Polyphemos, blind Sicilian
shepherd prince of carnivores,
intentness in his empty eye,
clambered to the high cliffs,
barking his shins against boulders,
bloodying his nose on trees,
to pull down the tallest, straightest pines
and strip them into beams.
He painted them with fired pitch,
with sinew lashed them side by side,
and for a mast, he propped in place
his shepherd’s staff–
its tip still sticky, sharp and black
where Nobody had gored him.
Polyphemos, lonely no-clops,
desired only peace and quiet
and someone to forgive his sins.
His brothers shunned him, ostracized him,
cruelly mocked his weaknesses.
“Look out, brother!” they taunted him,
then prodded at his ravaged face.
“Which of you did that?” he bellowed.
“Nobody,” they chanted.
Hunger tortured Polyphemos.
Even sheep mistrusted him.
His flock no longer cuddled up,
but fled, and blind, he couldn’t catch them.
“Hypocrites!” he railed at them,
“You need protection, stupid beasts–
you’re just as gullible as I!”
Polyphemos heard the happy
howls of wolves, the frightened bleats.
His belly rumbled–but his heart
conceded they were right.
To pursue life as a shepherd
one must have vision, if not sight.
Polyphemos was resolved.
He would escape from Sicily,
the island of his shame, and seek
a place where no one knew him.
He’d cast himself away, upon
the mercy of his father.
The raft complete, he slung a sail
–the pelts that once had clothed him–
and, naked, shoved off from his home.
“At least he still has one eye left!”
his brothers heckled him from shore.
“Our father won’t help you, cripple;
he honors only worthy sons,
warlike and wise, not self-pitying.”
“Once,” Polyphemos protested,
“I was mightiest among you!”
His brothers hurled boulders,
but many-eyed Argos, patron god
of depth perception, made them miss.
“Nobody loves me,” he lamented.
A lusty Zephyr, cheeks distended
mistook the raft’s sail for a sow;
sad Polyphemos floated East,
breakers parting at his brow.
From dank cave black with memory
to dead tree cleft by wizard’s ire
moped drunken, friendless Caliban.
lonely monarch, red-scaled liar,
pacing the limits of his reign.
In the cavern, where he hoarded
shipwrecked wine, he clutched and shuffled,
taking count of what remained.
“Mustn’t waste it,” he repeated,
“Ought to swallow from the spring.
But who’s to miss one little sip?
Not me.” He pulled a stopper, filled
no cup, but gulped straight from the spout.
At the windswept, cloven tree,
he danced, cajoled, entreated.
“Mama! Sycorax!” he shouted.
“Prospero despatched you here
without just burial or rites.
Your demon master, Setebos,
deserves your soul for his companion.
But if you linger still, you know
what I’ve endured. Grant me your ear!
Mama, I’ve changed. Let me atone
for all those times I disobeyed.
I’ll be a good, devoted son,
if you’ll just rise and rescue me
from this Tartarean ennui!”
Waves tossed. The tree creaked. No answer.
“But I forget,” growled Caliban,
“you, witch, were stranded here yourself.
You can’t escape from hell–never mind
the near-eternal torment of
this pestilently boring isle.”
He spat on the tree’s lifeless root,
then dragged himself gloomily wineward.
Caliban reeked of sour spirit,
seaweed and salt. Shorebirds dive-bombed,
hoping for a morsel of him.
He caught one with a swipe, bit off
its squawking head and swallowed.
At the cave, he emptied a cask,
scratched another clawmark in the wall,
pissed profusely in a corner,
then felt again the urge to curse.
Such was his life.
Sea gulls sat on Polyphemos,
squawking, flapping, pecking nits,
excreting cool salve down his back.
He howled and swatted them like bugs.
When they were gone, he missed them.
Fish jumped and smacked deliciously
against the ocean’s chest; sharks ate
their fill, but wouldn’t share,
no matter how he begged them.
Harsh sun beat on Polyphemos;
nothingness surrounded him
in shades of flaming dark.
His flesh burned, blistered, peeled and cracked,
his empty eye leaked salty tears,
and Polyphemos drank them.
A momentary respite woke
the no-clops from delirium:
a cooling absence crossed his brow
like death’s anticipated kiss.
It was the shadow of a cloud!
“Father! Poseidon!” he beseeched,
“I’ve sailed for ages, hours, to find you
suffering Heaven’s disapproval,
braving thirst and near starvation.
All I ask is that you hear my plea.
Grant me pity! Tell me, truly:
is there mercy in this world
for monsters such as me?”
Winds rose–no Zephyrs these, but gales–
and on their backs, Poseidon came.
“What irrational demands
are these? Pity? Mercy? Idiot!
You summon me, a god, for this?
Is it Poseidon’s son who speaks?
Are you a cyclops or a child?
You want my love? Don’t waste my time!
It’s in your nature to devour
and glut. I made you thus!”
“Then why, Father, am I punished?
If I’m not to blame, then why
must I endure a life alone,
cut off from family, friends, and sheep?”
Thunder boomed; hail struck the cyclops’ back
like boulders thrown from Sicily.
“Punished! Haven’t I scourged the seas
after Odysseus and his crew,
raising the righteous wrath of all
my brethren gods, who favor him?”
“What good is that?” asked Polyphemos,
“When I still suffer infamy?
Was I greedy, father? Was I
over-proud? Do I, like Tantalus,
deserve this dry eternity
of endless wetness, burning thirst?”
Poseidon roared, “Enough! Enough!”
“What must I do to stop your groans?”
“If you pity me, deliver me.
Send me asylum–a place I won’t
be persecuted. Grant me
one friend who won’t berate me.
Otherwise, just let me drown.”
Another god’s repentant child
might have been treated kinder.
The trident of Poseidon plunged,
driven by rage, exasperation;
currents, like the fists of Tritons,
propelled the flimsy raft towards fate.
rode the tempest onward.
“Ariel!” shrieked Caliban,
pounding the dead trunk with his fists,
“Unstrand me here! Bring back the ship
that bears my jailor. Send a gale
that founders every sail for miles
but leaves me one. I never set
you prisoner here–it was the witch!
I couldn’t stop her. Think! Be fair.
Don’t visit an unjustified
revenge, when so much punishment
is so dearly deserved!”
Thunder rattled in the distance.
Clouds approached like cannon-shot,
and on a whirling water-spout,
wily Ariel descended.
“Your bellyaches exhaust me, moon-calf.
Prospero will not return here.
When that impeccable magician
broke his staff, both you and I lost
power over him. And this wretched
Isle of Setebos–it too was lost.
No power but a god’s can save
you now. Wretch, traitor, perjurer,
this is your fate: accept it!”
The shadow of a craft appeared
upon the storm; its sails flapped,
tattered, from the mast, it rocked
precariously. The stench of death
it carried reached across the sea.
“Which god did that?” asked Caliban.
“You stubborn sprite! I’ll beg no more.”
The scaled king shambled shoreward,
laughing rabidly. The battered
vessel floated near, then foundered;
the ugly giant on its back
spilled off into the shallows,
and hope-besotted Caliban
plunged cavorting after.
Ariel, that clever sprite,
gathered sea mist close about
and faded fast from sight.
Bold Caliban, the sea-hag’s son,
wrested Poseidon’s heir ashore
and woke him, gently, with a clout.
Vast fists gripped Caliban, exploring.
“Clawed hands–but gentle. Scaled, but strong.
Who are you, strange savior? Speak!”
“I’m Caliban–a monster king,
my kingdom: Setebos, an isle.
A lonely kingdom–until now–
but fertile desert, fair and green.”
“The brother that was promised me!”
The black crust on the no-clops’ eye
quaked with emotion. “And this place–
a paradise! You and I shall
conquer solitude together,
boon companions, fellow outcasts.
Dwelling here, in peace, is fated us.
A god decreed it!”
“Companions? What? Why, yes, of course!
But first, friend god, tell me your name,
so I may thank you properly.”
“I am Polyphemos, late of
Sicily–a shepherd. But I–“
“A shepherd god, you say? How rare!
A god of wisdom, peace, long sight?”
“No, no–not sight, and not a god,
nor was it wisdom brought me here.
I was a cyclops, long ago
until Nobody blinded me.
But yes, kind brother: I believe
in peace, goodwill and harmony.
Once, I would devour and glut,
eating friends and enemies alike.
But since I lost my eye to greed,
I am reformed!”
“Why, what a fascinating tale
but stop–you must be weary, sore
from such a journey. Let me help.
Wait here, my friend–drink will revive you!”
(“What luck,” he thought, “a blind dupe, and
an imbecile! Did he suppose
I’d miss that ghastly orifice
leaking black poison down his brow?
In truth, I almost pity him.
What kind of weakling giant blames
Nobody for such infamy,
seeks no revenge? Whatever sent
him here–sprite, god, or demon–
must have intended me to teach him
how a true pariah acts!”)
Caliban hurried to the cave.
Shouldering a pair of casks,
the last remaining of his hoard,
the well-intentioned monster king
toiled back to Polyphemos.
“Drink deep, my friend. Forget your aches.
Two tortured sinners such as we
Polyphemos, like a baby
suckling a decanter’s teat,
tipped a wine-cask to his muzzle
then, with a cry, pushed it away.
“But this is wine! I know too well
and its sorrows. I’m blind now, but
some things I see more clearly.
It was Nobody who gave me
my first taste; I swallowed all,
drank every drop, then fell asleep.
And then he stabbed me with a poker.”
“But surely, friend,” said Caliban,
“You don’t mean to accuse me
of such treachery. You spoke the truth:
a blinded eye cannot deceive.
Am I not your boon companion?
We were united by the Fates!
Take it from me, a veteran
of wine: I have gone blind with drink
a thousand times. If you refuse
to climb back on that fish and ride
how will you find out whether drink
is not enough to make you see?”
Polyphemos pondered this.
His ravaged face lit up with joy.
“You mean all this could be a dream?
Or else that wine could heal my wound?
Why, I had never thought of that–
my new companion is most wise!
I am twice blessed.”
Said Caliban: “Try some, and see.”
So Polyphemos tipped the cask
and guzzled wine, as fast as he
could pour; it splashed into his eye,
he screamed, but still he gulped it down.
“It’s wonderful!” he shouted.
“That’s it,” said Caliban, eyeing the raft,
“Drink up! The light’s a-wasting.”
Polyphemos, having emptied
one cask, started on the other.
“I think it’s working–yes! I see
the sun! Oh, friend, how much I owe!
How did I survive without you?”
Polyphemos reached for Caliban
in order to embrace him, but
the wine went to his head. He fell
eye-socket first into the sand.
And Caliban, rejoicing, dove
into the shallows, grabbed the raft
and righted it. “Now fare thee well,
my worthy fool! Enjoy your reign
over my island kingdom:
I bequeath my monarchy to you!
Take this last piece of wisdom:
always devour when you can!
When next a lonely traveler
washes ashore, don’t be so quick
to trust his word!”
Caliban, scaled king of traitors
shoving off his stolen craft,
rode away over the breakers.
“Now, Ariel–or Sycorax–“
he prayed, “or else whatever god
looks well on me, and so despises
Polyphemos: send him a cask
of wine to soothe his shame
and me a wind–towards Prospero
Sly Ariel threw off her cloak
of mist. She blew a kiss. The wind
blew Caliban from sight, then ceased–
and in the sudden calm, she sighed relief.
“My poor moon-calf. You didn’t know
how well you lived on Setebos.
It has a demon’s name, it’s true
And solitude to drive even
a half-immortal spirit mad
but in isolation also
lies a chance for peace, redemption.
Don’t pity Polyphemos–he’ll
less lightly throw that chance away.
The sands and winds of Setebos
may blunt Time’s fire-sharpened staff.
The songs of birds–of Ariel–
may teach his wounds to scar
Now that the wine and Caliban,
heroes and gods have left him be.”
The sun sank over Setebos
while Polyphemos dreamed of sheep
and Ariel, swift messenger
for no king or Olympian,