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Zeugma. From the Greek, zeugnynai, to join together; from

a pair of animals linked at labor;

yoked oxen. The Greeks, of course, for whom beginnings signified

better than endings, alpha & omega, for whom

x was just another letter: xiphoid, xerophagy, xenophobia, xoanon.

Civilization, perforce, is abecedarian.

When Xenophon's hoplites charged the Persians at Cunaxa he

denied the agency of local gods, mistaking

vox populi for vox angelica, voice of a suffering populace

entirely freed of fleshly yoke,

uplifted in exquisite agony. Such are the costs of our transmigration

Fish demand ladders, wooden horses

transhumance, referring to reindeer but apropos in Ilium,

green-fingered Lydia or Mesopotamia,

scene of the tidal clash of cultures & languages, ebbs & floods

hardly unique to Persians & Greeks.

Recall the illiterate Pizarro against the hummingbird-feathered

Inca Atahualpa, sun-god & moon-

queen trampled into celestial dust by a few dozen Spaniards

jointly with their horses, gunpowder, &

priestly blessing to sanctify such slaughter in the name of the king of

kings. Back to Xenophon & the Ten Thousand:

on the retreat now, following the Tigris, they come to a ruined city,

Larissa, inhabited by Medes, thought to be

none other than Nimrud, ancient Kalhu, hippogriffs become

Medean in the wake of serial conquest,

median point on their march from Babylon toward the hills of Armenia,

none cheered by that barren vision, dire

Larissa, omen of defeat, citadel of political impermanence.

On the next day, great Nineveh, abandoned:

kings, senechals, satraps, seraphs, jesters, fletchers, peltasts, potters,

priestly & noble classes--vanished con-

jointly into equitable oblivion, weaver & wool, smith & tool,

queen & fool. So much for the Assyrians.

Ink, a luxury, so no texts but wind-scoured stone remain to help us

recall them, our contemporary ignorance

hardly less monumental than Xenophon's self-serving chronicle,

scene by scene inventing ancient history.

Green no longer, that Fertile Crescent, mislabelled by an en-

tranced human stab at metaphoric order.

Fish into amphibians, logograms into syllabaries, seas into lands

uplifted in autochthonic agons

entirely unwitnessed, template free of cartographic correlatives,

vox barbara or vox nihilim, celestial music

denied in our fury to claim an alphabet forged from the metals of chaos.

When the ox moves, the plow moves.

Civilization, perforce, is boustrophedonic: x-y-z; z-y-

x. Better the blue mud of the Euphrates,

better the raw ore of belief than these chains of syntax, this

yoke of definitions. Xoanon:

a primitive idol resembling the rough block from which it was carved.

Zeugma: maker & vessel, master & slave.

Campbell McGrath's most recent book is Road Atlas (Ecco/HarperCollins, 1999). He received a MacArthur fellowship in 1999. He lives with his family in Miami Beach.
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Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Poem
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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