Sisyphus by George Szirtes
When Sisyphus enters the hotel
he drops his bags. He rings the bell.
This is, he checks, Pensione Hell?
Charon emerges through a door.
It is all that and something more,
What can we do for the signor?
Sisyphus glances at the stairs.
You could relieve me of my cares
by taking my baggage. Your affairs
are strictly your own. I assume
you’ll want the very topmost room.
Here are the keys. It’s like a tomb
up there and Sisyphus sleeps alone,
or would if he could. He’s stretched out prone
and wide awake. He hears the stone
muttering in its metal box
sealed in the biggest case. He blocks
his ears. The bed he lies on gently rocks.
Hotel life. Baggage. Minibar.
TV. Remote control. They are
migrating souls who’ve travelled far
to get to places such as these
as if they cured some vague disease
but were themselves diseased. The keys
are weighing down his pockets. Night
comes on suddenly like a flashlight
or mysterious loss of appetite.
The bedside phone. The trouser press
in the cupboard. Emptiness
in drawers and bins. Last known address.
The stone rolls out along the bed
and comes to rest beside his head.
He thinks, therefore he must be, dead.
The bill arrives some six months later.
The room yawns open as a crater.
The stone comes down the elevator.
from Reel (2004)
Sisyphus comes from a set of poems titled The Morpheus Variations, based on the short stories in Morpheus by the marvellous German writer, Katharina Hacker. Her book is a re-telling of classical myths. I wrote a poem for each of the myths.
In her story Sisyphus arrives at a hotel with his baggage and at night everyone can hear him rolling the stone he has been condemned to roll for ever. My Sisyphus also arrives at a hotel but this is the hotel of the afterlife, a prelude to hell.
The poem concentrates on the minutiae of hotel life, a life I have grown quite used to over the years, and enjoyed, even while sensing them to be anterooms to some other, cut-off form of being.
Technically, triple rhymes like these tend to comedy to relieve the danger of portentousness or predictability. The point of rhyming in this particular way is not to lull but to surprise. The whole is a light black joke about existential disengagement. As with any poem I really had no idea where it would go. The narrative becomes apparent to me line by line, verse by verse. It is the feeling that hangs there and is modified as it finds whatever mark it finally arrives at.