Poem of the Week | September 07, 2015

This week we feature a new poem by Kevin Prufer. Prufer’s newest books are Churches (2014), In a Beautiful Country (2011), and National Anthem (2008), all from Four Way Books. He’s also edited numerous volumes and co-curates The Unsung Masters Series, a book series devoted to bringing great, out-of-print authors to new readers. Poems from his new manuscript-in-progress are in Paris Review, A Public Space, New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and AGNI, among others.
 
Author’s note:

A long time ago, a professor of classics suggested to me that the story of the Cyclops was an attempt by Homer to help us understand what it means to be civilized, through the example of the Cyclops, who lives in an uncivilized condition. I began this poem by thinking about that and, as I wrote, the metaphor of the eye began to inhabit the poem, first in the Cyclops’ short-sightedness (and eventual no-sightedness), then, in other ways. Before I knew it, the poem was full of eyes—in the TV screen that peers into the room, in the cameras that film the riot, in the moon looking down on us, in the smashed headlights. I felt all of these eyes looking about as if to understand what we mean when we say we are civilized and where in our understanding of the word we can fit human emotion, humane-ness, empathy—all of which seemed strangely absent from this part of Homer’s tale. I don’t imagine the poem comes to any conclusions, but I like to think, in its leaping from position to position, that it is thinking very hard about the problem.

 

Civilization

 

One young thug smashed the Hyundai’s headlight with a baseball bat
while the other called his girlfriend on the phone.

 

(Blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus made a point about civilization.
The Cyclops threw stones in the direction of his ship.)

 

The moon said hi.

 

The car burned quietly in the alley until the heat reached the gas tank,
while the other cars did nothing but watch.

 

(Civilization requires, first of all, the coming together of many
in cooperative assembly.)

 

The moon said here I am, behind this cloud.

 

The reporter watched from a distance
while her cameraman uploaded footage of burning cars.

 

(The further his ship drew from that uncivilized place,
the more insignificant the weeping Cyclops seemed to Odysseus,
who busied himself with his maps.)

 

The moon rolled through black mists
sprinkling us with sleeping powder.

 

After a while, one part of the city was thick with smoke
while the other part watched the first part on TV.

 

(Was it blood or tears that dampened the Cyclops’ cheek?
All he knew was he was completely alone,
and he’d never see the blue fog float up from the sea again.)

 

The moon blinked angrily through smoke.

 

The television peered into the quiet room
where no one changed the channel.

 

(The Cyclops collapsed on the beach
and, with his enormous hand, covered up his empty socket.)

 

After a while, the moon, too, went black in its socket.

 

I’ve seen enough, one of us said,
so you turned off the TV
and then the lights.

 

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