Jesse Diamond – SWIMMING THE HELLESPONT

Jesse Mavro Diamond ‘s poetry has been published in many journals in The U.S. Her awards include first place in Eidos magazine’s international poetry competition for “A Very Sober Story,” The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival’s “One of Ten Best Poems in the U.S.” for “Swimming The Hellespont. She was a finalist for 2014 Lascaux Poetry Prize and included in The Lascaux Prize Anthology 2014 for “Chetwynd Morning.” “An Elegy for Devron,” was musically scored by composer Mu Xuan Lin and premiered at Jordan Hall in 2008. For many years, Mavro Diamond has taught writing courses in Boston area colleges and high schools. She currently teaches English at Boston Latin School.


SWIMMING THE HELLESPONT

In Sappho’s arbor the maid smiled at me.
Her father was Chiron, the learned Centaur.
She leaned over and whispered, Meet me at dusk,
I will call us a dreamboat.

As the sun sank to lay with its lover,
and we rowed to the deep of the Strait,
Chiron’s daughter told me the story of Helle
who drowned swimming across

with her brother, to escape their cruel stepparent.
She sang in Sapphic verse, the exact phrasing
impossible to translate in our crude world.
She sang Leander’s story

whose love for Hero angered Aphrodite.
Hero was a priestess sworn to the goddess.
In that religion, as in many, devotion to godhead
cannot be challenged by human love.

Aphrodite swayed Zeus to drum up
a storm whose winds blew out Hero’s light
in her watch tower. Leander, like Helle,
lost his ocean battle.

When his body washed ashore
Hero tied herself to the corpse and dragging him,
dropped with his weight to their grave bed.
Ending her song,

Chiron’s daughter took my hand, asking,
Are you brave? We jumped overboard
and the love I dreamed of was born.
Returning to shore,

my love told me Chiron’s mother was a Cloud;
she taught me her grandmother’s art:
transmutation: flesh to water to air.
Two thousand years later,

I practice finding her in the grove
by the river Charles. I become my breath,
dissolve muscle, blood, bone,
rise, evaporate to wind.

Although my body is bound to fall,
condense to rain, reappear as teardrops
when I open my eyes, these lines of water
are the very sinews

that bind us as women, as lovers weeping
across light years of forgetfulness


2

I travel back 27 centuries,
to my disguise as Arion. I bind my breasts
and sail to Sicily, where I win
the singing contest.

Returning home, robbed by pirates
on the Corinthian ship, forced to jump
overboard, I am saved
by a female dolphin.

To arpeggio of wind and wave,
my thighs wrapped about her dorsal fin,
my arms mated to the silk
of her luminous neck

I sing her the secret of my gender:
the cithara hid my empty groin,
my womb is an open wound,
waiting for the salvage

of my true love’s hand. I confide
that I am doubly despised, despised
for my womb, despised
for my womb’s desire.

Certain I cannot last the depths
of night and sea, I bury my face
in the moony muscle of her back
and weep myself unconscious.

I awake, bare chest chafed by the sands
of Taenarum, as if Poseidon himself
had flung me from his trident
like a sour morsel.

I lay upon the Cape Matapan beach
listening to the echoing horn
of my savior’s voice, sweet dolphin,
whistling farewell:

Cherish your breasts, she sang,
for fruit as this is Aphrodite’s gift;
Beware the jealousies of men:
you are well loved

by all three Graces. Look no further
than your own voice when human headed
dragons flick their tongues
of fire in your face.

Your lyrics are your sword:
behead them with your song.


3

In the bunks at Dachau, I lay skeleton
to skeleton with my love, a Catholic girl.
Pregnant by a rape , still, my love’s
faith could not be broken.

I told her I saw in her eyes six pointed stars.
If we are separated, she said, find me
by the light of those stars.
That day, they took her

to the ovens and I fell into a fever,
my body nothing but porous bone and fire,
my breath a dry wind rattling through
the caged branches of my chest.

I dreamed she was alive, we were healthy,
sitting in a Budapest cafe, drinking sweet wine
from long-stemmed violet glasses.
The world had not yet shifted,

there was a safe place for tender things.
My love wore a cherry beret complimenting
the deep green of her dolphin eyes.
Reaching across the table,

she took my hand, held it lightly as salt,
her fingers, ribbons of cloud.
Then she told me: there is not one world,
but many. When this one ends

and we have lost each other in the Evil Forest
rebuild your memory of me, this night, these stars,
this dream which will seem but crumbs to you.
Follow the crumbs,

bend low to gather them; eat them,
they will sustain you. They will lead you out
of the forest to the banks of the river.
There, lying in bull rushes

you will discover the life my life
gave birth to. Lift the infant high,
enter the water singing, hold the babe
close as you cross

that bloody water. I am waiting for you
here, living on this far bank in the New World.


4

This fearful life is not made for the coward.
The smallest minds roll into the greatest wind
attacking the light in Hero’s tower.
That wind rarely ceases

as I swim with you, my brother,
as I swim toward you, my sister
against the bully tide.
If I should be Helle or Leander,

if I should drown, do not follow
Hero’s example, do not tie yourself
to my body, do not drag yourself
to lie with me

in that bed of lavender reef.
Lay down with my shadow in the arbor,
stretch your legs and sigh, as I did once,
dreaming of that boat I took

with Chiron’s daughter, of her arms
about my neck in the water.
Lay down with me, then walk away
into a new lover’s arms.

If you become that prisoner in Dachau
if the fire erupts and the fever
consumes you, let these phrases drop
like crumbs at your feet.

Bend low, gather them—Eat!
Step by step, reach the Great River,
discover the cherub born of your love,
wrap your wrists around her

Stride, breathe, sing—
you are the dolphin, you carry Arion,
bring your precious cargo to the other side.
Through this narrow strait,

Stroke on! Your legacy is your life.
Live on, love on, swim on.
               You know how to find us;
close your eyes to see us:

               Flesh, water, air, We await you, Here,
with open arms, living in the New World.

 

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