Gorgias the magician

Oh yes, Gorgias the magician did finally make it
To our town. He came to our glass tavern, the glass
Dirty, cracked, strung with spiderwebs, flyspotted—
The genius condescended to grace our glass tavern.
We knew him from his portraits, you know
He has them painted every three years. We knew
That too-trim black beard, that furry condensation
Of illimitable self-care, we knew that black close
Hair, the dilating pale bald-spot and the black-
Pupilled eyes vainly magisterial but scattered
At the touch of someone’s stronger will
Like a pond shocked at insolence of a sided pebble.
He meant his famous picture to say: Invincible mask.

He has his portrait, the one retouched exactly every
Three years, paraded even through dumps like ours
By strong acolytes, boys, all of them, and all too stupid
To understand even the easiest of his spells. Those boys
Trudge the dangerous paths because they march
Under his breakable spell (a special execration
Against the will of women meant to break
The will of men), and off they trot, the boys,
To carry his picture in a tasseled litter passengered
Also by a gaudy statuette of our Blessed Virgin.
It’s the just way the Romans lugged ancestral busts
In a chaise during a funeral procession, swaying.

But now Gorgias was actually here in the flesh, he
Grasped our disjointed podium and spoke
Into our crackly microphone, avoiding the thick worn cord.
He did look like his painting—but his hands shook, hard,
They shook even when we shook them, though they
Looked strong if only you could still them, vibrating
Like the abdomens of incited wasps, incited injured wasps.

And when he read from his falsely antiquated scrolls
Embarrassed pity made us fidget—for he meant so clearly,
We being boys, he meant clearly
To catch us in the oracular cages of his syntax,
But the sophistry of the work was such that the bars
Stood as far apart as lamps posted to dispel the night
On a trivial avenue. The shadow of his hand
On the wall shook to make the semblance of
The crown of a tossing tree so that even, you thought,
The roots shook loose, and we pretended to go into
Gorgias’s bad old cages, we feigned our capture, we applauded
His magic with shaking hands as though debility were ours,
Delusion ours, and we escorted him in the insult
Of our kindness to the hinge-loose glass door. Beyond
It, our well-founded trees as firm as rock
Found a pleasure in the night breeze they pleasured
With a sound that tickled like the love of heaven.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Gorgias the magician”?

“Gorgias the magician” arose out of several linked observations or speculations: spite and charity can coexist; charity is stronger than spite; spite redounds on the spiteful; in the midst of spite we are in charity.

This poem “Gorgias the magician” originally appeared in Archives and History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 178 (Autumn 2003): 71-72.

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