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The Olympians

Posted 26th June 2012

by Tony Curtis

Next up are the poets.
This was never going
to be a glorious race
but after the pandemonium
of the heats
let's at least make sure
they're all facing the same way.

Running in lane one
in anonymous fragments,
with a withered arm
and halt leg,
it's the Greek beauty Sappho,
all sandy smiles
and dark brown eyes,
it's rumoured
she moves like the wind.

Beside her, in lane two,
with the haiku – seventeen steps
of grace and precision -
it's the butterfly
of the short line,
representing Japan,
the little man, Basho.

In three with the sonnet
is William Shakespeare,
his run will depend
on impeccable rhythm,
on getting it all to flow.
Though a shadow is cast
over his selection
with Percy Shelley,
William Wordsworth,
Samuel Coleridge
and George Gordon, Lord Byron,
all testing positive for opiates.

In lane four
with the villanelle
it's the Welshman Dylan Thomas:
after a lifetime of injuries
and unfulfilled promise
it's marvellous to see him
finally up on his feet.

In the middle of the field,
standing out like a king,
is the long-distance legend
blind Homer from Greece.
Kit Smart was a contender, but
he never turned up for the race.

Beside him,
crammed into six,
are Dante –
the Italian wizard,
the antelope of terza rima —
and a couple of farm boys,
Frost and Heaney.
I've seen them in practice,
they move with deceptive ease.

In lane seven, in the four
by four hundred relay,
it's the Russian champions –
they pass the baton
with silk-like grace –
Pasternak to Tsvetayeva,
Tsvetayeva to Mandelstam,
Mandelstam to Akhmatova.
She brings it home
with tremendous power
and gritty determination.

Out in lane eight,
going round the bend,
there's an army of poets.
I recognise at least a hundred
faces preparing for the start.

And then,
not with a host
or a shout,
but with a collective sigh,
they're off.

It is poetry in motion,
like something out of Brueghal
the stillness is absolute,
for no one has moved.

They have closed their eyes
and are imagining
the wind on the faces
the sweat on the brow
the pain in the chest
the ache in the heart
the hardship
the loneliness
the grief
that has brought them to this.

Some are already
closing on the line.
Others will take
hours, days, weeks, months.
Some will still be running
when the crowds are gone
when the lights are off
when the stadium's closed.

And some will
never make it home:
their words, their faces,
their lives forgotten.
They will turn to dust
where they fall.
The earth takes back
what it gives away –
the lanes run on forever.

© Tony Curtis