Today we are in Austin to watch my oldest son run his first marathon. Few settings could be more alien but I’m curious to see how Josh will run 26 miles, 385 yards. He’s twenty-nine, and started running only a year ago, but is gifted with an ironclad work ethic. If he does something, he does it. No skimping, no half-measures, no distractions. I wish I had been like that at twenty-nine. The run in Austin reminds me of a poem by Guy Davenport -- “At Marathon” (Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980, 1986) -- just as Josh reminds me of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.:
“Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?”
Moore visited Greece in 1962 with her Bryn Mawr classmates Frances and Norvelle Browne. She stopped at Marathon. Davenport would admire the reverence of such a gesture. He refers in his final line to Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” in which she says “how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality, / this is eternity.”