The Grid

Eli Payne Mandel


I. The Grid

     will we gain all things,
     being over-fearful,
     or will we lose the clue,
     miss out the sense
     of all the scrawled script,
     being over-careful?
     —H.D., “Sigil” XVIII
     Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world.
     —Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind”

[1] In ancient Greek, an abacus is a sand table. The abacist draws lines and maybe moves pebbles around the lines. When done, she wipes the sand blank.

[2] A board or slab for drawing, computation, games; a cutting board. Technical term, likely to be a loanword, but conjectured origin in Hebrew ̉ābāq “dust” remains unproven. —Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue greque.

[3] Because dust blows away and only the slab remains, an abacus is also the part of a column in immediate contact with what it supports. If that structure no longer survives, the abacus upholds the edifice of the sky.

[4] In the famous vase by Exekias, Achilles and Ajax sit at an abacus playing dice. Three, says Ajax, in small, evenly spaced letters. Four, says Achilles. The numbers run parallel to the warriors’ arms, which taper into fingers pointed like arrows at the black board.

[5] Achilles and Ajax are in two dimensions; so, too, their armor, their kaleidoscopic cloaks, and the black squares on which they sit. But the black square at the center, the abacus, has a narrow orange line running horizontally just below the top. That line is, beyond any doubt, one edge of a cube.

[6] Surely it is Exekias’ accident: the black box is drawn in perspective. From this angle, the upper face, the abacus proper, can be seen. Achilles and Ajax are not playing a game out of sight. They are pointing at what is plainly a blank board.

[7] If Achilles and Ajax ever lived, they spoke an early form of Greek called Mycenaean. Mycenaean is preserved in a script called Linear B, which originated on the island of Crete and trickled through mainland Greece. The period in question is the 14th and 13th centuries bce. Tiri, says Ajax. Qetoro, says Achilles.

[8] Linear B is similar in shape to Linear A. Linear A was used on Crete to write a language that was not Greek—the original language of the Minoans, from before Mycenaeans invaded the island in the second millennium and merged forcibly into their culture. Linear A remains undeciphered, the speech it records unknown.

[9] After years of labor at Linear B, Alice Kober died on May 16, 1950, at the age of forty-four. The English architect Michael Ventris deciphered the script sometime between June 7 and June 18, 1952. Four, says Achilles. Three, says Ajax. Even at dice, Achilles wins.

[10] Kober lived in Brooklyn with her mother. She taught Latin at Brooklyn College, where she was promoted to associate professor four months before her death.

[11] It would be false to claim that Kober was responsible for deciphering Linear B. It also would be untrue, at the present moment of renewed interest—a book, an article, a mystery-romance novel—to assert that she has been forgotten. Her contribution was fundamental but inconspicuous. She lives on in the limbo of the half-triumphant.

[12] Beyond Greek and Latin, Kober knew (to the extent that some of these languages could be known) Sanskrit, Tocharian, Hittite, Lydian, Lycian, Carian, Old Irish, “assorted modern languages,” Akkadian, Hebrew, Sumerian, and classical Chinese. This list, taken from one of her letters, is presented in an ordering, which, uncharacteristically, is no order at all. But characteristically, it is modest. On her résumé, she slips in Basque and Old Persian, as well.


Screen Memory


I do not know what you mean by our nights. I recognize also the word for hatred, and another character meaning old age or possibly spring. The message comes clipped to a dented tin plate. I go back to bed, where it is always night. I count the things I have counted in the night. An abacus shuttles back and forth an array of moons. A planet is worth a white counter. Stars are much more: six of the black.


The Heir

     He buildeth his house as a moth. —Job 27:18

At the bottom, you find a house. The thermostat is set low, and in the kitchen a few odds and ends have been left out—a wrench, a knob—but really, the house is ready for your arrival. You say, “Am I to live here?” and look for a note of welcome or instruction. It is as if the concept of solitude had not previously occurred to you. The house sways gently in the wind. You find a place for the wrench above the sink, you screw the knob into the pantry door from which, presumably, it has been missing. You make tea and peer into the garden with its large rosemary shrubs. “Did I want this?” you ask the mug of tea. You would like to remember the alternatives.


Letter When I Have Lost the Kernel but Kept the Shell


The clot breaks free like a deviant cloud,

running slipshod over the border controls,

saying, Who still has a body? I still have a body.

Eli Payne Mandel is a poet and psychoanalyst in training. He studied English literature at Yale and Princeton, and has lived most of his life in Brooklyn, New York. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in PN Review, New Poetries IX, Raritan, The Harvard Review, Ploughshares Solos, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. The Grid is his first book.


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