Isolde and the Men of Stone

Who could believe, except on ancient trust?
The stones grew pliant, yielding into shape
When softer nature touched them; human forms
Emerged, as marble figures half-begun.

—Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 400-406

Her mind a buzzing hive, Isolde walks
On gaping earth. An excavator’s teeth
Biting the loam-thick carpet of the ground
Had trenched and torn out many hidden things.
Eagerly she stoops to gather up
The bones Deucalion flung in iron times
To midwife men—her basket holds them all:
Quartz flesh veined with feldspar, agate eyes,
Sandstone hands, and for the myriad brain
A lump of jasper swirled with twining dendrites.
In clay Isolde finds one perfect piece
Of variegated onyx, like a heart.

These curios she keeps within her garden
To set off moss and flowers; meanwhile weeds
Have closed and knitted up the open wound.



Demetrius, Maker of Gods, Recounts a Conversation with Saint Paul

And you see and hear that this Paul by persuasion hath drawn away a great multitude, not only of Ephesus but almost all of Asia, saying: They are not gods which are made by hands. —Acts, 19:26

I said to him, for us Love is a god
Fashioned from a block of pure peach marble
Here in this small shop where stone flakes fly
And the hiss of smoothing pumice whistles.
So much divinity! Look about you, Paul—
You may see them circling the boy Eros
As if in pantheon, or on Mount Olympus:
Aphrodite shaped in alabaster
White as the churning sea-foam she rose from;
Thoth in black obsidian, the master
Of all hidden wisdom’s secret lore;
Sundered Osiris carved in porphyry
As multihued and varied as the rainbow;
Artemis: ice-white spar with moonstone eyes
Pale as her virgin crescent, and see here
Apollo in finest Parian, as though
Born to no other flesh, and that flesh breathing
The coldest air of timelessness. Take note
Of grape-stained Bacchus, smiling though unconscious,
Who stares past stiff, granitic Priapus
While Mithra rides the blood-red jasper bull.

Still, the Jew Paul would not have it so,
Laughed at what he called idolatry
And spoke of an altar to THE UNKNOWN GOD.
I asked: An altar of what precious stone?



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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17 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    A curious collector of fragments, and a connoisseur ready to take an order and get down to the business of making whatever the customer wants. As an art appreciator, I like their conceits. But Demetrius may have trouble doing something unhewn.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S., all I can say is these vibrant and mesmerizing poems inspire me to educate myself further. At this stage in my literary learnings and leanings, I cannot give you a measured and erudite comment, but, for what it’s worth, I’ll say this – lines such as this ignite my heart and ear: “the hiss of smoothing pumice whistles”, “Of grape-stained Bacchus, smiling though unconscious”, “Artemis: ice-white spar with moonstone eyes/Pale as her virgin crescent”. This is the linguistic prowess I aspire to. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thanks, Susan. It’s funny, but both those poems were written back in the 1970s, and have sat in my old notebook all that time.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        I’m impressed – your comment serves to prove that today’s education sucks. I only wish I had been born in an era that revered the classics. Instead, my literary youth was spent mimicking the mimsy borogoves in dance… it’s a wonder I can string together two sentences let alone write a poem. I thank poets like you for restoring my faith.

  3. Paul Freeman

    Apart from the obvious ancient gods, I’m somewhat deity-challenged.

    That said, I found that ‘Men of Stone’ had a strangely comforting ‘Frankenstein’ feel to it (if that makes sense), which made the poem most thought-provoking.

  4. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    I love the conceits of connecting a type of stone to the deity in quesrt5ion.Like so many other poets, many were not
    introduced to the classics, or to the meanings of stones. Still, I have learned some of them; watching dull grey pebbles being polished for jewelry and seeing colors emerge has been an eye-opener; looking into the sparkling tones inside geodes has been another. Sometimes I am able to connect the quality of a stone to what I’ve put into a poem. Your poems are highly sophisticated and filled with knowledge I wish I had. Thanks for sharing them with the rest of us!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Sally —

      As I recall, I wrote those two poems at a time when I was in the habit of collecting stones at various excavation sites. after the workers had gone home for the day. It’s amazing what kind of beautiful rocks are turned up by a high-powered steam shovel digging a six-foot trench.

      But really, the poems are just pure fictive artifacts. I didn’t do any research to connect a particular stone to a specific deity — I just related what I knew about each ancient god to the characteristics that I noticed in the stones I had collected. It’s easy to think of Aphrodite as alabaster, and Priapus as granite.

  5. paul buchheit

    Joseph, I felt I was traveling back to antiquity. Very nice!

  6. C.B. Anderson

    You had me on my heels, Joe. These poems were not what one might call straightforward narratives by any means, and only after a third reading did I begin to see shapes forming in my mind’s eye. I can well understand why your subsequent work took different directions — one can dwell in obscurity only for so long. Between a rock and a hard place, nothing but extreme fluidity will survive for long.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, I tried not to be obscure. At the time (the 1970s) I was escaping from the clutches of free-verse insanity, and I wanted to produce verse that was filled with rational meaning. I hoped that the structure of the Deucalion and Pyrrha myth would serve as a framework to describe a young girl collecting rocks.

      The other poem about Demetrius is taken straight from the account in Acts, about St. Paul’s problems in Ephesus. He did have trouble with an artisan named Demetrius.

  7. Julian D. Woodruff

    I find, Prof. Salemi, that with respect to your poems my ignorance of Greek mythology leaves me at the foot of a steep path marked “Gradus ad Parnassum.” I will say this: the absence of end rhyme makes the switching back and forth between iambic and trochaic modes, and also the occasional departure from the 5-foot line, seem more natural than it might otherwise. I’d love to hear you read these.

  8. Margaret Coats

    This paraphrase from anthropology of religion perhaps precedes the search for what stone represents what deity.

    “Stone shows man something that transcends precarious humanity. Its strength, its motionlessness, its size and its strange outlines are none of them human; they indicate the presence of something that fascinates, terrifies, attracts, and threatens all at once. In its grandeur, its hardness, its shape and color, man is faced with a reality and a force that belong to some world other than the profane world of which he is a part. A rock or pebble becomes an object of devotion because it represents something and comes from somewhere. It has sacred value as an instrument to ensure possession of what it represents, or to get to the place where it came from. The role of sacred stones is as magical as it is religious.”

    This seems to have some bearing on what both Isolde and Demetrius are doing and thinking. Joseph has moved Saint Paul’s Demetrius beyond silversmithing in honor of Diana, to a whole world of artistry where any man can strive to possess whatever god fascinates, terrifies, attracts, and threatens him. We don’t need to know mythology or believe in it, to take part in this human search for the sacred. I myself cherish some stones from Sempringham in England. One of them came from a footpath through a field near the rarely used parish church in this tiny, remote village. It didn’t come from the ground easily. As I realized later, whatever remains of the medieval motherhouse of the Gilbertines, the only religious order founded in England, must lie unexcavated beneath hard-packed earth in that empty field.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, I did use my poetic license to change the occupation of Demetrius of Ephesus from “silversmith” to “sculptor of gods.” It worked better poetically, particularly in light of the quotation from Acts, and from St. Paul’s famous allusion to the altar of “The Unknown God.”

      As for the “Isolde” piece, that was more personal, and rooted in my own experiences while collecting stones. I fully understand Margaret’s attachment to the stones she found in Sempringham. In 1969, on my first visit to Italy, I walked along the Appia Antica road outside of Rome. I stopped at a ruined medieval tower, and entered. What was left of the floor was small heavy squares of dark green stone, worn smooth by the movement of centuries of human feet. I picked up two of them, and have kept them ever since.

  9. Daniel Kemper

    I like the recast of Demetrius of Ephesus from “silversmith” to “sculptor of gods.” It’s smooth and functional way to say it, not strictly changed. I enjoyed the ironic, “Some guys just don’t get it,” ending. When you mentioned escaping free verse, I couldn’t help but immediately pair those idols with free verse. And Paul by extension a poet trying to explain the word…


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