Thursday, November 26, 2009

Portraits of Friends - 5

For Michael K.
What had Cyrus done, that Cadmus could not
When Thebes arose? (You told me once)
That men are not to judge of others’ happiness,
Till death swathes them, and molds their mask;
Cyrus knew firsthand: by fire had Croesus
Livened, who Solon’s name he soothed, amidst
The auric and silver chargers, reflective.
Solon had smiled that day he was privy
To Croesus’ vast wealth, the Lydian throne:
When asked, gazing on eglantine gardens
And parchments spent with numberless territories,
Who it was, could name himself happiest and blest,
The sage replied,
                           “An Athenian I knew,
Who worked those fields of sweetbrier,
And stretched the parchments that boldly
Picture your reign. A peasant as good a man
As king.”
               Croesus unbearing this, and burning
Hubris, swore Solon’s name and dismissed him
From his throne;
                         But now Cyrus, known
To the Israelites as Koresh, and Zulqarnain,
The two-horned ram of God, who’d conjoin Media
And Persia, to the Mohammedan, conquered Lydia,
And set Croesus on his death-seat,
A pyre to end his days, sighing
Solon’s name. Cyrus, known as the Merciful,
Spared that gross king’s immolation,
And would permit the Israelites revisit Jerusalem,
To build their House in Judah.
Cyrus, when an infant, could not be more
Mistaken for a herdsman’s son –
(So Plutarch tells us) – ennobled by his inner aspect,
A child who like the sun could not perish
In the bosom of cold mountains,
But rises over Soleyman’s shoulder
Again to shine on the four-cornered earth.
Afore Alexander, and Greater in reach,
Cyrus wrapped hands on Phrygia in the West,
Planted serpent-toothed satraps southward in Thebes,
Loomed over Gandhara and fondled India,
While his head rested in the Caucasus,
And his right hand, when lifted, on Thrace alighted...

Why also is ancient Cyrus, Great?
His Icon bears him up, his shining face,
That like divine justice doth transcend
An Iago, an Imogen, and all binaries –
(Chiefest, which is, Man-and-Picture) –
Narrows the splintered eye, to focus
On singularities, on Cause, whose grin
Is countless, and hath no effect (nor a multitude),
But will affect multitudes regardless:
The Achaemenids – the Babylonians – the Persians:
And us, our posterity,
Obsessed with picture-writ legacies.

Let me tell you this (you told me): a slave
Selects the cause to correct the effect, or the effect
To create the cause. So that falsely, one effect
Should magnetise a single cause: but imagine this:
(A legend unrecorded by Plutarch)
…A slavish-subject, by his passions staved, steps up
To Cyrus – the Merciful (and the War-Rash),
The Meek Ruler, (and the Great Conqueror),
Who was first among kings to monody Theo
(spotless Ahura Mazda), and offer lineaments
Of gratified law to the foreigner and Persian alike –
This slavish man, for whom Cyrus had artisans
Stencil the image of his likeness, as an honored
Subject, who had brought stores of proverbs
From distant lands for Persia, and plied
The monarch with philosophies to come;
Such an unchaste, ungrateful merchant –
Who like Paris in the House of Atreus
Sparked a war with an affront –
Smited lordly Cyrus on the cheek,
And spit obscenities on his dominions;
Because he was wild with wine, and crimson
With vanity; a guest in Cyrus’ house,
Who had traded dry sack from western lands,
And sugared Cyrus with castrated fowls
For flesh; this craven man’s bowl, fulsome,
And filled when unfilled; drank to his death;
Tempted Croesus’ fate with his wanton palm,
And slighted the man to whom God
Had given the kingdoms of the globe…

What then did Cyrus do? …Laughter,
Like thunder curling in the cloud
Of his eye, whose inner gaze, wrapped
By the fourth wing of his face, diversified
His counsel, and unified his command.
He was of those who listened, as he spake:
          “If a king drinks, he does not go drunken;
He abuses no thing but the goblet: I, Cyrus, worship
Wine, which you have bartered and drowned your
Self with, because I wish to avoid worshipping
Self, like you, a man made a beast, to avoid the burden
Of manliness. A king is manly: even in wine,
He won’t forfeit his nature; though flesh & blood,
The king’s Image stays intact.”
          With that, the uncouth merchant grew ashamed,
And choked himself with his cups; and the portrait
Which Cyrus commissioned for him, lengthened,
Farther stretched, and distanced itself, as a star
Stretches from planets-in-miniature, from the likeness
Of one who had once rejoiced in wine and company;
The merchant’s vows, ‘broken beyond repair, by a flask
Of wine, and a girl with disorder in her hair,’
Etched in him, guilt, and caused in him, friendlessness:
Love’s infidel, who had not learnt
To worship wine, but drank it, whorishly;
Hung himself, unhappy humiliated creature,
In Cyrus’ sight.

          Cyrus saith again: an Icon bears up
Its own justice, metes it among righteous men,
And its conscience, like Zeno’s, in which
Music mingles with wisdom-love, and all things
Are one, of no dissimilarity or mimesis,
Past Man or Picture, of a cause married to effect –
Effects its cause, purposes its wholesome purpose.
Unfragmented as no Fisher King, like a Mauberley
Coining his own face (which the age demanded),
A medallion whose minted eyes turned topaz
From a measureless distance; in which
The arrow flies motionless in flight, of one piece
With the bow that swerved it, and the sky
That embraces it: an image for which all ends
Are ended, and by which lambs lie with lions,
And friends unafraid befriend sworn enemies,
Former enemies to erstwhile friends made…

And so was Cyrus called, ‘the Humble,’ thenceforth…