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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Ancient Symmetries
Alan Wall



(For Marius Kociejowski)


Poseidon’s bull springs from the waves.

White, deliriously beautiful

slated as sacrifice to the god of the sea.

A deal is a deal, after all.

Old King Minos is smitten

his wife feels Aphrodite’s curse

tickling her thighs, chewing the womb of her dreams.

Next stop after Smitten?

Bull unslaughtered.

A double stands in,

one tauros looks much like another

(videlicet any Iberian corrida).

Daedalus, supreme mechanic, asked to contrive

a wooden heifer into which Pasiphae

inserts her queenly body after dark

so a bull’s mighty pizzle

might navigate a trunk road

through the interior of her dark continent.

Cue moonshine. White disc of a bull-face waltzing.

And Aphrodite’s floating clouds of laughter

feathering a full moon.

Outcome on the far side of the equals sign:


First bellow announces

flawed genealogies

miscegenation of species

omission from next year’s royal Sandringham photographs.

Daedalus must now construct a labyrinth

in which our therianthrope

becomes a solitary lifer.

Condemned at birth

like Oedipus

before he even knows what’s hit him.

Half-man half-bull

keeping all his ontologies open.

Daedalus & Son obliged to join his party:

a fellow imprisoned on the isle of ingenuity

in a Royal Society of one.

Dark in there, and damp,

a cellar in Beirut, say, or a room in the Lubyanka,

Polish cattle trucks circa 1943.

Took away his liberty, not his know-how.

Wings fashioned for both father and son.

In the dark hear the clink of makeshift tools.

POWs digging through the stalag, as Icarus stands look-out.

Half-bird half-man

they lift off by the light of the moon

(to bullman bellows – why can’t I FLY?)

evading Cretan ground-to-air artillery, the Minoan flak.

Noon next day, swooping over wine-dark seas,

Icarus ventures higher even than an eagle dares and


down he goes in the water

highest of all high-divers.

Final column of the young man’s life

one line of zeroes, dioxide bubbles

rising from the swervy blue

where a distant waxwing plummets.

Time stops. His father’s wings outstretch, hold still.

A windhover in heaven.

The future now a speeding car windscreen

catching the onrush of a sudden storm

before wipers flick

to synchronise the blinding wet away.

The font down there

in that big blue baptistery

(where Icarus is christened for the second time)

big enough to swallow the whole world.

Daedalus watches tomorrow drown.

How exactly had he ever engineered today?

Poseidon opens that same fluent hole

from whence a white bull thrashed out,

closes one eye, yawns,

briefly contented with his meal.


Minotaur has regular eating habits,

according to the Gnomon’s mighty shadow:

each nine years seven youths and seven virgins.

Proteinaceous, though lacking in roughage.

One by one they’re pointed through

vast labyrinth doors carved by Ghiberti.

Rite of passage for the catechumens

behind bronze gates

opening on hell and heaven.

One by one taken apart and eaten

at leisure, organs sorted

according to size piquancy vitamin quotient

acidity (lifers tending to the bilious).

Time comes round again,

the face of Aegeus in Athens is sad.

I’ll go, says his son Theseus -

old man so heavy with the tribute demanded

it makes a young one grieve –

why ever agree to such danegeld?

No, no, no.

Dad, I said I’d go.

I’ll handle it.

So go he goes and handles it

the way Michael did for his old man Vito Corleone.

Only a question of killing, after all.


Now another curse from Aphrodite

(never any shortage there).

Over in Crete Ariadne takes one swift look

at this Athenian prince, falls

entirely as though she were playing her mother, he the big white bull

thrashing already inside her.

Theseus, her flesh thinks not her mind,

designed by Zeus to fit so snug between my thighs.

Anything, then, Prinnie. Name your price.

Entry and exit, he replies.

Must get in there


then out again, scrub down, and home.

Here my love’s a little glamour and a clew.

With one you kill him, my half-brother,

with the other

find your way back here to me.

The thread’s umbilical.

One condition only, given so great love

to betray my flesh and blood

for a crew of alien carpetbaggers hunting gold

this quisling passion they’ll call it.

Little tart, no better than she should be.

Take me with you darling when you go.


Done. Ariadne sails along with him.

On Naxos two days later dumps her.

One ancient parish record says she hangs herself

using the magical thread of that same clew

brought our boy safely through the labyrinth

once he’d slaughtered her half-brother.

Anything to quell the wandering womb

Greeks reckoned made for a woman’s throat

without man’s gravity to hold it down.

Or bull’s.

Back in Greek waters

our lads still carousing on deck

Signor Hero forgets to change black sail to white

as agreed with the old man a lifetime (plus one day) ago

in Athens.

Aegeus has stared out from cliff-tops

day after day after day

sees those black sails at last and knows

Minotaur has had a rich and royal meal

(his one and only)

he throws himself, dim-eyed and doting, into the sea

which promptly absorbs his flesh

bones blood name

henceforth the Aegean

introducing him later that day

to the artificer’s son.

Divers from diverse generations.

No shoes required. No crowns.

Subaquean protocol alone obtains down here.

Poseidon licks his lips with satisfaction.

Snoozes wetly as amniotic tides

salute the moon. How fluently the hours



Years later…decades – the calendar’s occluded here –

Theseus in need of a wife

(who lost the Amazonian mother of his son


picks up Phaedra, Ariadne’s sister (well, why not?).

Gospels tell us

best not to let the right hand know

what the left is doing.


Dear Phaedra,

I hope you are happy with him now.

I remember that first night on the boat, how happy I was. Ravished and ravishing. The tide beneath us swelling almost as much as he did.

Felt like our dear mother must have done with old Tauros Blanco in his high field, white as the hair on Poseidon’s waves, squeezing and thrashing through her harbour walls.

On Naxos that night he led me to the tanglewood

only noticing after our third embrace

a shrew, its minute neck broken

staring so emptily

up into the moon’s white face.

We stepped apart then

as though an invisible cortège

must be given passage between us.

(Memory like an elephant, haven’t I?)

Live here in heaven now with Dionysus my redeemer, as you might have read in the periodicals. A god’s wife. Dinners are grand, believe me. They come from such enormous distances to get here. Some haven’t eaten for a year. And some have suns for eyes. Certain evenings I have to wear shades even to sit at the mahogany table and keep smiling. All in the fast lane, chauffeured along at the speed of light.

Some nights when he goes off

to the great consult

I stare at distant fires

a million miles away

a million years

see mighty shadows

(part of this family once)

raising their mighty shadow hands to the flames

as if to keep warm inside time’s ruins.

Tell him that I resent nothing. Except maybe our half-brother. Euthanasia really wasn’t the answer, I’ve come to believe. A vegetarian diet might well have calmed him. Or maybe a beautiful white heifer, sprinkled with the merest hint of Poseidon’s magic salt. A little salted bull’s wife settling beneath him. She could have shouted at midnight almost as loud as he did. Or I did once.

Your loving sister,



Aphrodite still looking to get even.

Gods never call it quits

and goddesses are worse.

There in the palace Phaedra

between the gilt frames and the polished tables

falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus

while Theseus is off abroad somewhere, cutting deals

in platinum promises and futures

(New York, Tokyo. Fill in the gaps for yourself.)

Our boy’s devoted to Artemis

rejects with priestly disdain her rival’s unseemly advances

to Aphrodite’s fury.

Ressentiment: Nietzsche’s motor of history.

Now vengeance wakes to its duties:

it is time once more.

Phaedra hangs herself from rafters

leaving a letter blaming the boy

for seducing her. Theseus returning

believes the posthumous libel

banishes his son, calling down one of three curses

still owed him by Poseidon

that master of the salt mines of the heart.

Cue bell sound; end-of-round tally.

Two sisters gone from his bed into the same tight noose.

How vagrant wombs migrate into the throat’s constriction.

Now wait now see

what delights arrive once more

in this world of Newton’s Third Law:

towards each action, an equal and opposite

pendulum swings. What goes around

comes around.

As the carriage gets to shore

where once he’d sucked in a winged son

once spewed forth a white bull

Poseidon emits another in answer to his distant promise

(a deal is a deal, after all)

not beautiful like the white one

merely vast ferocious speedy.

Minotaur horns. Minotaur rage.

Horses panic, throw Hippolytus,

drag him to an early death.

Only then does Theseus learn

how Phaedra in her fatal misery

had lied, turning all Poseidon’s oceans

into one large angry womb.


Poseidon’s Diary

My epidermis, remember.

The itching, heaving

terrible flesh of the sea.

Who sail in boats

flirt with winds

(sozzled, dancing at midnight on deck)

black sails I carry

as a rhino carries a raven on his back.

Black sails

a nocturnal butterfly, no more,

anthracite moth to navigate the white thigh of my breakers.

Tiniest irritation

mischief and death can fling

upon my tides.

Our hero’s father, hurling himself into waves below,

a caterpillar flung into my leaky beard.

The child is father to the man.

And this one’s gift? To procreate death.

A womb black and leathery as midnight bats.


Note how Ariadne and her sister Phaedra

      both take Theseus

or vice versa.

Some say Ariadne hanged herself on Naxos

      all agree

Phaedra did one day in Greece.

White bull’s intolerable beauty

      ejaculated from Poseidon’s waves

till Hyppolytus re-fills his silk salt gap.

See how He likes to keep things balanced

      sea against sky

fate up above mirrored by judgment below.


This day Poseidon

      sees his son blinded

weeps in the salt of sea and rain

      no one seeing that face

daubed on a seaside postcard

      would notice, gazing on the ancient’s

liquid features, graysoaked

      waterfalls of grief through the bluff of his beard

a liquid funeral mourning. Just sea,

      salt’s symmetry. Not one eye, you notice,

nor the other – both at once.

      No monocle, no asymmetric tear

always two moons gleaming in a lachrymatory

.       Meanwhile Aphrodite coughs three

dry white clouds into the blue and chuckles.

      Hearing her, remembering the terms of engagement

between them, Poseidon spat out white waves too

      eyes brimming at last with salt

and laughter. Some mariners made landfall

that day. Others drowned.