Athena, On The Down Side

When a girl springs, fully formed, from the forehead of a God,
certain things are expected of her.
At Wellesley, they wouldn't let her keep her owl in the dorm,
so she made the first of many fateful decisions and told them to stick it.

Athena sits inside the bus kiosk on 8 Mile Road,
the one that some drunk smashed one of the windows out of with a trash barrel.
She hasn't got the fare,
and her crappy Payless shoes aren't making the walk seem very appealing.
Beside her on the bench is a beat-up backpack.
Behind her, doing a brisk business, is a fish market that must be some alley cat's dream.

For a while, she had a waitressing job at a Coney Island place in Detroit.
Her name tag said "Minerva", and she was on her feet for twelve hours at a time,
setting down plates of gyro petas or feta omelets
for fat truckers and hip hop fakers
while Seger sang about Main Street from the speakers in the ceiling.

Athena is tired, and none of the old Olympian crowd ever calls anymore.
The number 17 Gratiot Avenue bus goes by,
heading east and spinning old plastic grocery bags into the air behind it.
Athena does not smoke or drink, at least not anymore.
She's not a bad gal; 
when she's got a dollar she buys cat treats for Shopping Cart Bonnie's little stray,
but today Bonnie's off her meds and is having a screaming match with nobody anyone can see.

Athena thinks about packing it in,
mostly because her feet hurt and her looks are gone
and 8 Mile Road is so trashy it makes a girl feel she's failed just by being there.
Three things will decide her future:

the condition of the stars tonight; their nearness, the perfection of the constellations, or their absence because of clouds or impenetrable indigo--

the number of headlights heading west on the 8 Mile Road overpass, as opposed to those traveling east. Even numbers denote harmony, odd numbers warn of injury and loss.

the activities of her owl; if the bird returns in the dawn with jewels, gorgeous poems, or small animals with fur as soft as mercy, then she will kiss his feathers and believe that she is still a woman to be reckoned with, the Keeper of the Bolts; but if the bird never comes back at all, or returns wounded, trailing a leg or a wing, she will know her own days are numbered.

It is getting dark and the fish market is closed.
The last 420 bus to the State Fairgrounds has already passed by,
and Athena is still sitting inside the kiosk, 
no place for a lady to linger for long.
She's looking for the stars,
the lights,
and the bird associated with her name when she was Somebody--
Not like now.
Not like this.
Not on a bet.

for Fireblossom Friday




  1. oh, my. the last paragraph, i could feel the fear in me build.

    i loved the phrase: fur as soft as mercy.

    lordy, you amaze me.

  2. Holy shit!

    This is amazing.

    Has a Nail Gaiman feel to it, too.

    So you know Detroit.

    I'm a displaced Toledoan lining in the NW burbs.


  3. I'm betting on old Athena. The smart ones find a way!

  4. Love the title...I'm with Lolamouse..Athena may of landed in the dark, but she will find a way out of it. As always, you amaze me.

  5. You set the scene so fully, Shay...I love the list-y-ness that happens near the end especially that of the stars and the number-speak...I get numbers that like to call on me frequently - not sure what they're trying to say though.

    Awesome write and thank you for the challenge! :)

  6. This is an amazing companion piece to Brendan's poem. Great minds thinking alike in their own unique ways. Where his road seemed deserted, yours has a warm heart in it, still hoping.

  7. The hopelessness of Athena's situation - the way you weave in lists to paint pictures.. I get this the same way as a painting by Hopper.. Somehow when we hit the bottom, everything cease to move.. and I expect this is the moment when she gather the strength to get on and reclaim herself.

  8. When the Goddess of civilization, harvest, cities, crafts, weaving and wisdom is this low, I knew she was waiting for something. I just didn't know what! Wow. And thanks for the Abbey Lincoln version of this old favorite.

  9. This picture-myth of one of my old gods, one of the best and cleanest of them, brought so low, is piercing in its intimacy--and that's even before the list really kicks in. Part of us is just auto-tuned to what is loosely called 'superstition,' that is, the unseen forces which control our lives, even in what we see or do at any given time--we know it in our bones, no matter that our highly civilized, ruined minds make a nonsense of it. However, there's something to be said for the mind rising above it, too--we have that ability, and it is really what gives us our wings--not love, which always passes, or other people, though they hold us up many times, but ourselves. I won't start quoting, because I couldn't stop, but every reference to the owl here is a bright blade, either of healing or of loss. Still, in my world, the old gods still laugh, and so Ms Athena, she's not dead at all.

  10. Of course this is exceptional writing, which you never fail to deliver. But these are particularly attention-grabbing parts to me:

    "When a girl springs, fully formed, from the forehead of a God,
    certain things are expected of her.
    At Wellesley, they wouldn't let her keep her owl in the dorm"

    (In the first stanza, did you intend to capitalize "God" or omit "a"? If you are referring to many, I would think you'd lowercase "god".)

    "setting down plates of gyro petas or feta omelets" (a pleasure to read aloud)

    "or their absence because of clouds or impenetrable indigo"

    "gorgeous poems, or small animals with fur as soft as mercy, then she will kiss his feathers and believe that she is still a woman to be reckoned with"

    "It is getting dark and the fish market is closed." (again, the way you gently rhyme always enhances your poetry; it's often quite subtle, but your word choices are clearly based on the way things will sound together)

    I like your bravery in just presenting a piece the way it comes to you rather than trying to force it to fit a form or squeeze it into balanced stanzas or certain line lengths. It stands out to me here that some of this piece is in paragraphs, while some of the lines are intentionally long and others intentionally short. You do what needs to be done. I find this impressive; it gives me more satisfaction when I read, like you're allowing this creature to breathe as it was intended to rather than trying to make it be something logical or rule-abiding.

  11. I hate to be trite but this poem is amazing. I'm blown away.

  12. We're all lost somewhere between Detroit and de blight of the 'burbs, I think ... A goddess has to fall a long way to find herself there, but don't we all. I'm rooting for the owl.

  13. I posted a word list, if you're interested.

  14. I knew a girl named Athena once and this could be her story. I love, "impenetrable indigo" and the way you weave astoundingly raw and fresh images into a story.

  15. Yeah, Athena IS a survivor.

    Too many gem-like lines to cut and paste. Brilliant...which is what we expect (and get) from you. ;)

  16. wow, i love this, Shay. it reads like a gritty documentary. i felt like i was in the diner with that damnable Bob Seger soaring while i sipped shitty coffee.

  17. An especially poignant close--thanks. k.

  18. What a poignant portrait this is. Love the tone of the closing lines which are just spot-on...."Not like this...."

  19. "The number 17 Gratiot Avenue bus goes by,heading east and spinning old plastic grocery bags into the air behind it."

    How you manage to create such wonderful imagery with your words just amazes me.

    I don't how you feel about this, but hands down you are the best story poet I've ever read. You make me see your characters vividly, but most of all, you make me feel them -- their wishes, hopes, dreams, and their sadness...


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