“Midas on the Beach” by John Philip Johnson

John Philip Johnson


When Midas went to the beach
everyone in his kingdom was nervous.
They liked the foot-shaped patches of golden sand,
scooped up like cattle patties,
and they were used to the nimble ruckus
of the entourage, staying somewhat close
but avoiding the bump. Their fear was for the sea,
for his first step, for the yellow muck hardening
around his ankles like it did in his brief Saturday night baths.
They would rescue him, of course, if the water trapped his feet—
throw him chains which they would later add to the treasury
once he’d grabbed them and been dragged
over the sharp, concreted waves.
It was a matter of some speculation for them,
but as he stared across the water,
their anxiety rose, and they muttered
about the loss of the fishing industry,
imagining the blue sea becoming gold.

It was the philosopher’s punishment, anyway:
He’d been estranged with his daughter
long before he’d hugged her to death. Like everything
else in his kingdom, she’d become an object
of evaluation. Even the words he used to describe things
were like little boxes of confinement, little rocks
he threw at the moon, separating him further,
bringing him pieces, lodestones. And the guilt
of his isolation—he’d sworn off concubines,
it was that look in their far-off eyes, the crackling realization
reaching their minds that they’d been bought,
while he caressed the distant, perfect object in his hands.

He went often to the beach and stared like other people do
at the meditation before him.
The sun’s long dangling finger across the water,
the honeyed line, shimmering like a zipper
on what he was coming to understand about it:
one conclusion, or another, here a god, there a god,
everywhere a god-god—he was aloofness itself,
and by that held the upper hand, the sponge,
squeezing it while soapy runs splattered
into gold chaos on the gray rocks; the servants
scrambled, able but wary, picking up his treasured flotsam.

Age made it worse. Aloha girls waved,
ever receding, their swaying hips
making the horizon like the hem of a grass skirt.
At least there was the gold. And he was the king,
king of the homunculus, giver of sciences,
wolfing down salad leaves before they lodged
in the back of his throat, cutting off fingernails,
letting them fall with a shrill clatter
onto the smooth golden floor which mirrored his feet.
He would cough, and wonder if his spray of golden spittle
would ignite the air into golden brightness
and make him fall with the last tinkling music
into the consummated, unabdicated otherness.

from Rattle #32, Winter 2009


John Philip Johnson: “One afternoon, a long time ago, before you were born, I was reading Byron. I couldn’t believe it when, in Don Juan, I found him rhyme gunnery with nunnery. I thought, good grief, anybody can do this. I wrote reams of poetry, lost most of it, and published some. Recently I woke up in middle age, with the children (cinque bambini!) finally able to dress and feed themselves. So, I’ve been scribbling again, a lot, and editing this time, like a born English major.” (website)

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