Scott Cairns
January 2005


Three Descents


As the belovéd Palinurus sank
more deeply beneath wave and memory,
as the remnant of his race descended

painted planks to step on foreign shore
and there spark fire, gather wood and water,
even as the god’s red fist fell hard into the sea,

Aeneas pressed through tangled underbrush
to gain the door to hell. First, of course, he found
the temple of another petty god, graved

with images of all that lay ahead—
his fortune and the fate of every soul
he’d implicated in his flight from Troy.

He barely looked, so used he had become
to how little pleasure Time could bring,
so engaged by the prospect of stepping

briefly out of it, if only to return
to Time’s demands when he returned to light.
He hurried through the golden vault to find her

whose words would lead him through the awful gates.
And what would he remember years from now
of what he’d find? Little, save the wretched

figure of his own father coupling death,
nearly indistinguishable amid
that mass of shade like dogs tied together,

whining. And the figure of the Sybil
likewise bound, then tossed, a bent toy skipped across
a marble floor, moot refusal widening

her eyes, opening her throat as the god’s thin voice
coughed out the infernal terms Aeneas
believed he sought, might welcome, until he heard them.


That his eyes positively shone with the image
he had shaped—of sweet reprieve, of his hand upon
the belovéd, lifting her from the narrow crypt

caught floating on barren stillness, unaccustomed
silence—could not be comprehended by those few
whose minds retained a trace of how the present gloom

was nothing of itself, but served to amplify
the absence of the luminous occasions worked
above. That his lit gaze upon those shades who lined

the path could hurt them like a flame did not occur
to him, though he observed their trembling as he passed,
had puzzled as they shrank, slipped back into the Dis.

Her tender heel bitten to the bone, the woman
could barely walk the ruined path she followed down,
and as he pressed with greater speed to apprehend

he frail figure hobbled by its crumbling clay, she turned
to understand the source of sudden suffering,
as if a boy had held a surgeon’s glass above

a shriveling midge now stricken by the sun’s light drawn
and focused to a beam. As their eyes met, her loss
was total and immediate. When he returned

alone to the sunlit world of things, his life
became one long attempt at shaking free his culpability
in her undoing. And late, as his own flesh

was torn, his body sundered by the famished hands
of famished women, he breathed a last, a single note,
contrite at how his lesser love had hurt her.


That his several wounds continued to express
a bright result, that still the sanguine flow
coursed tincturing the creases of his cheek

and wended as he walked to bless the bleak,
plutonic path with crimson script declaring
just how grave the way that he had come,

that underfoot the very clay he traveled
sank beneath an unaccustomed weight
occurs as no surprise. That he was glad

is largely otherwise, as would be the news
that every sprawling figure found en route
acquired at his approach an aspect far

more limpid that the lot that lay ahead.
As if his passing gained for hell itself
a vivifying agency, each shade

along the way rose startled, blinking, at once
aware that each had been, until this moment,
languishing, until this moment, dead.

Thus, suddenly aware that each among
the withered crowd had by his presence met
a sudden quickening, the multitude

made glad by his descent, inclined to join
him on the path recovering each loss,
exulting in each past made newly present.

His etched face luminous and very flesh
made brilliant by the unremitting pulse,
he gains the farthest reaches where the ache

of our most ancient absence lay. He lifts
our mother and our father from beneath
the mindless river, draws them to himself, and turns.

From Philokalia: New & Selected Poems (Zoo Press, 2002).