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What Passed at Colonus

in memory of Czeslaw Milosz

His instruction calmed us, his company and voice
Were like high tidings in the summer trees,
Except this time he turned away and left us.
He walked to where the stream goes underground
And a steep bank paved with flagstones
Leads down to a lintel in the earthwork.
And there he stood, studying what next,
Between a stone cairn and a marble plaque
To the dead of our late wars.
Other wars and words were in my mind,
Another last look taken upon earth—
Roads shining after rain
Like uphill rivers
—so that I all but
Wept for his loneliness.
                    He loosed the girdle then
Off his scarecrow rags, called for his girls to fetch
River water for him, find a place
Where overhanging grass combed long and green
And dip their pitchers there. So off they went
And came with overbrimming vessels back
To pour a last libation and to wash
Their dear departing father, hand and foot,
Prepare his linen garment and do all
According to the custom for the dead.

And when all was done, and the daughters waiting,
There came a noise like water rising fast
Far underground, then a low blast and rush
As if some holy name were breathed on air,
A sound that when they heard it made the girls
Cry out, and made blind Oedipus
Gather them in his arms. “My children,” he said—
And the rest of us felt that we were his then too—
“Today is the day that ends your father’s life.
The burden I have been to myself and you
Is lifted. And yet it was eased by love.
Now you must do without me and relearn
The meaning of that word by remembering.”

Then the waterfall of sound behind him grew
Into an overwhelming cavern-voice
Shouting shouts that came from all directions:
“You there. What are you waiting for? You keep
Us waiting. It’s time to move. Come on.”

And now he was a stranger. He groped in air
As the daughters went to him, heads on his breast,
And he found and kissed their brows, instructing them
One final time: they were to turn and go
And (these were his words exactly) not look upon
Things that were not for seeing, nor listen to
Things not for hearing.
                    And what he said to them
We took again as meant for all of us,
So turned away together when he turned
Away, with the king accompanying him.

But after a few steps I and other ones
Halted to look back. He was gone from sight:
That much I could see, and against the sky
The king had his arm up shielding his two eyes
As if from some brilliant light or blinding dread.
Next he was on his knees, head bowed to earth
In homage to those gods who dwell in it,
Then up again with his arms spread out to honour
The gods on high, like a windlass being turned
By every power above him and below,
Raised out knowledge into knowledge, sole
Witness of what passed.
                    No god had galloped
His thunder chariot, no hurricane
Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,
Or gullible, but that man surely went
In step with a guide he trusted down to where
Light has gone out but the door stands open.

(adapted from Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1586–1666)

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