Cecil Hemley Memorial Award - 2017
A man trades his son for horses.
That's the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
Immortal. His father rides until
Grief sounds as good as the gallop
Of an animal born to carry those
Who patrol and protect our inherited
Kingdom. When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don't you want God
To want you? Don't you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
Up? And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven, that far terrain
Between Promise and Apology.
No one has to convince us.
The people of my country believe
We can't be hurt if we can be bought.
Elizabeth Willis on Jericho Brown
"Ganymede" is a stunning recasting of the classic myth of stolen youth: a beautiful adolescent boy is abducted by Zeus and brought to serve him on Mount Olympus. If you're inclined to a godlike point-of-view, you might say that the boy had the good fortune of upward mobility, but from the ground it is unmistakable that he has been taken into domestic servitude and sexual slavery. In examining the choices a reader makes in what he sees and how to name it, the poem turns over the myth's dynamic of betrayal and reward and shakes loose a set of observations that are as contemporary as they are classical. "Someone with wings" who appears out of nowhere may be angelic, but the figure also embodies the predatory power of a country—the one we live in—whose fantasies of ascent are built on the history of black lives that have been stolen, violated, and sold. This "inherited / Kingdom" is patrolled and protected by those who have been rewarded for their role in a system of disciplinary paternalism and enslavement. The felt sense of heaven as a "far terrain / Between Promise and Apology" is as chillingly precise as that of a country whose people "believe / We can't be hurt if we can be bought." Subtly steering our attention to pronouns—who are "we" here now?—the poem propels its readers into considerations of what we are witnesses to, what crimes are willfully occluded, and what of our own histories we have yet to fully examine.