A poem for the Megala Antinoeia!
The Megala Antinoeia commemorates the games that Hadrian held in memory of Antinous at this time, in the first year after his death. They included not only athletic competitions but artistic ones of various kinds. Our Antinoan Doctor holds an annual agon for this feast, to which I offer this poem, composed yesterday evening after a day of far more walking than I usually do (that counts for the athletic aspect of the game).
Finding the Red Lotus
I was born in a rowhouse built in 1900,
a small narrow box to keep a family in.
There was a backyard paved with concrete,
an old lady who grew tomatoes,
morning glories pulling at chain-link fences,
and trees planted in the next block.
I roamed free in a small territory
but went where my mother sent me
when she sent me to church.
As soon as I heard the hymns,
I wanted to sing. I sang at six,
pretending to be seven;
they bent the rules for me
because I could read the words
because I could sing the notes.
I always wanted to sing.
When I was nine I went
to the Episcopal church.
I wanted to stay there,
in the little church just
up the street. I wanted to sing,
and they let me. I sang
in a red skirt and a white cotta,
with a lace cap upon my head.
I sang every Sunday, Christmas Eve,
Wednesdays in Lent with Stations
and Benediction, Easter and
Pentecost and Trinity. Break
for summer. The words of
the Prayerbook drummed on my mind
like rain and soaked in, nourishing.
At thirteen I found a book about dancing,
a book about witches, a book about religion
that was old, that was new. I liked to read
about other religions, but this one I wanted
for my own. I stopped going to church;
instead of singing, I wrote bad poetry
to Athena and Dionysus. But they
did not help when my grandmother died.
I missed singing, and the soaking rain
of the Book of Common Prayer.
I have been in the choir of the sanctuary,
I have been in the circle of the witches;
I sought entry to the grove of the druids,
I sought the Grail with Arthur and Taliesin.
I dreamed in Merlin’s cave while he watched
the stars from his seventy-two windows
and then his sister woke me up. “It is time
to move on,” she said.
I learned the arts of the magus and the temple.
I conjured words and lights with my mind.
I rose on the planes and came drifting
back down, enervated. I sought the five ways
into the underworld yet could bring nothing back.
Then I sought the Dharma of the Buddha
and found wisdom and compassion and beauty.
Surely this was the end of my search, this
was the Holy Grail, the cup of the dancing dakini,
this was the sacred banquet, the true fountain
of knowledge and power. Surely the sangha
would be my true home. And there was singing,
deep chanting, endless reverberation,
mystic syllables in Tibetan and Sanskrit,
prostrations and incense and bells.
And I turned and walked away, restless
and alone. The choir and the circle,
the grove and the temple, even the sangha
in three times and ten directions,
had left me dry and thirsty. I sat down
by the water, not the waters of Babylon,
the river of exile, not the Thames in London’s fog,
not the Jones Falls rushing into Baltimore Harbor
in futile memory of the strength it once was, but
among the reeds and rushes, in the black mud,
among the oldest gods and stories I knew.
Horus was a hawk and flew overhead.
Hapi was a hippopotamus and blew bubbles.
Thoth was an ibis and stalked delicately
on long slender legs, with a long beak
skimming the Nile waters. A barge floated by
that had been floating for thousands of years.
Green-skinned Osiris rose slow and silent
out of the green papyrus thicket. Isis in her
infinite cloak, black and spangled with stars,
walked by me without noticing me. And then
I saw in the mud a lotus.
O red lotus of Antinous! How far I had to travel,
how many years I had to wander, how many
false starts and discouragements did I swallow
and move on, before I found you! Among
the most ancient gods of Egypt, a newcomer;
among the shining beautiful gods of Greece,
a beauty even they would notice; among
the stately Romans, a scandal of love
and passion, a youth who passed
from history into deity. Beloved of Hadrian,
remembered as an ornamental keepsake,
lounging in the boat until he fell asleep?
fell over? fell into the waters, or was pushed?
Beloved of Hadrian, lover of the Emperor,
a vital radiant youth deified by his death
in most ancient waters: Whoever drowns
in the Nile becomes one with Osiris.
One with Osiris, intoxicating like Dionysus,
oracular healer along with Apollo,
swift interpreter like Hermes, grandson
of Serapis, Lovely, Lovable, Fruitful,
worshipped not only by men who love men
but by women, by lovers, by old, by young:
Antinous, Lover, Liberator, Navigator,
I, your devotee, praise you and thank you
in honor of a year in your worship.