The soul of swift-soled Achilles, hearing me Praise his son, silvered, and then was gone, His long strides causing him to blend, light–bent, Into the shining, maize-meadow cloudbank Shadowed by that one solitary tree It takes sixteen years for light, let alone A soul, to cross. The other dead, who thrived Though they had died, rejoiced at seeing me And sang, one by one, to me; and I in Turn said back to one after the other That the song that soul sang was a blessing And that I had never heard anything Like it; which was true, but also, I must Admit, they bored me to tears, tears that their Surprisingly still finite knowledge took As tears of pure joy from hearing them sing. Only Ajax Telamoniades Kept away, arms crossed, refusing to speak, Dim–starred and disappearing into his rage. All because of a simple spar of words, A mere speech, and winning Achilles' armor. Athena above and those men at the ships Decided that, not me, although it's true He never stood a chance. By custom he Should have been given the matchless metal. How I wish I hadn't won that contest. How the ground closed over his head for it. What a fool I can be. Ajax. Who knew No equal in action but for the one Man who surpassed him, just-fled Achilles, So capable of happiness despite All that happened because he washed up here, Heaven: this implausible place for us. Strange that Ajax is also in Heaven Despite ending his legendary life. In the end he's won, be he doesn't seem To understand he's won. Poor Ajax — As always, I thought I had winning words, And so I said to him with unreturned gaze: "Son of great Telamon, mighty Ajax, War tower, shake free of your anger. There's no one to blame but Zeus, and look — He is no longer here, friend. Paradise Has found you and given you an eternal Roof under the one tree of High Heaven. Zeus treated us so terribly, and you, Whom he should have loved like his strongest son, You worst of all. — But that's history Now. Come, my strong brother, lord and deserved Winner of all Achilles wore and was, Come, be with us here; let me hear the light Of Heaven in your voice; and let me know, Because I love you, how you (of all men!) Ended up in the keen of this endless berm." But Ajax, gift-eyed, said nothing to me And took his seat under the rowan tree.
"The Odyssey, Book 11, Lines 538–556" from HEAVEN: POEMS by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Copyright © 2015 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved. Image: A detail of a scene representing Ajax and Achilles playing a board game. Attic red-figure hydria (kalpis), attributed to the Berlin Painter; ca. 490 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 65.11.12. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
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