Laocoon

Paisley Rekdal

And then he says, Laocoon
            suffers, yes; but he
suffers like Sophocles’
            Philoctetus: we

would like to bear pain
            ourselves the way this
sublime man bears it
,
             but I do not see him

bearing it. There is the snake
             launched at his thigh,
there are the sons twined
            in the many hard coils—

one shrugging desperately
             at a tail loop
cinched to his ankle
             as he reaches and cries—

there are the small,
            convulsive muscles
writhing in arm and leg,
             forehead so shot through

with wrinkle that the thick hair
             curls–torturous,
Medusan–can barely be
             distinguished from the face:

all are so disordered
             with pain he is only
contraction and grip, but:
             It is the mouth, he says,

our museum guide, the set of it
             which does not allow him to cry out
horribly as in Virgil’s poem:
            all that we imagine

may emerge from him
             is an oppressed sigh,
the mind keeping in what
             the body wants out so

flesh and spirit balance
             to keep each other
in delicate check.
Is there
             equilibrium? The mouth

gapes only slightly, yes,
            but there is so little
real repose: death makes dynamic
             what beauty before

would have demanded
             stay still: always
the hand outstretched with
             discus or basket,

the mild eyes searching
             the stone universe.
But this is stone that bears
             no suffering beautifully: I say

there is no abstract collusion
             between mind
and material: no: Laocoon
             revolts with all his muscle,

all his will: thrashing

             and pulling up long
coils of serpent: this is not relent
             or understand,

this is not accept
             what the gods
have planned, the great feet
             slipping on their cold stone.

Years ago, my uncle,
             a fisherman, sliced the head
off a shark feeding too long
             by the ship’s bow.

It was night,
             he said, he sawed
at the gills with his fishing knife
             until the thick skin

ripped, separated, and the white
             stub face sank slowly
under a cold spray.
             He watched as long

as he was able to the shark’s
             swift descent into dark
until the body rose–fighting
             towards the nerveless surface

of the waves to circle
             my uncle’s ship once more;
to repeat, exactly,
             its last few moments

of action and desire.
             What is equilibrium?
The sculptor goes to the marketplace
             each day to find

just the right pair
             of arms and shoulders,
to piece together
             out of all the possibilities in life

one man, one ideal:
             he cuts stone down
until all flesh is one flesh,
             until he enters it, finding

what death there is for him
             inside the stone,
until the face he makes under the chisel
             becomes his own.

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