Achilles in Hell



He emerges from a fog of smoke

coughs a grouted smoker’s cough, repetitive,

a machine gun sound

that disgusted and excited him

when he was alive.

*

A cigarette hangs from his mouth

like an old-fashioned gangster

in a 1930s flick –

he’d like that look, I think

he always craved to be a movie star.

*

He flicks the tip on the ground,

where it joins a carpet of slag,

coalmine thick. I’ve never seen

so much ash – piles of black dust

that gathers in drifts, shifting, restless

*

and shapes into forms, dissolves, reforms

volatile stalactites – hints of lives extinguished

old, young, women, men, the famous,

the beautiful, the plain, the secret rulers,

the obscure, the ignored

*

all together, all alike, as he is –

his greatest fear accomplished –

his substance an illusion.

He moves toward us

the same jerky walk as in life –

*

not a gangster’s swagger –

and though he sneers, he is a shade

of himself, a ragged animation

of his quirks and tics – jabbing finger,

mocking lips, jutting chin, erratic eyes.

*

He is not alone –

in death as in life, he is surrounded

by sycophants, gophers, deadpan

men and silent painted women –

his mouth puckers, he wants to talk –

*

and words fall out like vomit

unhinged and disjointed, a parody

stream of consciousness whining

through him, gasping through him,

he speaks and speaks and speaks –

*

easily swallowing the air around him:

every word bloats him

and robs oxygen from the lungs

already tight and gasping

of his pale court.

*

‘I won, I am a winner, I hate the dead –

give me back my life, come on come on

you can give me 11,000 little lives

for my big one, 11,000 souls,

I’m worth that

*

at least – make me immortal,

save me, save me, die yourself!’

But his voice is a rasping drone.

Here, nothing saves him

nor the wraiths around him,

*

nor those beyond him, the others,

those he crushed or shrugged off;

here winning and losing

have no currency: it’s the end

of the deal, an eternal lockdown –

*

no reward, no punishment, no change, no glitter, no gold –

just a whisper in the drear

and silence.

Urge not my death to me, nor rub that wound,

I rather wish to live in earth a swain,

Or serve a swain for hire, that scarce can gain

Bread to sustain him, than, that life once gone,

Of all the dead sway the imperial throne

Homer, The Odyssey, Book 11, translated by George Chapman.

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