A Poem of Force

September 8, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Catherine Staples on “Young Achilles” by Brian Brodeur

There is so much to admire in Brodeur’s “Young Achilles”: the emotional realism of imagery and gesture, trueness to Homer, and the economy of his narrative moves. Initially, what drew me was his deft storytelling and the grounded rhythm of his opening lines with their Anglo-Saxon alliterative patterns and internal rhyme: “Bored of playing swords, bare-faced Achilles/ trundles down the dunes at Skyros Harbor….”

Brodeur captures the psychology of Achilles’ shifting emotions. They move as quickly as the boy sliding downhill through sand—from boredom to jealousy to violence—and that fleet quickness is pure Achilles. One minute the young Achilles “watches” a stranger on the beach preparing dinner, and next his envy erupts: “Why should he get to light fires on the beach/and swim in the ocean without a chaperone?” Then, the lethal lobbing of rocks. By the time the man’s request for mercy is refused, it’s as if a shutter on the future gusts open: an icy portrait is glimpsed of the hundreds of supplications Achilles will ignore.

Achilles smiles. Why shouldn’t he be feared?
He wishes he could throw stones at the sea
and stop the senseless tide from shifting.
The man has stopped moving.

But bravado falls away and tone modulates in the very next line. Achilles sense of entrapment emerges, that acknowledgment is a sly movement towards truth. The man didn’t deserve to die, it’s the sea he ought to have been aiming for, the changing tides, inexorable and senseless as his fixed fate. The self-justification of the first line is undercut by the truth of the next. The smile is gone, his thoughts are interrupted by the brilliant fourth line, more observation than fact. It’s as if he’s not yet ready to acknowledge this death, a death which we imagine he had not intended. I truly admire the sequence, its subtle and explosive juxtapositions.

When Achilles approaches the man, he “flips” him with his “sandaled foot” the way you might right a wrong-side up horseshoe crab on the beach. With that brusque gesture, the fallen man is no longer a man. Brodeur conveys his lifelessness with matter-of-fact imagery, “Sand fleas flick in and out of his mouth.” Achilles’ victim is inanimate while these other small middling creatures carry on as before, the man’s mouth becomes the cave they flit in and out of. I’m reminded of Simone Weil’s famous essay, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force,” written in 1939, on the eve of WWII. Weil argues that the true hero of The Iliad is force and that “force is what makes the person subjected to it a thing.”

Brodeur knows his Homer and the portrait of young Achilles is fittingly complex and ambivalent. With Achilles’ passing thought, “His skinny arms could be a boy’s,” there is an intimation of wondering acknowledged, a hint of Achilles’ identification with his victim. When Achilles “bows to stroke/ the man’s wet face and hair, closing his eyes,” it’s so unexpected it feels like grace; we are in the realm of reconciliation. Even if it only lasts a few seconds—before the eye and mind take in the equivocation of the poem’s next line—we can imagine the moment when the Trojan king kneels before the killer and Achilles weeps with him, momentarily restored to his humanity. However, the promise of that gesture is immediately undercut by Achilles’ patronizing, “There. There,” he says, “That’s better, go to sleep,” as if he hadn’t killed the man in cold blood there on the beach, as if this unnecessary death was merely sleep. I am grateful for Brodeur’s life-like portrait of “Young Achilles,” for the stunning ways it engages in conversation with Homer.

Catherine Staples

Catherine Staples is the author of The Rattling Window (Ashland Poetry Press, 2013) winner of the McGovern Prize. Her poems appeared in Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Commonweal, Blackbird, Third Coast, 32 Poems, and Quarterly West among others. Honors include Honorable Mention for NEPC’s 2014 Shelia Margaret Motton Book Award, finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, a Walter F. Dakin fellowship from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and Southern Poetry Review’s 2011 Guy Owen Prize. She lives with her family in Devon, PA and teaches in the Honors program and English Department at Villanova University.

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