This long poem, in nine sections, offers a vision of humanity caught
in the snare of history -- and yearning for something better. It also
offers a perspective on various subjects including
leadership, and folly, and in part it is an ars poetica with something
about what stories reveal
Let Me Tell You a Story
by Ken Sanes
At its peak, the city looked
like it was cut from marble
with grand temples and civic centers,
geometric gardens and a hundred large fountains.
Its ships controlled seas and ports
throughout the known world,
carrying gold and grain,
along with exotic animals,
destined for a royal zoo or the table of a king.
Then, without warning,
the ground opened up
and there were screams of terror
as people tried to escape
from collapsing buildings,
and bridges gave way beneath their feet.
In the end, the city ceased to exist
and most of the people disappeared with it.
In place of grand temples, public buildings
there was now a wild landscape
of grass and small trees
along with rocks and debris.
And where the palace had been,
there was only barren land.
Not surprisingly, the city’s trading empire
fragmented and turned back to local barter
while survivors in nearby villages
adapted to a simpler life.
A century later, the weather changed;
the temperate climate
that civilization depended on
and the wild nature that replaced the city
was buried in a desert of snow and ice.
The survivors from this second,
and more extensive, holocaust
lived in caves
until their descendants
learned how to build shelters
out of a framework of large animal bones,
with layered walls made from hides.
Huddled inside their shelters,
with the wind howling outside,
the descendants liked to tell a story
about a city full of fountains
that had a sky with a bright radiating sun,
so the day itself was hot
like the heat around a fire.
And the city had ships that traveled the oceans,
trading and searching for something
that was never found.
At least that was the story they told.
But as the descendants passed on,
from one generation to the next,
the population dwindled
there were less than five hundred people.
Then one day, despite their circumstances,
or perhaps because of them,
there was a war
between two extended families
over who was the leader,
and who got which food rations,
and where certain orphaned children
would sleep for the night.
The reasons kept expanding
until fighters for both sides
confronted each other
with harpoons and long knives
as they tried to maneuver in a snowstorm,
covered with layers of clothing.
Despite the difficulties,
the two sides were determined,
and the fighters’ weapons found their mark
as people died on the ice from their wounds.
It was during this fight that a young man,
living in the same frozen wasteland as everyone else,
and covered from head to toe in thick clothing,
plunged his knife into the chest
of an older man on the other side
he had known since childhood,
who had given him good advice
on being a parent
and had taken care of his wife
when she was sick.
After it was done, the young man stood there,
holding the knife, looking down at his victim,
covered in blood.
Then he looked around and saw men
he had also known all his life
killing and dying,
as their flesh gave way to their fury,
and he was overcome by the folly
of what they were doing. He knew
there had to be something better than this --
the better world they all dreamed about.
Where it was and what it was, he didn’t know.
Why they were trapped in this world of ice
was also a mystery.
Certainly, if they were being punished,
he couldn’t imagine the sin
that could justify their present circumstances.
But he also knew that this battle
was something they were doing
entirely to themselves.
So the young man ran up to another older man
who was the leader on his side in the battle.
“We’ve got to stop the killing,” he screamed,
as the wind lashed against his face
and drowned out most of his voice.
The leader screamed back: “Keep fighting,”
as he turned to defend himself against an attacker.
Then the young man began screaming
at the fighters on both sides
while miraculously avoiding being stabbed himself:
“Stop the killing!” he screamed,
over and over in a futile plea.
“This is insanity. We are brothers.
We are supposed to protect each other.”
But the young man could see that his reason
was being drowned out by their rage.
ran back to the leader on his own side
and grabbed the leader’s wrist,
to force him to drop his knife.
What the young man was thinking isn’t clear.
Like those around him,
he may have simply been driven by a violent emotion.
“Stop them,” he screamed.
“Stop them before someone else gets hurt.”
As he said it, the leader freed his hand
and, turning in a rage,
plunged the knife
into the young man’s chest.
Two other fighters, also from his own side,
then came at the young man,
screaming and stabbing him in the side and back
as another attacker, also on his side,
plunged a knife into the young man's body,
which was now on the ground.
“He’s already dead,”
the leader said to the last attacker
as fighters on both sides
looked in disbelief at the body in the snow.
Then one of the fighters screamed,
loud enough for everyone to hear:
“We’ve got to stop this,”
and threw down his weapon,
raising his hands in the air
to show everyone that he was unarmed
and vulnerable to attack.
And with that, the leader looked down
at the body of the young man in the snow,
with the knife in his chest
that the leader had put there
just a minute before,
and he began to shake,
as one of the fighters on his side
said in a low voice to the man next to him,
“How do you live with yourself
after you kill your own son-in-law?”
“He may not live with himself,”
the man next to him replied.
Then the leader raised his hand,
which was still trembling, to signal retreat.
In response, the leader on the other side did the same,
and the men began to walk back to their shelters.
Some of the men from both sides
now worked as teams,
carrying the dead bodies
to where women and children were waiting,
while others limped from their wounds,
including a few who would die from their injuries
in the next few days and weeks.
the climate became more temperate
and there were more people.
But no one remembered the ancient city
with the grand temples and civic centers
or the ships that controlled trade
throughout the known world.
Instead, the favorite story people told
was about the storm dragon
and how it tried to destroy their ancestors
with a blast of freezing fire
until a young hero plunged a sword
into its frozen heart
and demolished its palace of burning ice.
It was only because of that victory, they said,
that humanity was able to gain control
over what had become an endless winter.
Let me tell you a story about a woman.
Since we need to place her somewhere,
let’s say she is sitting in a room
in a wooden chair
next to a plain wood table.
As she sits there,
she is turning the pages of a book,
and we can see that she is young and attractive
in an austere way,
with dark hair that is pulled in back of her head.
Behind her, a fire is crackling in the fireplace
and chopped wood is stacked to one side.
But as the woman looks at her book,
propped up on the table,
it becomes obvious that she isn’t reading the pages
so much as looking through them
like they are a window to another world.
And what she is looking at
through this window of a book
is the ground being ripped apart,
and the inhabitants of a city
desperately trying to escape
as they are buried beneath collapsing buildings.
Then, turning a page,
she sees some of the survivors sold into slavery
as warlords and local tribes
take control of the ruined city’s far-flung territories.
Turning once again, she looks on
as even this barbarian world
comes to an end and, in its place,
there is a landscape of rock and ice
receding into the distance.
What she is seeing doesn’t surprise her.
For thousands of years she has observed
the rise and fall of nations
and the course of life.
She is a constant witness
to the alternating rhythm of sun and storm,
autumn and trade, marriage and war.
She sees nature in bloom with a green landscape
and bright flowering plants,
and she sees dead soldiers
as they dissolve on the ground,
becoming part of the life of other things.
She sees something being born
and something dying
as she takes in the ages of history
and the aging of every man and woman.
She is a witness to all of this
but she isn’t a fellow sufferer.
She isn’t moved by the passions she observes.
Nor does she fully appreciate
the sense of confinement people have,
both in nature and in themselves,
or their yearning to be free.
But she makes a mental note of what she sees
and retains it in memory
so there is always a trace that remains
after every other trace has disappeared.
Here is a desperate moment:
a ship is caught in a storm.
The men on deck are trying to get control of the boat
as they are hit by sheets of rain and a fierce wind.
They can barely see what they are doing
as the waves knock the boat one way, then another.
And I am screaming at the men
to let the animals out of their cages
and push them overboard
since they’ll have a better chance of surviving
on their own
than if they go down with the ship.
Two of my crew members are trying
to follow my orders but the zebras
refuse to go into the water
and the two orphaned chimpanzees
are climbing a rope ladder up the mast
as it sways with the boat.
This was our first expedition
exotic plants and animals
from around the world.
Now that four villages have joined together
to found a city, and we are
aggressively opening markets,
we are about to become a center for trade.
No one will be able to stop us
so long as we have determination
and a genius for turning an exchange
to our advantage.
But now I’m thinking
this first expedition may be my last
because I got greedy. I wanted it all --
riches, knowledge, fame --
so I forced my crew
to take one last trip into unknown waters,
despite the warnings,
and now we are being pounded by wind and rain,
when the ship suddenly begins turning;
the ship is turning;
it is spinning
as we are caught in a maelstrom
that will certainly be our undoing.
Now the bow is where the stern is supposed to be
as wind and rain batter the ship
and we are carried around by a tornado of water.
No one knows what to do.
If we were up against a sea monster,
we could try to subdue it
with harpoons and lances,
and drive it away or haul it in.
But how do we cast a net
a spiraling circle of water?
A crewman is loudly, and very quickly, praying
to the god of wind and water:
“Please have mercy on us
and deliver us to a safe shore.”
But we are spinning faster, hanging on
to whatever is part of the ship,
so we won’t fly off and be carried into the maelstrom,
when all at once the ship is drawn down a funnel
opened by the water
as if we are swirling down the drain
of a fountain.
There is a deadly calm.
Am I waking up
or just getting my full senses back after the storm?
Our ship is docked next to a half-twisted pier
in an unfamiliar place.
It is as if the maelstrom has dragged us down
to the surface of another world below it.
But at least the ship’s passengers have fared well
since I see that the chimpanzees
are on the mast,
and the zebras and other animals
have already made it to land
where they are grazing on
what looks like sparse greenery
on the rocky landscape.
I tell the ship’s physician
to take the dead ashore
and build a funeral pyre.
As I take a small boat ashore, myself,
it quickly becomes apparent
that there was once a city here
inhabited by people much like ourselves.
There is debris
from what must have been grand buildings,
and pieces of sculpture are scattered on the ground.
Here I see that a broken engraving
depicts the faces of a conquered nation
with great sympathy,
and it is obvious
these people were sensitive to humanity
and moved by mortal things.
The inscription below is only partly obscured --
But this is impossible!
The language on the inscription is our own!
What kind of trick is this?
Examining the fragments, I can see
the people depicted in the statues
have our appearance, as well.
And, as I look at the water, now I see
that the shape of the bay
is more familiar than I realized.
"This has to be a dream," I say,
mostly to myself.
“It's a nightmare,”
my first mate says as he crouches down
to read the fragment of an inscription
that describes his five-year-old son
as the long dead hero of an ancient war.
There is only one story
whether it is told by a lyric poet or a dramatist,
or a writer of epics or novels,
or a reciter of myths and folktales.
The story is filled with beginnings and endings
and it is forever coming to a climax,
which is why, somewhere in the telling,
young lovers are always sneaking off
to profess their love,
and young soldiers, imbued with ideas of glory,
are dying in battle.
We all know what the story is about
because it is our story,
with a change in the verbs and nouns
to hide the truth
and enrich the meaning.
It is a story about adventurers
on a ship that travels the oceans
searching for a lost island,
or an undefiled heart,
or something as simple
as a pile of treasure, with rubies and gold coins
locked in a wooden chest.
Of course, the story also includes pirates
who try to steal the treasure
because there really are pirates
or else there are rivals
or earthquakes or stubborn fathers
who refuse to accept the destiny of love
for their daughters.
But it is also a story about people who get carried away
by their own foolishness in endearing ways --
mocking, gossiping, fighting and pretending --
then melting into each other’s arms
in moments of truth and reconciliation,
so we can laugh and cry without regret.
And it is about a man in control
of everyone but himself,
who refuses to see the world as it is,
dragging down the people around him
as he is besieged by doubts
and can’t find a foothold
in a turning world.
Of course, the story has many facets
and it can be told in many ways.
Sometimes it is about a crisis of conscience,
which leads to a moment
when everything changes,
or about a journey into the depths
where the monsters of myth and sexual nightmare
lurk in the recesses of cave walls.
And very rarely it is about life as a puzzle,
in which the pieces of speech
are merely sounds
that seem external to the human world.
Whatever the specifics,
we know it is about a basic aspect of life,
which is that every desire has a counter-desire,
and every goal has an obstacle,
just as each of us has an adversary --
out there and inside our selves --
who stands in our way, vowing to get revenge.
We are familiar with the details,
but we’re still not certain what kind of story it is,
which is why we mix it up in the telling
and are always ready to hear it again
even though we know it by heart from the inside,
like the young boy who is almost pleading
before he goes to sleep.
“Please,” he says to his indulgent father.
“Please tell me the story.”
When the tremors came back
and they were more violent than before,
people in the city were at a loss.
They had trusted the king,
who told them the earlier tremors
were only the land settling.
“It is harmless,” he said at the time.
“In fact, it is something the Earth needs to do
every few hundred years
to remain stable.”
Now, with the return of the tremors,
people in the city knew that he misled them,
and they would pay the ultimate price
for his deception.
They also realized what a mistake it was
laughing at the prophets in the street
and pelting them with rocks
when they warned that the city
would collapse in on itself
and consume its inhabitants.
But even though people now knew
that the prophets were right,
many still tried to escape
in the desperate hope
that they would be the ones who defied fate.
Some started to pack their belongings.
Others left everything behind.
A few of the men
even abandoned their families
and tried to run through streets
that were rolling and buckling
like the back of a dragon
as they were swallowed by the Earth
or crushed by falling buildings.
More than a few made it outside the city walls
and well into the countryside
where, to their great relief,
they found stable land,
only to encounter the thieves and slave merchants
who suddenly appeared on the roads.
The prosperous family of a banker
took a different course.
The two middle-aged parents,
their young adult son and his pregnant wife
stayed in the ideal world of their geometric garden,
surrounded by perfect rows of hedges,
with paths laid out
in the form of a divided circle,
and carefully chose the last words
they wanted to say to each other.
Their decision to stay
and calmly hold a conversation
as their world collapsed around them
may seem more than a little odd
from a perspective outside of events.
But they were followers of the new philosophy
being taught in the academies,
and now they made a choice
to put their beliefs into practice.
So they sat in the center of the garden,
on stone benches around a low fountain.
Looking at his pregnant wife,
who was sitting next to him,
the young man told her that he loved her,
and said he never imagined
they would run out of time so quickly.
He said that he felt cheated
because he would never introduce their child
to the pleasure of shooting an arrow
and watching it soar through the air
or of feeling your sails catch the wind
when you are out on the water.
Then he turned to his parents
for some of the things that were said
in the heat of argument,
as they nodded in an expression of sympathy.
Next, it was his mother’s turn.
Facing the young couple,
who were sitting across from her,
and now holding each other,
she said that she considered them
her children and she loved them both.
And, even in these circumstances,
it was important to the young couple
to hear her say it
and hear the tenderness in her words
and tone of voice.
Then the father spoke,
apologized to his son’s wife
for opposing their marriage.
He told them that he now realized
how superficial his judgments had been,
based on something her father did
when she was a child.
Her father had paid the price, he said.
There was no reason she had to go on paying it.
He also admitted that it was a mistake
to have waited so long to say it
while his wife nodded vigorously
Finally, the young woman spoke,
and all the past resentment
was gone from her voice
as she told her husband’s mother and father
that they were her second family,
standing in for the family she never had.
But she also told them that she regretted
not getting closer to them,
despite the natural sympathy
they all had for each other.
Then, as the tremors got worse,
the young man made an unexpected request:
he asked his father to tell the story
that used to scare him and, surprisingly,
made him willing to go to sleep as a child,
the one about the captured animals on a boat
and the sailors who were stranded
in a disturbingly familiar world.
The father thought it was an odd request
coming at a time like this,
and he assumed he would never
get to the end of the story,
particularly since he could see
that his family was already getting drowsy
from the poison.
But he understood the poetry of it
and, in any case, he didn’t want
to say no to his son.
So he invoked the name
of the muse of stories
and, with a trembling voice,
he started to tell them
about a ship on the water ….
It is an important truth,
even if it is often overlooked,
that we fill our lives with stories
because the characters
are our second selves,
altered and intensified for our enjoyment.
As we observe them, from a position of safety
outside the stories they are part of,
and see how they deal with obstacles --
even as they are in the dark
about what will happen next --
we deeply experience
the analogy to ourselves.
Inevitably, their happy endings
become our happy endings
just as their death lets us safely mourn
for our own mortality.
But stories do something else
that is essential, as well,
even though it is also easily overlooked.
In fact, it can help explain why many of us
want to know what happened next
to the family in the garden
as their world collapsed around them,
even as we yearn for a different ending,
and why we ponder the fate of sailors,
on a mission of trade and exploration,
after they are carried away by a maelstrom
to the ruins of a city.
Did they establish a settlement
somewhere down the coast?
Did their descendants survive a change in climate
and, millennia later, help repopulate the world?
Or did they die in the ruins of their own future?
One of the reasons we want to know
Not only the self-love
of seeing ourselves in the story
but also our love and compassion
for the characters themselves
and the people they stand in for,
in which we wish them the best,
without ulterior motive.
This is a basic principle:
when we observe
many of the characters in stories,
self- and selfless-love
complete each other,
giving us a chance to feel compassion
for ourselves and those around us,
which is also compassion for a suffering world.
In fact, this is an important reason
we fill our lives with stories.
It is because the characters
are us and not us
they are people we know, humanity, and mere imaginings --
and because my story is a variation on your story
just as yours is a variation on my own
and, just perhaps, because we are intermixed
in ways we intuit but usually can’t see
from inside ourselves.
All of which helps explain
why we are ready to hear the same story again,
about Good versus Evil,
with Love against Death, and Life against Hate,
and being truly alive in a mortal struggle
with living death.
And if we choose to experience all of this
in stories that are transformed by art
into a source of pleasure,
with characters who are frequently
beautiful, heroic, or endearing,
in invented situations that play to our desires,
and when the stakes are nothing practical at all
because it is merely a symbolic reenactment,
and if we need to take pleasure
in driving out Evil in the story
as he twists his waxed handlebar moustache
to a fine point
and swirls his cape around, laughing maniacally,
that is just part of what makes us human.
It doesn’t change the fact that
stories are the sigh of the oppressed creature;
they are a celebration of life
and a meditation on loss
as well as a way of tossing a coin
into the well of fortune.
Ultimately, they are about our own quest to be whole
in a life based on love,
and our yearning for a deeply humane world,
despite all the distortions of tooth and claw,
and Narcissus twisted by neurosis.
In addition, of course,
when stories are successful at mixing things up,
they help us experience
our own disappointed love of life,
while their puzzles to be solved
and the awe they evoke
can even stand in
for our puzzlement and wonder
at the miracle of an unsatisfactory world.
But what stories usually don’t do
is help us carry the love and compassion they evoke
into the rest of our lives.
Nor do they show us how we project our inner world
onto characters and other people
while we deny the truth about ourselves,
which would help us see the analogy
These, and other, limitations can turn
the counterfeit utopia of stories
into an opium of the imagination,
a cry of impotence by jilted lovers,
and a sugar pill we take
because we are afraid of the cure
or don’t know what it is.
But well-told stories plus talk of stories
can still give us a vision
that may even help us, on occasion,
avoid being drawn in
to the maelstrom of folly in a turning world.
And they can help sensitize us to the truth about life
as we undergo our inevitable progression
from labor to tomb.
So why not
mix it up
a storm and harvest,
morning and memory,
and the new moon with a dark sky --
when a dove or a shooting star
goes by --
and someone is watching, wondering
if she will be one of the first to die.
And, yes, it is entirely rational
to want to see all of creation
rejoice in the marriage of the characters,
with the squirrels singing in the branches
and the stars shedding tears of joy,
because the Disney side of us
will never stop wanting a wonderful world.
Perhaps, in some moments,
when we are carried away by the story,
it may even seem to be
just us and the telling,
with wild nature and human nature
as twin fountains in the same garden --
and now we’re not certain
if there was also a glimpse of something
beyond the screen of the conventional meaning
or if we were just seeing the moving shadows
of our own desires.
And we wonder which was the problem:
our exile from a better world
or the fact that we are closed off from this one.
Oh God, don’t let it end this way.
Please, I implore you.
Death is for fools, not me.
I know I’ll escape. I know I will.
They told me I would die
when I was barely old enough to speak.
I was dressed in rags,
living as an orphan in the street,
with no one I could turn to,
certainly not the king
who was content to let children like me
starve and waste away from neglect.
But I survived and lifted up my station
until I was a member
of the king’s own cabinet.
I became one of his most trusted advisors --
And the woman who laughed at me?
She wasn’t laughing when her father sold her to me
for a handful of coins and a goat!
Fools! They all deserve to be used
and thrown away.
May they rot in Hell!
Now this bag of gold coins will start a new life for me.
My children may be dead already.
If not, they’re on their own.
I’ll start a new family if I have to.
Oh no -- it’s shaking again --
Incredible! The Temple of the Seasons
And to think I was supposed to be there
at just this moment.
Once again, God was watching over me
when I changed my plans.
But this way is still passable.
God! You protected me for so long!
Don’t let it end this way.
Please, I implore you.
Death is for fools, not me….
There were warnings -- small tremors
that shook the palace.
Then the tremors stopped
and I wondered if we were safe.
In the streets, self-appointed seers and prophets
were saying it was a sign.
They said the gods were angry
at the speculations of the philosophers
and at the new spiritual science of mind
being spread by the academies.
Even my own chief of staff told me
we had very little time.
“Evacuate,” he said. “There isn’t any way
to save the city.
But you can still save the people.”
Unfortunately, I chose to listen to my other advisors
although it was my chief of staff
who had been right about things in the past.
It was my other advisors who assured me
the tremors were nothing to worry about.
It is the Earth settling, they said.
But what decided the issue
was a warning from a member
of my inner circle,
who pointed out that the late winter festival
was a few days away,
and I was expected to reenact
the killing of the Ice Dragon,
and be carried through the streets
as Defender of the City
and Liberator of Spring.
“They are already carving the ice sculpture,” he said.
“If we evacuate, the celebration will never take place.
And when the city is still intact,
despite a few tremors,
your enemies will portray you as a fool -- a weak fool --
who ran away from a little rumbling by the Earth.”
So, on the recommendation of my advisors,
I stood in front of my people
and told them that it was safe to stay in the city,
using a tone of voice I had learned from my father
of benevolent reassurance and authority.
“Rest assured,” I said, “the gods aren’t angry.
The city is secure.”
Most chose to trust my judgment
and life continued as usual
although my chief of staff and a few of his followers
-- including my own wife and child --
left the city on their own.
Now, because of my deception,
my people are fleeing for their lives
when it is too late to escape,
while I sit here looking out the window
as everything we built is destroyed.
There is the Temple of the Seasons
in the distance,
And there goes one of my advisors,
running through the palace garden below.
I don’t think he’s going to get away in time --
although that overstuffed bag of gold coins
he stole from the royal treasury
should protect him.
Yes -- I’m good at seeing other people’s folly.
Maybe it’s time for me to see my own
and admit that the city would have been better off
if my opponents had been successful
when I first took the crown,
and if I was the one who lost his head.
But something is wrong here.
It feels like the room is spinning,
while my thoughts are turning
with unanswered questions.
How could I have seen the truth
and still been blind?
How could I have led an attack
against our own people?
Why did I feel compelled
to take the ship into unknown waters?
Then there were eight dead
with very few people to spare
in this God forsaken wasteland ….
I wonder if it is me
or if the garden below my window is moving.
But I know the answer. The answer is, “No.”
A THOUSAND TIMES, “NO!”
Knowledge after the fact isn’t enough.
Get hold of yourself.
Stay in control.
A knife would be quick and easy.
But I’ll die with the people
I did this to.
The Earth will
along with the evidence of my crime.
Millennia later, after the ice receded,
the woman sitting at the table
continued looking at the world
through the window of her book.
As she sat there, turning the pages,
she saw tall rows of wheat and crisp yellow corn
along miles of family farms,
and rich meadows, good for grazing,
that were full of flowering plants
and the buzz and hum of insects.
The woman was older now.
She was frail and her hand had a slight tremor
as she turned the pages.
Her face also had a network of lines
that betrayed the imprint of the years.
Sitting there, she looked over at the fireplace
and at the stack of cut wood off to one side.
Then she looked again
through the window of her book
and saw young people lying in the tall grass
in the heat of a summer day,
lazily staring at the clouds and a bright blue sky.
The young people were thinking
about nothing in particular
as one of them turned to look at a bee
hovering over a flower.
They were happy, and it didn’t occur to them
to wonder why.
Watching them, the woman felt some joy,
herself, mixed with a feeling of sorrow
for every living thing.
Notes: I take the idea that all stories are part of a single unifying story
from Northrop Frye and Robert Graves, among others. The line, “There is
only one story,” is based on a line from "To Juan at the Winter
Solstice" by Graves. Six lines in section three
are inspired by a famous passage in Virgil’s Aeneid. The lines are:
“Here I see that a broken engraving/ depicts the faces of a conquered
nation/ with great sympathy,/ and it is obvious/ these people were
sensitive to humanity/ and moved by mortal things.”
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