There are poems that interpret a feeling or an idea, and there are poems that interpret an entire history. American poet Frederick Siedel is celebrated for many things, so we love celebrating him now, this week, simply since one of our favorite poems of his is here (and read by the author), on the New York Review of Books website. “Our Gods” is a perfect poem for now. Power still corrupts, from Washington to Tripoli, yet Siedel’s lines catch something about a power less corrupting than corrupted. The poem describes what it meant—and felt like—for the few who held it, briefly and somehow beautifully, in America.
The story told here is not an object lesson in power, nor is power perhaps the poem’s main interest, but Siedel channels the seductions of a type palpably. The rules of the great games then played are indivisible from a time of American eminence, and the irony of its heroes (“who loved to lose gracefully and lead”) still rich. The value of “Eyes Only” intelligence remains as mysterious today as the latest press release from Julian Assange. Perhaps you’ve read The Wise Men, or seen The Good Shepherd. There is a canon of this literature. This is its finest lyric.
Here is the poem:
Older than us, but not by that much, men
Just old enough to be uncircumcised,
Episcopalians from the Golden Age
Of schools who loved to lose gracefully and lead—
Always there before us like a mirage,
Until we tried to get closer, when they vanished,
Always there until they disappeared.
They were the last of a race, that was their cover—
The baggy tweeds. Exposed in the Racquet Club
Dressing room, they were invisible,
Present purely in outline like the head
And torso targets at the police firing
Range, hairless bodies and full heads of hair,
Painted neatly combed, of the last WASPs.
They walked like boys, talked like their grandfathers—
Public servants in secret, and the last
Generation of men to prefer baths.
These were the CIA boys with EYES
ONLY clearance and profiles like arrowheads.
A fireside frost bloomed on the silver martini
Shaker the magic evenings they could be home.
They were never home, even when they were there.
Public servants in secret are not servants,
Either. They were our gods working all night
To make Achilles’ beard fall out and prop up
The House of Priam, who by just pointing sent
A shark fin gliding down a corridor,
Almost transparent, like a watermark.
The last lines catch that specific secrecy, one now indivisible from a period before broader rule of law. Was it secrecy or discretion that soldered the mindset, and the character, or was it the other way around? The lines also catch a precision of vision. (Sharks don’t bring comfort, but they tend to know what they’re doing.) “Our gods” is an American companion to Kipling’s Arithmetic on the Frontier. Both use language that echoes the brilliance of the talent they subtly mock. Gods are divine, and our gods were human. But they knew their Latin; they knew who Achilles was.