To Banquet with the Ethiopians

“I don’t know of any poet living in America today who would even attempt what Philip Brady has masterfully accomplished in To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet. Like a modern-day Homer or Joyce, Brady set out to re-envision his life as a mythic voyage after undergoing heart surgery and experiencing his own personal descent into the underworld. At times funny and often revelatory, Brady writes with incantatory power as he contemplates the arc of life, moving seamlessly between memory and myth, the humdrum and the metaphysical, carrying his reader like a boat on a wave with his lush language and oratorical ease.”

—Nin Andrews, author of Sleeping with Houdini and Why God Is A Woman

Click the link to purchase this book through the publisher: Purchase To Banquet with the Ethiopians

Praise for To Banquet with the Ethiopians

“The work has that sense of the contemporaneity of the ancient, a kind of muscularity and lushness of rhetoric as embodying the physical force of the ancients—obviously the orality of the performance does as well—and yet the philosophical layering feels quite immediate, owned, bound to the dailiness of the scholar as hostage, as exile, as subject not only to time but the power architectures built to manage our anxiety over time.”

—Bruce Bond, author of Choir of the Wells and Peal

“I know no one with Philip Brady’s profound sense of his work’s embeddedness in history, its origins in the body, its realization of community. Long live the Ethiopians!”

—H.L.Hix, author of Chromatic and First Fire, Then Birds

Book VII — Redaction
an excerpt from To Banquet with the Ethiopians

Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully’s open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?

Under the darkening rooftree of the mind,
Twice-notched, figured with cave runes,
Generations of eyes and blistered hands
Labor over lines. In the mouth,
A faint metallic tang, iridescent
As the wings of the Emperor dragonfly
Great Achilles pinched from a cloudless sky
One afternoon the summer of 265
And gnashed down. Lines of Yeats;
Of James Wright of Martins Ferry, Ohio;
Lines of Catullus that once drowned my heart;
Terza Rima of Dante; Villon’s
Ink welts, and the breathless
Cosmic strophes of Neruda;
Lines braised on a jewel-encrusted page,
Or zigzagging like mad Odysseus’ plough;
Numbers metastasizing from my list,
Spiraling down into oblique
Rhymes of cereal boxes and scripture
Of Bloomingdales, treacly cellophane
And Louisville Sluggers branded Mantle
In burnt umber, and the make-believe
Vapor trail from my father’s paper planes.

The mind stays cowled under the moon.
The tongue is laden with metallic wings
That can’t be swallowed, or if swallowed
Can’t be sung. This is how it is
Without the child rocking in the house
Of his own making: sharp-edged verbs
Piercing bronze syntax, each fresh
Enjambment spurting blood; countless names
Striving under the tireless sun, foot
To spondee foot, unwilling to yield.

And this is how it must have been the morning
After the night of the burning naked girl
When Homer, dazed with longing and lost love,
Clawed open the package and his house
Went silent and his marble eyes
Swam open on a strange horizon.

The alphabet. Awkward at first—chanting
Line by line so the stylus could keep up.
The process—“transcription” the manual called it—
Taxed, but soothed too—nothing like
Entrancement when each utterance
Dervished through his rocking torso.
No rapture with the alphabet. His loins
Remained cool, his mouth moist.
Triangles, rhomboids, circles and half-circles
Hardened into stanzas, passages.
At last, he stepped back from the workbench
And squinted at the scarred, translucent scroll.

Never before had he seen the Iliad.
Never realized its nuance and dimension.
Till now, his version changed with every venue.
At palaces, he trumpeted Agamemnon,
At sports events it was Achilles;
Weddings, Hector and Andromache;
At the tittie bars, the Ares bondage scene.
He’d never made it through in a single go—
That would take weeks and leave the listeners dead.
He’d never paid heed to any blueprint.
Sure he eavesdropped on scholiastic gabble—
Great gas to hear the junior geezers fret
About interpolations and mixed dialects.
Did the Iliad portray a bronze age—or iron?
Did ‘hearing voices’ mean the primitive
Corpus callosum failed as of yet to knit
Hemispheres of the pre-lapsarian brain?
Did Ajax suffer PTSD?
Did rhapsodes remember or forget?
But the alphabet began to change his mind.
No improv; no entrancement.
It was hardly verse-making at all.
An encryption, a visual echo.

Scrabbling letters, Homer saw what counted
Wasn’t the chant, the many-minded voice;
Not the rocking or apotheosi;
It was triumph and murder—acts of mortal men.
Not a message from another world,
Or a warped replica of this one,
With all its tedium and ambiguity.
Instead, a nape-tingling shoot-em-up.
“The world’s greatest war novel.”
With this newfangled Phoenician toy
Homer might give them just that.

Everything about the poem shifted—
The heroes too were cast in different light.
When he chanted, they transmogrified
Into upturned faces from his audience.
There were a thousand Agamemnons,
A thousand Hectors and Diomedes.
But the alphabet defined them, pinned them down.
Odysseus was blunt-nosed, with gray eyes
And a livid scar down his bowed leg.
Agamemnon was slim-hipped, hollow-cheeked.
Achilles’ face was hooded; waves of rage
Emanated from his inscrutable brow.

The alphabet’s cursives and declensions,
Its relentless absolutes and boundaries,
Its need to pluck each wave from the hissing surf—
So fixed Homer’s eyes and crabbing fingers,
The poem’s action veiled and he viewed the war
From a great distance. How terrible
It had been, he saw now—singing viscera,
Ripped sinew and spurted black blood,
Seeing darkness flood dying eyes—
Terrible to sing a hero’s death.

When deadly Diomedes threw his spear,
And Homer’s tremulo voice guided it
Straight between the eyes to Pandarus’ nose,
The poet himself felt the tearing point,
Tasted iron blood between his teeth.
The tireless bronze sliced the poet’s tongue
At the root, coming out the tip of his chin.
Homer fell from Pandarus’ chariot,
The hero-poet’s armor rattling.

When Idomeneus’ pitiless bronze struck
Erymas in his mouth—the divine utterance
Croaked into a shriek, piercing
The blanched skull where song seeded.
The death cloud enveloping Erymas
Closed too on the rocking chanting bard.

How exhausting it had been. Homer could do
One or at most two death scenes a night.
But the alphabet deadened pain, salved horror.
Carving the scenes of mayhem into code,
The poet felt a potent tingling;
His cheeks flushed as if he’d just consumed
A skin of unmixed poppy-scented wine.
Like Priam in the teichoskopia,
Homer surveyed the ornamental gore,
Far from the slaughter that had soaked his chant
And almost ruined his Osgood-Schlattered knees.
This rush of power and vitality,
That left in the belly’s pit an untouched jewel—
This must be what the sophists called ‘catharsis.’

With rising excitement Homer realized
That his audience would die for this catharsis.
They adored blood, loved the clash of war,
Could never get enough of his shield rattling.
Now with grisly death so telescoped,
The body-count could spike considerably.

Homer felt the gnomon’s shadow lengthen,
Heard seconds dripping through the water clock.
Months passed. His beard and hair matted.
Still he bent over the alphabet,
Each morning digging deeper into the text.
Now eternity was parceled out in clauses,
Instead of brightening the rim of each instant.

Rocking and chanting, he had fed the voice
And the voice had fed the utterance.
But now he could re-read, control the pace,
Compare, point, pause, revise.
Soon it became clear what had to go.
Without the antics, bells and feathers,
Slapstick was dull. The aegis too:
One thing to chant the holy words,
Another to paint them, obcene, on a cross.
Still, without their presence radiating
Like a monstrance to display the underlying
Likeness of all things, the Iliad
Would clod-hop like that redneck Hesiod.
So in place of the holy aegis Homer invoked
The wood-nymph, Simile, to flit between
The eye and page. The goddess touched
His hand, and his wrist flicked suspense
in place of intense; sight for insight.

In his silent office between moon and cup,
Homer’s mind and eyes sharpened.
He bent close to the bleached parchment
And fancied he saw emerging from beneath,
Translucent veins, arabesques and runes—
What the manual had promised: subtext.
Events, subtext revealed, weren’t fated.
They were arranged—arising from the text.
One episode in particular enthralled.
A moment half-forgotten, in the ninth year,
After Apollo’s plague: Achilles’ shame.
Reading and re-reading the scenes following,
The threads he first dismissed as motes of moonlight
Began to coalesce; the filaments coiled.
Agamemnon’s pride ignites Achilles rage,
Swelling the high king’s gall, and framing the duel
(Which he’d always played with fork and sausage)
Between Menelaus and Paris, which leads to
Hector’s slagging his brother which reflects
On the braggadocious Greeks. Enter
Diomedes—a knot of skirmishes—
Back and forth, doubling the movement
That preceded it, and seeming
To culminate with the anti-climactic
Glaucus duel. Homer guffawed, recalling
The day he’d won the duel’s rights
Dicing with an addled Corinthian bard.
A gorgeous set piece in the northern mode—
Paired patrilineal blandishments,
Comic armor-exchange and more highjinks—
That contraption…Deus ex machina
To save the son of Aphrodite—poof.
Even though it came from a different era
(He never updated lingo or weaponry)
It fit neatly—presaging impending dark—
Hector’s rush to the ships that sets up
Yet another confab. Then, a paradox:
Odysseus supplicates Achilles
Fearing Hector—who kills Patroclus,
Murdering Achilles’ soul and ensuring his
(Hector’s) own death, and Achilles’
At the hands of the weakest figure in the poem.
The Iliad wasn’t sacred, as it sounded;
It was engineered, symmetrical.
The gods were superfluous—a divine machine.
Yes, there was poetry throughout—
Verses descended directly from the voice:
A day of dappled seaborne clouds, or
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Or Heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire,
Hundreds of lines and images unsullied
From the prime source, searing the mind,
And leaving the faintest luminescence.
Who knew what future bards might glean such jewels.
But with the alphabet all that would have to go.
Along with Odysseus riddling sphinxes;
Agamemnon buying winds, or his favorite:
Thersites humping a grove of birch trees—
What craic translating that howl into a song.
All these scenes and poetry took place
Before Achilles chucks it in year nine.
Spectacle, yes; and they delved mysteries
And revealed the character of men.
But his audience cared mostly about plot.
And plot could be configured to begin
In the ninth year, with Achilles’ shame.
Homer could cut the rest, the manual promised—
Using a technique it called “redaction.”
Better, he’d leave them hanging—wanting more—
By cropping the poem to end with a funeral pyre—
‘Foreshadowing’ as the manual urged.

But for all the power of the alphabet
Spread under his hand in his silent office,
Homer couldn’t swallow all the verse.
It took three thousand years to finally cleanse
The embellishments which were meant only to please the ear—stock epithets and recurring phrases where the meaning is of no account.
Though W.H.D. Rouse did concede
To leave in the muse, for the sake of the brand name.

And when the former poet raised his beard
From the first text, the face he showed the moon
Is the face we know, ageless, marble.