.
And then our hero turns Historical.
His eyes roll back; the crowd’s hysterical,
and paramedics crowd around his head.
Tomorrow’s headline: “Pheidippides is dead!”
They search for steroids. The coroner says, “He’s clean!”
and so the editorials all start
wondering what all the verse could mean,
and why the jock had said what he had said
before he died. The story falls apart
and leaves the front page, then abandons sports,
pushing him into vaguest memory
along with a folded copy of a map
of the race’s route that settles in the gap
of a sofa. So much for democracy.
I throw down the paper, dash to make my train,
and find myself in furious squalls of rain
soaking through my jacket and my shirt.
My fellow helots look just slightly better
with cheap umbrellas battered in the gale
that snaps the points and leaves them slightly wetter
than they might have hoped. A final spurt
of energy gets me underground. Not hale
or healthy or quite content, one still must strive
to curse each minute till the train arrives.
And as I thrust my way to get that seat
that isn’t taken yet, all of my neat
stratagems to reach my destination
dissolve in anticipation of the walk
on the other side to get to where I’m going.
Subway signs don’t note precipitation.
For God’s sake, man! It’s only seven blocks!
And thus begins a ritual of throwing
furtive hands ceiling-ward. “Do mind the gap.”
Christ, I think I need a better map.
And anyway, the headlines always stink.
Someone’s robbed us blind or gone to bed
with hookers, or just landed in the clink.
And if that’s not enough, look at the funnies—
Imperialism rears its ugly head
as General Caesar heads out to the sticks
to battle Aster . . . Vercingetorix.
Caesar thinks himself an Alexander,
easy on the eye, hung like a horse,
a famous man, Rome’s best damn field commander—
a man-slut, middle-aged, and balding Wop.
(That kind of language just won’t do, of course.
We’ll give the just rejoinder to the Roman:
Wop’s rich coming from an Oklahoman.)
And in the other corner’s . . . whatshisname,
mustachioed Celt in plaid with magic potions
and loyal, dumbass friends. Eternal fame
depends, so often, on what your people brew
as much as “freedom” and other abstract notions.
We’re at endgame. The Gauls are out of luck.
Caesar’s outside Alesia, and it’s fucked.
Slapstick abounds. How could it otherwise
with trenches, booby-traps, and catapults?
M. Hulot, but everybody dies.
And while we’re rooting for the underdog,
we can all predict the end result:
Oh, God, it’s just horrific . . . cut to tape!
A raucous teenage sex romp, but with rape.
Our hero (anti-hero?) ends in chains
for Caesar’s Triumph. Everybody’s sad,
since after all, it’s decent to complain
when someone screws up self-determination—
downright rude, and maybe even bad.
Besides, the Gallic villagers seemed nice
(but let’s not mention human sacrifice).
Still, Vercingetorix has got a trick
he hasn’t pulled as Caesar turns around
during a prison interview. The prick,
confident he’s won, does not consider
druidic skill with magic mushrooms, ground
into a potion. Out comes a hidden blotter.
Caesar’s thirsty. SHIT! DON’T DRINK THE WATER!
Here be groovy shapes, man, but poor Gaius
is not a weekend warrior, and he sees
horrific things. Those dodgy trips can try us,
even with experience, and here
we have a guy who’ll just have water, please
and only knows that he’s been truly spiked
when everything changes shape. Here’s what it’s like:
A Roman road opens out from that bare room
through hundreds of miles, and reaching the Subura,
narrows to an alley steeped in the gloom
of sagging insulae, emptied chamber pots,
graffiti of dicks, vaginas, something with a goat,
and what the fuck was that?
It’s Caesar’s ex-flame Servilia with a brush,
a black-haired dame approaching middle age,
buxom and arrogant.
She’s conjugating verbs around his name
in every tense—and every one obscene,
a hideous manifesto.
He sees a crowd
gathered around his lover armed with sticks
pushing around the togate men who guard
her composition, howling out abuse
in monotonal rapid-fire.
A melee soon ensues
between the Senators and lumpen scum.
Caesar cries out, “What have I become?”
his eyes fixed on his rough admirers, and scared.
How did he come to this, a son of Venus
allied to the cynical pimps and whores
who call out idly from the corridors
of half-decrepit buildings?
But they’re my base! Stop, Caesar! Don’t be an ass.
Remember that you’re of a different class.
A voice calls, “Dude!” and soon, Servilia
grows taller, male, and . . . turns . . .
who almost seems to glow . . . and Caesar smiles
at the Gaul and guards and focuses on a map,
finds his position, and goes to take a nap.
And though he laughs when the colors disappear
and doesn’t have the prankster crucified,
the vision set before his eyes has reared
a dark suspicion, vicious as a hydra,
that ending up on the Senate’s losing side
is not the only peril that he faces.
Beware the mob. What do you call these? Traces?
“Tracers.” Antony supplies the word.
I guess he’d know, thinks Caesar with a smile.
Besides, the whole damn notion is absurd.
Give ‘em bread and circuses, and bouts
of gladiatorial combat for a while,
and citizens will live with monarchy
and like it. So much for democracy.
That jerk Tiresias is now asleep
and snores so loudly that it wakes the neighbors
who shout out curses. “Keep it down, you creep,
or medicate! Do yourself a favor!”
The prophet, though, is out of it and dreaming,
oblivious to us, and to our scheming.
This is not a country for old men,
and thus old men will play by different rules,
babbling about what happened way back when
while tinkering with antiquated tools . . .
unless they sleep, their wisdom overgrown
with tendrils of fatigue. We’re on our own.
Quincy R. Lehr is the author of several collections, as well as the imminently forthcoming Heimat, which can be ordered here. He is the associate editor of The Raintown Review, and he lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches history.