The Potomac - Poetry and Politics
December 2006 - THE POTOMAC

The Bones of Ajax
   Michael Neff

To provoke in his quiescent people the shame
of a conquered nation—theirs since the victory
of Sulla—a dying Zeus, with a single thumb,
gouged from the sands of Rhoeteum

the carcass of a mammoth, scouring it with wind
so that even trade ships could hail it from afar.
Seeking shells for his mother, a village boy found it first,
believing the ribs curling up in early fog to be

an ancient galleon, perhaps even the Argo itself
levered by Poseidon from the sea bottom and nibbled
by years of urchin to a cage of white wood. Combing onto
the beach, the clans of village surrounded the find with smoke

and sacrifice. By noon they declared it Ajax. It could not
be debated, for the bones were legend-sized as those of a Titan,
that god-bold race killed by Zeus in the Gigantomachy,
their charred forms still smoking on the plains of Arcadia.

One kneecap of Ajax was the size of a pentathalon discus.
What must have been gullet, filled with dead sea minikin,
would allow a guzzling of seven amphora, the club of jaw
big enough to chew a bushel of almonds at once,

or bite a man's head from his body. Pausanias, a Roman
geographer, lunching beneath the Lion Gate of Mycenae,
was summoned--word sent by him to the Emperor Hadrian
who arrived by fleet to pay homage. Fearing the bones

might encrust with new flesh to begin a second
Gigantomachy against Rome, Hadrian honored
the fallen mammoth with ceremony and gilded tomb
till Zeus, unable to summon his bolts, took form

as a swan of shallow grief, and fell quietly,
like rain into the Aegean.

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