Home > Journaling the Apocalypse > Thaliad (excerpt)

Thaliad (excerpt)

December 17, 2008

from Thaliad, part IV

In this portion of the blank verse narrative,
a post-apocalyptic poem in fifteen parts,
a group of children are traveling on their own—
this is one incident on their journey.

Beyond the blasting fire, all roads are long;
The children wearied of the way before
The path was hours old, complained or yelled,
And, taking turns, pushed north across state lines.
Some slept and woke to see the landscape changed
From mountains into hills and farmers’ fields,
Though seldom did they see a sign of life
Except for deer and red-tailed hawks and birds—
One time a bellowing blockade of cows
Scared the children into shouts or silence,
As was the nature of each one, but Ran
Declared the herd was crying to be milked:
We will need milk, said Thalia, so sniff
And find the path to where we’re going, cows!
At that remark, the weeping Gabriel
Let out a snort, hiccuped, and laughed outloud:
See those long rows of green, he said to her,
And then those wavy hills? One day I walked
Up there with my father. I’m sure it was
The place. It could have been… It looks the same.
We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings—
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside-down from us. His gentle voice
Lingered in her ear, but when she answered,
He had begun to cry and did not hear.
Be-spelled by dust, a seeming-endless track
Unreeled before the van, and soot was snow
That fell from blackened wings of butterflies.
Two boys once sprinted from a wood and chased
The car to hurl chunks of concrete and stones
At frightened faces pressed against the glass—
Sophrasia, driving, jammed the pedal down.
Stone-kissed, a window blossomed spiderwebs.
They hated us! Did you see they were burned?
What did they want with us? What would they do
To us? Don’t trust—don’t stop—don’t listen—don’t!
They might have killed us or done something worse…
What’s worse? I don’t know but there might be worse.
There’s things teenagers know that we don’t know.
But I know everything, there’s nothing worse.
And so do I, and I say there is worse.
What’s worse? Who says what’s worse? What is the worst?
Who cares? Let’s always run and not find out.
We ought to have—we ought to have a gun.
You never shot a gun! You’d shoot yourself.
I never would! What I say is just this:
No trusting anybody over twelve.
No trusting anybody. No. No trust.
I wish we didn’t have to stop again.
It’s time to look for gas, it’s almost time.
I want my mother and my father back…
I want them back, I want, I want them back.
And suddenly it seemed adventure was
An overrated thing, and dread humped high
And firm as stone outcroppings on the hills.
I wish that nothing ever happened to me,
Gabriel whispered to the spider’s web
That broke the passing picture of the land,
I wish, I wish, I wish that nothing came
Trampling across the sky to me. To me!

The seven tilting with the world were young,
Remember that—had lived impossibly
Plush lives as in the shining magazines
That linger here and there, with shots of cars
In colors we no longer see on Earth,
Women shrunk and twisted into poses
Impossible to hold yet beautiful,
Painted pouting, more like fairy glamour
Than anything that labors, eats, and dies,
With houses where the rooms are warm and shine
No matter how it snows, or how the ice
Collects in ropes along the crooked eaves:
The world was one way, then it changed, it changed.
The children squabbled over who would drive
Until nobody wanted any more
To pilot or to ride, and half were sick,
Their soda cans and candy wrappers strewn
Across the floor where Gabriel was tucked
In a fetal curl and weeping steadily.
The world grew dusky, noiseless, and the birds
Dying in flight came pelting from the sky
And all the land was hushed, and Gabriel
Seemed long and loud though weeping quietly,
And so the children kicked their legs at him
And shouted for him to shut up, shut up,
Yet Gabriel kept on with low-toned sobs
As if he meant to hurt no peace of mind
But weep until he’d washed the bitter shard
Of grief from out its mortal housing—heart
That could not change with change, nor summon up
A different rhythm for a different day.
They reached a river’s giant flood, a bridge—
One bridge among the many, highway spans
And one black trestle that meant trains once crossed
Though everything was silent as in dreams
Except the children shrieked for Gabriel
To be a mute, a stone, a block, a tree
Or anything that had no voice to speak.
Let’s put him down! Let’s shove him out and leave!
Yes! Yes! Yes! I can’t stand him
Another moment more, this terrible
Crybaby noise. Who couldn’t cry—I will
If he does not shut up! Let’s put him down!
The van was spraddled sideways in the road,
And children tumbled from the sliding doors,
Accompanied by gay confetti bits
Of bags and wrappers and by tinny sounds
From cans that bounced and reeled across the road.
They dragged him from his lair beside a seat,
They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing
Or two, to not be so unendingly
Unbearable, to weep as all could weep
But did not do. He’d learn a lesson, two
Or three or more; he could cry as he liked
And let nobody hear or care a whit,
Cry to the wilderness of trees and ash
And let the earless creak and saw response.
He huddled on the pavement, sunk in tears,
And only jumped up, pleading at the glass
When laughing faces looked from high on him.
I’d like to say that they relented then,
Embraced the boy and let him in to stay,
One cruel lesson roughly taught and learned:
Events went otherwise. They drove away.

They drove away! And left that little boy
Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash:
Immensity. He was eleven, a child
Beloved and seldom left alone in rooms.
The landscape must have wallowed round his head,
Wavering, frightful-strange, making its threats
In symbol-language of a mighty sky
That promised death, destruction, endless fire,
And symbol-language of the puissant stream
That had been thicked and porridged by the ash
Yet shoved on journeying to who knows where—
To the sea! A place where he had been with pail
And shovel, scooping castles from the sand,
Or floated on the spume, his father near,
Or walked the water’s edge to see the life
That bubbled out of holes after a wave.
Perhaps he also thought of one great crash
That grasped and muscled him beneath the sea,
The briney drink corrosive to his throat.
Current’s undertow, the helpless jostling
Said he was nothing cherished by the sea—
Perhaps recalled the slide of foreign flesh
Against his thigh, the fright of feeling death
Move coldly by (the temperature of waves
No colder) and the waves not frolicsome
As waves could seem when shattered into foam
Around his toes, though sucking toward the drain
As water dragged and undermined his feet.

A mile beyond the bridge-end, Thalia
Shrieked order into riot, sued for peace,
Commanded that they turn for Gabriel.
They laughed and mocked but soon agreed and vowed
They’d meant to do no more than stop his tears,
No more than plug the noise, the endless noise,
The wretched soundtrack to a trip that none
Would ever ask for, never dream to wish,
And so they spun the wheel and headed South—
The bridge hove into view, as broad and long
As it had been before: Not here, not here,
A little farther, no, I think we’ve passed
The spot. Look there, I spy his purple shirt.
Three times they drove the distance of the bridge,
But nothing did they see, nothing at all
Of Gabriel the weeper, vanished, gone
As if a messenger had flown to Earth
And snatched him up to ashless paradise.
I pray that it was so! The children paused
And peered in murky waters where some saw
A smudge of purple, flash of hand, but no
One could agree another’s sight was true;
They wandered, calling aimlessly his name
But lowering clouds ate up the echoed word,
And children soon will tire of any game.
They drove away again. The silence begged
Its questions. Children foraged, slept and woke
To meet another ashen day. At times
A question begged for silence. Children leave
The past behind and change, but silence stays
As road to inwardness, and questions beg.
All day they did what needed to be done,
Though silence looked in on them now and then,
And after hours of hush and lassitude,
Often one would speak and words seem alien,
Half prophetic and frightening to hear:
And now we are six, murmured Thalia,
When we were one, we’d just begun, when we
Were two, were nearly new, when we were three,
Were hardly us, when we were four, were not
Much more, when we were five, were just alive.
But now we’re six, as clever as clever,
So let’s be six forever and ever.
And Samuel leaned forward, asked What’s that?
Nothing, just a poem I changed a bit
To make it fit for us. It’s called ‘The End.’

by Marly Youmans

Download the MP3 (10.9 MB)

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  1. December 17, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    The imagery is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But lost children! And the vanished boy! I felt I might suffocate with grief and be lost along with the angel-named Gabriel. Very well written and beautiful in its darkness, but such a cruel vision of what might come.

  2. December 17, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Absolutely stunning. Such a poetic command of the language, such powerful imagery. Stunning. Satisfying even if disturbing.

  3. December 17, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    the imagery in this is so smooth, this is really an amazing work

  4. December 17, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Staggeringly beautiful and compelling. I love the ebb and flow of rhythms within the piece (try reading it aloud and you’ll see) and the sinuousness of certain lovely, meticulously constructed phrases which catch at the heart. Then there’s the motif of repetition, driving the engine and pulling the reader clean through the words and into the narrative. Like an exhilarating plunge into deep, clear water. One to read and re-read and never grow tired of.

  5. December 17, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Marly, what they said. It’s a tour de force, very moving and indeed disturbing. Strange counterpoint to hear it read in your calm and quiet voice – I’m wondering if it could have a musical soundtrack as well?

    Many thanks for commenting about my ‘Revelation’ from the Old Stile Press. I’m very glad to find you here too.

  6. December 17, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    I could go on reading this all day, and I suppose when the book comes out, I will. It’s so fluid, which is what good blank verse is supposed to be. I love it, and I know it will be a massive hit, as much as any poem could be, that is. The good thing about a narrative poem is, there could be movie rights, couldn’t there?

  7. December 18, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Greg, Corey, susangalique, Clive, Natalie, Robbi–

    How thrilling, to think that people might actually read a long poem in this day and age–thank you for the lovely notes. (Movie rights! How funny!) I hope it will, eventually, find readers for the small immensity that it is… In the meantime, I take much comfort in your messages, the now-wide reach of “qarrtsiluni,” and in the idea that Dave Bonta’s mom liked it too!

    With holly,

  8. December 18, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Marly, I love it and it is wholly frightening. Amazing combination of child-think and apocalypse-wise voice.
    tell me that it is not possible, and yet my visions lean this way.

  9. December 18, 2008 at 6:50 pm


    No, I’m no prophet–watch out for visions!

    There is a “frame” narrator who is from a subsequent generation, so you are right about the voice and “child-think.”

  10. Ann
    December 19, 2008 at 9:26 am

    It was a good idea to feature this episode because it makes me care about the leader Thalia and about Gabriel’s fate. Thalia knows Milne by heart. I wonder what else she has read–THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, I hope.

  11. December 19, 2008 at 11:12 am


    Yes, you were quite right about those lines being skewed Milne! And I feel pretty sure Thalia has read “The Wind in the Willows” to the end, past the dabbling-about-the-river adventures and the dire mischief of Toad and on into the golden world of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

    You know, it was Milne who made Grahame’s book famous… He loved the book that nobody knew and made a stage play out of it. So not just Grahame but Milne gave “The Wind in the Willows” to us.

  12. Marjorie Rosenfeld
    December 19, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    This is an awesome excerpt from an epic poem–a sort of children’s “Paradise Lost.” It’s enough to make Milton jealous, were he not beyond such earthly cavils. To hope to hear you’ve gotten the whole thing published.

  13. December 20, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Another Marjorie! With a field of roses: love that name. Good name for a poet.

    And what a fabulous, blush-worthy comment. I thank you for thinking that this slice from my poem is worthy of such a comparison!

    I will definitely let “qarrtsiluni” know if the finished poem is picked up for publication. I hope it will be: “Thaliad” gave me a lot of pleasure to write, even in the gruesome bits.

  14. Gryphon of Collins
    December 21, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Aside from all the other narrative mysteries, one really baffled me. What did cows do before humans decided to milk them?

    Explode in a cloud of white? Hmmm…

  15. December 22, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Ah, a quirky question at last!

    From a mysterous visitor who: tada! I reveal to be my cousin Frank, summertime denizen of Collins and owner of Gryphon, a dog of much character and breeding.

    Should I answer this, nevertheless, I wonder? What about the other poor souls who pass by, see this arrant q-looniness, and are alarmed by the prospect of exploding cows? Who flee the pleasant sight of cows in the pasture? Perhaps I have a duty to respond…

    Yes, I shall answer, and no doubt Gryphon (the highly literate dog or the even-more-literate man) will correct me. And I shall answer on the basis of my grandparents in Lexsy (small sharecropping farm) rather than our grandparents in Collins (small farm nearby, lost during the Depression and hence beyond my ability to do more than picture.)

    The cows went dry! (As opposed to going very, very wet in a cloud of white.)

    All right, check me on this, my dear Gryphon the Elder. A dry cow is one that has not had a calf (a heifer) or else is in the period between weaning and the next lactation. Then they freshen and give milk when they give birth to a calf–just as our own mothers did unless they were scolded into a bottle and artificial milk. (In that case, mothers go straight from freshening to artificial drying-up.)

    So before humans decided to milk cows, cows gave milk to their calves in a regular cycle of lactation, drying-up, and a time of cud-chewing peacefulness (during which they probably had an extremely brief romance with a large bull, started another calf, and headed irresistibly toward lactation). This is far less dramatic and Hollywood-friendly than exploding in a cloud of white. But it is much happier for the cows, though drying-up can be less than pleasant, and certainly would be for cows accustomed to producing the modern massive amount of milk. An exploding cow of the contemporary sort would be quite a spectacle.

    I hope that this explanation will save passers-by, particularly those of the urban variety, from a lifetime fear of exploding cows. If so, perhaps I can consider myself a public servant, although it is really Gryphon who brought up the whole topic and exposed it to public scrutiny (insofar as the comments on “qarrtsiluni” can be considered as “public scrutiny”) and so deserves the thanks of the grateful public. I hereby propose that Somebody of the grateful public award him a gold medal for clearing the milky air on this interesting topic. If you are that properly-grateful Somebody, please contact Gryphon at Collins or on his sailboat somewhere off the coast of Florida.

    As a child, I thought that dairy cows and their big bags had something to do with the moon. This is quite correct but another topic entirely, and one that is so abstruse and little known that I refuse to explain–for in explaining, I might mark myself forever as a moon-looney madwoman at “qarrtsiluni” and in the infinite library of the Web–just to please my cousin’s curiosity.

    As for the other mysteries, some linger as residue of events. Others will be clearer when the entire 60-some page thing materializes in print land. You will read it, right cuz? You can read it to Gryphon the Younger while wandering under the scuppernong arbor at Collins, plucking fat grapes and spitting the seeds a prodigious, unbeatable distance!

  16. Jen
    January 8, 2009 at 10:10 am

    My Thanks to Greg Landrey who sent me this link back in December–and I am just now finding the bottom of my desk and having a moment or two to read it!

    The imagery here is pointed and poignant and extremely effective. I’m seeing more and more apocolyptic poetry these days (all forms, all lengths and rhyme schemes) and this is one of the more interesting and moving.
    What is it, I wonder, about water and cows that just WORKS? Whatever it is, you have tapped into it so beautifully . . .

  17. January 8, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Hi Jen–

    Your q-luni comment just flew into my mailbox… And I thank you for reading and finding the excerpt worth a pause. I’m glad you liked it. It’s good to see that these pieces have a life after their special publication day passes.

    Those moon-bag cows are fascinating, aren’t they? As is water, that mythic quicksilver in veins of earth, veins of us.

  18. September 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing), forthcoming in January 2012 or thereabouts…

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