This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft
and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before Thorazine,
which the suicide O'Laughlin called "handcuffs for the mind."
It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,
Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,
find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,
or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.
It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.
Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary
to neutralize communists with prayer.
When electroshock was electrocution
and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.
And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then
you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards
of state and private institutions,
and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head
sunk past quagmires, coups d'etat, and disappearances
and in this way find a place in history
among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,
though hidden by an epoch of lean notation -- "Marked
Parkinsonian tremor," "Chronic paranoid type" --
a time when the animal slowed by its fate
was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail
or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy
when for a moment her hands were still.
If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife
and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge – then you read Homer as I did,
too fast, knowing you’d be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.
Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who’s nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not
a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog
you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely
but instead you race ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.
Michael Collier is the author of six books of poetry: The Clasp and other poems, Wesleyan, 1986; The Folder Heart, Wesleyan, 1989; The Neighbor, University of Chicago, 1995; The Ledge, Houghton-Mifflin, 2000; Dark Wild Realm, Houghton-Mifflin, 2006; An Individual History, W.W. Norton, 2012; Prose: Make Us Wave Back: Essays on Poetry and Influence, University of Michigan, 2007; Translation: Medea, 2006; Editions: The Wesleyan Tradition: Four Decades of American Poetry, 1993; The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (with Stanley Plumly), 1999; The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, 2000; A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (with Charles Baxter and Edward Hirsch) 2004.