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Diary: Where water used to be

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Red-eyed and flinching, Flavius
was applying a depilatory paste
of ivy gum and crushed centipede
to little effect. The sudden silence meant
they were waiting for that smooth-cheeked
decemvir to swivel his thumb
over in the arena. Brats of empire
– they’d think the world revolved around them
if they thought the world revolved
which of course it doesn’t. It stays put
or gets worse like this heat. A plague
of copulating crystal-winged flies

alights indifferently on plates of meat,
on fruit, on us – a sign of thunder or just
more heat. A sated roar comes from the stalls.
Wild beasts are all the rage in Rome
and here too we import somnolent crocodiles
that only strike when the prisoner’s goaded
within three steps of their jaws;
and a great ape that can tear men apart.
My friend Smynthius, aptly named
after the god of plagues, has had his walls
turned into an entire menagerie
by a Greek dauber with a taste for narrative.

But waiting for war all narrative
has forsaken us: as if these workouts
were reason enough for our existence
or at least provided one for strigils.
I claim the word’s derived from stryx, the owl,
from the shape of the owl’s claw, but Smynthius
calls that spurious etymology and says
the two words are unrelated and the only
animals involved at all are bees
who have barbed legs to clean their antennae.
Basted in oil and sweat, we think our health
may be all the claws and antennae we need.

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