Three poems by Israel Wasserstein
Conversation with Zeus
Anything can be a god if you’re not careful,
he says. Behind him, clouds crawl
over the mountain, drop into the valley
It starts big enough.
They make deities for the usual things:
weather, war, women, that lot.
Soon enough they might be worshiping
spoons, boys with stringed instruments
and funny hair. Before you know it,
they hardly remember you
until you remind them.
its promise over us. In the cramped
café, no one looks up.
Even the pyrotechnics don’t awe them
anymore. I’d rather be a god of sports.
Plenty of postulants there. Or, hell,
a god of famine and abundance. There’s
never a shortage of starvation.
He picks at his muffin, complete
with its own stormcloud.
You get comfortable,
that’s the problem, and they’re gone
before you even know to miss them.
They can’t even worship properly any more—
their new gods are sterile, shrink-wrapped
things. Not that we were much better.
He stands, his robes billow about
I need to go.
The wife wants me back by nine.
As if women even want me now.
He slips down an alley, rain leaping
off his shoulders. A boy plays
in the torrent. Zeus rubs the boy’s
hair, blue sparks jumping from his fingers.
The Gods Play Poker
Three in the morning, the room reeks
of incense and cow blood, and they’re
just looking for a break. They’ve told
their women they can’t do anything tonight.
Sunday’s card night,
the only time they get to see the guys.
Even Osiris made it, though it’s damn hard to stack
chips through all those bandages, and Isis
is at home, pissed. He’s into his sixth
glass of something strong,
and he’s finally feeling good. Shit,
he says, a woman sews your dick back on, it ain’t easy
to tell her no. Bacchus stamps his foot in approval,
shuffles his chips. He’s down five bucks, will win it back
when the other gods are in their cups,
as Balor puts it. He’s been holding up the game,
afraid to look at his cards, but no one says anything:
even Gods know better than to pick fights
with one-eyed giants. Jesus keeps hitting
bad cards. He sips wine, mutters Eli, Eli
under his breath. Peter’s been pestering him
for an invite. Since he’s infallible, has keys
to heaven, he thinks he qualifies, but they refuse:
what’s a club where anyone can join?
There’s been a stir recently, some no-name trickster
with a Vaseline smile calling himself a god,
holding forth at the Casino Buffet, dealing
Aces to anyone who asks. The gods all agree,
say his type is small time, but Zeus isn’t so sure.
He’s got a splitting headache, is all in
with a low pair. He’s getting older,
learning what worship’s all about,
how much someone would give to turn
things around, just for a minute, just
to show that beautiful Ace of Spades,
scoop that pile of chips, call yourself
blessed, for one hand, blessed.
Stepping into the Woods
Turn around. The woods have swallowed
you already. The way in is easier
than the way out. Obey these rules:
Stay on the path. Do not follow the lights
that flicker on the edge of sight.
Do not eat the bread crumbs,
or listen to the voices, though they echo
through you like the promise of home.
Begin to forget that word: it’s only
a place you return to and find
no longer exists. Like a cabin
braced with candy canes, lovely
to see, dangerous to touch.
You’ll meet strangers on the way.
Speak to them if you must,
but give them nothing, tell them nothing.
What sharp teeth they have.
Others have come here
before you, but few have left. Curiosity
can consume you. You may think
you see your parents, your lover.
Do not run to them. If you come to a cabin
with legs, walk past it. The skittering
behind you may grow distant in time.
Try not to dream of what may have been.
Distrust what you see. Remember the tale
of the girl who took the stranger’s
generosity, how he dragged her
through the streets in a spiked barrel,
or chewed her bones clean. Learn
that trust can kill, and that death
is not the worst thing that can happen
to the young. If you must sleep,
do not dream. The woods enfold
you now, thick as blankets. I tell
you the truth: they are patient
as wolves, hungry as winter.
Read more of Israel Wasserstein’s poetry online:
“The Next Morning,” I am the Lizard Queen!
“Lazarus,” I am the Lizard Queen!
“John Brown,” Kansas Poetry Month Contest