Greek Class

This box of silent books troubles me.
Its sides are caved in, disappointed
by my worn out excuses.
If I bend the flaps open,
mustiness closes my nose
and I am in Greek class again.

You taught us Greek as if it were math;
every particle fit an order so crisp, so elegant
like lines of geometry, profoundly simple.
Real life never fit into those neat declensions,
but slipped between, untidy fallacies:
love, death, anger, time.

Honest words
I groped towards meaning
through the clutter of English
our language too soft, too dull
to reflect their many facets.
My mind, a sieve, tried to catch
small particles that orbited
around a larger meaning.

In later years words became mere tools
to pry apart life’s meaning.
But experience did not yield
like sentences we chalked on your board,
took apart, reconstructed, proved,
disproved by theorems of grammar.
What is the grammar of love?
How shall we construe death?
Where is the paradigm for despair?

Sitting on the desk you smoked cigarette
after cigarette lighting up every seven minutes
hands trembling from nicotine your body
no longer felt.  Inspired, we inhaled.
We had no choice — Greek and smoke
together, filtering meaning through haze.

You could not teach us poetry:
you were never a doer or a maker.
But as we sang the rising/falling accents of ancient words
Ancient music came to life, long-dead people
talking, arguing, loving, dying to that music.
English makes a science of these sounds:
they do not play on our ears
or dance on a stage.

But cigarettes and alcohol
and all the things you (being no poet)
could not do or make
broke your paradigm.
Like a Pythagorean discovering the impossible proof
You had to die, or change your religion.
You could not change, so you died.

I have kept my books:
Plato, Xenophon, Herodotus.
Like friends I have not written to in years
they needle my conscience,
draw my guilt like blood.
Sometimes
I open the box,
lift a volume out, feel
its weight, gently
turn fragile pages, run my eyes
over words that have faded.
That slow ache
is one more untidy detail.

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