Alison Clement

observations from a novelist who sometimes wants to say something small and see it published immediately

>his ecstasy of feeling nothing while so much is felt

Bible Study: 71 B.C.E.
by Sharon Olds

After Marcus Licinius Crassus
defeated the army of Spartacus,
he crucified 6,000 men.
That is what the records say,
as if he drove in the 18,000
nails himself. I wonder how
he felt, that day, if he went outside
among them, if he walked that human
woods. I think he stayed in his tent
and drank, and maybe copulated,
hearing the singing being done for him,
the woodwind-tuning he was doing at one
remove, to the six-thousandth power.
And maybe he looked out, sometimes,
to see the rows of instruments,
his orchard, the earth bristling with it
as if a patch in his brain had itched
and this was his way of scratching it
directly. Maybe it gave him pleasure,
and a sense of balance, as if he had suffered,
and now had found redress for it,
and voice for it. I speak as a monster,
someone who today has thought at length
about Crassus, his ecstasy of feeling
nothing while so much is being
felt, his hot lightness of spirit
in being free to walk around
while other are nailed above the earth.
It may have been the happiest day
of his life. If he had suddenly cut
his hand on a wineglass, I doubt he would
have woken up to what he was doing.
It is frightening to think of him suddenly
seeing what he was, to think of him running
outside, to try to take them down,
one man to save 6,000.
If he could have lowered one,
and seen the eyes when the level of pain
dropped like a sudden soaring into pleasure,
wouldn’t that have opened in him
the wild terror of understanding
the other? But then he would have had
to go. Probably it almost never
happens, that a Marcus Crassus
wakes. I think he dozed, and was roused
to his living dream, lifted the flap
and stood and looked out, at the rustling, creaking
living field—his, like an external
organ, a heart.

Sharon Olds, “Bible Study: 71 B.C.E.” from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002.
thank you, Poppi and Tom, for sending me this
and Rob Howard for the photograph

Categories: poetry

1 reply

  1. >Wow. I’ve wondered, too, sometimes, how people speak of casualties of war so casually, like they’re not humans, who suffered fear and pain, as they left the earth, and not humans with families, who also collapsed at the news, hearts weeping, stomachs churning sadness and anger, and all their friends, holding them, trying to be strong for them all.I’ve wondered how we close off our empathy also to the animals, dying like holocaust victims, in shelters of this nation. How do we so easily pretend they suffer nothing, that they are merely twigs snapping underfoot?

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