Dare to me your thoughts, friend, as they surface.
As naught when danger’s not watching is dared,
I fret thy request hath imperiled me.
Still he doubts!
Still he amazes at it!
Will you not believe me, Alexander,
Who gives again this solemn assurance:
You’ve not been taken for pleasure’s fodder.
I can, Antinous, and do believe.
Yet surely I’ll be forgiven if doubt,
Like a curious child, lingers gently
In the shadows of his parents’ chamber
As they, oblivious to him hidden,
Gasp and giggle on rapture’s pillowsheet.
It is not for me an everyday thing
To find myself astride a king’s playmate.
And male, no less! A bold, exquisite youth!
Had any whispered to me this morning,
As I from the warmth of my wife awoke,
That here I’d be this night among the star
Of the imperial court, flushed from flesh
And sunk in the feathers of luxury,
I daresay I could not have believed him.
I cannot help but marvel it.
Cannot but softly nurse this waking dream
That succors me in its boyish bosom.
Do not laugh at me!
‘Tis innocent joy –
Delighting to hear what’s been engendered!
I am proud of it, I; of this evening.
I trust you’ll consider it for a gift:
An earned respite from the pieces of life
That daily consume and encumbrance you.
What – my wife?
Thy marble and mortar, knave!
Thy wife remains attended, Sir:
Sabina and her train are noble souls.
As, evidently, are Hadrian and his.
Again again he wand’ring goes. Tell me!
If thoughts be a thicket, I’m lost therein.
Speak, thus, and by this rescuer be found.
When I was a lad no lasting than five –
A fellow whose paws could but pounce on frogs,
Whose legs were yet unmuscled and whose sack
Between them hung dainty as the orchid down –
I with a friend to the forest eloped
In search of unshackled adventure.
Doubtless, ‘twas but a stand of sociable trees
With urban interests long reconciled,
Yet to the pair of us newly escaped
‘Twas a woods most dark and imperiling.
I recall to him a request I made;
An urging to better authenticate
The feral thrill of our expedition:
To him I said, “Let us undress ourselves,
Crawl naked through the trees as lion cubs
And make believe our feline bodies fur’d.”
He, amenable, stripped naked as I,
And together we staked ourselves a pride.
Our performance we modeled on housecats:
We lay about, purred, swatted at sunlight.
Anon with our tongues we took to grooming,
Tasting each the soft flesh of the other.
Then, as like in a dream whose logic twists
With callous and thoughtless impunity,
I to a full and long-fanged beast was grown,
And he, as Acteon, a buck became,
Altering thus the course of our drama.
Now was I determined to devour him;
He, my prey, as eager to be eaten!
For transformation, ‘tis remarkable.
Perceive it, thus, the magic there that lived?
Here was a giggling and groping frolic
Blindly innocent of its beastly players’
Pining, conniving, buried carnality.
Here was a bloody playtime of violence
Oblivious to the drooling growl of death.
Here was a beat – a most resounding beat! –
Of childhood’s perfect, insensible heart,
Yet sealed was it up in a thinning hide
Through which endless ears and inquisitions
Might evermore seek its unknowable source.
Do you see it, friend, this crystal moment?
This shrieking, triple-headed paradox?
Aye. Aye, ‘tis indeed a performance fit
For crowded theatres carved upon the slopes
Of mounts Olympus and Hades alike.
Precisely. Precisely! Such were my thoughts.
My revelations, here, in this bedroom,
On the aftermath of a pleasuring.
Such philosophy leapt from our union?
Aye. I was reminded, in our sweet congress,
Of a romp with a friend in a forest
Two decades less grown, and humbled by it.
And do not go bragging
Through the streets of Athens for it, calling,
“Antinous is a humbling bedfellow!”
For then you’ll find your Hadrian maligned
By the lips of his very own lover.
But I am indeed humbled, Antinous:
By the good spirit your smile affords me;
By this pure and authentic character
Still from pomposity’s prick unadultered;
By the memory of a vanished friend;
By the spark of genius newly flinted
Upon the brittle kindling of my mind;
By the beauty of this night – I am humbled.
Thou hast given me glimpse of mine own flesh
Already from birth infused of godhood.
Therefore am I dazzled and thoughtful, Sir;
Therefore am I wrapped in reverent silence.
Or were, at least, ‘ere flapping mine ear to sleep.
O asleep is it?
A slumber of drowning death –
Not there I’m ticklish!
Squeal then! And again!
Awake to your voice all ears put asleep
By a world of stale and useless stories!
Relent! O you torture to worship me!
Indeed I worship you, Antinous,
For you are worth a thousand thousand times
An altar’s most expensive offering,
And I should make myself a priest of thy cult
If only for my long life to serve you.
And what of thy wretched, abandoned wife,
Of good husband widowed not by Hades
But the cult of dear Hadrian’s playmate?
Alack, the reason of worldly concerns
Always on the pate of passion pisses!
But why intrude a wife upon our pride?
Come, Antinous: let’s be lions again.
What for, friend?
I should not so
Flippantly conjure and misspeak a wife
Too fiercely loved and full worthy of it.
I acknowledge that for its compliment
And assure you of instant forgiveness.
Thou hast this night tunneled me a timeless
Conduit from past unto present soul.
How shall I not be grateful, Antinous?
Forsooth, I love my wife and cherish her.
There are but a handful of the year’s days
I’ll seek to pay a girl; yet a boy? – never.
But here am I: Well pleasured. Touched by Eros.
I did not since a lad think such love true.
Yet now I know – now, friend, I remember –
What it is to have this other half of self.
I’ve not the income for boys!
You’ll not need it, dear Alex, when possessed
Of a workshop to which they’ll apprentice.
Why pay for a cold, anonymous night
When you can stock your world with artisans –
Brimming, eager talents jostling to know you?
Tho’ fleshly lessons be not in thy past,
There’s place for their teaching its future.
Here lies the soul of thy private temple:
A god born of thy mighty talent.
If thou by mosaic may set with love
What here this night thy piecework made from me,
Expect thy name to know a good renown
And boys, therefore, keen to petition it.
By heaven, thou art a lusty thinker!
That I am. That I cheerfully accept.
Tell me of all thy past loves and lovers.
Shall we lie here for a year?
A rich fool of magical love am I,
So oft at love’s bizarre fortune amazed!
My first lover – a boyish muse – was first love;
Lysicles; the best contemporary!
Our birth, but four months apart, conjoined us
As much in spirit as true, tree-ring’d age;
Our play was adventuresome and constant –
Each the other’s flesh an expedition –
And guiltless pleasures were parallel gleaned
As famous deeds old heroes accumulate!
My second lover – a doomed man – knew nothing
Of giving, gift-making, or grace: Gryllus.
He possessed me through my earliest youth;
Took from me his private, selfish pleasures
Like a beast of long jaws at the mutton.
Maltinus too by then was a lover;
Though one whose preference was not for my flesh
So much as the mind within it he nurtured.
And then, by gods, the proud Gelotiana;
A school of harsh, brash and lurid lessons.
O, such lovers there! Anaxamenos!
Vitalis! Sweet Decentius!
Aye, of the guard. A rugged man he:
Robust of spirit, yet long by the Fates
Injured, taunted, thwarted and maltreated.
‘Tis this the cause my heart for him yet swells.
Then, a lover like none other
Upon the vastness of the swirling earth.
What love is love more hale than Hadrian’s?
Whose javelin’d ardour lands farther than his?
If arts of loving were Olympic sport
He’d be by more laurels crowned an athlete
Than vaunted and accomplished sovereign.
I shudder to think what thy soul endures,
To suffer and support so much passion.
There is indeed a load upon me, Sir;
A dome of considerable demands
Beneath which this Antinous observes
All the holy rites of our Lady Rome.
Yet my heart is the oculus; a ring
Of rapturous keystones together
That escutcheon a heavenly peephole.
Methinks I can propose another name
For such a single, central orifice
Through which Hadrian communes with his gods.
Methinks I can deduce it, and concur!