Poetry 2011 / Volume 42

Phlebas the Phoenician — Ann Struthers

Phlebas the Phoenician, once as handsome
and as tall as you, fills all the glasses.
He can write in Ugarit’s forgotten script,
it’s bird-track characters metamorphosed,
into these signs I learned in nursery school.
He pours the Johnny Walker Black over
crackling ice. Does it matter that Richard
the Lion Heart is rotting in prison?
That Saint Peter, tired by his journey
that leads to crucifixion, rests beside
the sea here at Latakia, named, may­be
for Alexander’s sister? She’s present
tonight, her pretty pout as famous as
her hair.

Oh, I have been here several lives
before, have climbed these marble stairs, entered
this same door, listened to the cocktail chat,
have laughed, will laugh some more. From down the lane
a statue of the Virgin sings a song
no one knows. Beside this sea Deborah
weaves tents; Paul weaves arguments from Plato’s
thought. Hear him in the middle of the room,
his voice booming with Pharisaic zeal,
one eye still bandaged, though it, too, will heal.

My love sits by the window, looking out
at the olive groves’ wind-blown silver leaves
swaying like prisms from knotted branches.
What is given is different in this
country. Paul takes a glass of wine for his
stomach. Linda and Mike take two; Peter
drinks three—no excuses. The Commander
of the Legions does not come; we discuss
his bribes, his summer house in the mountains.
Helen flirts, Clytemnestra’s smile is grim.
Cleo and Antony worry about
jealous Portia home in Rome, yet draw
toward each other, magnet to iron.

Maybe none of us can help ourselves to
become better. We are a motley crew,
lovers, murderers, martyrs, small-time crooks
taking bread from the poor.

Zachariah
changed. Mary Magdalene, and a few poor
fishermen, geniuses for punishment,
Saul of Tarsus transformed into Saint Paul,
tent-maker, traveler, light-struck thinker,
man for the times, gloriously fallible.

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