Year: 
2021

These are poems the River Styx and Charon. According to Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who transports the dead over the River Styx into Hades, the afterworld. There are also poems about death, dying and crossing over into the dark unknown …

 

Styx
by Michael R. Burch

Black waters, deep and dark and still . . .
all men have passed this way, or will.

I wrote the epigram above in high school and it became one of my first published poems. It was originally published by The Raintown Review

Charon 2001
by Michael R. Burch

I, too, have stood—paralyzed at the helm
watching onrushing, inevitable disaster.
I too have felt sweat (or ecstatic tears) plaster
damp hair to my eyes, as a slug’s dense film
becomes mucous-insulate. Always, thereafter
living in darkness, bright things overwhelm.

Originally published by The Neovictorian/Cochlea

To Flower
by Michael R. Burch

When Pentheus ["grief'] went into the mountains in the garb of the baccae, his mother [Agave] and the other maenads, possessed by Dionysus, tore him apart (Euripides, Bacchae; Apollodorus 3.5.2; Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.511-733; Hyginus, Fabulae 184). The agave dies as soon as it blooms; the moonflower, or night-blooming cereus, is a desert plant of similar fate.

We are not long for this earth, I know—
you and I, all our petals incurled,
till a night of pale brilliance, moonflower aglow.
Is there love anywhere in this strange world?

The Agave knows best when it's time to die
and rages to life with such rapturous leaves
her name means Illustrious. Each hour more high,
she claws toward heaven, for, if she believes
in love at all, she has left it behind
to flower, to flower. When darkness falls
she wilts down to meet it, where something crawls:
beheaded, bewildered. And since love is blind,
she never adored it, nor watches it go.
Can we be as she is, moonflower aglow?

Originally published by The Neovictorian/Cochlea

Mare Clausum
by Michael R. Burch

These are the narrows of my soul—
dark waters pierced by eerie, haunting screams.
And these uncharted islands bleakly home
wild nightmares and deep, strange, forbidding dreams.

Please don’t think to find pearls’ pale, unearthly glow
within its shoals, nor corals in its reefs.
For, though you seek to salvage Love, I know
that vessel lists, and night brings no relief.

Pause here, and look, and know that all is lost;
then turn, and go; let salt consume, and rust.
This sea is not for sailors, but the damned
who lingered long past morning, till they learned
why it is named:
Mare Clausum.

Originally published by Penny Dreadful

Mare Clausum is Latin for "Closed Sea." I wrote the first version of this poem as a teenager. It has been revised here and there. However, the poem remains essentially the same in meaning and the ending lines have survived unchanged. I seem to remember the poem being inspired by merely reading the term Mare Clausum somewhere and finding it eerie, haunting and a bit chilling. Over the years, I tried to find words and images with a similar eerie, haunting, chilling feel.

Shine, while you live;
blaze beyond grief,
for life is brief
and time is a thief.
—Michael R. Burch, after Seikilos of Euterpes

The famous Seikilos Epitaph above is the oldest known surviving complete musical composition which includes musical notation. It is believed to date to the first or second century AD. The epitaph appears to be signed “Seikilos of Euterpes” or to be dedicated “Seikilos to Euterpe.” Euterpe was the ancient Greek Muse of music.

You, my tall Columns, and you, my small Urn,
the receptacle of Hades’ tiny pittance of ash—
remember me to those who pass by
my grave, as they dash.
Tell them my story, as sad as it is:
that this grave sealed a young bride’s womb;
that my name was Baucis and Telos my land;
and that Erinna, my friend, etched this poem on my Tomb.
—Erinna, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Translator’s note: Baucis is also spelled Baukis. Erinna has been attributed to different locations, including Lesbos, Rhodes, Teos, Telos and Tenos. Telos seems the most likely because of her Dorian dialect. Erinna wrote in a mixture of Aeolic and Doric Greek. In 1928, Italian archaeologists excavating at Oxyrhynchus discovered a tattered piece of papyrus which contained 54 lines Erinna’s lost epic, the poem “Distaff.” This work, like the epigram above, was also about her friend Baucis.

Excerpts from “Distaff”
by Erinna
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

… the moon rising …
… leaves falling …
… waves lapping a windswept shore …

… and our childish games, Baucis, do you remember? ...

... Leaping from white horses,
running on reckless feet through the great courtyard.
“You’re it!’ I cried, ‘You’re the Tortoise now!”
But when your turn came to pursue your pursuers,
you darted beyond the courtyard,
dashed out deep into the waves,
splashing far beyond us …

… My poor Baucis, these tears I now weep are your warm memorial,
these traces of embers still smoldering in my heart
for our silly amusements, now that you lie ash …

… Do you remember how, as girls,
we played at weddings with our dolls,
pretending to be brides in our innocent beds? ...

... How sometimes I was your mother,
allotting wool to the weaver-women,
calling for you to unreel the thread? ...

… Do you remember our terror of the monster Mormo
with her huge ears, her forever-flapping tongue,
her four slithering feet, her shape-shifting face? ...

... Until you mother called for us to help with the salted meat ...

... But when you mounted your husband’s bed,
dearest Baucis, you forgot your mothers’ warnings!
Aphrodite made your heart forgetful ...

... Desire becomes oblivion ...

... Now I lament your loss, my dearest friend.
I can’t bear to think of that dark crypt.
I can’t bring myself to leave the house.
I refuse to profane your corpse with my tearless eyes.
I refuse to cut my hair, but how can I mourn with my hair unbound?
I blush with shame at the thought of you! …

... But in this dark house, O my dearest Baucis,
My deep grief is ripping me apart.
Wretched Erinna! Only nineteen,
I moan like an ancient crone, eying this strange distaff ...

O Hymen! ... O Hymenaeus! ...

Alas, my poor Baucis!

On a Betrothed Girl
by Erinna
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I sing of Baucis the bride.
Observing her tear-stained crypt
say this to Death who dwells underground:
"Thou art envious, O Death!"
Her vivid monument tells passers-by
of the bitter misfortune of Baucis —
how her father-in-law burned the poor girl on a pyre
lit by bright torches meant to light her marriage train home.
While thou, O Hymenaeus, transformed her harmonious bridal song into a chorus of wailing dirges.
Hymen! O Hymenaeus!

This portrait is the work of sensitive, artistic hands.
See, noble Prometheus, you have human equals!
For if whoever painted this girl had only added a voice,
she would have been Agatharkhis entirely.
—Erinna, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ibykos Fragment 286, Circa 564 B.C.
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come spring, the grand
apple trees stand
watered by a gushing river
where the maidens’ uncut flowers shiver
and the blossoming grape vine swells
in the gathering shadows.

Unfortunately
for me
Eros never rests
but like a Thracian tempest
ablaze with lightning
emanates from Aphrodite;
the results are frightening—
black,
bleak,
astonishing,
violently jolting me from my soles
to my soul.

Originally published by The Chained Muse

Elegy for a little girl, lost
by Michael R. Burch

. . . qui laetificat juventutem meam . . .
She was the joy of my youth,
and now she is gone.
. . . requiescat in pace . . .
May she rest in peace.
. . . amen . . .
Amen.

I was touched by this Latin prayer, which I discovered in a novel I read as a teenager. I later decided to incorporate it into a poem. From what I now understand, “ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” means “to the God who gives joy to my youth,” but I am sticking with my original interpretation: a lament for a little girl at her funeral. The phrase can be traced back to Saint Jerome's translation of Psalm 42 in the Latin Vulgate Bible (circa 385 AD). I can’t remember exactly when I read the novel or wrote the poem, but I believe it was around my junior year of high school, age 17 or thereabouts. This was my first translation.

 

Keywords/Tags: River Styx, Charon, Hades, ferry, ferryman, dead, death, afterworld, afterlife, unknown, undiscovered country, ancient Greece, Greek mythology

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Erinna and other poets
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