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Listening to the Iliad while Raking Leaves

Summer 2018 - Vol. 60, No. 3

 

This poem appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Homer versing through my iPod tempts me to impute
Great heroic virtue to my conquered oak leaf foes,
The spoils my rake has won in its rhythmic march across the lawn.
Thoreau himself claimed Hector as his vanquished enemy,
Reincarnate and masquerading as some prideful weed
Intent on butchering his civilized Grecian beans. That would make
Thoreau Achilles, though, and neither he nor I would want
Achilles’ glory with its fated rage and death: He never
Made it home but fumed in Hades, longing bitterly
For news of his son and aging father. He earned this punishment,
Felled by the chronic flaw of heroes who insist on thinking
That glorious death is better than a quiet life at home.
So Thoreau, worried he too might fall, moved to Walden,
Spurned the glories for which his neighbors spent their lives, enjoyed
Each necessity of life with great deliberation.
Yet he likened his work, as do I, to that of Homer’s epic
Heroes: our repetitive slaughter with hoe and rake become
Endless spear thrusts, sharp sword slashes, shield parries, boulder
Tossings (effortless for Hector, though each boulder, Homer
Tells me, weighs much more than any modern man could ever
Lift) so that we harvest honor from death after death after death.
Do Thoreau and I simply inscribe the mundane with Homer’s
Meaning and in the act of writing succumb to the lure of glory?
It is hard, Achilles found, to turn away from pride,
But I at least will not exalt my labors by a funeral
Pyre: a burn ban dooms my leaves to rest in quiet state,
Where a slower heat transmutes them into garden compost.
And while my foes are numerous, their small, irenic bodies
Give me little cause to claim divine support, though Homer
Doubtless would insist that gods alone could make his words
Speak in my ears three thousand years away, and Thoreau would ask
Whether I thought my iPod came from God or Devils, and if
This gadget were essential to my life? No, I would
Admit, but these old words may be if they help discern
What is. And like these piled corpses of leaves, they feed the roots
That are essential to a healthy life. For in our work
Of killing leaves and weeds we cultivate what great Achilles
Never gained and what Odysseus regained only
After many years of toil, the goal that Thoreau knew
Ought to be our being’s greatest task: to make it home.

Jeffrey Bilbro is assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University and editor in chief of Front Porch Republic. His books include Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature and Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms.