Dionysus in Love

Robin Robertson

after Nonnus

Hardened by the hills of Phrygia,
quickened by its streams, the boy-god
Dionysus came of age.

And as his own body changed
his eyes grew wider, and turned
towards the bodies of others.
Ampelos was the one, above all:
most beautiful boy, most beautiful
of satyrs: lean and long and new.
Even his flaws were gorgeous:
the bony nubs at the forehead, that slight
skip in his step, sometimes;
the way he slept in a curve, his soft tail
slacked over his haunches.

Dionysus let him win at wrestling: flesh
on flesh, their knotted hands, legs
pressed against legs.
Then to feel those muscles of his
tighten in the flank
and flip him over,
so he could lie still under that weight.

Dionysus held back at the sprint,
to watch: the god
of spark and springheel, the god
who would cross continents with a single step
stood still, and with one breath
blew speed into his love’s young body,
lifting it over the line.

Their race in the red river was the last test,
and glowing Ampelos matched it, red for red,
his colour rising as he met it,
rose to rose, and swept past Dionysus
who had watched him
from the corner of his eye,
and slowed.

The boy hoisted himself up from the river
streaming in victory, and went to the forest
where he gathered vipers to bind in his hair,
killed a deer for its speckled skin,
and leapt on the back of a mountain bear
and rode him out of the wood, all in imitation
of the god Dionysus.

Who stood, watching Ampelos.
Then drew him close, with a warning,
saying the boy need not fear
the sharp mouths of panthers, lions or bears,
only dread the horns of beasts –
for he had seen a horned dragon
rise from the rocks
with a fawn on its back
which it tossed down onto the stone altar,
gored it through
and feasted.
He had seen the blood fork
over the rocks into pools, pools
that filled and fell again
like some long dark drink
that spilled out thickly, slug
after slug, till it slowed
and dripped to a stop.

Dionysus watched him; never tired of watching,
though fearful now, for what he had seen.

And Ampelos watched him back,
every day, Dionysus
riding away on the saddle of a panther
to hunt the dark woods
with his maenads, with his deer-skin
whipping behind him,
out on the hunt
like a god.

And as he watched, he felt a presence
at his shoulder saying
‘Why should he have the panthers,
why should he be the grand one?
Why don’t you ride at his side
on the back of a bull, to please
the bull-king, for him to see you
with a bull between your knees?
The girl Europa
rode one bareback over our great sea
with no reins or bridle;
surely you can take a bull
and master it –
surely you can ride the forest?’
And as he turned
there was no one there.

And then the forest parted, and there he stood:
the bull, his huge mouth slopped open,
a grey tongue thick as the boy’s arm
hung out in a curl
like some third horn
as he lowered his head to the running stream
and drank.
And as he drank, Ampelos pulled up rushes,
plaiting some into a bridle,
twisting others round an alder stem
to make a kind of whip.
Then he gathered lilies and anemones,
hyacinths and roses from the river bank
and strung them through, in a garland.
The bull stood, patiently,
and lowered its head for the boy,
who stroked its brow, felt
the hard weight of its horns
which he dressed in flowers to the tips,
swung up on the bull’s back,
slipped on the bridle, and called out
to Selene, goddess of the horned moon,
gleaming bull-driver in the night sky,
shouting ‘Look! I am riding the horned bull!’
And the sky-goddess looked down
at this satyr, and sent him a reward
for his insolence: a gadfly –
goad and tormentor of beasts.
With the first sting the bull lurched forward
into a run, the second driving it wild
and away from the river up through the rocks,
maddened into a gallop, the boy
hanging on, the beast plunging higher
into the mountains,
trying to shake off the stinging fly.
In its frenzy the bull
bucked so hard
it threw the boy headlong over its back
and there was a small crack
like the snap of a twig, and the bull
stood over the broken boy
and ran him through with its horns.

Dionysus found the white body lying
in its great red star,
laid anemones on his dead love’s open eyes
and a fawn-skin over him to keep
his stopped heart from the cold.
He stood by the boy, watching the red
tendrils branch and twine through the rocks,
and being a god he could not weep
for Ampelos – could neither grieve, nor follow him
down to the land of the dead.

Then Dionysus heard a voice that said
‘Let loose your sparks of love on another love
and forget. New love is the cure
for love grown cold or gone.
When a flower dies, the gardener plants again.’

And Dionysus, who never wept,
wept then for Ampelos,
and his tears fell on the boy
and the boy’s body started to change.
His feet took root and the long legs
thickened into stems, his belly twisting
into a stalk that broke into branches
and he shot up his own shape:
leaves grew from his fingers, and up
from the buds of his horns
burst clusters of grapes: hard and green.
Dionysus stood under the vine
that had been Ampelos, and it ripened for him.
He drew some fruit from the stem
like a woman would pull off earrings
and he squeezed them in his fist
till his wrist was laced with red.
Then he licked it, and said: ‘You are still alive,
sweet friend, even if you are dead.
You have kept your rosy colour
and you taste of heaven.
I will wear your leaves in my hair instead of snakes
and wind your young shoots round my fennel wand.
I will let you soak through me.’

And so, wine was made,
and we made from it: abandon,
delirium, a cure for regret,
an end to love and grief, a means,
at last, to achieve our own erasure.
We had found a way of forgetting.